Monks behaving badly

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Emma J Wells is as­so­ciate lec­turer in ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal his­tory at the Univer­sity of York. Her most re­cent book is Pil­grim Routes of the Bri­tish Isles (Robert Hale, 2016)

Emma J Wells ex­plores the clergy’s rep­u­ta­tion for drink­ing, gam­bling and for­ni­cat­ing in the Mid­dle Ages

If con­tem­po­rary chron­i­cles are to be be­lieved, Eng­land’s me­dieval clergy may have spent as much time drink­ing, gam­bling and for­ni­cat­ing with pros­ti­tutes as at­tend­ing to their flocks’ spir­i­tual needs. Emma J Wells reveals why some men of the cloth sim­ply couldn’t re­sist the plea­sures of the flesh

They were ac­cused of “walk­ing abroad in sec­u­lar dress”, “pub­lic play­ing of dice”, and sex­ual mis­be­haviour

In July 1531, John Long­land, bishop of Lincoln, made his way to the Au­gus­tinian abbey of Mis­senden in Buck­ing­hamshire. He was tasked with con­ven­ing a spe­cial tri­bunal to in­ves­ti­gate ru­mours of monas­tic bad be­hav­iour that had been cir­cu­lat­ing around the parish. Yet lit­tle could he have known the pan­de­mo­nium that he would un­cover.

Shortly after Long­land’s ar­rival, the rev­e­la­tions came thick and fast. A lo­cal canon, Robert Palmer, was ac­cused of car­nal re­la­tions with a mar­ried woman, Mar­garet Bishop. Once ac­costed, Palmer ad­mit­ted so­cial­is­ing with Mar­garet, but in­sisted that the mo­ment he learned of her true in­ten­tions, rather than pur­sue a car­nal re­la­tion­ship, he bolted out the door.

In an at­tempt to es­cape cen­sure, Palmer claimed that it was the ab­bot, John Fox, who had shared Mar­garet’s bed. The ab­bot staunchly de­nied the coun­ter­charge but now found him­self un­der the spot­light. He stood ac­cused of nu­mer­ous of­fences, in­clud­ing nepo­tism, fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct, and of turn­ing a blind eye to Palmer’s af­fair with the mar­ried woman. The canons also al­leged that he ap­pointed his sis­ter as their brewer, dis­count­ing whis­pers of her “im­moral char­ac­ter”. Shortly after the sis­ter’s ar­rival, reports pre­dictably cir­cu­lated of her preg­nancy, no doubt the con­se­quence of a dal­liance with one of the men.

After in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Long­land passed judg­ment on both men, and nei­ther fared well. Palmer was im­pris­oned in­def­i­nitely and Ab­bot Fox was sus­pended from of­fice.

Bad habits

This monas­tic moral­ity tale is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a fa­mil­iar cul­tural stereo­type: the pro­mis­cu­ous and cor­rupt man of the cloth. From Ital­ian poet Gio­vanni Boc­cac­cio’s phi­lan­der­ing Masetto to the ab­surd and use­less Sir Oliver Mar­text in Shake­speare’s As You Like it,t lit­er­a­ture f rom the 14th cen­tury through to Henry VIII’s reign and be­yond is lit­tered with cler­gy­men behaving badly.

And the stereo­type has stuck. Me­dieval bish­ops, monks, vic­ars, even nuns, con­tinue to get a bad press in film, TV, the­atre and lit­er­a­ture. They are most no­table not for their un­flinch­ing ded­i­ca­tion to spread­ing the word of God but for their pro­cliv­ity for las­civ­i­ous­ness, greed, al­co­holism and ap­a­thy.

The prob­lem wasn’t a prod­uct of the au­thor­i­ties’ com­pla­cency or in­dif­fer­ence. On the con­trary, en­sur­ing that the clergy re­mained on their metaphor­i­cal pedestal was para­mount to the me­dieval church. In fact, so eager were the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal au­thor­i­ties to uphold the high­est of stan­dards, and pro­tect them­selves from the wrath of God, that they es­tab­lished a mech­a­nism for dis­ci­plinary ac­tion in the case of fail­ure. Across Chris­ten­dom, monas­ter­ies, par­ishes and col­leges were sub­ject to so-called vis­i­ta­tions. Th­ese were as­sess­ments con­ducted by their own su­pe­ri­ors or dioce­san bish­ops.

In Eng­land, th­ese records first ap­peared to­wards the end of the 13th cen­tury, and be­came in­creas­ingly com­mon leading up to the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies in the 1530s. In­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­posed the en­tire gamut of in­dis­cre­tions, leav­ing no stone un­turned. They un­cov­ered acts of se­ri­ous mis­con­duct, such as sex­ual mis­be­haviour; they in­ves­ti­gated lesser crimes, like build­ing neg­li­gence, “walk­ing abroad in sec­u­lar dress” and “pub­lic play­ing of dice”; and they up­braided cler­gy­men for ba­nal in­dis­cre­tions, such as in­ap­pro­pri­ate ton­sures (the part of the head left bare) and snooz­ing mid-ser­vice.

The au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gated pro­saic gos­sip, doc­u­mented in­dis­cre­tions – and swiftly pun­ished those found guilty. Mis­cre­ants could ex­pect sham­ing sen­tences, rang­ing from en­forced si­lence and rit­ual fast­ing to spells in pri­son.

And you didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be a mem­ber of the clergy to be pun­ished. In 1442, one Richard Gray got into hot wa­ter for im­preg­nat­ing El­iz­a­beth Wy­lugby, a Bene­dic­tine nun at St Michael’s Pri­ory in Stam­ford. Worse still, Gray had ap­par­ently con­sorted with Wy­lugby while lodg­ing in the con­vent with his wife. The disgraced man was called be­fore Bishop Wil­liam Al­nwick to an­swer charges of “sacrilege and spir­i­tual in­cest”, to which he con­fessed. His penance, recorded in un­usual de­tail, in­cluded a flog­ging while walk­ing around Stam­ford church, car­ry­ing a can­dle and dressed only in linen gar­ments, on four Sun­days. This was to be fol­lowed by a bare­foot pil­grim­age to Lincoln Cathe­dral. After fall­ing ill, Gray was un­able to carry out his penance and was ex­com­mu­ni­cated.

Gray and Wy­lugby weren’t the only ones ac­cused of sex­ual im­moral­ity. In 1500, Wil­liam Bell, war­den of Grey Fri­ars in

Not­ting­ham, was ac­cused of “in­con­ti­nence against an­other man” (ie ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity). John Shrewes­bury, a monk from Dorch­ester Abbey, was said to have ab­ducted a woman in 1441 and smug­gled her into the bell tower of the monastery in a trunk, where he had car­nal re­la­tions with her.

Me­dieval cler­gy­men also had a bad record of fre­quent­ing broth­els. The most no­to­ri­ous were sit­u­ated in Bank­side, south Lon­don, on land owned and con­trolled by the bishop of Winch­ester. Th­ese es­tab­lish­ments were dubbed ‘stews’, and the women who worked in them ‘Winch­ester Geese’. Some of their clients were, no doubt, men of the church.

The au­thor­i­ties came down hard on the crimes they dis­cov­ered. But no mat­ter how many of­fend­ers they pun­ished, it wasn’t long be­fore they un­earthed an­other one. Er­rant clergy were a fea­ture of me­dieval life, and part of the rea­son for that may lie in the na­ture of their pro­fes­sion.

Most of the sec­u­lar clergy (dea­cons and priests who were not monks or mem­bers of a re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion) were poorly ed­u­cated, and many lived lives in­dis­tin­guish­able from their flocks. They es­sen­tially sur­vived as lay­men, till­ing the earth and mind­ing live­stock. They of­ten trav­elled to other par­ishes, where not only did they ad­min­is­ter to the spir­i­tual, so­cial and med­i­cal needs of the poor­est in so­ci­ety, but also lodged in lo­cal ale­houses, min­gled with lo­cals and fre­quented pub­lic dances. By many ac­counts, some lived com­fort­ably and ate well – just as the portly Friar Tuck did in the tales of Robin Hood. Is it any won­der that many couldn’t re­sist the temp­ta­tions of sec­u­lar life?

But it wasn’t just dea­cons and parish priests who suc­cumbed to worldly plea­sures. Although monks and nuns tech­ni­cally led clois­tered lives, they were still part of wider so­ci­ety, and prom­i­nent mem­bers to boot. They reg­u­larly left clois­ters to visit fam­ily, con­duct busi­ness, teach chil­dren and en­ter pol­i­tics – and, if reports are to be be­lieved, they com­mit­ted a litany of in­dis­cre­tions as they did so.

Of all the ac­cu­sa­tions lev­elled against monks, per­haps the most dam­ag­ing was that they’d aban­doned their call­ing, spend­ing far more time fuss­ing over their ap­pear­ance and liv­ing the high life than pray­ing for their flocks’ souls.

The disgraced man was sum­moned be­fore a bishop to an­swer charges of “sacrilege and spir­i­tual in­cest”

Stranger than fic­tion

The stereo­type of the im­moral monk – ir­re­deemably self-in­dul­gent and nar­cis­sis­tic – is per­haps best cap­tured in the fic­tional fig­ure of Chaucer’s monk, one of the pro­tag­o­nists of The Can­ter­bury Tales. This “fair prelat”, we’re told, pre­ferred the “prick­ing and hunt­ing of the hare” to por­ing over a book in the clois­ter, his ro­tund fig­ure garbed with sleeves and a cope of grey fur rather than a plain woollen habit and cowl.

But such an­tics weren’t re­stricted to fic­tion. In the 1430s, in a vis­i­ta­tion of Canons Ashby Pri­ory in Northamp­ton­shire, the Bishop’s Com­mis­sary found that the monks were in­dulging in pri­vate feast­ing and games, fre­quent­ing the vil­lage inn, skip­ping ser­vices in the choir and wear­ing “short aild tight dou­blets with sev­eral ties to their hose” in­stead of their monas­tic habit.

To some peo­ple to­day, the im­age of the cor­rupt cler­gy­man – more at home drink­ing ale and con­sort­ing with pros­ti­tutes than gen­u­flect­ing at an al­tar – may be highly amus­ing. But in the Mid­dle Ages, the re­sults were deadly se­ri­ous: ne­glected parish­ioners, dam­age to the Catholic church’s rep­u­ta­tion and, in some cases, out­breaks of ex­treme vi­o­lence.

One of the worst ex­am­ples of the lat­ter oc­curred in 1263 when an Ital­ian called Bartholomew de Ag­nani was ap­pointed rec­tor of St George’s church in the Not­ting­hamshire vil­lage of Bar­ton in Fabis. Un­for­tu­nately for Bartholomew, the prior of the Not­ting­hamshire con­vent of Len­ton had other ideas. He wanted a man called Thomas de Ra­ley to be given the post – and, in an at­tempt to se­cure this out­come, told his parish­ioners that Bartholomew had died.

But Bartholomew was very much alive, and sent his proc­tor, Bonushomo, to the church to claim the of­fice. Poor Bonushomo was met with an an­gry crowd – con­tain­ing the prior and Thomas de Ra­ley’s ser­vants – which robbed him of pa­pal let­ters that he was car­ry­ing, and then mur­dered him in the church­yard. The prior was then called to ap­pear be­fore Pope Ur­ban IV to an­swer charges on his part in the crime. When he failed to turn up, he was ex­com­mu­ni­cated.

By the 16th cen­tury, anti-monas­tic pam­phlets groaned with vivid de­scrip­tions of cler­i­cal mis­de­meanours. But does this mean that late me­dieval cler­gy­men were more prone to out­breaks of bad be­hav­iour than their pre­de­ces­sors? Was there some­thing ir­re­triev­ably rot­ten about Eng­land’s churches and monas­ter­ies, and the peo­ple who worked in them?

Be­fore cast­ing judg­ment, it’s worth not­ing that when the au­thor­i­ties car­ried out vis­i­ta­tions on churches and monas­ter­ies, they weren’t there to high­light ex­am­ples of monas­tic ex­cel­lence. Their job was to un­earth cler­i­cal fail­ings, and they were ab­so­lutely de­ter­mined to do so.

We should also re­mem­ber that, by the 1530s, Henry VIII was ag­i­tat­ing for the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies, and his sup­port­ers were look­ing for ex­cuses to paint the clergy in an un­flat­ter­ing light. Through­out the late Mid­dle Ages and be­yond, men and women of the cloth were held to the high­est of stan­dards – you could ar­gue that they were un­re­al­is­ti­cally high.

But for all that, as the ex­am­ples on th­ese pages prove, some cler­gy­men did drink too much, they did for­ni­cate with pros­ti­tutes, and they did gam­ble with dice when they should have been at­tend­ing to their flock’s spir­i­tual needs. By the time Henry VIII wielded the axe in 1536, it’s hard to ar­gue that they weren’t a pale im­i­ta­tion of their more dis­tin­guished and pi­ous fore­bears.

ABOVE: This 12th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tion, from a book for Au­gus­tinian canons, shows a way­ward monk in the stocks along­side his mis­tressRIGHT: Pil­grims from Ge­of­frey Chaucer’s The Can­ter­buryTales tuck into a feast, as de­picted in a 1483 wood­cut by Wil­liam Cax­ton. Chaucer’s monk pre­ferred hunt­ing over his ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal du­ties

BE­LOW: A de­pic­tion of a monk from the 13th cen­tury shows him sup­ping wine. Cler­gy­men of­ten had a rep­u­ta­tion for drunk­en­ness and vi­o­lence

A de­tail of a minia­ture show­ing temp­ta­tion by lech­ery. By the late Mid­dle Ages, the stereo­type of the cor­rupt cler­gy­man had in­grained it­self in pop­u­lar cul­ture

Monks chop wood in a 12th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tion. Over the fol­low­ing cen­turies, some cler­gy­men seem to have found hard work less at­trac­tive

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