Discipline regularly caused at least some concern and was constantly given attention in the Order of St Augustine; this however was not a greater challenge in the Augustinian Order than in the other mendicant orders, or in religious orders generally.
Discipline was considered a necessary and important part of Augustinian formation and Augustinian community life. From the time of the Order’s formal beginnings at Rome in the year 1256, especially with its background within the eremitical (“hermit”) tradition, the enhancement of a deep spirituality by a degree of dissociation with “the world” demanded the provision of a disciplined life that was supported by regular periods of prayer and by an orderly routine of life.
In the context of spirituality, discipline was an instrument in the formation each friar into the Augustinian Christian ethos. Because to be spiritual required a person essentially to be self-disciplined, Augustinian life was buttressed by a milieu of communal discipline, the patient acceptance of others, the keeping of routine, and the acceptance of legitimate authority.
In a manner that was more strict than the expectation in today’s society, a person could enter the Augustinian Order at the age of fourteen – there were times and places where other Orders allegedly accepted pre-adolescents – and, when taking final vows one to five years afterwards, was committed to remain for life. This was a contract that contained mutual benefit; the individual was guaranteed security and sustenance for the rest of life, and the Order received the talents and services of the individual for the cost of his board, keep and his funeral.
The continuation of the contract, however, depended upon the individual’s having a sufficient degree of Christian Faith, a temperament suited to communal and celibate living, and a willingness to persist in this arrangement until death. It is easy to accept, therefore, that a disciplined existence enhanced the possibility that this contract would be carried out.
In Pre-Reformation Europe where Christianity was undivided and all rulers were members of the one Western Christian Church, this commitment to perpetual religious vows by monks and friars could be reinforced by civil law, such that a religious absent without leave of his religious superiors could be declared an outlaw by the civil authorities, detained, and sent back to his religious community.
If a friar departed from his designated religious community without testimonial letters that validated his movements, there was no need for any leeway for tolerance to be shown him. Knowing that a friar would never be sent forth from his designated community without a letter of authority from his Prior for his travel, the Prior of any other Augustinian community he entered had the right immediately to detain him in the community prison cell until the matter was satisfactorily clarified.
In medieval times, the Augustinian Constitutions demanded that a candidate join the Augustinian community nearest his place of birth or residence, and the person belonged to that community permanently (even if temporary sent elsewhere at their expense for higher education). An exception would occur, for example, if his permanent transfer was negotiated by his superiors because of a need within the Order, e.g., to maintain the number of friars in London, which urban friary attracted proportionally fewer candidates than did smaller and more remote Augustinian houses closer to the lives of the general population, persons were sometimes transferred to London.
In medieval times, therefore, a particular friar away from his town was quickly noticeable, and his legitimately possessing a letter of authority for being there was a certainty, unless he was there without permission. In England, where medieval public and judicial records remain quite complete, there are still extant numerous requests to the monarch and to the local sheriffs to apprehend “wandering” Augustinians – and members of other religious orders as well. Called "fugitives" these friars in some countries were thereby violating civil law as well as Church law.
These would be friars not living in their designated friary and having no permission to be living elsewhere, with their names thus publicly circulated as fugitives from religious community, especially those who were thought to be still attempting to earn an income by undertaking priestly functions and hiding the fact that there were “fugitivus” (a fugitive from their community) and a “vagus” (Latin for a “wanderer”). If arrested, a “wanderer” had nothing better to look forward to than detention in the friary prison and the withdrawal of all privileges.
For example, on 15 June 1364 King Edward III at the request of Geoffrey Herdeby O.S.A., the Prior Provincial, ordered the arrest of the vagabond friars William Barwe and Robert de Brunby. And on 26 May 1387 John Bankyn O.S.A., the Prior of Austin Friary in London, sought the arrest of the apostate friars William Patteshull, Thomas Beauchamp, Robert Stokusley alias York, and John Sude. (They were “apostate” in the sense of denying Augustinian life by thir action of rejecting and deserting it.)
There could also be friars, however, who were legitimately present in towns and villages that were some distance from the location of their community when, for example, they were officially assigned to travel a designated circuit to visit the sick, to bless farms and animals and to solicit donations from known benefactors of the Order. Or else they might be prosecuting the business of the friary, or travelling to a Provincial Chapter.
Akin to the military service having its own regulations, judicial service and prisons, religious orders had similar procedures and institutions. One feature of mediaeval monasteries and friaries not present in later times was the prison cell. The Augustinians merely followed ancient monastic practice when their Constitutions prescribed a good, solid prison cell for each house with fourteen brethren. England did not prove an exception to this rule.
In 1392 the king himself ordered Master (the term then used that is now equivalent to a doctorate) John Hornington O.S.A. to be placed for life in a friary prison cell (of probably the Augustinian Priory at Hull) for tampering with the king’s privileges. On the charge of heresy brought against him by the archdiocesan authorities, Robert Barnes O.S.A. was first kept in the prison cell of the Austin Friary at London, and later sent to the one in Northampton.
The most vigorous exponent of prison sentences was the reformist Prior General Gregory of Rimini O.S.A., who was Prior General for seventeen months in 1357-1358 immediately prior to his death. He demanded a strong and safe room in which the usual chains were available. When he heard that, in the Roman Province of the Order, some brethren condemned to a prison sentence walked about freely and even partook of good meals, he wrote to the Provincial that such laxity could only lead to the decay of discipline and contempt for justice.
Gregory of Rimini also stated that brethren condemned to prison should be chained and no one was to talk to them but their guard and the Prior; neither should they write or receive letters. While in prison an Augustinian could not wear his habit, and anyone who by advice or active involvement helped a confrere to escape had to undergo the same punishment as the culprit. A list of those in prison had to be submitted to the Provincial Chapter.
Prison sentences were prescribed for many transgressions. For example a year in jail was imposed for misuse of the seal of the Prior General or Provincial, for the suppression of letters from and to these superiors; six months for stealing, carrying arms or apostasy from the Order. The disgrace connected with imprisonment barred the election to any office for five years. If incarcerated twice the right to vote was lost for life. Furthermore, a prison sentence also precluded promotion to academic degrees.
During the fifteenth century, in 1436 Gerard of Rimini O.S.A. (i.e., not to be confused with Gregory of Rimini O.S.A. of the previous century) issued a directive about allowing persons not community members into the community library. If a stranger entered the library he had to be accompanied by the religious who admitted him. If this was impossible, another religious was required to take his place.
In 1436 Gerard of Rimini also warned that those who did not carry out this order "are to be deprived of their exemptions, if they are Doctors; if Bachelors or Lectors, they shall lose active and passive voice for three years; and if simple conventuals (i.e. community members without a university degree), they shall spend two years incarcerated in the community prison."
A friar could also be held in a civil prison for committing offences against public order. For example, a letter from King Henry VII to the University of Oxford on 12th March 1489 ordered, “For protecting Thomas the Sealer, a servant of the abbot of Abingdon, accused of theft, the Austin Friars Thomas Thwates, Prior of Oxford, John Cope, Subprior, and Stephen Courtys, bachelor in theology are to be jailed. The King orders the thief be delivered to his representative, Robert Chamber, before whom the Austin Friars are also to be examined.” But after a few days in jail the friars were pardoned upon the intercession of the University.
Again in the reign of Henry VIII some friars of the Augustinian Friary in London in 1525 were imprisoned in the Tower of London (i.e., in custody for the purpose of interrogation) because of the death of a friar in their friary's prison cell. It is unrecorded whether anything detrimental to the priory was discovered. It was to this very same Augustinian house that the heretical Augustinian friar, Robert Barnes from the Austin Friary at Lynn, was sent in 1526 after he had done penance at St Paul's Cathedral for his heretical opinions.
Many years later long after Barnes was no longer an Augustinian, he was again imprisoned and burnt at the stake on 30th July 1540 at Smithfield in London for reasons that are still unclear. In the English Reformation, in which executions were almost universally the result of a legal process underpinned by various Acts of Parliament, the execution of Barnes stands out as a possible exception by being extra-legal and not according to Law.