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Violence in the Medieval Cloister

  • Jane Sayers

On 25 April 1244 Pope Innocent iv granted Henry III's petition for absolution from any sentence of excommunication he might incur for violence against clerks. At first sight it might seem unlikely that the king of England would get involved in scuffles with clerks. He was in his thirty-seventh year and has been described by Sir Maurice Powiek? as devout, if not spiritually minded. He was of a fiery temperament, however, and may have been aware of the opinion of some canonists as to the culpability of those who instructed or ordered others to violence.

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1 PRO SC7/20/4 and 20/16 (duplicate). For the assessment of the king's character, see Powieke, F. M., King Henry III and the Lord Edward i, Oxford 1947, 70–3, 342.

2 See Huizing, Peter, ‘The earliest development of excommunication Latae Sentenliae by Gratian and the earliest Decretisti’, Studia Gratiana iii (1955), 295.

3 See Barlow, F., Thomas Becket, London 1986, 235, 250 (on the fateful words, citing Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, 7 vols, ed. J. C. Robertson and J. B. Sheppard, Rolls Series lxvii, 1875–85, ii. 429, iii. 487, vii. nos 738–9, and iii. 540–1), 258 (on what happened to the murderers) and 269–70 (on Henry's penance).

4 On the closed community and the idea of the monastery as a prison, see Penco, G., ‘Monasterium-carcer’, Studia Monastica viii (1966), 133–43, and Leclercq, J., ‘La clôture’, Collectanea Cisterciensia xliii (1981), 366–76. Leclercq makes this point with regard to nuns, 375, and the phrase of the key, the grille and the wall is his, 369. Professor Christopher Brooke has pointed out to me that the sense of enclosure, clausura, is fundamental in the Rule and that, therefore, it does not need external violence to explain walls, etc. I am grateful to him for this and for several other illuminating points (see below nn. 5, 28, 32 and 40).

5 Morey, A. and Brooke, C. N. L., Gilbert Foliot and his Letters, Cambridge 1965, 80–1.

6 On the first point see Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, trans. Greenway, D. and Sayers, J., Oxford 1989, 4950; on the second, 82–3.

7 Visitation produced a situation open to violence. For Archbishop Boniface of Savoy's visitation of the priory of St Bartholomew's, Smithfield, and the ensuing violence, see Chronica Majora, 7 vols, ed. H. R. Luard (Rolls Series lvii, 1872–83), v. 121–3; and for Archbishop Courtenay's visitation of Exeter Cathedral in 1384, Dahmus, J. H., The Metropolitical Visitations of William Courleney Archbishop of Canterbury 1381–1396, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences xxi, Urbana 1950, 20–1 and 100–1.

8 See the fascinating articles (from early evidence) of Little, Lester H., ‘La morphologie des malédictions monastiques’, Annales xxxiv (1979), 4360; and Patrick Geary, ‘L'humiliation des saints’, ibid. 27–42. I am grateful to Dr Miri Rubin for these references.

9 E.g. Chronica Majora v. 33 (quarrels between monks of Selby and John Francis, a royal clerk, in which one monk was killed and several injured); BL, MS Harl. Ch. 43 A 49 (the prior and three canons of Leeds attack a monk of St Albans); and PRO SC7/64/49 (order for the excommunication of a canon of Wells, a knight, and ‘certain others’ of the cities and dioceses of Winchester, Exeter and Wells, who had laid violent hands on monks and conversi of Quarr).

10 Statuta Capitulorum Generalium Ordinis Cisterciensis i (1116–1220), ed. Canivez, J. M., Louvain 1933, 1196 no. 24.

11 Statuta ii (1221–61), Louvain 1934, 1221 nos 10 and 11, cited by Harper-Bill, C., ‘Monastic apostasy in late medieval England’, this JOURNAL xxxii (1981), 2.

12 Goffman, Erving, Asylum. Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates, Chicago 1961. See esp. the intro, and 3–124, ‘On the characteristics of total institutions’. I owe much to discussion and general help from Herr Dr Justin Stagi.

13 Chron. Maj. v. 31–2; trans. Vaughan, Richard, Chronicles of Matthew Paris, Gloucester 1986, 151.

14 Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani i, ed. Riley, H. T. (Rolls Series xxviii, 1867), 247–9; Matthew Paris, 30–2.

15 Gesta Abbatum, 251; Matthew Paris, 33.

16 Gesta, 18; Rule of Benedict, ch. lxvi (I have used Abbot Justin McCann's edition and translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict, London 1952); Goffman, , Asylum, 92.

17 Jocelin of Brakelond, 40 and 44–5.

18 See Statuta, 1206 no. 4, and 1229 no. 6.

19 E.g. Statuta, 1226 no. 22; and see Jocelin of Brakelond, 105–a monk who had disagreed with Samson excommunicated and put in chains for a day.

20 See Statuta, 1232 no. 54, and 1230 no. 12.

21 See Rule of Benedict, ‘in order that this evil of private ownership may be rooted out utterly…’: ch. lv, 127.

22 Goffman, , Asylum, 18ff.

23 Ibid. 20.

24 For this case see Harper-Bill, , ‘Apostasy’, 11; and on lack of privacy, see Goffman, , op. cit. 25.

25 ‘Annales de Waverleia’, Annales Monastici ii, ed. H. R. Luard (Rolls Series xxxvi, 1865), 250; and Statuta, 1196 no. 24.

26 Rule of Benedict, ch. lxiii.

27 Goflman, , Asylum, 120.

28 Leclercq, J., ‘Comment vivaient les frères convers’, Analecta Cisterciensia xxi (1965), 241. For an interesting discussion of the significance of beards of the older-type conversi, worn because of their age and dignity, and of the new conversi, who wore beards as a sign that they had been ‘deputed for ploughs and mattocks’ to distinguish them from those engaged in superior liturgical occupations, i.e. the shaven and tonsured monks, see Giles Constable's introduction to ‘Burchardi, ut videtur, abbatis Bellevallis Apologia de Barbis’, Apologiae Duae, ed. Huygens, R. B. C., Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis lxii, 124–9, and the references cited there.

29 On tensions and obsessions, see Amargier, P., ‘Aperçus sur la mentalité monastique en Provence au Xle siècle’, Annales xxvii (1972), 415–26.

30 Jocelin of Brakelond, 105.

31 For their feeling of inferiority and the differences, see Leclercq, , art. cit. 239–58.

32 Burchard, the author of the ‘Apologia de Barbis’, ostensibly addressed to the lay brothers of Rosières, expresses the view that the new conversi were inferior to the monks and says that they were only suitable for agricultural labour (see above n. 28). For the lay brothers' feelings that they had been insulted by Burchard, and their possible raising of awkward questions as to why they should be called conversi and, indeed, wear beards at all, see Constable's introduction to ‘Apologia de Barbis’, 138–9.

33 Statuta, 1195 no. 66.

34 Statuta, 1202 no. 10. This is either the abbot of Croxden (Staffs) or the abbot of Vallis S. Marie in the diocese of Paris.

35 Statuta, 1206 no. 23.

36 For the famous revolt of the lay brothers of Sempringham, see Knowles, D., ‘The revolt of the lay brothers of Sempringham’, EHR 1 (1935), 465–87, esp. pp. 467 and 469 on these points, and The Book of St Gilbert, ed. Foreville, R. and Keir, G., Oxford 1987, 134–67 and 346–9, for an edition of the lay brothers' dossier. On the disturbances at Grandmont, see Becquet, J., ‘La premiere crise de l'ordre de Grandmont’, Bulletin de la Société Archéologique et Historique du Limousin lxxxvii (1960), 283324.

37 Leclercq, , ‘Les frères convers’, 250.

38 Ibid. 243, 247.

39 PRO SC7/15/36, and BL Harl. Ch. 43 A 38 and 83 A 23. Without evidence of the kind provided by the Statuta of the Cistercians, one can discover no more details.

40 Abbot Stephen of Lexington's register of his visitation progress is also unique. It gives a first-hand account of the violence threatened in Ireland in the late 1220s when, as abbot of Stanley (Cist., Wilts) and visitor, he and his party came to Mellifont ‘anticipating and prepared for martyrdom’; see Watt, J. A., The Church and the Two Nations in Medieval Ireland, Cambridge 1970, 91–6.

41 Durham took the precaution of getting papal letters allowing the prior to absolve from excommunication those monks of the house who had laid violent hands on one another, etc., in 1259, 1262, 1274 and 1281, Durham, Dean and Chapter Muniments, 4.1 Pap. 13; 1.2 Pap. 2; 2.1 Pap. 45; and 4.2 Pap. 8.

42 See Chronicle of the Reigns of Stephen… by Gervase, the monk of Canterbury i, ed. Stubbs, W. (Rolls Series lxxiii, 1879), 382; and Chronkon Abbatiae de Evesham, ed. Macray, W. D. (Rolls Series xxix, 1863), 102–5 and 126–7.

43 See McGuire, B. P., ‘The Cistercians and the transformation of monastic friendships’, Analecta Cisterciensia xxxvii (1981), 910, on the Cistercian realisation that intense spiritual friendships might lead to physical relationships, and on the punishment of monks and lay brothers who exchange presents and for sodomy. For examples of the expulsion of sodomites by the General Chapter, see Statuta, 1221 no. 9, and 1224 no. 21. Cistercian legislation imposed whipping in chapter and a diet of bread and water for those exchanging presents (the Libellus Definitionum of 1202, cited by McGuire, art. cit. 9 n. 31). See also idem, ‘The collapse of a monastic friendship: the case of Jocelin and Samson of Bury’, Journal of Medieval History iv (1978), 369–97.

44 Chron. Maj. v. 33.

45 Examples from Harper-Bill, , ‘Monastic apostasy’, 11 and 15.

46 Chron. Maj. v. 33; Matthew Paris, 152. In describing the violent scenes at St Bartholomew's priory between Archbishop Boniface of Savoy and the canons of the house, Matthew Paris puts Boniface's outrageous behaviour down to Savoyard aggression, greed and pride, Chron. Maj. v. 121ff. On xenophobia as a cause of violence, there is still only the now very dated article of Mackenzie, Hugh, ‘The anti-foreign movement in England, 1231–1232’, in Haskins Anniversary Essays in Medieval History, ed. Taylor, Charles H., Boston-New York 1929, 183203.

47 Harper-Bill, , art. cit. 1213.

48 Gratian, Decretum C. 17 q. 4 c. 29 (Lateran 11 c. 15). See Vodola, Elisabeth, Excommunication in the Middle Ages, Berkeley 1986, 28.

49 See Huizing, , ‘Earliest development’, 279320, esp. 292–300; and Kuttner, Stephan, Kanonistische Schuldlehre von Gratian bis auf die Dekretalen Gregors IX, Studi e Testi lxiv, Vatican City 1935, 69 and n. 1.

50 Decretales, XV. 39 c. 32 (P 1326).

81 See P. Herde, Audientia Litterarum Contradictarum, 2 vols, Bibliothek des Deutschen Historischen Instituts in Rom xxxi, xxxii for formulary examples connected with the ‘super manuum iniectione’ canons, esp. i. 392 nn. 115, 116, and ii. 199–224.

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