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!

Harley MS 1526 f.7r | Source: The British Library

***

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!

***

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.

***

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!

***

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. 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!

 

Main Sources:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Five, What to do When a Monk Makes a Mistake During Services

I am going to be furthering my analysis of Saint Benedict’s guidelines on monastic discipline. I’ve talked about it previously here and here. Today I will be discussing Chapters Forty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict. This chapter is pretty short (only two sentences!) but there is a lot of interesting language use in the original Latin that I want to go into.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.73v Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.73v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Five is titled “Of those who make Mistakes in the Oratory” (Saint Benedict, pg. 60). It focuses on careless mistakes made during services. If a monk messes up when reciting “psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson” he is supposed to make “satisfaction there before all” (SB, pg. 60-61). Saint Benedict doesn’t go into detail how a monk should punish himself, but Terrence G. Kardong guesses that he means prostration. (Or in other words, laying face down on the floor.) Needless to say, throwing yourself down on the floor after you mess up a word or two is going to be rather distracting to the other monks. (Apparently nowadays, if a monk makes a mistake he just makes some kind of hand sign like touching the bench and then his lips with his fingers (Kardong. pg. 366).)

If the monk doesn’t admit his mistake, he is to be punished severely. However, he’s not necessarily being punished for saying a word wrong or minorly disrupting services. Instead, the monk is really being punished for digging his heels in, refusing to admit he did something wrong, and refusing to reform (K. pg. 366). If you are running a monastery and you’ve got a bunch of stubborn monks who are acting horribly on purpose and won’t do any sort of self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before things escalate to a major disaster. It’s best to stop the bad behavior before things go too far.

So now we know how adults are supposed to be treated, but what about the children? What happens when an oblate messes up during services? Well, according to Saint Benedict the only solution is to whip them! Personally, I think beating a child for a minor mistake is a bit much. However, it was likely that the child was only beaten when he refused to admit he made a mistake and wouldn’t accept his punishment (K, pg. 366). It’s important to recall Chapter Thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict when analyzing this part of the text. Saint Benedict is of the firm belief that anyone who is “unable to understand the greatness” (SB, pg. 47) of his wrongdoing is to be beaten. There’s no point in doling out punishments if you aren’t going to learn from it. (Though I will note during the medieval period many different religious figures had different opinions about the morality of corporal punishment. But that is a different article for another day.)

Now I want to focus on the language in this passage.

The Latin text uses different words when talking about the mistakes monks can potentially make. Each word has a different connotation. In the title, Saint Benedict uses the word “falluntur” when referring to a mistake. Here the text talks as though the mistakes are made “as the result of bad will.” Then the term “neglegentia deliquit” is used. This term refers to negligence. So we go from doing this on purpose out of hate to an accident due to carelessness. Finally, the text uses the word “culpa” when referring to the children’s actions. This word is extreme in its definition. It can mean fault, defect, blame, guilt, and even crime. It can even go as far as to refer to “morally reprehensible faults.” The fact that the children are the ones Saint Benedict uses the harshest language with is interesting to me. Especially when one takes into consideration that a child’s mistake is most likely to be due to forgetfulness or ignorance. (Depending on their personality and how long they’ve been at the monastery of course!) (Kardong, pgs. 365 and 375.)

 

 

Main Sources:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Thief Who Became a Monk Just So He Could Steal Stuff

Today I want to jump right into Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Book One of the text is dedicated to stories regarding conversion—but not in the way you might think. In the context of Dialogue on Miracles, the word conversion isn’t referring to people becoming Christians. Instead, it refers to Christians becoming monks/nuns. Some of the chapters in Book One are more interesting than others, so I will be analyzing and summarizing the stories I find particularly fascinating. (That’s why I am starting with Chapter Three.)

monk-giving-a-chalice-and-host-to-mary-of-egypt-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-286-dc7c38

Monk giving a chalice and host to Mary of Egypt | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 286 | Source: PICRYL.com

Unlike my series on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I’ll only be directly quoting the text when the wording is amusing, sassy, or I feel like the reader needs more context. If you wish to read the chapter I’m discussing (and I recommend you do so because of the stuff in here is WILD), I’ve provided a link to that part of the text at the bottom of this post.

Chapter Three starts off with the Monk explaining who told him this tale: Brother Godfrey, the ex-canon of Saint Andrews in Cologne, presently living in the same monastery the Monk and the Novice reside at, who heard it from a monk at Clairvaux. By telling the Novice this, the Monk is providing what seems to be a reliable source. Sure he didn’t witness this event himself but someone he knows heard it from someone he knows who did. Basically, there this story has made it through several rounds of telephone before making its way to the text, implying some of the information may be wrong.

Wrong or not, the story continues.

A wandering clerk ends up at Clairvaux and decides to become a novice. But not because he actually has a holy calling or because he wants to be closer to God. He wants to be closer to something in that monastery and it’s the chalices. Yes, this clerk decided to become a novice just so he could steal some treasure. However, stealing chalices is much harder to do when you’re just a novice and aren’t actually allowed access to the treasury. (Probably because the monastery keeps having ‘novices’ attempt to steal their gold!)

The clerk keeps planning on his theft the entire time he’s a novice (a whole year!) but again, the treasury is guarded extremely well. Does he give up? Nope! Instead, he decides that he’ll just become a monk and then steal the chalices! After all, when he’s a monk he’ll have easy access to them at mass. So he waits out the entire year of his novitiate and is tonsured.

However, things aren’t as easy as that. God is keeping tabs on him.

Once the clerk puts on his new habit God strikes. Though not violently. When he’s officially a monk (“for no sooner had he put on his monk’s dress” (pg. 9)) the clerk realizes the error of his ways. Thanks to God’s mercy he converts for real, leading to him actually being a good monk. In fact, he’s so good at it he’s eventually made Prior of Clairvaux!

Now, you would think he would just confess his crimes to a priest and keep quiet about the whole I’m–Gonna–Become–A–Monk–So–I–Can–Steal–Stuff plot. If so, you would be wrong. (I sure was!) Instead of being quiet about the whole thing, it ends up being his go-to story with the novices. Apparently, the novices found it to be a good teaching tool.

* * *

Personally, I find this story to be a bit unbelievable. I know the whole point is to teach others about God’s mercy and grace, but I think it’s a whole lot of effort just to steal a few chalices. It’s certainly a long con. However, I’ve never gotten the urge to steal some cups, so what do I know? At first, I also found it unusual that the other brethren trusted the would-be thief enough to make him prior but upon further reflection, I realized that more powerful people have done much worse and that hasn’t stopped their careers.

In the end, an argument could be made that this was all part of God’s plan to convert the sinful clerk into an upstanding member of society. I do believe that’s the moral of the story.

Source:

Heisterbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n31/mode/2up

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)