Excusing the Inexcusable: Abbots Who Diminish the Patrimony, and the Monks Who Love Them Anyway

SESSION IV: Abbots between Ideals and Institutions, 10th–12th Centuries

Excusing the Inexcusable: Abbots Who Diminish the Patrimony, and the Monks Who Love Them Anyway

Jennifer Paxton (Georgetown & The Catholic University of America)


This paper focused on monastic chronicles and their abbots. Monastic chronicles can be harsh in their judgements of abbots. An abbacy was often well covered in these chronicles and things such as patrimony preservation was important. Not all abbots were able to meet this minimum standard, especially during difficult times like during Stephen’s reign in the twelfth century. The Liber Eliensis has nothing good to say about Bishop Nigel under Stephen’s reign. Every time he switched allegiance between Matilda and Stephen, Ely lost. He did a terrible job keeping the patrimony of Ely. Due to this upheaval, a factional split occurred; one side felt that Nigel was wholly to blame for the abbey’s loss and the other side that agreed there were mitigating circumstances excusing his actions during his abbacy. The right of the abbot to alienate church lands was questionable at best. Paxton gave the example of the Abbot Swinlea who used the church’s seal and did what he wanted during his abbacy. Many of his inappropriate uses of the seal for documents were broken after his death. His monks did not agree with his actions and wanted to protect the monastery. Then Paxton described the monetary losses suffered through Abbot Ingulf.

Abbot Ingulf gathered money and allowed Stephen to plunder it – all the money was removed from the monastery to pay for the debt. Ingulf asked for forgiveness of the sins he committed during his abbacy. He was replaced by an abbot appointed by a young King Henry II. The Abingdon chronicler reflected the views of the sacristy; it juxtaposed the successes of the sacristy against the failures of the abbot. The author was kinder to Ingulf and paints a more forgiving picture of him. He counters the sacristy’s version of events in the chronicle and makes excuses for his actions and financial failures. There emerge two contrasting pictures of abbot Ingulf – one blames the abbot, one blames treachery and hard times for these losses. Was his response and leadership proper during such difficult times? These were times where abbots had to make tough decisions. Polarised factions emerged and what mattered after the fact was whether particular transactions ended up benefiting or harming the monastery. It was a veritable medieval “spin room”.

~Sandra Alvarez

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