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. 

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!

***

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-Four, What Bad Monks Have to Do to be Welcomed Back into the Community

Even though monks and nuns are supposed to be holy, they are still human. As a result, they aren’t perfect. Saint Benedict is well aware of this as he writes The Rule. In a previous article, I discussed how punishments should be dealt out if a person did something really bad. (See the Chapter Twenty-Five segment of that article for details.) Today’s article will focus on how a monk can get back into the good graces of the community after doing those bad things.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.72v start of chapter 44 rule of saint benedict
The beginning of chapter forty-four of The Rule of Saint Benedict |Harley MS 5431 f.72v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Those who are Excommunicated, how they are to Make Satisfaction” (pg. 60). (I will note that here “excommunicated” doesn’t mean being thrown out of the monastery or the Church forever. Instead, it refers to being isolated from the other members of the community.) If a monk commits a grave fault, coming back into the community isn’t going to be an easy or instantaneous thing. It’s important that the wrongdoer is punished, is actually sorry for their actions, and that the rest of the community thinks the punishment is sufficient. If these things are not done and people are still resentful, there runs the risk of discord being sewn into the monastery again.

So what does Saint Benedict recommend as penance?

The text starts off by clarifying that this is supposed to be for “graver offences [sic]” (pg. 60). (Saint Benedict gets into penance for minor offenses later in the chapter.) Then it goes on to explain that the bad monk is not allowed to go into the church or join the other monks during meal times at the table. But that doesn’t mean the bad monk is allowed to wander while everyone else is at Divine Office! Instead, he has to silently “prostrate himself at the door of the Oratory” (pg. 60) during services. He has to lay there on the floor face first until everyone exits the building. This assures that the bad monk is attending services with the rest of the community, but he’s still isolated from the group in a humiliating way. He has to do this until the abbot thinks he is truly penitent for his sins.

However, the bad monk isn’t immediately accepted back into the community. There are still further penances to go through. Before the penitent monk is allowed to come into the church again, he has to throw himself at the abbot’s feet as well as the feet of everyone in the community. Everyone is to pray for him. Once again, this happens until the abbot thinks the point has gotten across. And once again, this is not the end of the penitent monk’s discipline!

After all this, the penitent monk is finally allowed back into the church with the other choir monks. However, the monk may or may not be allowed to sit in the same place as before. Monasteries followed a hierarchical system based on how long a person had been a monk, so losing your place in the hierarchy was a Big Deal. And just because the penitent monk was able to go to services again, it didn’t mean he was allowed to lead the community in reading or song. That was a privilege that needed to be earned back when the abbot thought it appropriate.

Despite being allowed back at Divine Offices, the penitent monk still had one more penance to undergo. When the service was over he was to lay prostrate on the ground. However, he wasn’t allowed to find a good place to do so. The penitent monk was to do this “in the place where he standeth” (pg. 60). I’m sure you can guess how long he had to do this for! (Until the abbot said otherwise!)

Now, these were the penances for monks who committed grave faults. What about minor faults? Let’s let Saint Benedict explain himself:

“But let those, who for lighter faults are excommunicated only from the table, make satisfaction in the Oratory so long as the Abbot shall command, and continue so doing until he bless them and say it is enough.” (pg. 60)

As you can see, a lot of what happened in the monastery happened at an abbot’s discretion. This chapter emphasizes the abbot’s power in a monastic community. (Well, an abbot who has control over his brethren at least.) In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he compares Saint Benedict’s treatment of penitent monks to another rule written a few decades before, The Rule of the Master. (A lot of people wrote their own guides on how to live a proper monastic life.) Interestingly enough, in The Rule of the Master penances are slightly different.

One such difference is the use of verbal apologies. The Master required the abbot and the penitent monk to recite prewritten speeches during the penances. Kardong argues that the use of these would just make things worse. It’s not really a true apology if it doesn’t come from the heart. He also argues that The Master wants to rush the healing processes while Saint Benedict takes things extremely slow. By taking things slow, it allows the community to genuinely heal from the collective distress the actions of the bad monk inflicted upon them.

 

 

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:

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

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 The Dialogue on Miracles: One Instance of a Holy Man Trying to Become a Monk Despite His Brothers’ Attempts to Stop Him

In Chapter Thirteen of The Dialogue on Miracles, we begin to see Caesarius of Heisterbach’s strong dislike of knights. Based on the text, Caesarius seems to think that all knights want to do is bring monks back to the secular world. Sometimes the knights succeed. And sometimes they do not. Today’s story is about a few knights who fail in their mission to bring a monk back into the world.

 

Sloane 2435 f. 85 Cleric, knight and peasant
Cleric, knight, and peasant | BL Sloane 2435 f. 85 | Source: The British Library

 

The Monk begins his part of the dialogue by setting the scene. In the German city of Bonn, there is a canon named Henry. Henry is devout and has received a calling to be a monk. Instead of telling anyone about this calling, he decides to secretly join the Cistercian Order. (However, unlike a few others who secretly attempted to become monks, Henry is significantly more determined to take the cowl. It helps that he actually has a calling and isn’t joining because he lost a ton of money.)

So Henry mosies on over to Heisterbach Abbey. (For context, Bonn is about seven miles away from the abbey and it’s approximately a two-hour walk. At least according to Google Maps.) While he’s still staying in the guesthouse, his brothers, two knights, find him there. Turns out his secret journey to the monastery wasn’t as secret as he thought!

Now, the Monk does not like that two knights decided to bring Henry home. The language he uses when describing their character make his opinion on them pretty clear:

“…and being worldly men who set more value upon carnal and temporal pleasures than upon spiritual and eternal happiness, they were much troubled by what should have been a joy to them.” (pg. 20)

That being said, the Monk does not think highly of anyone attempting to bring their religiously inclined kin/friend back into the secular world. It seems that because Henry has an actual calling the Monk is much harsher describing his brothers than he is when the potential monk is joining for silly or sinful reasons.

On the trip to Heisterbach, Henry’s brothers had some time to think of a plan to get him back home. Their plan is rather effective. They send a boy to Henry with a message that is supposedly from their mother (it’s not). Henry follows the boy outside where his brothers quite literally kidnap him. They throw him onto a horse and despite Henry’s attempts to fight back, he is dragged away from the monastery, much to the monks’ distress. To make things worse, Henry wasn’t officially a monk so there was nothing the monastery could do. If he had been tonsured then things would be a much different story! Monks aren’t allowed to leave their communities without permission after all!

Henry ends up staying with his brothers for a while. However, unbeknownst to them, he still wants to take the cowl. He waits until they are sure he won’t run away. And then he books it back to Heisterbach. Once there Henry becomes a monk (or “put on the habit” (pg. 21) as the text describes it) as fast as he can. Now officially part of the community, he cannot leave. (Though I will note that there are cases of tonsured monks returning to the world. But that’s a different article for a different time!)

The remainder of the chapter is the Monk talking about why the tale of Henry’s conversion is different from the previous tales (Henry had a calling, the others were joining to flee from their troubles or to steal stuff), the Novice commenting on how sinful it is for a novice to leave, the Monk saying yes it is, setting up for some stories of novices doing just that and getting their divine punishments. (Which we will see in the next few chapters!)

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, 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/n43/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: Men Attempting to Become Monks for All the Wrong Reasons

Just because someone wants to become a monk, doesn’t mean that they should. Sometimes they try to become monks because the devil is making them do it, sometimes they just want to steal stuff, and other times they have a really bad gambling addiction and see no other way out of their debts. Today’s article will be discussing Chapters Nine through Twelve of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Each chapter is pretty short, so if you’re interested in reading them in full, I’ve provided a link to page 17 at the end of this article.

Our first story is from Book One, Chapter Nine. A doctor named Stephen de Vitry has decided that he wants to be a monk at Clairvaux Abbey. He’s educated, important, and everyone knows who he is. At least it’s implied that everyone knows who he is as “the whole valley was rejoicing at his coming” and they are positively thrilled that the monastery will receive “so important a convert” (pg. 18). However, things are not as they seem.

 

Picture from Harley MS 1527 f.50r Monks are talking to Christ while a demon talks to the monk. Writing in Latin is on the left side of the picture.
Monks talking to Christ (?) and a demon talking to the monks.  | Harley MS 1527 f.50r | Source: The British Library

 

Everyone else may be excited Stephen wants to be a monk, but our good friend St. Bernard is suspicious. He has a bad feeling that Stephen isn’t there for the right reasons. And he’s not. Turns out that the devil convinced him to be a novice so Stephen can lure more committed novices back into the secular world. Specifically, novices that Stephen taught through letters.

Despite St. Bernard’s concerns regarding Stephen’s predatory nature, he lets the man be a novice. Though he only does this so “he might not cause pain to the weaker brethren” (pg. 18). I believe this means that St. Bernard doesn’t want to upset the more delicate monks by telling them that the famous Stephen de Vitry is a jerk. Or maybe St. Bernard just didn’t want to listen to people pester him about letting Stephen in. Either way, he lets the man in despite the fact Stephen will never become a monk.

And Stephen de Vitry doesn’t. He spends the year of his novitiate trying to lure other novices back to the secular world (or at least the “evil spirit” (pg. 18) in Stephen does) but to no avail. None of the novices are tempted and Stephen leaves the monastery, humiliated.

Chapter Ten begins with two priests coming to Heisterbach Abbey to become monks. As is custom, they are turned away. After all, how do you know someone really wants to be a monk unless they spend a few days begging to be let in? One of the priests skedaddles, but the other, Goswin, begs so much and so hard that eventually he’s let in.

He’s there for less than six weeks before he takes a bunch of stuff and flees. (It is not specified what exactly that stuff is.) Turns out Goswin didn’t actually want to join the monastery. Literally, the only reason he was there was to steal “in obedience to the orders of him who had brought him there” (pg. 18).

 

 

A medieval drawing of a boy in a cherry tree eating/stealing the cherries. Under the tree is a man with a club.
A boy stealing cherries from a tree. (Not exactly related to chapter ten, but theft is still occurring!) | Add MS 42130 f.196v | Source: The British Library

 

 

After the Monk tells this story (there’s a reason this text is called Dialogue on Miracles!), the Novice suggests that maybe, just maybe, Goswin came to the monastery with a genuine desire to be a monk. His hopeful suggestion is answered with an extremely blunt “Assuredly not” (pg. 18).

The Monk goes on to explain that theft was Goswin’s intention the entire time. He knows this because a lay brother overheard Goswin and his friend plotting to lie to the monks. It makes you wonder why the lay brother neglected to tell any superior about what he heard. Though in the lay brother’s defense he didn’t actually overhear them mention any sort of specific scheme for thievery. But still. Blatantly discussing lying is something you mention to the people in charge. Especially when there is a heavy vetting process for new monastic recruits!

However, our good Monk does not go into this further. Instead, he begins the story of the next chapter.

Chapter Eleven is about a young canon with a severe gambling addiction. The canon is from Cologne. According to Google Maps, it is about an eight-hour walk from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey or twenty-three miles. So it’s long-distance but not undoable. (The trip can definitely be done on an impulse, is what I’m saying.)

 

Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey
Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey

 

When the canon arrives, the younger monks are thrilled that he wants to join their community. They are so excited that they beg and beg and beg the abbot, Gevard. Despite their extremely annoying pleas, Gevard says no. See, Gevard has more than two brain cells. It’s pretty obvious to him that the canon is only there because he has a severe gambling addiction. Gevard knows this because by the time the canon arrived he had already gambled away the majority of his clothes and is only wearing a tunic. After being told to leave, the canon goes back to Cologne and he never mentions wanting to be a monk again.

While this reaction by the abbot may seem harsh, it’s pretty obvious the canon was just coming to the monastery to run away from all his problems. As stated before, it was common practice to refuse entry to any new recruit a few times before letting them become a novice. (Chapter Fifty-Eight of The Rule of Saint Benedict goes into this practice in detail!) Again, you want to make sure the newest member of the community is there for the right reasons. And speaking of reasons a person may try to be a monk, Chapter Eleven isn’t the only story of a man attempting to join a monastic community to escape his gambling debts.

Chapter Twelve tells the story of a youth deep in debt. Or to be more specific, a youth from a noble and wealthy family (so someone relatively important). The youth came to the monastery without telling his parents. The Monk comments on how it was relatively easy for him to become a novice (in stark contrast to the others who struggled to get in!). The Monk also comments on how he’s not going to name who the youth is as he really hopes that the young man will come back and he doesn’t want to embarrass the kid. (Though I suspect the fact that the youth’s family is rich and powerful is another reason the Monk is keeping quiet!)

A few days after the youth becomes a novice, his friends show up to bring him home.  Apparently, the only reason he wanted to be a monk in the first place was because he lost a good amount of money at a game, and in his humiliation, he panicked. To quote the text:

“They knew that he had lost a sum of money at some game and had taken the vows more from chagrin than from devotion.” (pg. 19)

His friends spend an unspecified amount of time trying to convince him to come back home. Eventually, they tell the youth that he really should pay off his debt, and once he does that he can come back ASAP. (Monks can’t own anything thus he can’t pay people back while at the monastery.) The youth deems this a good argument and goes with them.

It seems that the youth came to his senses about his devotion because the last few sentences of Chapter Twelve is dedicated to how he had to go through a bunch of legal processes to prove he made his vows “thoughtlessly and in distress and confusion of mind” (pg. 20). And to add the cherry on top, the youth assures them all if he had made his vows while in a state of mental clarity, he totally would have stayed.

In my opinion, I think the youth’s friends were doing him a solid by taking him home, but the Monk certainly doesn’t see it like that! He refers to the friends as “cunning” and in general his phrasing has a lot of negative connotations.

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, 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/n39/mode/2up

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty One and Twenty Two, Electing Deans and Sleeping in a Medieval Monastery

For my previous analyses on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I have gone over each chapter individually. Today I am switching things up. I’ve decided to combine chapters twenty-one and twenty-two into one post for two reasons. They are thematically similar and are each only one paragraph long. Theoretically, I could have done what I did for my last post and go in-depth with historical examples, but I want to keep today’s analyses brief.   This series is meant to (mostly) focus on Saint Benedict’s text itself. That being said, I am interested in sharing more historical anecdotes on this blog. (But not today.)

Chapter Twenty-One is titled “Of the Deans of the Monastery” (pg. 41). Saint Benedict describes how a monastery should choose superiors in their community. However, not all monasteries should have deans other than an abbot. It is only when “the community [is] large” (pg. 41) should deans be elected.

This chapter doesn’t specify what is considered a large community. However, according to a footnote for chapter seventeen in my copy of the text, a small community (or a Congregatio minor in Latin) “is usually interpreted to mean one consisting of less than twelve members” (pg. 38). Wikipedia offers a different interpretation, saying that there should be a dean for every ten monks. Whether a small community has ten or twelve members, Saint Benedict was wise when he decided that a small community doesn’t need a lot of superiors. After all, too many cooks spoil the broth.

So who gets to be a dean? Saint Benedict recommends “certain brethren of good repute and holy life, [be] appointed Deans” (pg. 41). To run any sort of organization smoothly, especially one dedicated to worshipping God, you want someone who is of good moral character. While you could have someone corrupt in charge that will cause unnecessary conflict (eventually). Saint Benedict also recommends that the superiors “carefully direct their deaneries in all things according to the commandments of God and of the…Abbot” (pg. 41-42).

An abbot must be careful when it comes to selecting superiors. Not just anyone can be a dean. The monk chosen must be a man that “the Abbot may safely trust to share his burdens” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict says that these monks should “not be chosen according to order” (pg. 42). Or in other terms, don’t choose a monk to be a dean just because he’s been there the longest or has been a monk for a while. A monastery’s deans must be selected due to “the merit of their lives and for their wisdom and learning” (pg. 42).

What happens if the dean ends up being bad at his job or is “found worthy of blame” (pg. 42)? What if the power goes to his head and he is “puffed up with pride” (pg. 42)? Well, Saint Benedict doesn’t want the dean to be let go immediately. He should be given a few chances to get back on track. But if he’s still acting poorly “after being thrice corrected” and he “refuse[s] to amend” then “let him be deposed” (pg. 42). Basically, it’s time to fire the dean and choose “one who is worthy [to] put in his place” (pg. 42).

Chapter Twenty-Two is titled “How the Monks are to Sleep” (pg. 42). Thematically, this is another section dedicated to the many practicalities of running a monastery. Saint Benedict has quite a few guidelines concerning a monastery’s dormitory. The chapter starts off with “Let them sleep each in a separate bed” (pg. 42). I like details like this as it implies in monasteries (or in other living spaces) people shared beds. Even if monks were to get separate beds, they still had to “all sleep in one place” (pg. 42). However, if there were too many monks and the dormitory was too small, they were permitted to be broken up into groups of “tens or twenties” and sleep “with the seniors who have charge of them” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict adds in the latter part of the chapter that the “younger brethren” should sleep “among those of the seniors” (pg. 42). According to the footnote in my copy of The Rule, a having common dorm “was strictly observed for many centuries” (pg. 42).

But separate beds and a common dorm aren’t the only things monks need/should do at bedtime. Saint Benedict recommends that “a candle burn constantly…until morning” (pg. 42). I assume this is the medieval equivalent of a night light so you can see when it’s time to rise for offices or in case someone needs to get up to use the privy. The text also says that a monk should not sleep “with knives at their sides, lest perchance they wound themselves” (pg. 42). This certainly implies that monks did sleep with their knives. I would speculate that there may have been a few incidents resulting in this rule to be written down.

In addition to not sleeping with sharp objects, monks were told to “sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords” (pg. 42). This was so that the monks could “be always ready” and “rise without delay” (pg. 42). After all, being forced to find your clothes and put them on would “forestall” your fellow monks when it was time to go “to the Work of God” (pg. 42). Sleeping clothed also prevents any sinful immodesty.

Finally, Saint Benedict tells his monks that when it is time to wake up and go to services they should “gently encourage one another, because of the excuses of the drowsy” (pg. 42). Or in other words, you shouldn’t let your fellow monk use the ‘five more minutes’ request when it is time to worship the Lord.

 

Main Source:

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.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Four, How to be a Good Christian Monk in 72 Easy Steps

Chapter four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “What are the Instruments of Good Works” (pg. 20). “Good Works” refer to instructions on how to be a good person as well as a good monk. In my translation, there are seventy-two different works (or steps as I shall be referring to them). I will note that a lot of these steps are just the same rule but phrased in a slightly different way. I assume Saint Benedict does this so no monk tries to find a loophole. (I’ve noticed that often times super-specific rules are written purely because someone found a so-called loophole and did something they weren’t supposed to do. Human nature really hasn’t changed too much over the millennia.)

The first step is to love God “with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength” (pg. 20).

The second one is the same as the first, but to apply this to “one’s neighbor as oneself” (pg. 20).

Steps three through seven are from the Ten Commandments. Don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, covet, and/or lie (pg. 20).

Step eight is “to honor all men” (pg. 20).

Step nine is “not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself” (pg. 20) or the golden rule.

Steps ten through thirteen are all about denying yourself comforts. This includes “to chastise the body” as well as fasting and “not to seek after delicate living” (pg. 20).

Steps fourteen through nineteen are instructions on taking care of those less fortunate than yourself. This means helping the poor, naked, sick, those afflicted, and those grieving. It also includes burying the dead (pg. 20).

 

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Burying the dead | Source: Pintrest.com

 

Step twenty is “to keep aloof from worldly actions” (pg. 20). I’m not one hundred percent sure how to interpret this. I feel like “worldly actions” could be anything from politics to sex. (Perhaps even both!) Either way, to be a good monk you should avoid both.

Step twenty-one wants you to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ” (pg. 21). This meaning that you should value Christ’s love above everything else.

Steps twenty-two through thirty-four detail how to be a benevolent, truthful person. Don’t let yourself be angry over every little thing, don’t seek revenge, don’t “foster guile in [your] heart” and if you don’t intend to actually make peace don’t pretend that you are (pg. 21). Nor should you “forsake charity,” swear oaths as you run the risk of breaking them, “render evil for evil”, or “be proud” (pg. 21). Instead of cursing people who curse you, you should bless them.

These are a lot of instructions on what not to do. What should you do to be benevolent? Well, you should only tell the truth “from heart and mouth”, “do no wrong to anyone” and “bear patiently wrong done to” you, “love [your] enemies” and finally, you should “bear persecution for justice sake” (pg. 21).

Steps thirty-five and thirty-six tell monks not to be greedy when it comes to food and drink. Don’t drink too much and don’t be “a glutton” (pg. 21).

 

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Some gluttonous men drinking |Additional 27695 f. 14 | Source: British Library

 

Steps thirty-seven and thirty-eight basically say not to be lazy (pg. 21).

Steps thirty-nine and forty tell monks not to complain in two different ways. You shouldn’t be a “murmurer” (someone who complains all the time) or a “detractor” (someone who talks badly of others) (pg. 21).

Step forty-one wants you “to put [your] hope in God” (pg. 21).

Steps forty-two and forty-three are restatements from the preface about where your abilities to be good and evil comes from (pg. 21). (Only through God can you be good and when you are bad that’s on you.)

Steps forty-four through forty-seven are reminders that you should fear “the Day of Judgment,” and hell as well as the fact you will die (pg. 21). Saint Benedict also throws in a reminder that you should “desire with all spiritual longing everlasting life” (pg. 21).

Steps forty-eight and forty-nine basically say that God is always watching so you should be careful what you do (pg. 21).

Steps fifty through fifty-two are how to avoid evil thoughts, go to confession when you do have them, and certainly don’t speak your evil thoughts out loud (pg. 22).

Steps fifty-three through fifty-five tell the reader not to be a chatterbox, think before you speak or laugh, and don’t laugh too much (pg. 22).

Steps fifty-six through fifty-eight remind the reader that they need to listen to the “holy reading,” pray “frequently” and go to confession (pg. 22).

Step fifty-nine is “not to fulfill the desires of the flesh” and “to hate one’s own will” (pg. 22).

Step sixty is Saint Benedict telling his monkish reader to obey their abbot, despite him having several chapters saying this (pg. 22).

Step sixty-one says don’t want to be called holy before you actually are holy (pg. 22).

Step sixty-two is “daily…fulfill by one’s deeds the commandments of God” (pg. 22).

Step sixty-three is Saint Benedict reminding his reader “to love chastity” (pg. 22).

Steps sixty-four through sixty-six basically say don’t cause drama in the monastery. Don’t hate anyone, don’t be jealous or envious, and certainly don’t “love strife” (pg. 22)!

Step sixty-seven is don’t be vain (pg. 22).

 

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A creature with a mirror | Source: Pintrest.com

 

Steps sixty-eight and sixty-nine tell the monks to “reverence the Seniors” and “love the juniors” (pg. 22). I think we can interpret this to also mean be patient with both.

Step seventy is “to pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ” (pg. 22).

Step seventy-one is basically don’t go to bed angry when you are fighting with someone (pg. 22).

Finally, step seventy-two is “never to despair of the mercy of God” (pg. 22).

If you (a monk) follow all of these rules, then everyone will be able to live peacefully in the monastery together!

 

 

Main Source:

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.)

Other Sources (used to cross-check translation, not quoted):

Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.

(You can find this book here.)