Janet Burton

Throughout the Middle Ages the religious orders and the society that they shunned exhibited a mutual dependency. From the early days of Western monasticism, those who entered the cloister spent much of their day engaged in the opus dei, the work of God, the continuous, and communal, round of prayer and worship. This not only enabled them to fulfil their own personal spiritual aspirations, but, increasingly, to perform the social function of intercession for humankind. Monks and nuns prayed particularly for the souls of those who provided them with their material support, and the elaboration of the liturgy through the addition of masses and prayers for the dead reached its apogee in the congregation of the Burgundian abbey of Cluny, founded in 909-10. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, saw great changes in the nature of the material support for institutions within the monastic and religious orders.

Early medieval material support for monastic houses came from a number of sources. The mid-sixth-century Rule of St Benedict hinted that some of the endowment of a monastery might come from the monks themselves. Chapter 58 laid down that an adult recruit who had goods or property must choose whether to bestow it on the monastery or give it to the poor.1 Chapter 59, which made provision for the offering of children to the monastery, enjoined the parents of a child oblate to ensure that any means of him inheriting property be closed off. One way to do this was by making a donation to the monastery.2 Benedict was not concerned to outline anything further about the material basis of the monastery, but he clearly thought that it would enjoy possession of estates that, if the monastery were poor, might have to be worked by the monks themselves.3 Surviving medieval charters

1 The Rule of St Benedict, ed. J. C. McCann (London: Sheed and Ward, 1972), 128-33.

bear witness to the desire of those outside the walls of monasteries to make donations to religious houses pro salute anime/animarum, for the salvation of their souls. Some went further and through their support for the monastic order entered into fraternity, or confraternity, becoming, as many charters state 'participators in all the prayers and good works (orationes et beneficia) that are offered in the house'.

By 1200 much had already changed. For one, under pressure from the reformed orders such as the Cistercians, in which the emphasis was on the validity of the freely made vow of the adult over that made on a child's behalf, the child oblate had all but disappeared, and that staple of early medieval monastic recruitment was becoming a thing of the past. As the great Cistercian, St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, asked his nephew who had forsaken Clairvaux for Cluny, claiming that his parents had promised him to the Cluniacs as a child, 'which has the most force: the vow a father makes on behalf of his son, or the vow a son makes on his own behalf?'4 Further, the grants that accompanied the entry of men and women as monks, canons and nuns were becoming linked to the sin of simony. Councils at Melfi (1089), Rome (1099) and Westminster (1127, 1175, 1200) legislated against the practice of the acceptance of entry fees: 'certain exactions of money for receiving canons, monks, and nuns';5 and the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 suggested that nunneries in particular were 'stained by the sin of simony'.6 The link between the entry of a man and woman into religion and some form of endowment, pecuniary or landed, did not cease - witness the charters that granted land to a house when a son or daughter, or indeed the donor him/ herself took the habit. However, monastic institutions could no longer expect this source of income, had to be wary of accepting it, and became, perhaps, more reliant on the material support of their benefactors.

Other aspects of monastic endowments were changing. The twelfth century had seen the religious themselves diverging on the nature of the material endowments that they were prepared to accept. The Benedictines clung to the

4 The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. B. S. James (London: Burns and Oates, 1953), Letter 1, 1-10 (6).

5 'exactiones certas pecuniarum pro recipiendis canonicis monachis et sanctimonialibus': quoted from the 1127 Council of Westminster, in Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church, vol. 1, AD 871-1204, ed. D. Whitelock, M. Brett and C. N. L. Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 747.

6 See J. Lynch, Simoniacal Entry into the Religious Life from 1000 to 1260 (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1976), 193-5. Lynch suggests that the Council singled out women for special criticism because the economic basis of nunneries tended to be less secure than that of male houses, making nuns more reliant on entry grants.

traditional economic assets given by generations of benefactors: landed estates, manors, rents, churches, tithes, mills, markets and serfs. The early charters of St Mary's Abbey, York, for instance, give a good idea of the nature of the endowments of a prosperous urban Benedictine community.7 As a result ofthese grants, the larger monasteries and nunneries became important landowners, controlling often vast estates. Moreover, the nature of their endowments meant that in many ways monastic houses operated in the same way as secular landlords and lords of the manor. From the late twelfth century, as many abbeys and priories took lands previously farmed to tenants for rent back into direct exploitation, the administration of monastic lands was tightened up, with the introduction of central treasuries and regular audits. Such developments are illustrated in the revolution in estate management under Prior Henry of Eastry (1285-1331) at Canterbury Cathedral Priory.8 In contrast, the new reformed orders such as the Cistercians avoided all revenues associated with the manorial economy, and those that derived from spiritualia, that is, churches and tithes, relying instead on their vast army of conversi (lay brothers) to administer unencumbered landed estates through a series of granges or outlying farms.9 The reliance on the order's own workforce, rather than the labour services due to the manor, allowed for the consolidation of monastic estates and revolutionised the economic base of Cistercian houses. In many parts of Europe the Cistercians were at the forefront of the extension of cultivable lands through the clearance of forest and waste land, and the drainage of marshy and low-lying areas. This allowed for both mixed farming and the development of specialised economic activities such as mining. The reality of the Cistercian economy was, naturally, more complex than the paradigm, but it is useful to recall that the twelfth century had seen a radical reassessment of the nature of acceptable endowments received from the laity.

7 See Janet Burton, The Monastic Order in Yorkshire 1069-1215 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, fourth series 40; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 39-4i.

8 R. A. L. Smith, Canterbury Cathedral Priory: A Study in Monastic Administration (repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969 [1943]).

9 The last few years have seen a lively debate concerning the emergence of a distinctive Cistercian attitude to the economy; see especially Constance Brittain Bouchard, Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1991); Constance Hoffman Berman, Medieval Agriculture, the Southern French Countryside, and the Early Cistercians (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 76.5; Philadelphia: Diana Publishing, i986). It is accepted that the picture is not as clear cut as once thought, and that ideas were worked out more gradually than the early Cistercian documents suggest. Nevertheless, whether in ii34 or the mid ii50s, the Cistercians did articulate a particular view of the nature of monastic endowments.

For some religious houses a further source of material support came from pilgrims and visitors to their saints, shrines and relics. Supreme among the English monasteries that boasted their own saint was Canterbury Cathedral Priory, scene of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Other houses, too, had relics that drew pilgrims: the Augustinian canons of Waltham, for example, had a fragment of the True Cross. The early generations of Cistercians discouraged visitors to their monasteries, but they too came to see the advantages of having something that would attract pilgrims. Hailes Abbey, founded in 1246 and richly endowed by its founder, was nevertheless in considerable debt by 1261. The monks' financial position improved after 1270, when Earl Edmund of Cornwall presented them with a relic of the Holy Blood of Christ. This transformed the community into one of the foremost centres of pilgrimage in medieval England.

More change was on its way, and the dynamic (as in the twelfth century) came partly from within the monastic order and partly as a result of changing social and economic conditions. From the twelfth century, and increasingly in the thirteenth, the monastic orders, who were once widely seen as the true exponents of the vita apostolica, faced challenges for that title from groups with new ideas about how the religious life could be lived. Though women as well as men were affected by these developments, in practice they had more impact on the male monastic life, since social convention and practical considerations dictated that the enclosed life was deemed appropriate for women. For some the emphasis was to be on poverty as a key concept in the religious life. This renewed emphasis on poverty arose in part from an anxiety about an increasingly prosperous and economically complex society, and a desire to reject any role in it. This divorce was something that the monastic order had found it difficult to achieve. Even those monastic groups whose literature emphasised that they sought the 'desert' found that their enterprises in taming the wilderness brought them wealth and commercial success. No single individual exemplifies the new spirit of the age of the thirteenth century better than Francis (1181-1226), founder of the Franciscan friars, himself the son of a rich merchant, who deliberately rejected that wealth. Initially an informal group dedicated to preaching the precepts of the gospel, Francis' ragged band soon grew into an order, which required regulation. The Regula Bullata, the final version of Francis' rule, laid stress on the idea of poverty that was the dynamic of the new movement, speaking of the 'eminence of loftiest poverty' and the need to serve God 'in poverty and humility'.10 The novelty of

10 There is a useful translation of Regula Bullata in R. B. Brooke, ed., The Coming of the Friars (London: Allen & Unwin, 1975), 120-5.

the order was further demonstrated by the friars' rejection of the world of buying and selling, and their refusal even to handle money.11 The aim of the friars was to be on terms of equality with the poorest of the poor, and thus they extended their interpretation ofpoverty by a further rejection ofproperty in which they could live. The friars were wanderers, and they were to be sustained by begging. However, true poverty proved difficult to achieve. The friars came to attract the material support that had hitherto been lavished on the monastic order. The friars who sought poverty - Dominican and Franciscan as well as the smaller orders of the Austin and Carmelites - became popular among benefactors, and much of their history in the thirteenth century is the story of how they tried to accommodate their own desire for 'Lady Poverty', and the desire of their benefactors to relieve that poverty. There can be no doubt that the material support offered by the laity had an impact on the ideals of the orders. In 1230 the pope allowed the Franciscans to have 'spiritual friends' who could hold money on their behalf; this was followed in 1247 by a further provision that the spiritual friend became a legal representative in all business matters.12

The reasons for the appeal of the friars are complex - that they represented something novel and fresh no doubt played a part - but their success also owed much to changing social and economic conditions. The friars deliberately sought the towns, where they could more easily maintain themselves by begging, and where they found a ready audience for their preaching among the merchant and urban classes. They became part of a new urban religiosity. In the 'monastic centuries' monastic literature is peppered with military metaphors: the monks were 'fighters' or 'spiritual soldiers' who fought against unseen enemies with their weapons: intercession and the ceaseless round of prayer.13 Such language appealed to those of the aristocratic and knightly classes who both founded and entered monastic houses. However, such rhetoric meant little to the emerging urban classes of the thirteenth century.

11 Such a refusal was radical but not new. It is one of the traits noted in the vita of Bernard of Tiron, the monk-abbot-hermit-abbot founder of the house and then the order of Tiron. For the ban on the handling of money by the Franciscans, see Regula Bullata, chapter 4, in Brooke, ed., Coming of the Friars, 122.

12 D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 142; M. D. Lambert, Franciscan Poverty: The Doctrine of the Absolute Poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan Order 1210-1323 (London: SPCK, 1961).

13 See, for instance, the description by Orderic Vitalis of the foundation of Shrewsbury Abbey, where monks are described as 'Christ's garrisons' and 'cowled champions' engaged in 'ceaseless combat' against the Devil: The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford Medieval Texts 3; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 142-7.

As Lester K. Little has expressed it, they 'wanted to hear speakers; they relished amusement and spectacle; they sought to be convinced and they demanded explanations'.14 In this lay part of the appeal of the friars: their sermons and exempla spoke directly to their audiences by using the language of the market place and the tavern. The material support for the friars came from those who had previously supported monks, such as kings - Louis IX of France and Henry III of England - and aristocracy. However, it was from the urban class that the friars found their most consistent support.15

In the face of the challenge of the friars, the endowments to the monastic orders began to fade. They did not disappear, but the friars were in many ways more attractive targets for a wide range of benefactors. The evidence comes not from charters and cartularies, but from wills, surviving in increasing numbers from the late thirteenth century. These indicate that, although testators still remembered monasteries and nunneries in their final bequests, these beneficiaries were likely to be outnumbered by friars.16 It is possible to overplay the way in which benefactors turned their back on monasteries. Endowments continued to be made, patrons continued to seek burial in monasteries, men continued to become monks and canons, and women nuns. However, a glance at the leaves of medieval cartularies, on the whole, confirms that the days of large-scale benefactions were over; after i200 there was just too much competition, much land had already been alienated to the monastic order, and in England by i279 the Statute of Mortmain forbade alienation of land to religious houses without royal consent and payment of a fine.17 Charters also indicate that those providing material support for the monastic order were now likely to be more demanding in return for their generosity. No longer content to make a gift pro salute anime mee, many now granted alms specifying that they should be used for the feeding ofthe poor, or to purchase wax for candles, or books for the library. Finally, the evidence of cartularies suggests that a greater sense of practical business acumen had crept into donations to monasteries and nunneries, with the provision of corrodies in return for benefactions, that is, insurance against old age or reduced prosperity.

14 Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press i978), i98.

16 On this theme, see R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 286-92. See also Andrew D. Brown, Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury 1250-1550 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995),

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment