Corporal Punishment In Medieval Monasteries, Part 1: Oblates

A common search term that leads a lot of my readers to my website is “was there corporal punishment in medieval monasteries?” I’ve discussed corporal punishment in the context of The Rule of Saint Benedict (you can find those articles under this tag). However, I want to go into detail about physical punishment in European medieval monastic culture. Today I will discuss corporal punishment and the youngest members of the monastic community affected by it: the oblates. 

Adults were not the only people who lived and thus could be punished, in medieval monasteries. Until the later Middle Ages, it was a common practice for parents to donate children to monasteries. Parents did this with the intention that the children would grow up to become monastics. These children were called oblates. (I’ve written more about oblates here.)

A novice master about to hit his students with a rod | Burney MS 275 f.94r | Source: The British Library

Like modern-day children, oblates could be quite mischievous and misbehave. Medieval monastic leaders and teachers were well aware of the possibility of bad behavior. Corporal punishment was one way adults disciplined oblates.

However, corporal punishment had other purposes besides discipline for bad behavior.  The first purpose was to keep the oblate as pure and innocent as possible. The second purpose was to get them used to their place in the monastic hierarchy. Medieval European monasteries were extremely hierarchical. Because oblates were children, they were the lowest in that hierarchy. To have a well-run monastery, it was important for every member to know his place and obey his superiors. 

In this article, I will discuss how monastic rules instructed abbots and novice masters to use corporal punishment on oblates, how educational texts written for monastic children by monastic adults portrayed beatings, and the different attitudes monastic leaders had towards the use of corporal punishment. 

Corporal Punishment in The Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict was one of the primary guidelines for medieval monastic life. In Chapter Thirty, Saint Benedict discusses the proper punishment for children. While excommunication was the most severe punishment in a monastic community, some oblates were too young to fully understand the gravity of it.

If a child was too young to understand why excommunication was so bad, Saint Benedict recommends corporal punishment instead:

“…let them be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes, in order that they may be cured.” (Saint Benedict, pg. 47).

Corporal Punishment in The Constitutions of Lanfranc

Another guideline for monastic life was The Constitutions of Lanfranc. Lanfranc was the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. He wrote his constitutions specifically for monastic life at Canterbury. Like Saint Benedict, Lanfranc discusses corporal punishment for children.

Lanfranc specifies that when the abbot is present in the monastery, no one is allowed to “strike a child or cause him to strip for flogging” (Lanfranc, pg. 116). However, that does not mean Lanfranc banned corporal punishment for oblates! Lanfranc specifies only abbots should physically punish oblates when the abbot is present. That being said, abbots can grant permission to other members of the monastic community allowing them to beat oblates.

Furthermore, if the abbot is away, the cantor is allowed to physically discipline any oblates that have made a mistake during religious performances. The prior can use corporal punishment on oblates as well. (But only if the abbot is away!)

Corporal Punishment in Ælfric’s Colloquies

Besides guidelines for monastic life, another source of information about corporal punishment for oblates can be found in educational texts written for said oblates. One such text was written by an abbot named Ælfric.

Ælfric lived in England at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century.  One of his many written works was a colloquy for students learning Latin. A colloquy is a written conversation between two or more people. Oblates would enrich their Latin vocabulary and grammar by memorizing and performing colloquies.

While Ælfric’s colloquy focuses on common jobs in medieval society, corporal punishment is mentioned several times.

The first discussion of corporal punishment is at the beginning of the text. A few pupils approach a teacher and request to be taught how to speak properly. The pupils claim they would rather be the lesson be beaten into them than to continue to live a life where they speak poorly. They also mention the teacher is a kind man who would not hit them unless they asked for it.

The second mention of corporal punishment is about a page before the end. The teacher asks one of the boys if he was beaten that day. The boy says no he was not because he behaved himself. The teacher asks if his friends were beaten. The boy asks why would he ask such a thing and that he’s not going to snitch on his friends.

The third mention of corporal punishment is at the very end. One of the boys tells the teacher that occasionally his novice master hits him with a rod to wake him up.

In each instance, the attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly different. At first, the pupils crave being beaten. However, this could be hyperbole and simply just Ælfric’s way of emphasizing how important it is to learn to speak properly. In the second example, the boy is extremely suspicious of why the teacher wants to know if his friends are behaving. It’s possible that this indicates that some novice masters were pretty happy to have any excuse to physically hurt their students. The third example confirms this to be the case. Instead of gently poking his student awake, the novice master uses unnecessary force.

Corporal Punishment in The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata

Another medieval schoolbook was written by Ælfric Bata. Ælfric Bata was a student of the Ælfric discussed above. Like his teacher, he also wrote Latin colloquies for oblates. However, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata are much longer. His colloquies depict everyday life in an eleventh-century European monastery.

Medieval monastic corporal punishment is one of many scenarios Ælfric Bata wrote about. By mentioning corporal punishment so frequently and so casually in some colloquies, this implies monks regularly beat oblates. Or at the very least, threatened to do so.  The threat of corporal punishment must have been a common enough occurrence that it was necessary for oblates to learn Latin vocabulary about the subject.

Like his own teacher, Ælfric Bata portrays corporal punishment in different ways. Sometimes it is serious while other depictions have a strong comedic slapstick tone.

In Colloquy 24, the novice master waits in the cloister for his oblates to approach him. Instead of immediately greeting him, the oblates try to figure out what kind of mood he is in. They are afraid that if he is in a bad mood he will beat them. One boy describes the novice master as having “a whip in his right hand and a lot of rods in his left” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 133).

This indicates that whips and rods were regularly used to dole out physical punishments. It also implies that some novice masters abused their power by taking out their anger on boys who did not deserve it.

In Colloquy 25 the novice master laments over the fact that no matter how many times he beats a certain bad student, the oblate still misbehaves. The novice master claims to properly love students, you have to beat them as “a master’s sympathy often harms a boy” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 143). He also uses bible quotes to back up his claim. The oblate is less than amused and tells him he’s sick of his threats. The novice master proceeds to quote probably every single proverb in the bible. In the end, he does not hit the misbehaving oblate.

In Colloquy 26 an oblate complains that he doesn’t have a clean pair of trousers. His only pair is bloody from the beating he got. In this case, the oblate was beaten with rods.

In Colloquy 28 Ælfric Bata depicts an actual beating. An oblate has been caught stealing and lying about it yet again. While stealing and lying are both serious crimes in themselves, doing wrong repeatedly and hiding your wrongdoings was considered particularly heinous in medieval monastic society.

The thieving oblate’s classmates list a ridiculous amount of things he was caught stealing. The thief admits it is all true, promises to stop, and wants to do penance again. However, all the previous penances his novice master gave him have done absolutely nothing to deter his thievery. Consequently, the novice master decides to use corporal punishment instead.

In an interesting turn of events, the novice master has the victims find the rods and hit the thief first. (He will go after them.) By allowing the victims to administer corporal punishment, the novice master lets the victims punish the thief as they see fit. In fact, the novice master even encourages the victims to hit the thief harder!

As a result, there is no risk of the victims thinking the novice master was too soft on him.

(I will note earlier in the scene the victims express confidence the novice master will administer a fair punishment.) They are allowed to get their revenge. This prevents any further resentment from the victims from turning into deadly violence.

Monastic communities could be quite small. Any anger bubbling under the surface could and often did result in great acts of violence. (It was not uncommon for monks to attempt to murder each other!) It is much safer to control that anger before it explodes into an uncontrollable situation. 

As for the actual beating, the thief’s pants are dropped and the boys stand on either side of him. They proceed to hit different sides of his bare bottom. 

While he’s beaten, the thief melodramatically laments about how much pain he’s in, how sad his life is, he never did anything wrong, everyone is against him for absolutely no reason, and he is most certainly dying from this beating, no one cares he’ll be dead soon, and he’s the victim. The oblate has absolutely no self-awareness his own actions caused no one to like him. Instead, he is convinced there is a grand conspiracy against him.

The novice master tells him to stop being sad and to live a good life he has to take accountability for his actions. The oblate must take on the mindset of “I have sinned and have not received what I deserved” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 171). The oblate promises to do so and never to steal again. That is when the novice master stops the victims from hitting him anymore. In the end, the novice master never hits the thief.

Interestingly enough, Ælfric Bata does not depict this incident of child abuse as particularly tragic or devastating. Instead, it would not be out of place in a modern-day slapstick comedy.

In conclusion, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata taught oblates the necessary Latin words an oblate might hear before, during, and after a physical punishment as well as the consequences for disrupting their monastic community with bad behavior.

(As a side note, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata also teaches oblates how to cuss someone out in Latin. Do what you want with that information.)

Attitudes Towards Using Corporal Punishment on Oblates

Religious figures such as Saint Benedict and Hildemar thought children were unable to understand the true gravity of excommunication. Instead, they thought corporal punishment was the only way to make children understand certain behaviors were bad.

The monks, Hildemar and Smaragdus, believed children needed physical discipline to control their behavior. In John of Salerno’s biography of Odo of Cluny, he describes how Odo used the “fear of his rod [so that] he might lead us like a shepherd to the joys of heaven” (Quinn, pg. 112). 

Monastic leaders wanted oblates to grow up to be the perfect monks. Perfect monks were obedient, pious, and chaste. Oblates were raised in monasteries since childhood, so there was a possibility that childhood innocence could be preserved into adulthood. To ensure oblates retained their innocence, they were supposed to be monitored by several adults at all times. Novice masters watched out for any sinful, disruptive, and disobedient behaviors.

The threat of a beating could be enough to make children behave. One way novice masters did this was by simply carrying a whip on his person at all times.  

That being said, monks recognized that sometimes beatings were not a one type fits all solution. If oblates continued to misbehave after beatings, novice masters should find a more punishment that the child responded better to.

While beating oblates was a common enough practice, that doesn’t mean it was always an accepted one.  Just like modern day opinions about physically disciplining children, medieval opinions varied too. As you can see from the colloquies, some monks and abbots condoned using corporal punishment on oblates. However, this was not the case for every single medieval monastic who ever lived!

In the tenth and eleventh-century Europe, the ideal student-teacher relationship was a warm one. After all, oblates’ parents essentially abandoned them at the monasteries.  Instead of being raised by their biological parents, oblates were raised by their new spiritual parents—the novice master. 

A good novice master nurtured and cared about his boys. Ideally, this would create a warm, caring father/son dynamic between oblates and their teachers. Furthermore, this relationship would result in monastic boys respecting their teachers. Generally speaking, children are more likely to obey authority figures if they respect and love them. (Again, this is generally speaking. No child is perfect and no child does everything they are told all the time. However, the overall amount of times a child disobeys authority figures goes down if they respect them.) When children listen, beatings and other forms of corporal punishment are not necessary.

If a beating was the only way a novice master could get his oblates to behave, then he was considered bad at his job. Even in the Middle Ages people recognized the negative effect physical violence had on children. Saint Anselm argued that corporal punishment could do much more harm than good. 

One day an unnamed abbot and Saint Anselm spoke about monastic discipline. The abbot complained that no matter how many times he beat his oblates, they only behaved worse instead of better. Saint Anselm, shocked at the abbot’s actions, asked what kind of men the oblates grew up to be. The abbot’s answered, “stupid brutes” (Quinn 113).

Saint Anselm explained that if you beat children like animals, they are going to grow up to act like animals. Children cannot be tamed like animals. Instead, children should be nurtured like a gardener would a tree. Furthermore, by continuously terrifying children with threats of harm and actually hitting them, children stop seeing any good in the world and become hateful. They only grow more hateful as adults. 

Saint Anselm argued that oblates stop trusting the adults who repeatedly hurt them. Even if an abbot or a novice master is nice to them, the oblates are still suspicious of their intentions. Suspicious oblates grow up to be suspicious adults who cannot recognize genuine charity. They trust no one.

In short, by repeatedly beating oblates, monks are not raising people fit for heaven. Instead, they raise hateful men. 

Saint Anselm asks the abbot why he hates the children so much that he treats them this way. After all, children are human too. Does the abbot want to be treated like his oblates?

Finally, Saint Anselm argued that to properly raise children to be good adults, they have to be nurtured. Abbots and novice masters needed to encourage oblates and treat them with kindness. They needed to take on the role of father and mother to the children. Children needed to be encouraged to self-discipline.

While hitting children was a popular discipline method in the secular world around Saint Anselm’s time, monastics were not raising children for the secular world. They were raising them to be monks.

Medieval monasticism valued self-discipline, patience, and humility. Teaching misbehaving children with gentleness and encouragement is difficult. By not constantly striking children in anger, novice masters learned patience and self-discipline. Thus, they also became better monks.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Ælfric. “Aelfric’s Colloquy: Translated from the Latin.” Translated by Ann E. Watkins, Kent Archaeological Society, www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf. 

Bata, Ælfric. Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata. Edited by Scott Gwara. Translated by David W. Porter, The Boydell Press, 1997. 

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. Translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951. 

Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

Secondary Sources:

“Ælfric’s Colloquy.” British Library, www.bl.uk/collection-items/aelfrics-colloquy

Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 

McComb, Maximilian Peter. “STRATEGIES OF CORRECTION: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE 742-900.” Cornell University, 2018.  https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/59342/McComb_cornellgrad_0058F_10761.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

Ristuccia, Nathan J. “Ideology and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education.” American Benedictine Review 61:4 (2010).  https://www.academia.edu/4129411/Ideology_and_Corporal_Punishment_in_Anglo_Saxon_Monastic_Education

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 4

It’s still October, so it’s time for some more spooky medieval ghost stories! Today I will cover stories four and five of the Byland Abbey ghost stories. Each story is pretty short. Story four is only a paragraph long and story five consists of two sentences. Unlike the previous ghost stories, stories four and five do not include anyone conjuring a ghost.

Bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead, of three skeletal cadavers, two partially wrapped in shrouds, with a caption reading, ‘Y was wel fair. Scuch ssaltou be. For godes love be war be me’. | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.180r | Source: The British Library

Story Four

A long time ago, a man named James Tankerlay died. Despite being the rector at Kirby, James Tankerlay was buried in front of Byland Abbey’s chapter house. He must have missed his old parish because James had a tendency to make frequent nightly visits. During one of these visits, James visited his old mistress…and blinded her by blowing out one of her eyes!

After this incident, Byland Abbey’s abbot and monastic community decided that something had to be done. Their solution was to dig up James Tankerlay’s body and coffin and hire a man named Roger Wayneman to chuck it into the nearby Lake Gormyre. (Or Gormire depending on the translation.) As Roger did this, his cart’s oxen became so frightened they almost drowned.

Story four ends with the monkish author claiming he’s only writing down what he was told and he hopes that God isn’t mad at him for telling the story. He also asks for God’s mercy and salvation.

Analysis

Unlike some of the previous ghost stories, this tale seems to be rather old. Or at the very least, it was a story that has been passed down through several generations. The anonymous author claims to have heard this story from some old men.  It’s possible the Byland Abbey monk’s sources either heard this story in their youth from someone older or it happened when they were young.

Another notable difference is the destruction of James Tankerlay’s body. Instead of the Christian solution of conjuration and prayers, the abbot’s choice to destroy the body is quite pagan. In early medieval ghost stories and Icelandic sagas, revenants’ bodies are often destroyed so they can no longer terrorize the local population. This solution supports the theory the story’s origin is much older than the previous ones.

Similar to the previous stories, this one both explicitly gives names and hides them. The ghost and the person who threw the coffin into the lake are named, but the abbot who ordered it to be done is not. This would imply that even if the author does not approve of the abbot’s decision to destroy James Tankerlay’s body, he still wants to protect the reputation of the clergyman who ordered it to be done.

Finally, I find the author’s anxiety around even repeating this story particularly interesting. He clearly did not approve of the less than Christian solution of digging up and throwing a body into a lake to get rid of it! However, while his anxiety made him ask for God’s mercy for writing the text, he clearly did not consider it too blasphemous to include. I can’t help but wonder if the author included the story as a morality lesson, especially one for priestly concubines. Learning that your lover will blind you as a ghost would certainly be one way to deter women (and some men!) from hooking up with clergymen.

Story Five

As this ghost story is only two sentences long, I will quote A.J. Grant’s translation in its entirety:

“What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.” (Grant, pg. 371)

Analysis

This story is rather vague. There are no named characters and where exactly it takes place is not stated. There isn’t really even an ending. The author doesn’t tell us what happened after the woman carried the ghost into the house or why she did so. We also aren’t told if the ghost wanted to be absolved of their sins.

The way this medieval ghost story is written reminds me of how events were documented for certain chronicles. In that, the author wrote down the most basic information so the audience gets a general idea of what happened.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: The Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, 2016, pp. 13–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5.

Medieval Demon Vision Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 2

Here is the YouTube link and audio file for episode 2 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Figuring out Spotify and iTunes has been slightly difficult, so I am posting things here until I get all that sorted out. Enjoy!

Today we return to the Dialogue on Miracles. This time I share some stories about clergymen seeing demons.

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/mode/2up

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 9: Former Oblates and Smarty Pants

The research I’m doing for my article on medieval penitentials is taking much longer than I thought it would, so today I will be sharing stories of some misbehaving medieval monks! However, today I will be using a different primary source than the one I usually do. So instead of Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, I will be using The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Guibert of Nogent was a pretty interesting man. His memoirs tell us a lot about what life was like as a monk in 11th to 12th century northern France. He was also a total mama’s boy, which isn’t super relevant to this article, but I feel that is something you should know.

A bunch of monks | Royal MS 10 E IV f.222r | Source: The British Library

***

The first instance I’ve chosen to talk about can be found in Book One, Chapter Eight of A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Here, Guibert makes his problems with oblates known. In a previous post, I’ve explained what oblates are, but I would like to give you Guibert’s description as well:

“…monks brought there [to monasteries] in early life through the piety of their kin.”

A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 25

These men have been brought up from early childhood in monasteries. So naturally, they are quite sheltered. If you’ve ever been to college, you’ve probably met someone who was extremely sheltered and has just tasted freedom for the first time. And once someone gets that taste of freedom, they tend to nuts as they absolutely do not know how to handle it. Well, according to Guibert, this was happening to former oblates as well! Apparently, it was quite common for these sheltered monks to be sent out of the monastery on errands and it was even more common for them to go wild when it came to spending money that they should not be spending.

However, going on shopping sprees weren’t the only way former oblates misbehaved. Guibert claims that they could be extremely self-righteous about their behavior. Allegedly, these monks were not particularly afraid of the sins they committed. Instead, they thought they never committed the sins they did! (Or at least they pretended that they had no idea what you were talking about if their sins were mentioned.) To make their hypocrisy worse, whenever these not-very-self-aware monks got any sort of power inside the monastery they were pretty rotten to everyone else. That’s certainly not a way a man of God is supposed to act!

Ironically, despite all their bad behavior, Guibert still thinks that former oblates are very important. (In my translation of the text, he calls them “precious.”) He is writing in the early 12th century and the Church has started giving oblation the side-eye. Fewer and fewer monastic orders are accepting child donations, so monks who grew up in monasteries are becoming increasingly rare. These kinds of monks are supposed to be more pure and innocent than monks who were exposed to the secular world. In theory, they should be better monks. In practice, we know that not to be the case thanks to Guibert’s description of them.

***

Our next story comes from Book One, Chapter Sixteen. In his early teens, Guibert joined a monastery. However, things were not all smooth sailing for young Guibert. He had a tendency to get into quite a bit of conflict with the older monks. Now, if you take Guibert’s words at face value, everyone else was jealous of him because he was so smart and loved learning so much and no one understood why he loved to learn and they were constantly attacking him because he was smarter and better than everyone else. However, if you read between the lines (and take into consideration a few conversations his mother and tutor had with him in previous chapters), it’s safe to guess Guibert was just being an annoying smug little know-it-all. Here’s a quote that I think displays the truth quite well:

“…they began to notice that I equaled them, or even, if I may say so, surpassed them. So they became so furiously, wickedly indignant with me that I became weary of incessant disputes and attacks; and more than once I regretted having ever become so interested in learning or having acquired it. Indeed, my concentration was so perturbed by these discussions, and so many quarrels sprang up from the ceaseless questions related to that learning, that it seemed to me that my colleagues were determined only to detract my attention and to create obstacles for my mind.”

A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 55

Guibert goes on to lament about how everyone else was just trying to bring him down and they were all so cruel to him. He claims that they asked him questions that were supposed to make his “mind duller.” This did not work as apparently they just made him smarter. Furthermore, Guibert flat out admits that his fellow monks accused him of “letting a little learning go to [his] head.”

Now, perhaps what he was claiming was entirely true. Perhaps they were all jealous of him. However, I think it’s pretty clear that Guibert was being a smart-aleck. After all, monasteries were centers of learning and education. Guibert was just one of many, many boys throughout history sent to a monastery to get a good education. And if everyone around you is telling you off for being annoying, there’s a common denominator in that situation and that common denominator is you. At some point, you have to realize you are in the wrong. It seems like everyone was super annoyed with Guibert. Besides, even if they were in the wrong, Guibert was still bragging about how smart he was. According to The Rule of Saint Benedict, monks are supposed to be humble. In fact, humility is the most important trait for a monk! Guibert was most certainly not being humble here, thus he was not behaving as a good monk should.

Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

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

***

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

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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…

***

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. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 3: Some Shenanigans Abbot Samson Had to Deal With

Once again, I am journeying back to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to find stories of not so holy men acting in ways Saint Benedict would not approve of. This text is rich in stories (and monastic gossip!), so I recommend reading it for yourself if you get a chance. But for now, let’s see what the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds have been getting up to since my last article about them!

***

In my last article, I wrote about the pettiness and drama that happened when the monks were trying to elect a new abbot. In the end, they elected the monk, Samson. Because of the previous abbot’s incompetence, Abbot Samson inherited a pretty bad financial situation. To get the monastery in the black Samson started cracking down on every possible form of income the abbey had. This included his knights. (Bury St Edmunds was a liberty so the abbot had his own knights, manors, and overall just had a lot of control other monasteries at the time did not have.)

After Samson was officially elected and made abbot, the locals paid homage to him. After doing so, Samson decided it was time to request aid from the knights. (Aid was a form of medieval taxes.) Each knight was supposed to pay £1. Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. The Liberty of Bury St Edmunds owed forty knights to the king. However, at the time Samson had fifty-two knights under his control. Because he had twelve extra knights that were not part of the required forty, the knights decided that these men should not have to pay. After all, they weren’t actually required and they just helped the other forty. Why should they have to pay the £12 when technically they didn’t even belong there?

Well, this did not go over well with Samson. The king wanted his £52 for all the knights. This meant that Samson constantly had to insist to the king that he only owed £40. Samson vowed to his friends that he would eventually get even with his knights “by paying them injury for injury.” That’s certainly not something you expect to hear from a man who is supposed to be holy!

***

After being elected, Samson checked out the state of all the abbey’s manors. Turns out, more than a few were being neglected. Some to the point that birds were living in them! This neglect meant they were losing money. And when you inherit a big debt, that’s not good. So Samson got to work. He kept records of who owed what, old buildings were repaired, chapels were built, additions were added to manors, and parks were made. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering where the misbehaving comes in.

Those parks weren’t just made so the abbey could have some nice green space. Samson filled them with game animals and hired a hunter with hounds. Whenever an important guest visited, Samson and a few monks would go to the park to watch a hunt take place. That’s not exactly something a monk is supposed to do. Especially when you take into consideration the fact monks aren’t supposed to eat meat. But fear not! Jocelin goes out of his way to reassure his reader that he never saw Samson eat the game. (Though, in my opinion, it may actually be worse he did that if the meat ended up going to waste. Jocelin never specifies who ate it, but I’ll assume it was served to the guest, and leftovers were given to the poor.)

***

Renovating and collecting fees were not the only things Samson got to work on. During his first chapter meeting as abbot, Samson laid down some new rules: everyone had to stop pawning the abbey’s stuff. Apparently pawning stuff had become a common practice for the monks of Bury St Edmunds! And to make matters worse, they often did it secretly! However, that doesn’t mean Samson banned the practice altogether. Now if a monk wanted to pawn items he had to get the convent’s permission to do so.

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.