Jocelin of Brakelond
Chronicle of The Abbey of Bury St. Edmund

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.


I HAVE undertaken to write of those things which I have seen and heard, and which have occurred in the church of Saint Edmund, from the year in which the Flemings were taken without the town, in which year also I assumed the religious habit, and in which Prior Hugh was deposed and Robert made Prior in his room. And I have related the evil as a warning, and the good for an example....


THE abbacy being vacant, we often, as was right, made supplication unto the Lord and to the blessed martyr Edmund that they would give us and our church a fit pastor. Three times in each week, after leaving the chapter, did we prostrate ourselves in the choir and sing seven penitential psalms. And there were some who would not'. have been so earnest in their prayers if they had known who was to become abbot. , As to the choice of an abbot, if the king should grant us free election, there was much difference of opinion, some of it openly expressed, some of it privately ; and every man had his own ideas.

One said of a certain brother, " He, that brother, is a good monk, a likely person. He knows much of the rule and of the customs of the church. It is true that he is not so profoundly wise as are some others, but he is quite capable of being abbot. Abbot Ording was illiterate, and yet he was a good abbot and ruled this house wisely ; and one reads in the fable that the frogs did better to elect a log to be their king than a serpent, who hissed venomously, and when he had hissed, devoured his subjects." Another answered, "How could this thing be? How could one who does not know letters preach in the chapter, or to the people on feast days? How could one who does not know the scriptures have the knowledge of binding and loosing? For the rule of souls is the art of arts, the highest form of knowledge. God forbid that a dumb idol be set up in the church of Saint Edmund, where many men are to be found who are learned and industrious."

Again, one said of another, "That brother is a literate man, eloquent and prudent, and strict in his observance of the rule. He loves the monastery greatly, and has suffered many ills for the good of the church. He is worthy to be made abbot." Another answered, "From good clerks deliver us, oh Lord! That it may please Thee to preserve us from the cheats of Norfolk; we beseech Thee to hear us! "

And again, one said of one," That brother is a good husbandman ; this is proved by the state of his office, and from the posts in which he has served well, and from the buildings and repairs which he has effected. He is well able to work and to defend the house, and he is something of a scholar, though too much learning has not made him mad. He is worthy of the abbacy." Another answered, "God forbid that a man who can neither read nor sing, nor celebrate the holy office, a man who is dishonest and unjust, and who evil intreats the poor men, should be made abbot."

Again, one said of another, "That brother is a kindly man, friendly and amiable, peaceful and calm, generous and liberal, a learned and eloquent man, and proper enough In face and gait. He is beloved of many within and without the walls, and such an one might become abbot to the great honour of the church, if God wills." Another answered, "It is no credit, but rather a disgrace, in a man to be too particular as to what he eats and drinks, to think it a virtue to sleep much, to know well how to spend and to know little how to gain, to snore while others keep vigil, to wish ever to have abundance, and not to trouble when debts daily increase, or when money spent brings no return; to be one who hates anxiety and toil, caring nothing while one day passes and another dawns ; to be one who loves and cherishes flatterers and liars ; to be one man in word and another in deed. From such a prelate the Lord defend us."

And again, one said of his friend, "That man is almost wiser than all of us, and that both in secular and in ecclesiastical matters. He is a man skilled in counsel, strict in the rule, learned and eloquent, and noble in stature; such a prelate would become our church." Another answered, "That would be true ' if he were a man of good and approved repute. But his character has been questioned, perhaps falsely, perhaps rightly. And though the man is wise, humble in the chapter, devoted to the singing of psalms, strict in his conduct in the cloister while he is a cloistered monk, this is only from force of habit. For if he have authority in any office, he is too scornful, holding monks of no account, and being on familiar terms with secular men, and if he be angry, he will scarce say a word willingly to any brother, even in answer to a question."

I heard in truth another brother abused by some because he had an impediment in his speech, and it was said of him that he had pastry or draff [pig food?] in his mouth when he should have spoken. And I myself, as I was then young, understood as a child, spake as a child; and I said that I would not consent that any one should be made abbot unless he knew something of dialectic, and knew how to distinguish the true from the false. One, moreover, who was wise in his own eyes, said, " May Almighty God give us a foolish and stupid pastor, that he may be driven to use our help." And I heard, forsooth, that one man who was industrious, learned, and pre-eminent for his high birth, was abused by some of the older men because he was a novice. The novices said of their elders that they were invalid old men, and little capable of ruling an abbey. And so many men said many things, and every man was fully persuaded in his own mind. . . .


THEN at last the above­mentioned proctors of the lord king were summoned to the council of the brothers. And Dennis, speaking as one for all, began to commend the persons of the prior and Samson. He said that they were both learned men, both good, both praiseworthy in their lives and of unblemished reputation. But ever at the climax of his speech he put forward Samson, multiplying words in his praise, saying that he was a man strict in his conduct, stern in correcting faults, apt for labour, prudent in temporal matters, and proved in divers offices.

Then the bishop of Winchester answered, "We know well what you would say, from your words we gather that your prior has appeared to you to be somewhat slack, ;and that you wish to have him who is called Samson." Dennis answered, "Both of them are good men, but we desire to have the better, if God wills." Thereupon the bishop said, "Of two good things, the greater good should be selected. Say openly, do you desire to have Samson?" And many, and they a majority, answered plainly, ,We wish to have Samson," and none spoke against him. Some, however, were silent from caution, wishing to offend neither candidate.

Then Samson was nominated in the presence of the lord king, and when the king had consulted with his men for a while, all were summoned. And the king said, "You have presented to me Samson. I know him not. If you had presented your prior to me, I would have accepted him, for I have seen and know him. But I will only do what you will. Take heed to yourselves ; by the true eyes of God, if you do ill, I will exact a recompense at your hands."

Then he asked the prior if he assented to the choice and wished it, and the prior answered that he did will it, and that Samson was worthy of much greater honour. Therefore he was elected, and fell at the king's feet and embraced them. Then he arose quickly and hastened to the altar, with his head erect and without changing his expression, chanting the "Miserere mei, Deus" with the brothers.

And when the king saw this, he said to those that stood by, " By the eyes of God, this elect thinks that he is worthy to rule the abbey.". . . .


ABBOT SAMSON was below the average height, almost bald; his face was neither round nor oblong ; his nose was prominent and his lips thick; his eyes were clear and his glance penetrating; his hearing was excellent; his eyebrows arched, and frequently shaved; and a little cold soon made him hoarse. On the day of his election he was forty­seven, and had been a monk for seventeen years. In his ruddy beard there were a few grey hairs, and still fewer in his black and curling hair. But in the course of the first fourteen years after his election all his hair becane white as snow.

He was an exceedingly temperate man ; he possessed great energy and a strong constitution, and was fond both of riding and walking, until old age prevailed upon him and moderated his ardour in these respects. When he heard the news of the capture of the cross and the fill of Jerusalem, he began to wear under garments made of horse hair, and a horse­hair shirt, and gave up the use of flesh and meat. None the less, he willed that flesh should be placed before him as he sat at table, that the alms might be increased. He ate sweet milk, honey, and similar sweet things, far more readily than any other food.

He hated liars, drunkards, and talkative persons; for virtue ever loves itself and spurns that which is contrary to it. He blamed those who grumbled about their meat and drink, and especially monks who so grumbled, and personally kept to the same manners which lie had observed when he was a cloistered monk. Moreover, he had this virtue in himself that he never desired to change the dish which was placed before him. When I was a novice, I wished to prove whether this was really true, and as I happened to serve in the refectory, I thought to place before him food which would have offended any other man, in a very dirty and broken dish. But when he saw this, he was as it were blind to it. Then, as there was some delay, I repented of what I had done, and straightway seized the dish, changed the food and dish for better, and carried it to him. He, however, was angry at the change, and disturbed.

He was an eloquent man, speaking both French and Latin, but rather careful of the good sense of that which he had to say than of the style of his words. He could read books written in English very well, and was wont to preach to the people in English, but in the dialect of Norfolk where he was born and bred. It was for this reason that he ordered a pulpit to be placed in the church, for the sake of those who heard him and for purposes of ornament.

The abbot further appeared to prefer the active to the contemplative life, and praised good officials more than good monks. He rarely commended anyone solely on account of his knowledge of letters, unless the man happened to have knowledge of secular affairs, and if he chanced to hear of any prelate who had given up his pastoral work and become a hermit, he did not praise him for this. He would not praise men who were too kindly, saying, ' He who strives to please all men, deserves to please none."


Now in the first year of his abbacy he seemed to hate all flatterers, and especially those who were monks. But in course of time he appeared to listen to them with some willingness, and to treat them more graciously. Once a certain one of our brothers, who was skilled in this art, had bent his knees before him, and under pretence of giving him counsel, had poured the oil of flattery into his ears, while I stood at a distance and smiled. Then when the brother had gone, the abbot called me and asked me why I had been smiling, and I answered that the world was full of flatterers.

And the abbot said, "My son, I have been flattered for a long while, and therefore I cannot attend to flattery. There must be much pretence and much concealment that the peace of the monastery may be preserved. I will hear them speak, but they will not deceive me, if I can prevent it, as they deceived my predecessor, who gave such unconsidered attention to them that for a long while before his death he had nothing wherewith to feed himself or his household, save that which he borrowed from creditors. And on the day of his burial there was nothing which could be distributed among the poor, save fifty shillings which were received from Richard the tenant of Palgrave, because on the same day he entered on the tenancy of Palgrave ; and this money the same Richard afterwards paid again to the officials of the king, who exacted the full rent for the royal use." And with these words I was reassured....


HE laboured to secure a well regulated house, and a household large, but not larger than was right, and he took care that the weekly allowance which in the time of his predecessor had not been enough for five days, should last him for eight days, or nine, or ten, if he were on his manors and there were no great coming of guests. Every week, moreover, he audited the expenses of his house, not through an agent, but in person, a thing which his predecessor had never been accustomed to do.

For his first seven years he had four dishes in his house, afterwards only three, if one excludes presents, and game from his parks and fish from his ponds. And if he happened to keep anyone for a while in his house at the request of some great man or of one of his friends, or messengers, or minstrels, or any such person, he used to take any opportunity of crossing the sea or going a long journey, and so prudently freed himself from so great expense.


THOSE monks whom the abbot, before he acquired the abbacy, had treated as his most cherished and intimate friends, he seldom raised to official positions on the score of his former intimacy with them, unless they were fit persons. Therefore some of our number, who had favoured his election as abbot, said that he showed them less favour than was their due, who had loved him before he was abbot, and that those rather were cherished by him who had slandered him both openly and secretly, and in the hearing of many had publicly declared him to be a hot­tempered man, one who was unsociable, conceited, and a Norfolk cheat. But, just as after he received the abbacy he made no injudicious exhibition of affection or of a desire to honour his former friends, so also he did not show towards the others any of that rancour or hatred which they deserved, returning good for evil on many occasions, and doing good to those who persecuted him.

He had also a characteristic which I have never seen in any other man, namely, that he had a strong affection for many to whom he never or seldom showed a loving face, which the common saying declares to be usual, when it says, "Where love is, there the glance follows." And there was another noteworthy thing, that he wittingly suffered loss from his servants in temporal matters, and allowed that he suffered it ; but, as I believe, the reason for this was that he waited for a fit season when the matter might be conveniently remedied, or that by concealing his knowledge he might avoid greater loss. . . .


AD 1192

IN the tenth year of the abbacy of abbot Samson, by common counsel of our chapter, we made complaint to the abbot in his court and said that the receipts from all the goods of the towns and boroughs of England were increased, and had grown to the advantage of the possessors and the greater profit of their lords, save in the case of this town, which had been wont to pay forty pounds and had never had its dues increased. And we said that the burghers of the city were responsible for this, since they held so many and such large stands in the market­place, shops and sheds and stalls, without the assent of the monastery, and at the sole gift of the bailiff; of the town, who were annual holders of their offices, and as it were servants of the sacristan, being removable at his good pleasure.

But when the burghers were summoned, they answered that they were under the jurisdiction of the king, and that they ought not to make reply, contrary to the liberty of the town and their charters, concerning that which they had held and their fathers well and in peace, for one year and a day without dispute. And they said that it was the old custom that the bailiffs should, without consulting the monastery, give to them places for shops and sheds in the market­place, in return for some annual payment to the balliwick. But we disputed this, and wished the abbot to dispossess them of such things as they held without having any warrant for them.

Then the abbot came to our council, as if he had been one of ourselves, and privately informed us that he wished, so far as he could, to do right to us; but that he had to proceed in a judicial manner, and that he could not, without the judgment of the court, dispossess his free men of their lands and revenues, which they had, whether rightly or wrongly, held for many years. He added that if he were to do this, he would he liable to punishment at the discretion of the king and at the assizes of the kingdom.

The burghers, therefore, took counsel and offered the monastery a revenue of a hundred shillings for the sake of peace, and that they might hold that which they held as they had been accustomed. But we would not grant this, preferring to postpone the matter, and perchance hoping that in the time of another abbot, either we might recover all, or change the place of the fair; and so the matter for many years advanced no further. . . .


ON the morrow of the Nativity of the Lord, meetings and sports and bandying of words were held in the cemetery between the servants of the abbot and the burghers of the town; and from words it came to blows, from blows to wounds, and to bloodshed. But when the abbot knew of this, he privately called together some of those who had come to the spectacle, but who had taken no part in it, and commanded the narnes of all the offenders to be written down. And he caused all of them to be summoned to appear to make answer before him in the chapel of St. Denis on the morrow of the feast of St. Thomas the archbishop. And in the meantime he would not invite any of the burghers to his table, as he had been wont to do in the first five days of Christmastide.

So on the appointed day, when oath had been taken from sixteen legal men, and their evidence had been heard, the abbot said, " It is well known that those wrong­doers have broken the canon Latae sententiae. But as there are laymen in both parties, and they know not how great a crime is such notable sacrilege, that the others might fear the more I will excommunicate them by name and publicly, and that justice may not be in any wise lacking, I will begin with my domestics and servants."

Then this was done, when we had robed and lighted the candles. And all went out from the church, and having taken counsel, they all stripped themselves, and, naked except for their underclothes, prostrated themselves before the door of the church. And when the assessors of the abbot had come, monks and clerks, they told him in lamentable tones that more than a hundred men lay thus naked, and the abbot was grieved. Yet showing the rigour of the law in his word and face, and concealing the kindness of his heart, he wished to be compelled by his advisers to absolve the penitents, knowing that mercy should be exalted against judgment, and that the church should receive all penitents. Therefore all were heavily scourged and absolved, ­,and all swore that they would abide by the judgment of the church for the sacrilege which had been done.

But next day a penance was assigned to them according to the provisions of the canons, and so the abbot received all in full peace, and threatened terrible things to all who in word or deed should produce cause for dispute. Then also he publicly forbade meetings and spectacles to be held in the cemetery, and so, when everything had been restored to peace, the burghers ate with the lord abbot on the days following with great joy.

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