By the mid-fourteenth century, the Order of St Augustine was one hundred years past its Grand Union of 1256 and by then was a sizeable and multi-national mendicant religious order. Even so, it was fifty years junior to and only a third of the size of the Dominican and Franciscan mendicant orders. Like all religious orders it was effected by the way that its rights and privileges interacted with – and sometimes inevitably clashed with – the different rights and privileges of the other mendicant orders, of the far older non-mendicant monastic orders (especially the Benedictines and their large monasteries), and with the local bishops and their parish priests.
England In these particular Augnet pages, England and its Augustinian friars will be used as a case study of the fourteenth-century interactions of the friars of the mendicant movement with, on one hand, the bishops of the dioceses and, on the other hand, with the abbots of the large monasteries that dotted the countryside. The situation in England, however, was generally repeated in most parts of Europe, differing only because of variations in local circumstances, legal systems, etc..
And how complex this clash of opposing rights became! The local bishop had general rights over a large geographical area called a diocese (a word used earlier in Europe to designate a military district of a Roman army). The bishop’s area inevitably contained some monasteries (usually Benedictine) that were frequently long-established. A few remote Benedictine monasteries began in England as early as the seventh century but their increase was rapid during the spiritual revival in the eleventh century and again because of much royal benevolence after the Norman invasion in the mid-twelfth century. Some monasteries had even been present before the diocese in question had been erected.
After the Benedictine abbeys were well established in England, the first Cistercian monastery in England began in 1118 AD at Waverley on the River Wey in West Surrey. Within thirty years it had been joined by another forty-nine Cistercian abbeys in Britain, including the great Yorkshire abbeys such as Rievaulx (1131 AD), which had as many as 150 monks and 500 lay brothers simultaneously, and 6,000 acres (24 square kilometres) of land. Later, another thirty-six Cistercian monasteries were built. The Cistercians could fund this rapid growth in part because they were an economic force in England, and were making a lot of money in England by being the biggest wool producer in the land.
The monastery had rights to conduct churches and chapels within its own area of ownership, which in a few instances comprised parcels of land as large as what later became an entire shire; not all the land holdings of any given monastery were usually contiguous; indeed, in Norman times monasteries located in France also had expansive tracts of land in England that contained either income-generating “daughter monasteries” or tracts of land leased out for the purposes of raising revenue.
Image (below): The final scene near London of Wat Tyler’s Revolt of peasants in the year 1381. In the left side of the image, the young King Richard II (mounted, in dark blue robe and crowned) witnesses the impulsive slaying of Wat Tyler by the sword of the Lord Mayor of London. In the right half of the image, the king has turned to address his mounted troops.
After the larger monasteries were long established, in the thirteenth century along came the mendicant friars, who by papal authority were generally exempt from the rules and taxes of the diocesan bishop, but who could not establish themselves in an area that had been assigned to the control of the abbot of a monastery. Unlike both a local bishop and an abbot, the mendicants lacked a geographical area under their pastoral control, but had papal permission to minister within their friary church, which could only be built after the local bishop consented to its presence.
There were also further regulations that restricted a mendicant order building within a certain distance of the house of another mendicant order in the same neighbourhood. Furthermore, the king had to give permission for the establishment of a mendicant friary if its presence was going to mean that land previously taxable would thereby become tax exempt. Sometimes a friary could be built only upon its agreeing to recompense the king for land taxes otherwise due on the property, or to pay the local parish an agreed annual sum for the possible loss of income to the parish church by its drawing some of the parishioners to the new friary church.
A diocese had to pay taxes to Rome, which had to be collected by the bishop from the income raised by his parishes. To the bishop’s chagrin, mendicant friaries working in the diocese not only were exempt from diocesan taxes but also their ministry drew people away from the parish churches, and hence from their contributing as much to the bishop’s revenue stream. For this reason the bishop usually reserved to the parish church those special ceremonies that generated stipends or stole fees, i.e., marriages, and baptisms; as well, the conducting of funerals in a friary church – or the burial of persons on friary property – was often a contentious topic.
On the other hand, the friars were opposed to the possessionati (an Italian word for those who possessed much land and were a major employer in the district), especially the great abbeys. This antagonism cannot be explained as a natural reaction to the constant acts of hostility on the part of the abbeys whenever friars wanted to erect a house within their territory. The cause lay deeper. As a rule, mendicant friars more likely came from the common people, understood their misery, and knew their burdens. They helped the sick by their knowledge of medicine, the needy by their alms. The suppressed masses held no similar grievance against the friars as they did against the great abbeys.
Friars had no large land estates that imposed the hated villeinage (an Anglo-Norman variation on the virtual enslavement of serfdom), nor did they in any significant way extract rent from or impose taxes upon the common people. No wonder that Wat Tyler (leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1481) captured and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury (the primate of the Church in England) and expressed an “avowed desire” to abolish all ecclesiastics “save (except) the friars.” Amongst the Augustinians of this period a definite trend towards social justice is noticeable. Austin Friars like Thomas of Ashebourn and John Bankyn (or Banekyne) in the late fourteenth century spoke up strongly for the common man. In various cities an ever closer contact with the guilds was established and at least one document proves a fine sense of social responsibility of the Augustinians towards their employees.
For example, in 1379 the Augustinian friary at Lynn made a contract with Geoffrey Gadgrave, its miller and baker, to pay him 30s (thirty shillings) a year for his work. For his old age and sickness, i.e., when unable to continue working, they would no longer pay him a salary but promised him room and board for the remainder of his life. The membership of the English Province reached its highest point before the Black Death. In 1320 Newcastle counted 19 brethren, York 26, Leicester 27 and London 65. This numerical increase led to many attempts at new foundations, to a constant expansion of existing houses and greatly increased activities. One of these activities resulted from the new religious practice of frequent sacramental confessions.
But some parish priests, however, did not welcome the presence of a friary in their parish. One such priest was Richard Schordich, the perpetual vicar (i.e., diocesan parish priest) of Clare. In fact, he publicly declared that the Austin Friars lacked permission for the hearing the sacramental confessions of his parishioners. He had to be convinced of his error and threatened with canonical censure before he would acquiesce and permit Clare Priory's representative, Geoffrey de Cannafield, B.D., to ascend the pulpit of the parish church in August 1329 and to announce to the faithful that the statement was unfounded. In a signed contract Schordich also promised not to start new trouble if the friars would drop their process against him.
(Continued on the next page.)