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. 

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!

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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!

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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.)

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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. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

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Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!

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Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!

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During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.

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A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!

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Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.

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 1: Some Real Life Stories of Men of God Acting Poorly

Even though medieval monks were supposed to be humble, holy, and obedient, they were still human. Not every man who joined the monastic life was a saint and not every monk actually had a vocation. Some monks had no choice in their career at all! (See my post on oblates for more information about that.) As a result of their humanity, they didn’t always do the right thing.

While there are many recorded accounts of monks misbehaving, today I am going to take my stories from the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin of Brakelond. As of my time writing this article, I’m only on page twenty-three of the text, however, there are already a lot of incidents Jocelin of Brakelond recorded! Due to the quantity, I will be making Misbehaving Medieval Monks a series. In the future, I plan to use other primary sources as well. If you know of any accounts you want me to write about, please let me know!

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Our first instance of a misbehaving monk occurred while Hugh was still abbot of Bury St Edmunds. Abbot Hugh was not very good at his job when it came to maintaining the abbey’s finances. (He was also not very good at his job in other regards, but that’s not relevant to this story.) As a result, the abbey was regularly borrowing money from both Christian and Jewish moneylenders so they could maintain the appearance of wealth. Part of maintaining appearances included fixing up the treasury building as it had fallen into disrepair.

The sacrist at the time, William, decided that he was going to get that building fixed no matter what. So William secretly made his way down to a Jewish moneylender named Benedict. William borrowed 40 marks with interest and apparently did not pay Benedict back because his debt rose to £100. It is important to note that during this time period, Jewish people were under the king’s protection. Any debts owed to that person became a debt to the king when they died. Needless to say, the king was very invested in knowing who wasn’t paying up. So when William didn’t pay his debt, Benedict went to the abbey with a letter from the king.

Up until now, William had managed to keep his borrowing a secret from everyone. But when royal letters arrive, secrets do not stay secrets for very long. Needless to say, Abbot Hugh was furious. He was so angry he basically threatened to fire William from being sacrist. However, one monk (Jocelin doesn’t name who) convinced Abbot Hugh not to fire William. In the end, the monastery borrowed another £400 from Benedict. It was supposed to be paid back in four years. (Spoiler alert: it was not and the debt increased.) £100 of it went to Abbot Hugh. Abbot Hugh also refused to use his seal on the paperwork for the bonds, so the monastery’s seal was used instead. It seems that he did this so he could pretend William’s increasingly growing debt wasn’t affiliated with him, despite the fact William was his monk and the money was going towards his monastery’s buildings!

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While Abbot Hugh was in charge another incident happened. The king had gotten word that the abbey was being severely mismanaged and as a result, sent his almoner to see what was up. All the monks were called together and the prior flat out lied to the man about how everything was great, there were no problems, their only debts were small and don’t worry about it, everything is fine and dandy. The almoner was basically like, ‘okay.’ And left. Then later when the Archbishop came with a clerk, the monastery lied to them about how everything was fine and do not worry.

However, this didn’t sit right with Jocelin. He asked his novice master, Samson, why he wasn’t speaking the truth. After all, Jocelin was under the impression that Samson didn’t really care about getting a higher-up position in the monastery or afraid of any man. Well, it turns out that Samson was afraid of other men. In reply, he basically told Jocelin that snitches get stitches and unless he wanted to end up in exile like their last prior, two other monks, and himself, he should really keep his mouth shut. Samson knew from experience what happens to monks who speak out against their abbot for the greater good. And in his case, he was locked up in Castle Acre.

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Once again, this story of misbehaving monks started because one monk wouldn’t pay back his debts. The cellarer’s debt had risen to £60. Consequently, he was fired and replaced by a monk named Master Denis who did pay the debt. However before the old cellarer was replaced, Abbot Hugh ordered him to entertain all the guests whether or not he (Abbot Hugh) was actually at the monastery. Now, this might not sound like a big deal, but entertaining guests was the abbot’s job. So Abbot Hugh was shirking his duties onto someone else when he could have very well done them himself! (I assume if the abbot were off on a trip, the cellarer would be the one entertaining.)

Two days after Master Denis had become cellarer a few knights arrived at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Despite the fact Abbot Hugh was home, the knights were taken to the guesthouse instead of the abbot’s quarters. The previous cellarer may have taken on this extra job, but Master Denis was having absolutely none of Abbot Hugh’s laziness. So he brought the knights to Abbot Hugh and basically told him off in front of the guests.

Master Denis told Abbot Hugh that they both knew he was deliberately avoiding his duties, he would not entertain the abbot’s guests, if he didn’t like that, then here were the cellarer’s keys because he was going to quit and Abbot Hugh could find another cellarer. Well, it seems like Abbot Hugh didn’t want to find another cellarer because from then on, he entertained all the guests whether he liked it or not!

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While the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was poorly run while Abbot Hugh was alive, things got worse after he died. So from late 1180 to 1182 the prior, Robert, was in charge until a new abbot could be elected. Even though Robert seemed to have good intentions, he was not meant to be a leader. (Based on Jocelin’s description of him, Robert kind of reminds me of Michael Scott from The Office.) Robert’s main goals were to keep everyone happy, avoid upsetting or angering anyone, and to make sure Bury St Edmunds maintained its hospitable reputation. In theory, these are good goals, but not in practice. As a result, the monastery’s obedientiaries went wild.

Remember William from the first story? Well with Abbot Hugh dead and Prior Robert ignoring the obedientiaries’ misdeeds, William really started misbehaving! He continued to not pay back his debts, he didn’t have any new buildings put up, any sort of money from offerings or gifts was wasted, and he got into the habit of giving stuff away that he should not have. In short, William stopped caring about his job. Due to the fact Prior Robert did not stop William’s ill-advised generosity, people started to consider Prior Robert pretty neglectful. After all, he was in charge and not doing anything to stop the bad behavior.

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 Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp.