Saturday, May 04, 2013

Pawning the silver - monks in a muddle

Candlestick commissoned for Gloucester
Abbey by Abbot Peter. Early 12th C
Gilded base metal, niello and glass beads

From the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds by Jocelin of Brakelond - late 12th century. On matters of debt and mismanagement:

Abbot Hugh had grown old and was losing his sight.  A gentle and kind man, he was a good and devout monk, but lacked ability in business matters.  He was too dependent on those around him and too ready to believe them, relying more on the opinions of others than on his own judgment.  Although discipline, worship and everything connected with the rule flourished within the cloister, external affairs were badly managed. 

Every employee, seeing that the abbot was na├»ve and elderly, ignored his duty and did as he pleased.  The abbot’s villages and all the hundreds were leased out, the Woodlands were destroyed, the manorial houses were about to collapse, and from day to day everything grew steadily worse.  

The abbot sought refuge and consolation in a single remedy: that of borrowing money, to maintain at least the dignity of his household.  In the last eight years of his life (1173-80) sums of 100 pounds for 200 pounds were regularly added to the debt every Easter and Michaelmas.  The bonds were always renewed, and further loans were taken out to pay the growing interest.

This infections spread from the top downwards, from the ruler to the ruled, so that before long each obedientiary had his own seal and pledged himself in debt as he chose, to both Jews and Christians.  Silk copes, gold vessels, and other church ornaments were often pawned without the consent of the convent.  I saw a bond made out to William son of Isabel, for £1,040, and another to Isaac son of Rabbi Joce for £40, but I never discovered what lay behind these transactions.  However, I do know the full story relating to a third bond that I saw, in favour of Benedict the Jew of Norwich,  for £880. 

Our treasury building was in a dilapidated condition, and William the sacrist was determined to restore it, come what may.  He secretly borrowed 40 marks at interest from Benedict the Jew, to whom he gave a bond sealed with the seal that used to hang on the shrine of Saint Edmund and was normally used for sealing documents of guilds and fraternities.  Afterwards, but too late, this seal was destroyed by order of the convent.  When the sum owed had risen to £100, the Jew arrived with a letter from the King concerning the sacrist’s debt, and in this way the secret was revealed to the abbot and convent.  

The abbot was furious, and would have deposed the sacrist, claiming that he had authority from the Pope to dismiss him when he wished.  But someone went to the abbot, and speaking on the sacrist’s behalf, so deceived him that he allowed another bond to be made out for Benedict the Jew, this time for £400  to be paid at the end of four years.  This was for the £100  already accumulated at interest and another £100 which the Jew  lent the sacrist for the abbot’s use.  The sacrist undertook in full chapter to repay the whole debt, and a bond was drawn up which was sealed with the conventual seal, because the abbot would not use his own, pretending that the debt was not his affair.  Four years later when the obligation could not be met, a new bond was issues for £880, to be paid off at fixed terms at £80.00 per annum.  The same Jew held several other bonds for smaller debts and one that was for 14 years, so that all together he was owed £1200, excluding the compound interest.

…  At that time the cellarer, like the other officials, borrowed money from Jurnet the Jew, without consulting the convent, in a bond sealed with the seal I mentioned previously.  But when the debt had grown to £60, the convent was summoned to pay the cellarer’s debt.  He was deposed, although he alleged that on the abbot’s orders he had for the last three years entertained in the guesthouse, whether the abbot was at home or not, all those guests who, according to abbey custom, ought to have been entertained by the abbot himself. 

Master Denis replaced him, and by careful management brought the debt of £60.00 down to £30.00…  Two days after Master Denis became cellarer, three knights with their squires were brought into the guesthouse to be entertained there, although the abbot was at home and in his lodgings.  When that high-minded Achilles heard this, not wishing to fail in his office as others had done, he sprang up, and taking the keys of the cellary with him, escorted the knights into the abbot’s hall and said, ‘Father, you are well aware that it is the abbey custom that knights and lay men are received in the abbot’s house, if he is at home.  I cannot and will not entertain your guests.  If you cannot accept this, take back the keys of the cellary and appoint another cellarer as you think fit.’ When the abbot heard this, he received those knights whether he liked it or not, and ever afterwards accommodated knights and laymen according to the ancient custom.  They are still so received when the abbot is at home.

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