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THE MEDIEVAL MONK is an emblem of unworldiness. Shut away in his cloister, he dedicated himself to a life of prayer, hard work, poverty, self-denial and silence. He cut himself off from the temptations of the ordinary world in order to give himself to God. The life of a medieval monk was literally ‘out of this world’. The story of the monastic life should be uneventful from beginning to end. But of course it isn’t. Monks couldn’t totally cut themselves off from the material world, even when they wanted to.

And there were times when they didn’t want to. On the morning of Sunday 18 October 1327, for example, the monks in the abbey of Bury St Edmunds ended their prayers, filed out through the abbey’s crenellated gate and proceeded to the parish church. This was full of men, women and children. The monks threw off their habits – revealing that some of them wore armour under their robes – and burst into the church. They seized a number of citizens by force and dragged them back to the abbey as prisoners.

Sometime later the townsfolk assembled at the abbey to demand the prisoners’ release. The monks replied with a hail of missiles, killing a large number of people. Later in the day the town bells summoned a larger party of armed men including aldermen, burgesses, a parson and 28 chaplains, who all took a solemn oath to live or die together. They then set fire to the gates and stormed the abbey.

Obviously no-one in Bury St Edmunds associated these monks with the contemplative life. Monks were the constant target of satire and lampoon in fourteenth-century England. To appreciate what had gone so badly wrong at Bury, we must understand what had happened to the monastic ideal.


The idea of living in a community cut off from your fellow men in order to worship God didn’t really get going in the West until around AD 500, when a Roman nobleman by the name of Benedict got fed up with life in the big city. Rome was far too full of people enjoying good food, drink and sex for his taste. So he took a servant and settled in the countryside where, unfortunately, his reputation for being able miraculously to mend broken pottery started to attract the crowds.

So he sought out a reasonably inaccessible cave halfway up a cliff face, with no modern conveniences and no plumbing. A monk from one of the nearby religious establishments came every day to lower a basket of food down to him. And Benedict made sure there was no oyster sauce or deep-fried wontons in his daily picnic – indeed, he didn’t want anything he could actually enjoy. As far as Benedict was concerned, God placed us in this world to give us the opportunity to refrain from enjoying our brief time here, in order to concentrate on thanking him for placing us in this world.

It was a philosophy that seems to have appealed to a surprising number of people, and news of Benedict’s sanctity spread throughout the region. He ended up founding his own monastery. There he wrote his famous Rule (or set of regulations) which became the foundation stone of the monastic movement in the Middle Ages.

As far as he was concerned, he was founding a community where men worked and prayed ‘for the service of the Lord’, and he didn’t want it to be too strict. The Rule states: ‘We hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.’ However, Benedict was a Roman patriarch, and he put a great emphasis on obedience. And not just any old obedience – it had to be instantaneous, unquestioning and done with a good grace.

And don’t think you could get away with just putting a good face on it:

For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfil the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring. And, far from gaining a reward for such work as this, he will incur the punishment due to murmurers . . .

As well as disliking ‘murmuring’ Benedict wasn’t a fan of laughter: ‘As for coarse jests, and idle words, or words that move to laughter, these we condemn everywhere with a perpetual ban.’ He also laid down that monks should not speak except when given permission to do so by their superior. And to avoid what he called ‘the vice of private ownership’, they should own nothing, have no private possessions, and beds were to be examined frequently by the abbot to make sure they hadn’t hidden anything.

Otherwise, Benedict’s Rule gives detailed instructions for the monastic community – the number, order and choice of psalms and the hours of offices, the correction and punishment of monks, the way they are to sleep, what and how much they should eat (no meat unless they were very ill) and even what sort of person the cellarer should be. If a monk went on a journey he was forbidden to relate what he might have seen or heard outside the monastery, which Benedict saw as a hermetically sealed, self-contained unit.

The main ways in which the Rule can be said to avoid anything ‘harsh or burdensome’ is that, unlike some regimes, it did not prescribe a starvation diet or demand sleep deprivation. It also allowed monks to wear clothes appropriate to the climate – though no mention is made of underpants, an important omission, as we shall see later.

For the next half millennium, Benedict’s Rule was disseminated throughout the monasteries of western Europe – first under the aegis of Pope Gregory the Great and then under Charlemagne. By the eleventh century his form of monasticism had a virtual monopoly of religious houses, but whether he would have approved of the way his Rule was being interpreted is quite another matter, as a would-be monk by the name of Herluin found out.


Herluin was a Norman warrior who, at the age of 40, decided he was getting too old for the business and became a conscientious objector. Besides, he had been told that he would go to hell if he killed people. He determined to trade in his sword for a prayer book and become a monk, and in 1031 he walked into a monastery to see what it was like. As his biographer, Gilbert Crispin, records, he got quite a surprise.

After offering a prayer he approached the door of the cloister with great reverence and nervousness, as if it were the gate of Paradise: he was very eager to find out what was the way of life of the monks, and what were their customs. He saw that they were all far from observing the serious way of life which the monkish life demands; he was distressed, now completely uncertain what kind of life he should choose. At this point the warden of the monastery saw him entering and, thinking him to be a thief, hit him as hard as he could on the neck and dragged him out of the door by his hair . . .

Vita Herluini

Herluin had gone to the trouble of teaching himself to read and write, and was not to be put off so easily. He tried again:

Next Christmas he went for the same purpose to another, better-known monastery. As the brethren went out in festive procession on this solemn day, Herluin saw the monks smile at the lay folk all around with unbecoming familiarity, delighting in showing off their lavish ornamentation, and as they got to the door, quarrelling noisily as to who should go first. One monk punched his fellow who was jostling to get in, and then laid him flat on his back on the ground. Such, as we have said, were still the barbaric manners which were common throughout Normandy.

Vita Herluini

Herluin ended up building his own small monastery. The local bishop ordained him as a monk and made him abbot, so his monastic career was obviously off to an excellent start. He lived as he thought a monk ought, eating one light meal a day, wearing old, black woollen robes and combining hard physical work with regular prayer according to the monastic rules laid down by St Benedict. He soon attracted an enthusiastic little community, and had to build a bigger monastery at the village of Le Bec-Hellouin, southwest of Rouen in Normandy, to accommodate it.

It may seem surprising that an ex-warrior like Herluin should take the strict observance of Benedict’s precepts so seriously. But, strange though it may seem, the activities of monks – cloistered and cut off from the world though they may have been – were regarded as an essential back-up to the Norman military machine.


The problem goes back to that inconvenient Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ In the eleventh century this was taken to mean what it said: Thou shalt not kill. And just because you were having a war was no excuse. This was a bit awkward if you happened to be a fighting man, professionally engaged in the business of breaking that commandment in particular (amongst many others).

Like most people, however, warriors had every confidence in the power of prayer. They were also convinced that the purer and simpler a person’s life was, the more likely God was to listen favourably to them. Since monks were supposed to live the purest and simplest of lives their prayers were seen as a hotline to God, and they provided an essential service for the Norman armies – saving warriors’ souls once the fighting was over.

The soul of a tenth- or eleventh-century fighting man would not be easy to save. It required the strenuous effort of a significant number of monks to pray him out of damnation. Homicide in a public war, even at the command of a legitimate ruler, required doing penance for 40 days and abstention from church. William the Conqueror, with overall responsibility for some 10,000 deaths, needed (if anyone were ever to do the arithmetic, which they did not) about 1100 years of serious religious effort. He would not have finished yet – not until 2162.

After the Battle of Hastings each Norman soldier was told to do 120 days’ penance for every man he had killed, which would have created even greater problems. But of course the Church was ever willing to subcontract the work, at a price. If William’s penance was split between a couple of hundred monks, his soul could be cleansed in less than six years. He founded an abbey at the site of the battle. He founded another at Barking in Essex; and another at Selby in Yorkshire (he had to kill a lot of people in Yorkshire). And he and his wife and sons, perhaps feeling insecure, gave a great deal more money and land to a great many other churches and abbeys.

In fact, by the time William died, 26 per cent of all the land in England belonged to the Church.


It became the custom for rich people and fighting men like the Norman soldiers, whose ways of life put their souls in such great jeopardy, to pay monks to do the praying they were too busy to do for themselves. This had one profound effect: prayer became a commodity. It gained a commercial value and this was eventually to prove the undoing of the whole system.

The essential thing about monks was their religious way of life – the fact that they lived lives of poverty, simplicity and devotion. The snag was that the poorer, simpler and more devout a particular institution was, the keener the rich and violent were to shower money and land on it to assuage their consciences.

Thus the poorer, simpler and more devout a monastery was in its beginnings, the more likely it was to get rich and powerful quickly. And once it became rich and powerful it was no longer, by definition, poor and was therefore less likely to remain simple and devout.


There was also a built-in tendency for the monastic movement to accumulate power. Even when the rulers of monasteries were ostensibly confronting the worldliness of their institutions, they simply couldn’t help becoming powers in their own right . . .

When Herluin was building his monastery at Bec, for example, a rather celebrated Italian scholar, by the name of Lanfranc, turned up. Lanfranc had initially come to Normandy because he had heard that there was a dearth of learning in the region and thought he would be able to ‘gain wealth and honour’ there. He then decided to move into the area of religion. Perhaps still in pursuit of wealth and honour, he decided to seek out the poorest and most despised monastery he could find – which happened to be the ex-soldier’s humble establishment at Bec.

Herluin, as someone with plenty of fighting experience but no book learning, welcomed the famous scholar with open arms, and gave him special treatment in the monastery. This bred envy amongst the other monks, and Lanfranc soon announced that he was off to become a hermit. Herluin dissuaded him by offering him the post of prior.

Lanfranc now started rebuilding the monastery’s abbey in a more substantial manner, and became less interested in hermetic ways and rather more interested in his developing friendship with William, Duke of Normandy – the future William the Conqueror.

Lanfranc seems to have helped to persuade the pope to back the duke’s invasion of England, and after the Conquest William repaid him by installing him as archbishop of Canterbury. The 70-year-old Lanfranc was the spiritual edge of the Conqueror’s sword. He imposed Norman abbots, bishops and forms of worship on Anglo-Saxon churches and abbeys. His aim was to obliterate the distinct Anglo-Saxon religious tradition, and he removed all but two of England’s saints from the English Church’s calendar.

This meant their shrines were no longer in operation. English saints were replaced by foreign ones who took over places of worship just as foreign secular lords had taken over land. The shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham, for example, was eliminated in 1072 (his remains having been evacuated by fleeing monks in 1066) and replaced with a Benedictine priory staffed by reliable monks, and a new Norman castle. The new Norman bishop of Durham was Walcher of Lorraine, who paid William £400 to be made Earl of Bamborough. He lived in the castle as prince-bishop, with the right to raise an army and levy taxes, and was protected by a gang of thugs. The bishop and his cronies were killed in a popular uprising in 1080.

All the while Lanfranc, an Italian archbishop in the service of a Norman warlord, wrote letters about ‘we English’ and ‘our island’. It was presumably in the role of proprietor that he stripped the English Church of its valuables, sending its great works of art and books to France, Normandy and Rome, and melting down its gold and silver.

Of course, all this was done in the name of ‘reform’. Lanfranc was able to accuse the English Church of being as sloppy in its ways as Herluin had found the Church in Normandy to be. There were only about a thousand monks in all England, and men in holy orders were even allowed to marry. That, of course, was stopped quite abruptly. The archbishop imposed more discipline on his monks, and encouraged the Norman victors to pay for new abbeys – which were far more glamorous than Anglo-Saxon ones.

The reality was that the Church was synonymous with power, and Lanfranc set an example of prelate power that would retain its force for centuries. Even William bowed to it. He conceded that the Church should be able to hold its own courts for its own people, and that monks and priests would not be subject to royal jurisdiction.

It was an act of power, not piety, for Lanfranc to appoint the totally illiterate Herfast as bishop of East Anglia. The man was a standing joke in Normandy, but a useful thug in England. An even more useful thug was Tousain, the man Lanfranc installed as abbot of Glastonbury. The monks there sang Gregorian chants that had been introduced by St Augustine when he evangelized the southern English, but Tousain told them to use new ones approved by Rome. He stationed archers inside the abbey to ensure obedience. When the monks began to sing their beautiful old chant, and it swelled to echo from the vaulted ceiling, the archers shot 21 of them.

But, although Lanfranc was clearly a man deeply interested in power, he always accepted the overlordship of Duke William – now King of England. He never challenged the king’s right to appoint archbishops.

There was another monastic movement, however, that was not prepared to submit to any lay power.


In 940, Duke William of Aquitaine decided that by paying for monks to do their monkish thing in his old hunting lodge at Cluny in Burgundy he would buy himself a place in heaven. The duke noted with engaging candour: ‘Although I myself am unable to despise all things, nevertheless by receiving despisers of this world, whom I believe to be righteous, I may receive the reward of the righteous.’

The problem was, as Duke William saw it, that even when proper godly men had been selected they needed to be protected from violent men like himself while they were quietly praying for his soul. He decided that the best solution was a hearty curse on anyone who messed with the monks. They should know they would go to hell: ‘Let him incur the wrath of almighty God; and let God remove him from the land of the living and wipe out his name from the book of life . . . let him incur everlasting damnation.’

Well, that was a start. But, on reflection, a bit more deterrence might be needed. There should also be some immediately obvious punishment: ‘In case it seems to human eyes that he is passing through the present world with impunity, let him actually experience in his own body the torments of future damnation . . . his members putrefying and swarming with vermin . . .’

Yes, that’s better. But perhaps still not quite enough to keep these poor helpless monks safe. How about calling on the pope to inflict some additional punishment: ‘And let him, unless he come to his senses, have the key-keeper of the whole hierarchy of the Church as an enemy and one who will refuse him entrance to the blessed paradise.’

Oh, sod it. When you come down to it, there’s probably no substitute for earthly power: ‘But as far as the worldly law is concerned, he shall be required, the judicial power compelling him to pay a hundred pounds of gold to those he has harmed; and his attempted attack, being frustrated, shall have no effect at all.’

There, that should do the trick.

WILLIAM OF AQUITAINE HAD MADE his abbey at Cluny completely independent of any landowner, thus ensuring that no feudal overlord was in a position to install their own chap as abbot. This had been a very deliberate move, and was the reason for all these protective curses. When the abbots of Cluny later began setting up other ‘Cluniac’ houses they decided to scrap the Benedictine rule that provided for the independence of each abbot. Instead, abbots of Cluny exercised absolute authority over all the houses, whose regimes were subject to inspection by the mother monastery.

Of course, the abbots claimed this centralization was simply in order to control standards of monastic piety, but it also created a convenient power base for anyone interested in wielding power . . . and what happened next was inevitable. When a Cluniac monk called Hildebrand became pope in 1073, it became an article of faith that Cluny’s independence from secular power should apply to the whole Church. This was not, of course, a two-way street. The Church, in the Pope’s view, for its part should be able to tell Lords, Kings and Emperors how to behave.

Lanfranc’s successor, Anseim (who had been one of Herluin’s monks at Bec), flatly refused to be invested as archbishop of Canterbury by anyone except the pope, and then refused to accept bishops and abbots nominated by Henry I.

Eventually an agreement was signed between the king and the pope, according to which Henry and all other secular overlords lost the power to appoint bishops and abbots. The English Church was now a department of the universal or Roman Church, which was no longer just an expression or an idea but a real working organization with its own law, courts and rights over property. It was also growing: the number of monks in England rose from about 1000 in 1066 to 13,000 by 1215. The church was assertive, confident and persuasive. It would be hard to distinguish how much of this growth came from idealism and commitment, and how much from the opportunities the Church offered for career advancement and an alternative life from farming and fighting.

The new power of the Church inevitably went together with increased splendour, wealth and political authority. Monks were now part of a visibly powerful apparatus that was very much in the world. Which, of course, was the exact opposite of what Lanfranc’s original reform was meant to achieve.


Even at the end of the eleventh century the already increasing worldliness of the Cluniacs and other orders had begun to leave a niche in the market for another ‘back to basics’ form of monasticism.

In 1098 a 70-year-old monk, Robert of Molesme, founded an abbey at Citeaux in Burgundy, a few kilometres east of the great wine-producing village of Nuits-Saint-Georges. The Cistercian order that he established was intended to be a form of Benedictinism that was stricter and more primitive than anything then existing. A few years later the abbey was invaded by a fanatical 22-year-old called Bernard, and 30 of his relatives (many of whom were soldiers, some married), who effectively took over.

Bernard believed in fasting, sleep deprivation and a life of physical suffering. The abbot (then an Englishman) put up with it for two years and then, in 1115, dispatched Bernard to set up a monastery in the most desolate spot he could. Bernard came close to perishing but Clairvaux, the abbey he founded in Champagne, became the most influential in Europe.

Bernard was very scathing about the Cluniacs. He didn’t like their architecture: ‘The immense height of their churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, costly polishings and strange designs that, while they attract the eye of the worshipper, hinder his attention.’ And he didn’t like their leader, Peter the Venerable: ‘He commends gluttonous feasting; he damns frugality; voluntary poverty he calls misery; fasts, vigils, silence, and manual work he calls madness.’

And he didn’t like their diet:

Course after course is brought in. Only meat is lacking and to compensate for this two huge servings offish are given. You might have thought that the first was sufficient, but even the recollection of it vanishes once you have set to on the second. The cooks prepare everything with such skill and cunning that the four or five dishes already consumed are no hindrance to what is to follow and the appetite is not checked by satiety . . . The selection of dishes is so exciting that the stomach does not realize that it is being over-taxed.

The Cistercians’ strict discipline emphasized fasts and vigils, manual labour and a vegetarian diet. Bernard himself was so austere that his excessive fasting created a dreadful stomach condition, with the result that he smelt so bad that people often could not bear to be in his company; there was even a special place where he could be sick during monastic services.

Unlike other monks, Cistercians wore plain, undyed wool – for which reason they were known as the ‘White Monks’. The return to heroic monasticism meant that they ate only the coarsest wheat bread, and were ordered to avoid coloured glass in their chapel, and gold and silver on the altar.

And they were not allowed to wear underpants. St Benedict had not mentioned them in his list of permitted clothing for monks, so the Cistercians would have no truck with the evil things – much to the amusement of a number of their contemporaries. Some called it ‘bare-bottomed piety’ and Walter Map, the twelfth-century author, wit and foe of Cistercians, suggested they shunned underpants ‘to preserve coolness in that part of the body, lest sudden heats provoke unchastity’.

The Cistercians also insisted on a plain liturgy – which allowed more time for things like manual labour. Aelred, the abbot of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, mocked the Cluniac monks for deliberately making their services attractive and inviting a lay audience to attend them:

To what purpose, I ask you, is the terrible snorting of bellows, more like the clap of thunder than the sweetness of a voice? Why that swelling and swooping of the voice? . . . Sometimes you see a man with his mouth open as if he were breathing his last breath, not singing but threatening silence, as it were, by ridiculous interpretation of the melody into snatches. Now he imitates the agony of the dying or the swooning of persons in pain. In the meantime his whole body is violently agitated by histrionic gesticulations – contorted lips, rolling eyes, hunching shoulders – and drumming fingers keep in time with every single note. And this ridiculous dissipation is called religious observance . . . Meanwhile ordinary folk stand there awe-struck, stupefied, marvelling at the din of bellows, the humming of chimes and the harmony of pipes. But they regard the saucy gestures of the singers and the alluring variation and dropping of the voices with considerable jeering and snickering, until you would think they had come, not into an oratory, but to a theatre, not to pray but to gawk . . .

AELRED, Mirror of Charity*1


Curiously for a movement that was formed specifically to get back to the basics of the Benedictine vision, the Cistercians soon did away with that awkward principle of St Benedict’s regarding the independence of each abbey. The Cistercian order became the most centrally controlled of all the monastic orders.

Conformity was the name of the game. Under Bernard’s eagle eye Cistercians all wore the same clothes, ate the same food, read the same books and lived in architecturally identical buildings. It was said that a blind monk from Scotland could easily find his way around a Cistercian monastery in Scandinavia. There was also an ‘annual general meeting’, which every Cistercian abbot was obliged to attend.

This was less a movement than a successful franchise – a sort of McMonasticism. In their first 11 years, the founders of McDonald’s saw their chain expand to over 100 restaurants. By the time Bernard died in 1153, the Cistercian order had founded 343 abbeys in western Europe. As Conrad of Eberbarch put it: ‘Like a great lake whose waters pour out through a thousand streams, gathering impetus from their rapids, the new monks went forth from Citeaux to people the West.’

Bernard himself envisaged the order as an army. He saw his monks as ‘soldiers of Christ’, the spiritual equivalent of Crusaders. Bernard of Clairvaux was himself the most effective pro-crusade preacher of his generation.

In 1131 he wrote to Henry II of England:

In your land there is an outpost of my Lord and your Lord, an outpost he has preferred to die for than to lose. I have proposed to occupy it and am sending men from my army who will, if it is not displeasing to you, claim it, recover it and restore it with a strong hand.


In 1132, twelve monks from Clairvaux arrived in a desolate part of Yorkshire – ‘thick-set with thorns, fit rather to be the lair of wild beasts than the home of men’. To begin with the monks had to live in wooden huts and suffered terrible hardship. But whether or not they were motivated by the desire to practise heroic monasticism, they were actually part of a deliberately structured business plan.

The choice of Rievaulx had been carefully made. There had been a reconnaissance party, seeking out somewhere ‘far from the concourse of man’, in part because this fulfilled the Cistercian quest for the ‘desert’ but also because the Cistercians were experts at exploiting land, both for sheep farming and for mineral resources such as iron and lead. All this was envisaged right from the outset. The abbey also had to be near water, a plentiful supply of timber and a quarry for stone. Rievaulx was perfect: the river Rye ran through the valley, and was even diverted in order to create enough space for buildings; stone quarries were just four miles away.

This was the first of many Cistercian houses. Within 20 years there were an astonishing 50 Cistercian abbeys in Britain. The original, small wooden structures at Rievaulx were just phase one of a business plan that looked forward years, and envisaged the transformation of landscape, the acquisition of land, deforestation and the exploitation of mineral resources.

The great critic of the Cistercians, Walter Map, took a cynical view of their entrepreneurship:

It is prescribed to them that they are to dwell in desert places, and desert places they do assuredly either find or make . . . Because their rule does not allow them to govern parishioners, they proceed to raze villages, they overthrow churches, and turn out parishioners . . . Those upon whom comes an invasion of Cistercians may be doomed to a lasting exile.

Walter was an itinerant justice, and he always exempted Cistercians from his oath to do justice to all men since, he said, ‘It was absurd to do justice to those who are just to none’. This was not a joke; Map’s reports of Cistercian atrocities are extraordinary. For example, he says that the monks of Byland once wanted land belonging to a knight who would not give it up to them. One night they entered his house, ‘muffled up and armed with swords and spears’, and murdered him and his family. A relative, hearing of the deaths, arrived three days later to find that all the buildings and enclosures had disappeared and in their place was a well-ploughed field.*2

The Cistercians refused to accept land on normal feudal terms. They insisted they could only accept it as ‘fee alms’, which meant that instead of having to provide lords and kings with labour or fighting men they had to pray for them.

Pretty soon the Cistercians owned so much land they simply could not throw everyone off it, so they started collecting rents and tithes (Church taxes) from the lay folk around, and before long they were rolling in money. Their abbeys were huge commercial enterprises.

The Cistercians were natural businessmen. At Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire they turned wool production into a major money-spinner, breeding a super-sheep that produced the highest-quality wool in Europe. By the end of the century they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. Meanwhile, at neighbouring Rievaulx the monks moved into heavy industry, developing mining and iron-smelting technology that put them way ahead of their time.

Of course there was a problem with this engagement with the business world. It wasn’t what monks were supposed to do. Benedict’s Rule instructed them ‘to become a stranger to the world’s ways’. They were supposed to be busy praying for the souls of the people who had endowed them, and working at modest self-sufficiency, not running blast furnaces or moving into the wool trade.

Moreover, according to the Rule of St Benedict, monks were supposed to do all their own chores and not employ servants. But the Cistercians had a genius for interpreting the Rule. They simply invented a new class of monks, whom they called ‘lay brothers’.

These were usually illiterate peasants who worked as servants. Sometimes they were the very peasants the Cistercians had turned off the land they now occupied. In every respect lay brothers were second-class citizens. They weren’t really monks at all – it was a convenient fiction. They weren’t allowed to eat with the other – ‘choir’ – monks, or pray with the choir monks, or even mix with the choir monks. They were there simply to do the menial chores the choir monks ought to have been doing but wanted to avoid. In Fountains Abbey, for example, a wall kept the lay brothers and monks separate.


Abbeys simply could not help but become huge financial machines. Abbeys never married and never died, so that their land never came onto the market, and were outside the medieval merry-go-round of land redistribution through violent death and confiscation of estates. There were occasional exceptions, such as Rievaulx being plundered by the Scots after they defeated Edward II’s army in 1322, but such misfortunes were rare.

Given the natural processes that poured money towards abbeys like rain running down gulleys, it took some kind of special genius for an abbot to run into financial trouble, but it happened with impressive frequency. There was a tendency to spend ever more lavishly, to invest ever more grandly, and to finance these noble activities by borrowing money against future income, for example, selling wool from their sheep years in advance at a discount. It was a form of gambling, of course, but with God on their side what could go wrong? Sheep murrain for a start. In the 1280s, Rievaulx was unable to deliver the wool it had pre-sold and was driven into the medieval equivalent of bankruptcy. It was taken into Royal protection, under the supervision of the Bishop of Durham.

With forward contracts concentrating their minds, many abbots became more concerned with the activities of the large numbers of lay brothers than anything else. They became in effect Managing Directors who tended to regard the ‘choir monks’ as rather a burden on the place, even if they were from more socially acceptable families.

They needed to find ways to improve their cash flow, and that was the attraction of the pilgrim business. In the eleventh century, sinners were instructed that a visit to a particular church, and the bestowal of pious gifts upon it, would mean they would be let off their penance. The number of qualifying churches steadily grew until there were thousands of pilgrimage churches. And the reward changed, in the thirteenth century, from a remission of penance to a release from God’s punishment, whether in this life or in purgatory. In the fourteenth century pilgrim indulgencies were extended even further, negating guilt itself and giving the opportunity of acquiring an indulgence for the souls of those already in purgatory.

What’s more, if you decided not to take the pilgrimage you could achieve the same result by paying the Church the money you would have spent if you had gone. The Holy Grail of the tourist trade had been found: ‘Don’t bother to visit, just send your money!’

The system meant that abbeys, cathedrals and churches were in competition with each other to attract the most pilgrims, and there were several ways of doing this. The first was to offer indulgences and pardons for pilgrims. Some churches ran ‘bargains of the month’. The monastery at Shene, in Surrey, for example, offered the following in the fifteenth century:

ITEM: On the Feast of St John the Baptist whoever comes to the monastery and devoutly says a Pater-noster shall have ninety days of pardon . . .

ITEM: Whoever comes to the said monastery on the Feast of St Paul the Apostle, says one Pater-noster and one Ave Maria, shall have one hundred days of pardon . . .

ITEM: On the Feast of Mary Magdalene whoever comes to the said monastery shall have one hundred days of pardon granted by Bishop Stafford, Archbishop of Canterbury . . .

ITEM: On the feast of St Thomas the Apostle and in the Feast of St Michael the Archangel they shall have three years and forty days of pardon . . .

But the chief way to attract holy tourism was to possess a famous relic. This could be anything from an object belonging to a saint, or touched by them, to a bit of their skeleton. Such an object was regarded as a contact point between earth and heaven that radiated miraculous power. Churches and abbeys did everything possible to get hold of sacred relics for people to visit.

Saints’ relics were a sufficiently important source of revenue for Anselm, Lanfranc’s successor as archbishop of Canterbury, to reinstate the English saints; they were, after all, far more likely to draw a good crowd. A new shrine was constructed for Cuthbert at Durham, and his remains were restored there.

At Canterbury, St Thomas Becket’s tomb in the cathedral was also to become a major draw – more particularly, the saint’s head. You could see where the sword had split his skull in two! Visitors could also marvel at the sight of ‘Aaron’s rod’, ‘some of the stone upon which the Lord stood just before He ascended into heaven’, ‘some of the Lord’s table on which the Last Supper was eaten’, and even ‘some of the very clay out of which God fashioned Adam’. There was also some of the Virgin Mary’s knitting – well, weaving to be exact.


Monasteries were trading operations, and communities even founded their own towns to handle the trade. This brings us back to Bury St Edmunds and its war between the monks and the townspeople. The town belonged to the abbey, which had benefited so much from various kings that it also owned the entire county of West Suffolk. The abbots built or expanded the town of Bury St Edmunds, and controlled its commercial life. Every business transaction involved a cut for the monks – whether a tradesman ran a barge on the river, a stall in the market, sold fish or supplied building materials. The abbey administered justice and pocketed the fines it took. It ran the royal mint – being abbot of Bury St Edmunds was literally a licence to print money. The abbey even owned the horse droppings on the street – and of course the monks took their cut.

Whether it was collecting manure or grinding corn, every abbot guarded his monopoly jealously.

Take Adam Samson, for example, who ran Bury with a rod of iron in the later twelfth century. One day he learnt that the dean, Herbert, had built a windmill without permission. Samson ‘boiled with fury and could hardly eat or sleep.’ He summoned Herbert and told him: ‘I thank you as much as if you had cut off both my feet! By the face of God! I will never eat bread until that building is destroyed!’

It was a subtle hint, but Herbert took it and destroyed the mill immediately.*3

By 1327 the townspeople had had enough. In January they stormed and plundered the abbey demanding a charter of liberties. When they were cheated of this they attacked again in February, and then again in May. The monks’ raid on the parish church, on 18 October, was reprisal for these attacks.

Some years later, in 1345, a special commission investigated the abbey for other reasons, and found that the monks lived away from it, dressed like everyone else and were up to anything and everything.

Throughout the monastic movement, austerity proved to be quite incompatible with monastic wealth. One of them had to go. Unfortunately, even acknowledging the financial incompetence of many abbots, it was not going to be the wealth.


Fortunately for the consciences of the monastic community, monks of all orders proved to have a genius for finding a variety of ways of living within the letter of Benedict’s Rule, while leaving it dead on the cloister pavement.

For example, no well-to-do monk wanted to sleep in a cold dormitory with all the other monks, so, since the infirmary was the only place where a fire was allowed, monks with money began to move in there, establishing individual ‘bachelor pads’ – each a private room with its own fireplace, and with a bedroom above complete with en-suite lavatory.

Benedict had prohibited ‘eating the flesh of four-footed animals’, but an exception was made for the sick. So meat was available in the infirmary – or misericord (‘compassionate heart’) – where dietary regulations were suspended for the infirm or elderly. And guess what? Pretty soon the brothers gave up eating in the refectory and ate in the misericord instead. Monkish logic.

Another snag about eating meals under Benedict’s Rule was that the monks were not allowed to talk while dining. But they could sign if they wanted something . . . like the salt. (Benedict actually says they can communicate sonitu signi – ‘by sound of a sign’.) So they compiled an entire sign language. They would also whistle to each other.

Gerald of Wales describes a visit to Christ Church, Canterbury, in the twelfth century, during which he was appalled at the way the monks behaved during meals. It was, he claimed, ‘more appropriate to jesters . . . all of them gesticulating with fingers, hands and arms, and whistling to one another in lieu of speaking’.

The same signs were used in monasteries all over Europe – a sort of dumb Esperanto. So whatever country a monk found himself eating in he could always convey exactly what he wanted to a fellow monk. Most of the signs were about food – which isn’t surprising because in a monastery there was an awful lot of food to talk about . . .


Benedict had in mind a frugal diet for monks. He advised only two cooked dishes at a meal, and one pound of bread per monk per day. However, most monks took this advice with a pinch of salt – and a lot more.

Food was of absorbing interest to medieval monks. For example, one chapter meeting of the monks of Westminster was preoccupied with the question of whether a particular dish should include four herrings or five. At Bury St Edmunds, the thirteenth-century book of rules and customs records an important discussion about how long a pike should be for the Feast of Relics. It was eventually decided that it should be 22 inches long from head to tail.

Every week contained at least one feast day on which the unfortunate monks would have to deal with something like 16 dishes. But even on a normal working day the menu available to them was one that most lay folk could only have dreamt about. The records for Westminster Abbey, for example, show that on a typical day beef, boiled mutton, roast pork and roast mutton were served at dinner in the misericord, while meat fritters and deer entrails were served in the refectory. Later, at supper, there was tongue and mutton – with sauce.

One historian, Barbara Harvey, has calculated that the daily allowance for the monks of Westminster could have been as much as 7000 calories – over twice the daily requirement of an average man today. Of course, it is not inevitable that they ate all this– what they left would be given to servants or the poor at the monastery door. But monks were habitually made fun of in literature as being fat, and now the archaeological evidence seems to be bearing out the caricature.

Excavation of the medieval hospital and priory of St Mary Spital in London has produced the bones of thousands of monks and their patients. It is clear that the monks were taller than the lay people (suggesting they were better nourished all their lives) and had much worse teeth (indicating a sweeter diet).

Monks were equally serious about drink. In his Rule, Benedict admits to some misgivings about recommending how much anyone ought to drink, but bearing in mind ‘the standards of the weak’ he recommends a hemina (half a pint) of wine a day. Mark you – it was only a recommendation, and the monks treated it with caution. Recent studies have shown that alcohol seems to have accounted for something like 19 per cent of monks’ energy intake (it provides 5 per cent of ours).

Gluttony was not the only sin monks fell prey to. Records for 1447 note a brothel in Westminster called the ‘Maidenshead’, which was much frequented by Benedictines. With up to £12 pocket money a year, the monks could afford to go there. And churchmen did not just use brothels; they owned them. The bishop of Winchester was the owner of one of the brothels in Borough High Street in London – the girls were known affectionately as ‘Winchester geese’.


In 1348 the whole monastic system in England came close to collapse when the Black Death killed off something like two-thirds of all people in holy orders. In enclosed monastic communities it spread like the plague – you might say.

Many of the communities never recovered. At the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, for instance, a population that had once numbered 400 was reduced to just 18 people by 1381. Only three of them were lay brothers. The situation at Fountains Abbey was similar. Since the Cistercian system depended on these working pseudo-monks it had ceased functioning.

But while their religious communities declined, monasteries lost nothing of their wealth. They retained their lands, their riches, their political power. This may have made little sense previously, but now the disproportion between such wealth and so few monks became a public scandal. Popular hostility to the ‘private religions’, as they were called, inevitably grew.

People once more looked back to a ‘golden age’ in which monks had lived lives of simple poverty and work, but those lives were totally incompatible with the huge properties that the abbots were supposed to run. In fact, something quite extraordinary was happening. The Church itself was the great teacher of morality, insisting that power and privilege were justified only in relation to the responsibilities that went with them. Churchmen had, since the twelfth century at least, emphasised the moral failings of every level of society, with particular emphasis on the failings of churchmen themselves. In the thirteenth century the Church had begun to encourage the use of English for prayer and study by ordinary people. But within 100 years this freedom of expression was being used by the lay population to criticise abuses within the church, and that was a very different kettle of fish.

A mass of materials from the fourteenth century tell this story. It is there in popular ballads, such as the early ones of Robin Hood, which treated monks and abbots with contempt, and depict a powerful contrast between them and wandering friars and preachers, whose Christianity was not practised within a wealthy and politically well-connected institution. It shows in popular religion too, for example in The Book of Margery Kempe, where an illiterate bourgeois woman describes her religious experiences, and has no hesitation in dealing directly with her maker, without the Church acting as her intermediary. This is also the core theme of Piers Plowman, in which the only ‘indulgence’ on offer is a paper saying ‘Do well, do better, do best’, and in which the ploughman himself is identified with Christ and must save the world, including the Church.

The intellectual core of criticism was provided by the foremost academic of his day, John Wyclif. From his base at the University of Oxford, he issued a devastating deconstruction of ecclesiastical corruption and hypocrisy. This powerfully moral attack on the Church erupted in the national uprising of 1381. Modern historians tell us that the causes of the revolt were economic and political, but in 1381 the Church itself had no doubt that the chief instigators were John Wyclif and his followers who had been busy for the last decade stirring up criticism of the ecclesiastical hierarchy for the precise reason that the church now lay at the heart of the economy and of politics. The rebels beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and many abbeys came under attack.

At Bury St Edmunds the abbey was once again sacked and looted. The prior was executed and his severed head stuck on a pike in the Great Market. At Norwich the rebels were unfortunate enough to run into a fighting bishop, Henry Despenser, who for most of his ill-spent youth had been one of the pope’s military commanders. The bishop happened to be fully armed and armoured. He personally executed the leader of the party.

The uprising was crushed, but the Church’s critics were not. Wyclif continued to insist that the clergy ought not to own property, and that the king could legally confiscate any held by the Church. It was an interesting proposition to which many theologians felt they could subscribe. But the men who then ran the Church were not theologians. The most powerful bishops and archbishops were career politicians, with little or no theological training. For them the Church was a political and economic power base. There was no way these proud and wealthy prelates were going to heed a call for a return to biblical simplicity and poverty. They would do whatever they could to hold on to their wealth and power.


Their tactic was not to defend the indefensible but to go on the attack. Luckily for them, Wyclif had challenged the official Church position on the Eucharist – the part of the Mass where the bread and wine are blessed and become the body and blood of Christ. Since 1215, the line had been that a miracle takes place, and after the blessing there is no bread and no wine left – they become, despite what our senses tell us, flesh and blood.

However, the Church in England had never pressed this point and people were left to interpret the miracle as they liked. Wyclif proposed that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual or symbolic sense. It was a proposition that would have roused little controversy in the past, but after 1381 the worldly bishops, headed by the aristocratic and powerful William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury, saw the issue as a block on which to lay the heads of the Church’s critics. From 1401 archbishops were able to enjoy the privilege of handing over anyone who suggested that the bread and wine were not literally the body and blood of Christ to be burnt at the stake – a brutally effective way of retaining the status quo.

Nonetheless, opposition to corruption in the Church struggled on. In 1410 there was an attempt to pass a Bill in Parliament to strip the Church and the monasteries of their assets. But Henry IV had been helped to the throne by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, and the Bill was indignantly rejected. In fact, an abject Commons had to beg for it to be struck from the record.


The unpopularity of the monasteries simmered under the surface. When religious houses were founded as penance for the murder of Richard II, it was very difficult to find anyone to inhabit them. Syon monastery near London, for instance, was occupied by a Swedish order of nuns, who later took over another of the new foundations at Brentford, also near London, which had remained empty since being established.

Nuns had, in fact, replaced monks in people’s minds as being value for money. The classic idea of a nunnery had been a place of retreat for well-off ladies with nowhere else to go; but in the decades that followed the Black Death the attitude to women in religious life changed rather dramatically.

Nuns evidently chose to live by different standards from those of monks with their rich endowments and glorious buildings. People seem to have been much more conscious of this by the fifteenth century, and also to have become aware that if they were donating funds for anniversaries, for pittances, for regular prayers, for burial, women were more likely to deliver the goods. Wealthy men and women frequently made bequests to ‘the poor nuns who will pray for their souls’, and increasing numbers of women’s religious houses were founded. This suggests that women’s prayers were perceived to have more efficacy than men’s, and that donors and patrons thought nunneries were doing a better job than monasteries.

Monks and nuns were both finally swept away in the years following 1535, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and redistributed their phenomenal wealth among his cronies. The inquiry by Thomas Cromwell which led up to this produced a spectacular list of abuses and scandals, none of which represented anything new, but which were now being exposed in a world in which reform, rather than abolition, hardly seemed an option any more.

And all we have left are beautiful fairy ruins . . . that whisper of a life of dedication and piety and simplicity that became corrupted on a magnificent scale.

Perhaps money is the root of all evil.

Of course, there were always sincere and dedicated monks who devoted themselves to a life of prayer and religious contemplation. But looking back through the story of the monasteries it’s possible to conclude that once prayer had acquired a monetary value, the game was up. The monasteries – the prayer factories – became commercial enterprises; and subsequently there was just no way they could fulfil their original function.

Monks couldn’t really cut themselves off for ever from the wicked world, no matter how hard they tried. They were part of the wicked world and, what’s more, a lot of the time they ran it. But they were never allowed to get away with it unscathed. Criticism and condemnation was constant; it was the motor that drove one new monastic movement after another, and ultimately pulled down the entire edifice. The true legacy of the medieval church in England, and all those fat monks, is the powerful sense of social justice that the monastic movement itself taught, that it used to speak out against its own corruption, and that in the end became the weapon that destroyed it.

And that has shaped political debate in England ever since.

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