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!

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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.