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!

***

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.

***

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!

***

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. 

The Rule of St. Benedict: The Preface and Why You (the Monk Reading this Text) Should Actually Follow The Rule

I want to take a little bit of a break from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For the next few weeks, I want to concentrate on The Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is a fascinating primary source, documenting not only how monks (Benedictine monks at least) were supposed to live, but also documenting common problems within monasteries. Saint Benedict was obviously concerned with the way his monks were conducting themselves (why would he write a book about it otherwise?) and The Rule lets readers see his concerns. The text lets us travel back in time to a different culture and observe that culture’s worries about proper behavior. Or at the very least, it allows us to see a powerful man’s worries about proper behavior.

 

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St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order | Source: Wikipedia

 

When reading The Rule, it’s important to keep in mind not every monk followed every rule all the time. I think popular culture has two ways of seeing monks: as perfect, holy men or as lecherous drunkards. The lecherous drunk monk was certainly a popular stereotype in the Middle Ages! There are many stories (both historical and fictional) about monks misbehaving. (Chaucer’s monk in The Canterbury Tales is a good example.) However, life isn’t black and white. Saint Benedict is aware that good monks may stray and bad monks have the ability to better themselves. This is the reason he wrote The Rule. (At least, this is the reason he explicitly tells his reader.)

The Rule is an extremely short text, but not counting the preface, it has seventy-three chapters.  Each chapter covers a different topic. All of these topics cover just about every aspect of monastic life. Today I want to talk about the preface in particular.

I believe Saint Benedict is aware that suddenly springing a bunch of new rules on people who haven’t had to follow them before is a bad idea because he spends the preface telling his reader (presumably a monk) why he should follow these new rules. Throughout the preface, Saint Benedict uses textual evidence in the form of biblical quotes. The preface is written similarly to a persuasive essay one learns how to write in high school. That’s not to say that it’s badly written. I simply find it fascinating that even fifteen hundred years later the formula for writing persuasive essays has not changed.

Our first paragraph is a literal introductory paragraph. Saint Benedict literally introduces himself to his monkish reader, referring to himself as “thy Master” and “thy loving Father” (pg. xi). By using these terms, Saint Benedict is reminding the reader that he is both in charge but he also wants to be kind. Saint Benedict acknowledges that his intended audience hasn’t been behaving properly, but the monk isn’t doomed (yet). There is still time for him to change and “thou mayest return by the labor of obedience to Him from whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience” (pg. xi). Saint Benedict gently reminds his reader that God isn’t “an angry father” who will “disinherit His children” (pg. xi). As long as the monks behave themselves, they can and will be saved from “everlasting punishment” (pg. xi). Essentially the first paragraph includes quite a bit of fear-mongering.

 

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Part of an 8th-century copy of The Rule of St. Benedict | MS. Hatton 48 fol. 6v-7r | Source: Wikipedia

 

Despite this fear-mongering, Saint Benedict does offer his monkish reader a chance to save himself in the second paragraph. Here, Saint Benedict talks about how people can be saved by reading and following the bible:

“Let us then at length arise, since the Scripture stirreth us up, saying ‘It is time now for us to rise from sleep'” (pg. xi).

By talking about the “deifying light” (pg. xi) of the bible, Saint Benedict is indirectly making a reference to his own work. The Rule was intended to make the reader aware of how they should behave. Thus, they are coming out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. Even though Saint Benedict does not directly say that The Rule is like the bible (blasphemy!), the implication is clear. Saint Benedict wants his monks to ‘”harden not [their] hearts”‘(pg. xi) but listen to what he has to say.

In the third paragraph of the preface, Saint Benedict continues his argument on why the monks should follow The Rule. Here the saint quotes God again, saying that “God saith to thee: ‘…Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it”‘ (pg. xii). It’s only after the monks follow God’s instructions of being good will God’s ‘”eyes…be upon you, and [God’s] ears will be open to your prayers”‘ (pg. xii). Saint Benedict goes on to argue that nothing “can be sweeter to us” than God “inviting” (pg. xii) his followers. Because The Rule is Saint Benedict showing his monks how to behave properly, he is once again implying that his work is the word of God.

The fourth paragraph is very similar to the previous ones in the sense that God wants his followers to be good. However, Saint Benedict does lightly return to fear-mongering. He reminds his monks that the only way to reach Heaven is by doing “good deeds” (pg. xii). That being said, it is important for the reader to remember not to get “puffed up with their own good works” (pg. xii). Basically, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his followers to become self-righteous because they are doing good.

After all, you should be good for the sake of being good (and to get into Heaven). You shouldn’t be good just so you can brag about it. (A good modern-day example of this are the people who film themselves giving things to homeless people or those who post about it on social media.) To prevent his readers from getting too big for their britches, Saint Benedict tells them that “good which is in them cometh not from themselves but from the LORD” (pg. xii). While I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, (I think people can be good on their own) I understand why Saint Benedict would tell people this.  People who are good just for the clout (for lack of a better term) aren’t really being good at all. Also, original sin.

 

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My own copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

The fifth paragraph can be summed up with this quote:

“And the LORD in fulfillment of these His words is waiting daily for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. Therefore are the days of our life lengthened for the amendment of our evil ways” (pg. xiii).

The sixth paragraph continues to remind the readers that they must be obedient to God.   They must ask God “to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us” (pg. xiii). This is another reference to original sin. Despite Saint Benedict’s belief that humans cannot be good on their own and that his monks have been very disobedient, “there is still yet time” (pg. xiii) for them to change their ways. As long as you “are still in the flesh”  you can still save your soul from “the pains of hell” (pg. xiii). This can be done by being good and obedient to God. 

In the seventh and final paragraph, Saint Benedict ends the preface like he began it: being self-aware that a bunch of new rules isn’t going to go over well at first. He tells his monkish reader that he hopes “to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous” and to follow The Rule “according to the dictates of sound reason” (pg. xiii). But he also reminds them that changing ingrained behaviors “cannot but be strait and difficult” (pg. xiii), especially at first. His readers should not “fly in dismay from the way of salvation” (pg. xiii). Instead, the readers should “share in the sufferings of Christ” (pg. xiii). After all, the best way to get into Heaven is by acting as Christ did. 

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 2: Menstruation and Sexual Relations

Today we are still focusing on Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory, as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In my previous post,  I discussed the first half of Augustine’s eighth question to Gregory. As the question is extremely long (as well as Gregory’s answer), I am going to focus on the second half, starting with Augustine’s questions regarding menstruation. Here is the question in its entirety:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (Bede, pg. 76-77)

Despite Gregory’s opinions on breastfeeding, his opinions on menstruation are a bit more progressive. (Some of them, anyway.) Gregory tells Augustine that “the Old Law prescribed death for any man who approached a woman” (Bede, pg. 78) while she was menstruating. That being said, Gregory also argues that a person “should not be forbidden to enter church during these times” (Bede, pg. 78). His logic for this is the same reason why people should be allowed to enter a church after they give birth:

“[F]or the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control.” (Bede, pg. 78)

 

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Christ healing a bleeding woman | Source: Wikipedia

 

Gregory reminds Augustine that Christ healed a woman who “suffered an issue of blood” (Bede, pg. 78) and if that woman was allowed to touch Christ, why shouldn’t someone who is menstruating not be allowed to go to church? And why should they “be forbidden to receive…Communion at these times” (Bede, pg. 79)? They aren’t doing anything “blameworthy” (Bede, pg. 79). After all, “the monthly courses of women are no fault, because nature causes them” (Bede, pg. 79). I find Pope Gregory’s acceptance of menstruating people into church particularly noteworthy because this wasn’t the case for all religions. For example, in a Jewish text “written in Palestine or Italy in the ninth or tenth century, a menstruating woman was forbidden to enter a synagogue, to come into contact with sacred books, to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin, pg. 45). While it’s unfortunate that people might be forbidden to worship purely because they are menstruating, I understand why this might be the case before the invention of tampons or adhesive sanitary napkins. 

That being said, if a menstruating person chooses not to receive communion “out of a deep sense of reverence” (Bede, pg. 79), Gregory considers this “commendable” (Bede, pg. 79). However, at the end of the day, Gregory stresses to Augustine that “how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure?” (Bede, pg. 79).

 

 

luxury-and-lust-a-couple-of-lovers-an-old-man-reading-approached-by-a-devil-6166e2
Luxury and Lust: a couple of lovers; an old man reading, approached by a devil | Source: Picryl.com

 

Speaking of pure minds, Gregory moves on to impure ones when he answers Augustine’s question regarding men entering church after having relations with their wives. Right off the bat Gregory says that “it is not fitting” (Bede, pg. 79) for a man to come to church if he hasn’t washed or if he has. Gregory then clarifies that it’s not physical impurities that he’s particularly worried about, but spiritual ones. Gregory doesn’t regard men “as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind” (Bede, pg. 80). He also wants men to think this way about themselves. After all, how can one worship God properly if they are still thinking about “wrongful passions” (Bede, pg. 80)?

The answer is that you can’t.

 

Harley 1527 f.104v
Babies being baptized | BL Harley 1527, f. 104v | Source: Picryl.com

 

However, like the rest of Augustine’s questions concerning sex and the human body, there are exceptions to the rule. Gregory is pretty clear with regards to when and why (married!) people should have sex:

“Lawful intercourse should be for the procreation of offspring, and not for mere pleasure; to obtain children, and not to satisfy lust.” (Bede, pg. 81)

So if you are a man who has had relations with your wife before you attend church, why did you do it? Was it strictly for pleasure? Or were you and your spouse trying to conceive? If you were strictly motivated “by a desire for children” (Bede, pg. 81), Gregory says that “he is to be left to his own judgement [sic]” on whether or not you should attend mass or receive communion. Similar to the choice a menstruating person must make in regards to worshipping, Gregory thinks that it is up to you as long as your intentions are pure.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

medieval-theft
A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire
Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

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Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.