Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 8: Construction Woes

You would think that the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds would learn to behave themselves, but I’m afraid that’s not the case! Once again we are returning to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. This week’s installment features two stories about building buildings and construction materials.

A bishop and two monks | Royal 11 D IX f. 210v | Source: The British Library

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Before we get into our first tale, I need to give you some context. In the twelfth century, feudal lords often owned windmills. If you wanted to use them, you had to pay to do so. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was extremely wealthy, owned pretty much all the surrounding land and the abbot was considered a feudal lord. Due to this, Abbot Samson owned all the windmills in the area. At least he was supposed to.

Apparently, Herbert, one of the monastery’s deans, had built his own windmill at Haberdon manor, at the edge of the abbey’s property. Abbot Samson was not happy to hear this. In fact, he was furious. He was more than furious! According to Jocelin, the author of the chronicle, Samson was so angry he could barely eat or speak. But Samson was a man of action and he was not going to allow Herbert to go around building windmills. So what did Samson decide to do? Destroy it of course!

The day after Samson found out about the windmill, he ordered the sacrist (who Herbert was deputy for) to get a bunch of carpenters to take apart the building. Samson also specified that the wood making the windmill should be stored in a safe place. (Presumably for future use.)

Once Herbert heard about this plan, he immediately went to Samson and argued that he should be able to keep his mill. After all, he had built it on his freehold land, he was only going to use it for his own grain so he wouldn’t be taking away the abbot’s business, and no one owned the wind. Samson was not convinced. In fact, these explanations just made him even angrier! Samson is documented saying this iconic line:

“I am as grateful to you as if you had cut off both my feet. By God’s mouth, I shall not eat bread until your handiwork is destroyed.”

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, pg. 53

But that wasn’t all Samson said! In his anger, Samson made several arguments as to why Herbert’s windmill was not allowed. One, not even the king is allowed to build stuff on abbey property without the abbot’s permission. Two, there would be a loss to Samson’s mills. People would start going to Herbert’s and because they are freemen Samson legally cannot stop them. And three, no mill is allowed on abbey property that does not belong to him. Though apparently, the cellarer owns his own mill but that’s because it was built before Samson had become abbot. Samson makes it very clear that if the cellarer had tried to build it after he became abbot Samson would have destroyed it too. Finally, Samson orders Herbert to leave before he tells him what he’s going to do to his mill.

This scolding terrified Herbert so much that he immediately went to his mill to ask his son what he should do. (Even though the Church had been trying to get priests to be celibate for years there were still some who got married and had kids anyway. Herbert is one of them.) His son advised him to take it down. So, Herbert rehired all the laborers who built the mill to remove it. This was done so quickly that by the time the sacrist’s carpenters came by there was nothing there!

***

Our next story starts when Geoffrey Ridel, the bishop of Ely, asks Abbot Samson if he can have some timber from the abbey’s lands. The bishop had plans to build some large buildings at Glemsford. Now, Abbot Samson most certainly did not want to give this guy any wood, but when a bishop asks you for something it’s wise just to give him what he wants. It’s best in the long run not to offend the men in charge. However, just because Abbot Samson didn’t want to offend the bishop, doesn’t mean he didn’t hop at the chance to keep the trees when the opportunity arose!

When Abbot Samson was staying at Melford parish, Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger approached him to ask if the bishop could have timber from Elmswell. However, this wasn’t what he meant. The messenger should have said “Elmset.” For context, Elmset was a wood near Melford. (And Melford was next to Glemsford.) Elmswell was located fifteen miles away. Also, it did not have the kind of wood the bishop wanted. Abbot Samson was a bit confused about this. Luckily for him, a forester named Richard heard about the request and privately told Samson what was up.

Apparently the week before, the bishop had sent some of his carpenters to Elmset to scope out the best trees for timber. This included marking all of the best trees. (I guess Richard didn’t think this was weird because he only told Samson about what he saw just then.) Once Samson heard this, he realized what had happened: the messenger meant to say Elmset instead of Elmswell. But he did say Elmswell. So the gears in Abbot Samson’s head started turning and he more than happily told the messenger that the bishop could totally take some timber. From Elmswell. The messenger still hadn’t realized he made a HUGE mistake, so he happily went to the bishop to tell him the good news.

Once he told the bishop, Geoffrey Ridel was not happy. In one translation of the chronicle, the bishop “reprimanded [the messenger] severely” while in another he gave the messenger “much abuse.” It’s not specified exactly what that means, but presumably it wasn’t good! The messenger was quickly sent back to correct this error.

Meanwhile, Abbot Samson quickly got to work. Once the messenger had left the next day, Samson heard mass, got his own carpenters, and headed down to Elmset. There he had all his men cut down all the marked trees as well as mark over a hundred other ones with his sign so they stayed Bury St Edmunds’s property. The newly marked trees would be cut down as soon as possible so they could build the rest of the great tower.

When Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger finally returned to Melford, he got there too late. All of the trees, including the ones the bishop and Abbot Samson marked, were already cut down. The bishop would have to find timber somewhere else!

Jocelin ends this event by commenting how amusing he found the whole thing. After all, if the bishop hadn’t already marked the trees, Samson would have given them to him (however reluctantly). But he did and Abbot Samson did not appreciate his presumptuous behavior. Both men acted in ways unbefitting of men who are supposed to be dedicated to God. The bishop was sneaky and Samson was petty. However, these aren’t the only cases of misbehaving monks! There are so many more in Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds alone!

Sources:

Addy, David. From the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta 1066 to 1216. 30 Jan. 2015, www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/Chronicle/1066-1216.htm#samson. 

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 7: Flatterers, Finances, and Fun

Once again we are traveling back to the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds for tales about some misbehaving medieval monks!

A monk with a scroll and a messenger | Ms. Ludwig I 11 (83.MA.60), fol. 195 | Source: The Getty Museum

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Samson is the new abbot of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. During this adjustment period (as the monastery had been without an abbot for about two years after the old one died) several monks really want to get into Samson’s favor. After all, if you have the abbot on your side you can further your own interests (including unholy ones!). But how is one to get a person’s favor quickly and easily? Throw compliments at him of course! Unfortunately for the monks, Samson was not particularly stupid and saw through their act instantly. Unfortunately for Samson, the flatterers kept coming to him and did not stop coming to him.

During his first year as abbot, the constant bombardment of fake friends bothered Samson. He was extremely suspicious of flatterers and borderline hated them. However, the author of the chronicle, Jocelin of Brakelond, notes that over time Samson was more willing to listen and be friendly towards them. But that does not mean Samson did everything they said! Samson knew that it was important to listen to them so they felt as if they had been heard. The flattering monks didn’t need to know Samson knew their advice wasn’t for the greater good of Bury St Edmunds.

One day, Jocelin was there to witness a particularly unctuous monk try to slither his way onto Samson’s good side. Even Jocelin, who is a bit clueless on a good day, saw what the monk was trying to do. Once he had gone, Samson asked what he was smiling about and Jocelin commented how many flatterers there were in the world. Samson told him that yes, the world is full of flatterers, but he has to listen to them if he wants to keep the peace. That being said, Samson was determined to do everything in his power to make sure they don’t trick him like they tricked his predecessor, Abbot Hugh. Because Hugh did everything they said, Bury St Edmunds was left completely destitute. Samson was determined not to make the same mistake.

***

One would expect a monk, especially an abbot, to be honest in all matters. Though if you’ve made it this far in my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series you definitely know that was not the case in reality! Even if Samson was extremely irritated with monks trying to deceive him, he was not above a little deception himself. In 1190, Samson wanted to buy Mildenhall Manor from King Richard. He offered the king 500 marks for it, claimed it was worth £70 a year, and that’s what the Great Roll of Winchester said it was worth. I’m sure this was with the implication that the king didn’t need to fact check this as it was officially written down! However, someone told the king Samson was a liar and the manor was actually worth £100 a year. Being lied to did not make King Richard happy. He told Samson that he would sell the manor for 1,000 marks and that was final. In the end, Samson did buy the manor for 1,000 marks.

Now, one could argue that Samson genuinely thought that Mildenhall was worth £70 a year. That was the official price after all! To that, I will point out we are talking about Abbot Samson here. This man was ruthless when it came to finances. I am 99.999999999999% sure that the man knew how much the manor was actually worth.

***

Our next story is extremely short. The bishop of Ely, who was a papal legate, held a council that included his complaints about the black monks. Apparently, more than a few monks said they were going on pilgrimages to the shrines of Saint Thomas Becket and Saint Edmund. In reality, they did no such thing. The monks were running around having fun instead of doing holy things.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 6: Jocelin of Brakelond is Kind of a Jerk

Even though the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds focuses mostly on Abbot Samson than anyone else, occasionally the author, Jocelin of Brakelond slips in several anecdotes about his own behavior. Despite Jocelin’s efforts to portray himself in a mostly positive light, he does admit to his past wrongdoings. This includes talking trash about one of his best friends. (Well, now ex-best friend at the time of him writing the chronicle!) While reading the text it’s important to keep in mind how Jocelin wants to portray himself. So I am more than sure that some of these incidents were worse than what he would have you believe. However, sometimes Jocelin does something so bratty that even he struggles to justify his behavior.

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In this part of the chronicle, Jocelin took the time to describe Samson’s overall character. This includes how Samson looked, what his favorite foods were (Samson had a sweet tooth!), and even how hoarse his voice got whenever he caught a cold. Samson’s eating habits in particular were an interest to Jocelin. For example, Samson never ate meat but would ask for extra helpings of it so they could give it away to the poor. (It was a common practice for medieval monasteries would give their leftover food away to the poor. Samson wasn’t being a jerk or anything.) Another interesting tidbit Jocelin notes is that Samson was known for eating whatever is put in front of him. And one day, while Jocelin was a novice, he decided to put this to the test.

When it was Jocelin’s turn for kitchen duty, he made Samson a dish of extremely disgusting food and he put it on an extremely dirty and broken dish. Then he gave it to Samson and waited. And Samson ate it. To be more specific, Samson pretended he didn’t notice how disgusting it was and ate it. Despite the fact Jocelin was being a jerk, he did feel bad for doing this. So he grabbed the plate of food and tried to replace it with food Samson could actually eat. This was not acceptable to Samson. He became extremely angry that Jocelin dared to switch out his gross plate with a nice one.

By doing so, I believe Samson was making his point about what Jocelin had done. He was given something gross and he believed in eating whatever he was given. Samson was also known for detesting people who complained about the food they were given, especially if they were monks. If he let Jocelin replace his meal, it would look like he had complained, thus appearing to be a hypocrite to the rest of the monastic community. In addition to this, I think he wanted Jocelin to stew in his own guilt over the stunt he had just pulled. That way Jocelin would learn his lesson about messing with people’s food and not do it again.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 5: The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ Finances

For part five of my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series, we are once again returning to The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds written by Jocelin of Brakelond. This particular text is chock-full of stories about tonsured men acting in ways that are rather unbecoming for men of God. Whether it’s being petty, actively malicious, or simply just being careless, this late 12th century and early 13th century has just about everything. Our first story features a monk being extremely careless.

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In April 1182, Samson traveled to each of the manors he owned personally as the abbot of Bury St Edmunds as well as the manors the abbey/monks owned. While visiting, Samson made sure that everything was in working order. He also collected recognition from his tenants. (Recognition is a form of payment tenants give to their lord.) Samson had just been elected abbot, so this was a standard thing to do.

While Samson stayed at Warkton he was awoken by a voice telling him to get up and get up now. He did. To his horror, Samson found a lit candle in the lavatory that was just about to fall on some straw. Apparently, a monk named Reiner had left it there and forgotten about it. To add to the scariness of the situation, Samson quickly discovered that the house’s only door was locked and could only be opened with a key. And it gets worse. All the windows were impossible to open. Depending on the translation, they were either barred or just tightly shut. Either way, if there had been a fire everyone in the house would have been burnt alive.

Jocelin doesn’t comment on the incident any further, but it definitely makes me wonder whether the house was simply a fire hazard (like a lot of medieval dwellings) or if something more sinister was going on.

***

As time went on Samson’s financial skills increased. However, like all leaders, Samson wasn’t perfect (though Jocelin tries to get us to believe otherwise). Rumors spread that Samson was embezzling from the abbey’s sacristy, which was not the first time he was accused of doing so. Not only that, he was accused of saving his own money (as the abbot and the abbey’s finances were separate) instead of sharing the financial burden of running Bury St Edmunds, hoarding grain until he could sell it for a massive profit, spending more time at his manors than at the abbey itself and he let the cellarer do all the entertaining when guests arrived. Not only was Samson accused of being greedy but lazy when it came to hospitality. (Abbots shirking their entertainment duties off on the cellarer was a common problem at Bury St Edmunds.) By doing all this, Samson looked financially capable while the monks looked careless. After all, even if the abbot is the one taking the money, the convent will still appear to be inept if their accounts are low.

When Jocelin heard the criticisms he defended Samson. According to him, all the money from the sacristy was used to improve the church. Not only that, more good had been done with the abbey’s money in the fifteen years after Samson’s election than it had been in the previous forty years. Jocelin claims that even Samson’s worst enemy couldn’t deny that. Whether or not this is the truth is up to the reader. Jocelin justified Samson’s frequent absences from the abbey with the claim that Samson was happier at his manors than at home. Apparently, at the abbey, Samson was constantly bombarded by people who wanted stuff from him. Even so, I don’t think that gave him the right to avoid his monks as much as he did in the first few years of his abbacy.

As a brief side note, Jocelin recorded several incidents where Samson complained about how much he hated his job. When Samson wasn’t lamenting about wishing he never became a monk, he wished he was never made abbot. Apparently, he wanted to be a librarian.

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At the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds monks going into debt was a common problem. In my last few posts, I wrote about previous incidents. Well, it was still a problem. At one chapter meeting, Samson collected all the monks’ seals that were used for taking on debts. There were thirty-three. Samson forbade any official from taking on debt over £1 without permission from the prior and the abbey. Jocelin notes that this was actually a pretty common thing to do. (Taking on debts of over £1.)

Besides going into debt, the monks also had a tendency to own stuff. This is a big no-no. Chapter thirty-three of The Rule of Saint Benedict explicitly forbids any monk from having personal possessions. (Unless of course, the abbot says it’s okay.) Samson did not say it was okay. He collected the keys to all the chests, cupboards, and hanapers in the monastery and forbid the monks from owning possessions without his permission. That being said, Samson did give every monk a small allowance to spend on good causes. One such good cause was the monk’s biological family (but only if they were poor).

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict. https://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0547,_Benedictus_Nursinus,_Regola,_EN.pdf

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 4: The First Plot Against Abbot Samson

Today we will be returning to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Samson has been elected abbot and like with every new leader, changes are made to the status quo. But not everyone is happy with these changes…

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In the first part of this series, I wrote about William the Sacrist and his tendency to go deep into debt under Abbot Hugh. Unsurprisingly, William did not change his spending habits after Abbot Hugh’s death nor did he change in the year or so that the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was abbotless. However, unlike his predecessor, Abbot Samson was having none of William’s nonsense. At his first chapter meeting as abbot, he essentially fired William. Samson appointed another monk as subsacrist (as that had previously been Samson’s position) and told William he was no longer allowed to do anything related to his sacrist duties unless he had the subsacrist’s permission. (I will note that William wasn’t the only person who’s job changed. At a later chapter meeting, a few wardens were given other monastic jobs.)

It seems to me that Samson’s decision to limit William’s power was intended as a sort of transition before the man was truly fired. Because soon enough, William was fired from his job as sacrist. William’s friends were not happy with Samson for doing this. They went around trash-talking Samson, saying that the dream had come true and that Samson was like an angry, raging wolf. (For context, before Samson was elected abbot, another monk had a dream that the new abbot would “rage like a wolf.”)

Trash talking wasn’t the only thing the monks did. As their anger over William’s firing escalated so did their determination to take action against Samson. Soon they wanted to plot against the man. Luckily for Samson, he heard about it before anyone could actually do anything to him. He also had enough time to figure out a way to handle this situation before he was truly in danger. And handle the situation he did.

So how did he handle it? Did he get rid of the plotting monks? Did he make William sacrist again? Did he run away? The answer to all those questions is no. Instead, Samson showed all the monks the receipts. And that’s not exactly a metaphor either.

The day after Samson discovered the plot, he came into the chapter meeting with a bag. In that bag were charters upon charters that William had approved without the monastery’s knowledge. They were under other people’s names but had William’s seal on it. In all, the money owed from these documents was £3,052 and one mark. And that’s not counting interest. The charters weren’t just for money either. Some of them pledged treasures belonging to the monastery. Treasures like silk copes, dalmatics, silver thuribles, and books bound in gold. So not only was William in debt, but he was also secretly pawning off very expensive items that he had no right to pawn off. (It’s important to note while Samson was able to buy back the abbey’s treasures and cancel the charters, it took him twelve years to pay back all these debts.)

To add to the dramatics of it all, as Samson showed everyone the evidence of William’s incompetence and what was essentially theft, Samson shouted this:

“Take a look at the wise policies of your sacrist, William!”

Needless to say, Samson got his point across.

Samson went on to give other reasons for why William was fired, but Jocelin does not list them. But the main reason William was fired has been lost to time as Samson refused to say what it was. Apparently, he did this so William wouldn’t “stumble.” If his bad financial decisions weren’t the main reason, it certainly makes me wonder what exactly William did that pushed Samson over the edge. And Samson would know a lot of what William did as he was the former subsacrist.

Then Samson made the new sacrist a monk also named Samson. To paraphrase the comedian John Mulaney, Samson the sacrist was a whole other person. I’m not saying Samson the abbot made himself sacrist. Everyone was happy with this choice as Samson the new sacrist was well-liked by all the monks.

For the finale of these dramatics, Abbot Samson had the sacrist’s house in the cemetery completely and utterly destroyed. Jocelin speculates he did this because of all the bad things that happened there. (Remember, Abbot Samson would know as he used to work for William as subsacrist.) One such activity was frequent drinking. Jocelin refuses to name the other things. This certainly makes one wonder what exactly William was doing with his spare time, especially when you take into consideration he wasn’t fired just for being horrible at his job…

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp.