It is a fact that the medieval Church was ruthless in its acts and ambitions. We all know of particular popes, cardinals and archbishops who would stop at nothing to achieve their own personal and political ends, but it came as a surprise to me to discover just how brutal the Church could be on a purely local level.
Here are two anecdotes about the ‘holiness’ of medieval monks. Firstly, the Benedictines:-
“….On Sunday, 18th October, 1327, the monks of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds ended their prayers, filed out through the abbey’s crenelated gate and proceeded to the parish church, which was full of men, women and children. The monks then 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….”
Why the monks wanted prisoners is not explained
Next, the Cistercians:-
“….Walter [Map] 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 death, arrived three days later to find that all the buildings and enclosures had disappeared and in their place was a well-ploughed field.*”
* From Edward Coleman, ‘Nasty Habits – Satire and the Medieval Monk’, History Today, volume 43, issue 6, June 1993, pp 36-42.
These shocking incidents are hardly compatible with a devout life of worship, contemplation and doing good, and certainly cast the entire Church in a shabby light. If there is a problem at the top, there is usually a problem at the bottom as well.
I think we can largely forget the fat, jovial monk of popular belief!