Accounting and Financial Controls in Benedictine
Monasteries in England: the Role of the General and
Provincial Chapters of the English Black Monks 1215-1444
University of the West of Scotland
21st Annual Conference on Accounting Business & Financial History
Cardiff Business School 14-15 September 2009
The objective of this paper is to consider the role of the general and provincial
chapters of the English Black Monks in the development and maintenance of
accounting and financial controls within Benedictine monasteries in England in the
later middle ages. This paper reviews the extant records of the General and Provincial
Chapters of the English Black Monks 1215-1444 to uncover regulations relating to
accounting and financial matters in the management of Benedictine houses. The
starting point is the year in which the decretal In singulis regnis set up the system of
general chapters. The end date of 1444 has been selected as being the last occasion
before the dissolution of the monasteries on which the regulations issued by the
chapters were reviewed and codified.
The paper is based primarily upon the proceedings of and documents produced by the
chapters as published by Pantin. 1 No complete registers survive for the general
chapters of the black monks as do for the Premonstratensian and the Augustinian
Canons.2 Pantin’s work drew together the materials relating to the chapters of the
English Black monks f om diverse geographic sources and record types. Each
monastery was to maintain certain records such as the current statutes and certain
papal decrees, and a certified copy of the diffinitions issued at each chapter was to be
taken back to each house. However the survival of these following the suppression
has naturally been extremely sporadic. Houses from which Pantin collected material
include Durham, Worcester, Canterbury and Tewkesbury, and the record types
consulted embrace chronicles, registers, and letter books.3 The comprehensive set of
recor ds which was to be preserved at St. Andrew ’s Priory, Northampton, and which
was to include papal bulls relating to the black monks, the acts and diffinitions of the
chapters, the formal codification of the statutes, letters of the presidents, accounts,
indentures and letters written to the chapters has not survived.4
W. A. Pantin (ed.), Documents Illustrating the Activities of the General and Provincial Chapters of
the English Black Monks 1215-1540, 3 vols. (Camden 3rd Series xlv (1931), xlvii (1933), liv (1937))??.
Gasquet, Camden Society, 3rd series, vols. vi, x, xi??; H. E. Salter (ed.) Oxford Historical Society, vol
W. A. Pantin, ‘The general and provincial chapters of the English black monks, 1215-1540’,
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Fourth Series, 10 (1927), p. 196.
Pantin, Documents, vol. II, p. 217.
Pantin’s collection of documents relating to the general and provincial chapters of the
English black monks was published in three volumes in the 1930s. Before this, he
published in 1927 a paper concerning the history and functions of the chapters.5 This
1927 paper w as largely concerned with the administrative mechanics of the chapters:
their citation; the use of proctors; the committee structure; their proceedings; their
decision-making process; their powers; the selection of presidents, diffinitors and
others; and, their recordkeeping. Although he does mention financial issues on
occasion such as the appointment of bursar at Selby,6 and the parlous state of the
finances of some houses, his attention is focused on the financial organisation of the
chapters themselves: their funding, and the collection of dues. This paper in contrast
focuses upon the light which the chapters shed on the management of the finances of
English monastic houses and upon their financial controls including accounting, audit,
and the authorisation of large or unusual transactions. Other sources drawn upon for
this paper include papal, conciliar and legatine publications,7 episcopal and monastic
registers8 and the Chronica Majora of Mathew Paris.9
Research on the relationship between accounting and religion or religious institutions
has been described as ‘remarkably sparse’.10 Much of that which has been undertaken
has tended to take the ancient world or the early modern and modern periods as its
subject matter.11 This paper in contrast draws its material from the later middle ages
and pursues a question of the influence of the general chapters and the papacy upon
monastic financial control and management raised by Dobie.12 It starts by explaining
the process of and rationale for the chapters. It then reviews the surviving materials
from the chapters for provisions relating to accounting and financial control. Finally
the efficacy of these provisions is considered in a section on their enforcement.
Pantin , ‘General’.
Ibid., p. 207.
Much of this material can be found in D. Wilkins, Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae 4 vols.
J. Wilson (ed.), The Register of the Priory of St Bees (Surtees Society, 126, 1915); W. Brown (ed.),
The Register of William Wickwane, Lord Archbishop of York 1279-1285 (Surtees Society, 114, 1907)
M. Paris Chronica Majora ed. R. Luard (Rolls Series, 57, 7 vols. 1872-84).
S. Carmona and M. Ezzamel, ‘Accounting and religion: a historical perspective’, Accounting
History, 11 (2006), p. 117.
See the analysis provided in Carmona and Ezzamel, ‘Accounting’.
A. Dobie, ‘The development of financial and management and control in monastic houses and estates
in England c. 1200-1540’, Accounting, Business and Financial History, 18 (2008), p157.
Benedictine monks, sometimes referred to as ‘black monks’ from the colour of their
habit, formed a body distinct from the monks of other orders such as the Cluniacs or
Cistercians. They followed the sixth century Rule of St Benedict 13 as did the later
orders, but unlike the later orders each house did not form, at the start of the period
under review, part of a larger corporate organization administered as a whole by
refer ence to a detailed regulatory code. The later orders had in fact emerged in part as
a reaction to perceived shortcomings identified in the houses of the black monks.
Cluny founded at the start of the tenth century and Citeaux founded at the end of the
eleventh century were governed by their own rule books which aimed to fulfil and to
maintain the ideals set out by St Benedict. Cluny had gradually evolved into an order
with each subsidiary house ultimately subject to the abbot of Cluny, who thus had the
authority to inter vene in the affairs of any house which was seen to be in need of
reform.14 The Cistercian order much more quickly compiled the four documents
which established its constitutional framework. 15 As well as providing detailed rules
for the conduct of monastic life, the Carta Caritatis also embodied measures aimed at
ensuring the observance of these rules. These included the requirement that each year
every house should be inspected by the abbot of the founding house and that an
annual meeting of the heads of all houses, called a general chapter, was to be held at
Citeaux.16 Together these arrangements constituted a form of quality control for the
maintenance of the reforming spirit. In comparison, the Benedictine houses operated
as autonomous institutions. There existed no supervisory body, and although the
bishops had an ancient canonical right of visitation, this was rarely exercised before
the thirteenth century. 17 The need for reform at monastic houses had been perceived
and responded to at many stages in the past: for example through the work of St
Benedict of Aniane in 817, who issued a series of regulations which became law
throughout the Carolingian empire; and, through the movement which led to the issue
of the Regularis Concordia in England in the sec ond half of the tenth century.18
J. McCann, (ed.), The Rule of St Benedict (London, 1969), p. ix.
G. Duckett, Charters and Records of Cluny (Lewes, 1888), pp. ???? examples????
D. Knowles, The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge, 2004), pp208-9.
Knowles, Monastic Order, p. 213; Fowler, Cistercian Statutes, pp. 14-15.
C. R. Cheney, Episcopal Visitation of Monasteries in the Thirteenth Century (Manchester, 1983), pp.
17-26; Knowles, Monastic Order, pp. 649-653.
Knowles, Monastic Order, p. 26 and p. 42.
Monastic decay however was a recurrent problem, and the correspondence of
Innocent III (1198-1216) contains numerous examples of Benedictine houses
suffering from material decay and a loosening of monastic discipline, some indeed
were facing financial ruin.19 The pope intervened personally in a number of cases,
including at the abbeys of Monte Cassino and Subiaco, and drew up a series of
statutes to be observed by the abbot and monks.20
The decretals: In singulis regnis and Ea quae
In 1213 archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors were summoned to the Fourth Lateran
Council to consider the recovery of the Holy Land and the reformation of the
church. 21 The council was held in 1215 and of particular importance to the black
monks was the resulting decretal In Singulis Regnis.22
The significance of In singulis regnis for the future governance of Benedictine
monastic houses was profound. Hitherto Benedictine houses, as independent
autonomous institutions, had been responsible for their own good governance, and
although the right of episcopal visitation had been acknowledged, it was rarely
exercised and many houses claimed exemption. In singulis regnis is not a long
document, perhaps some 500 words organised into twelve sections. Its contents
however were to be of fundamental importance for the future organization and
administration of the black monks, and would for the first time make each
independent house part of a larger grouping of black monk houses, and would both
necessitate the involvement of the house with this larger grouping and would allow
entry of elected representatives into each house with powers to inspect and to reform.
Section one ordained that a chapter of the heads of houses of black monks should be
held every three years in every kingdom or ecclesiastical province. 23 This represented
a huge innovation for the black monks, and follow ed Cistercian practice. The
importance of the Cistercian precedent is illustrated by section three which included
U. Berlière, ‘Innocent IIIet la réorganisation des monastères bénédictins’, Revue Bénédictine, 32
(1920), p. 26 and p. 36.
Ibid., p. 41.
Calendar of Entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, Vol.
I, 1198-1304 (London, 1893), p38.
Printed in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, pp. 273-4.
In singulis regnis sive provinciis fiat de triennio in triennium, salvo iure dioecesanorum pontificum,
commune capitulum abbatum atque priorum abates proprios non habentium, qui non consueverunt tale
capitulum celebrare, Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p273.
among the four pres idents for the initial chapter two Cistercian abbots whose
experience at Cistercian chapters would enable them to advise and help. Section four
detailed the subject matter of the chapters: tractatus de reformatione ordinis et
observantia regulari; and section five gave weight to any statute issued at the chapters
by declaring it inviolabiliter observetur omni excusatione [et] contradictione et
appellatione remotis For the first time all Benedictine houses w ere compelled to
attend general chapters comprising all the black monk houses in their province, and
they w ere to be bound by any statutes issued at the chapter. However this opening of
each house to involvement with other houses went further: section eight initiated the
process of the visitation of every abbey, and the correction and reform there of
what ever needed to be corrected and reformed; and laid out the process for removing
an abbot deemed unworthy by the visitors. Section eleven revived the disused right of
the bishop to inspect the houses within his see and urged the bishops to be zealous in
the reform of the monasteries subject to them.
Thus at a stroke the black houses had been integrated into a wider body whose
objective w as to ensure the observance of the rule and to undertake reform where
needed, and additionally they had been subjected to a system of triennial inspection
by external parties. However, the shortness of the decretal makes it immediately
apparent how little detailed guidance w as given for the operation of the new system of
chapters and visitation. The decretal did not detail areas which might need to be
corrected or reformed. It provided no instructions for visitors as to how they should
proceed or what they should look for during a visitation, and made no mention of
Shortly afterwards, perhaps in 1216-17, Honorius III (1216-27) issued Ea quae.24 Ea
quae contained five sections and provided more detail on the process of visitation.
Section one instructed visitors to diligently inquire about the status of the monks tam
in spiritualibus quam in temporalibus: an indication that visitors should be concerned
not just with the religious life of the house, but with its material aspects and
endowments as well. Section two again considered temporal matters: it mentioned
the possibility that the abbot might be a dilapidator, a squanderer of the abbey’s
Printed in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, pp. 274-6.
resources, in which case he w as to be removed and a capable administrator of the
abbey’s possessions provided until a new abbot might be appointed. Although Ea
quae did go further than In singulis regnis in considering temporal matters and
possessions, it still did not give detailed measures which might be put in place to
prevent their waste and loss.
Operation of the Chapters
At the time of In singulis regnis England comprised two ecclesiastical provinces:
Canterbury and York. The former province far exceeded the latter in the numbers of
houses which it contained in 1215: perhaps some fifty independent Benedictine
houses in total, whereas York contained only four.25 Canterbury held its first general
chapter 1218-19, York in 1221. Both included two Cistercians among their four
presidents: the abbots of Warden and Thame in the south and the abbots of Rievaulx
and Jervaux in the north. Each chapter resulted in the issue of a series of statutes to
be observed in monastic houses. The first northern chapter of 1221 stated that the
abbots had come together ad reformacionem ordinis et observanciam et coreccionem
discipline regularis iuxta statuta Lateranensis concilii (for the reform of the order and
the observance and correction of regular discipline following the statute of the Lateran
Council).26 Pantin prepared a table which compared the statutes of the northern and
southern chapters and suggested that the northern chapters borrowed considerably
from the southern statutes of 1218-19, 1249, and 1277.27 He found the statutes of the
1221 northern chapter to be ‘almost identical with those of the southern province’.28
On occasion however decrees such as those of 1273 cannot be traced directly to south.
The statutes were built up piecemeal, and following the first chapters, additional
statutes were issued at subsequent chapters as need arose. No attempt was made to
codify the statutes in the northern province, but in the southern province full
codifications of all existing statutes were issued in 1249 and 1277-9. The 1277
southern statutes are arranged in divisions each headed by an apt rubric. Separate
sections deal with the responsibilities of the abbot, the obedientiaries, the status of the
See the list provided in D. Knowles, The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales 940-1216
(Cambridge, 1972), pp. 23-84.
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 232.
Ibid., p. 289-91.
Pantin, ‘General’, p. 206.
house, and visitations among other matters. After the union of the provinces into a
single chapter in 1336, the statutes were codified twice again in 1343 and 1444.
From the northern province statutes survive from 1221, 1250-6, 1273-93, and 1310.
In the southern province statutes remain from 1218-25, 1246-55, and 1277-1320. The
focus in different years seems to be on different areas: the 1287 statutes for example
show a greater concern with financial issues and controls, whereas thos e of 1293 deal
mainly with liturgical issues.29
The involvement of the papacy did not cease with the issue of In singulis regnis and
Ea quae. In 1238 the papal legate Cardinal Otho summoned the black monk abbots to
London where he presented them with the comprehensive set of decrees of Gregory
IX. 30 These statutes are repeated by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora.31 They
are not particularly detailed: statute seven states that obedientiaries should faithfully
render account of the administration of their offices to their prelate, and number eight
indicates that abbots or priors should similarly account at least once a year in the
presence of the house or of its senior members giving details of the position of the
house and rendering full account for their administration. Visitors are instructed to:
diligenter inquirant, et tam in spiritualibus quam in temporalibus corrigant. Despite
the operation of the system of chapters and visitations, the black monks were singled
out in 1268 by the papal legate Ottoboni as being the part of the church which was
most relaxed, and were given a new set of decrees at a solemn council in London.32
In 1336 Benedict XII (1334-1342) issued Summi magistri, later known as the
Constitutiones Benedictinae.33 A key consequence for English Benedictine
monasticism was the union of the northern and southern chapters into a single chapter
covering the whole of England.34 Benedict XII was concerned with the financial
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, pp. 254-9 and pp. 261-3.
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. I, p11; D. M. Williamson, ‘Some aspects of the legation of Cardinal
Otto in England, 1237-41’, English Historical Review, 64 (1949), p. 170.
Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, vol. 3 p. 501, 510.
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. I, p. 13
Pantin, ‘General’, p. 212. A summary of the Constitutions of Benedict XII known as the
Constitutiones Benedictinae is printed in Pantin, Documents, II pp. 230-232.
Knowles, Religious Orders, p.4. The chapters of the separate provinces of Canterbury and York are
usually referred to as ‘general chapters’, the chapters of the united province as ‘provincial chapters’.
stability of monastic houses, and instructed the abbots of York and St Albans to visit
all monasteries and to value them to ascertain how many monks they might support.
A royal prohibition prevented this valuation from being undertaken in England,
although it was carried out in France.35
The acts of the first chapter of the newly united province appeared in 1338 and
following the instructions of the pope the presidents of this 1338 chapter appointed
seven diffinitors to examine the statutes of the former chapters of Canterbury and
York, and from these to create a new set of statutes.36 This new set was produced at
the 1343 Chapter, supplemented with 5 more statutes probably in 1363, and the final
codification of 1444 was largely a reissue of these same statutes.37
In 1421 the state of the monastic life aroused the attention of Henry V. He convoked
a special meeting of black monks to consider a number of aspects of monastic life
including administrative matters and the use of money by monks. A series of articles
for the conduct of monastic life was produced. These aroused concern within the
monastic community as to their severity and practicality, and a set of detailed
criticisms of these articles was issued in response. Finally an amended and perhaps
watered down version of the original articles, which did little to change existing
conditions, was agreed and promulgated by the provincial chapter.38
Accounting and Financial Controls
Many of the statutes deal with the regulation of the religious life of the monasteries:
the conduct of services and the liturgy to be followed; the giving of alms; and, with
the involvement of abbots in the day to day life of the house: attending chapter;
hearing confessions; instructing monks; being present in choir.39 Prescriptions can be
Each monastic house was also obliged to hold its own ‘general chapter’ at which accounts would be
considered and to which monks residing in the cells of the house would be summoned.
Pantin, ‘General’, pp. 213-4; Pantin, Documents, vol. III, p. 13.
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 27.
Pantin, ‘General’, pp. 234-5.
Pantin, ‘General’, p. 217; Pantin, Docum ents, vol. II, pp. 98-134; Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. II,
1221Y s1 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 232. References to the statutes have been dealt with thus:
the year of the chapter is given followed by ‘C’ or ‘Y’ to indicate whether the statute arises from the
province of Canterbury or York; the absence of ‘C’ or ‘Y’ indicates a statute issued from the united
province after 1338; within the statutes Pantin’s referencing system has been retained to identify
very precise: for example, clothing of any colour except black is banned.40 Those that
deal with accounting and financial controls cover a wide range of areas: alienations;
burdensome contracts; deposit taking; loans; leases; corrodies; the accountability of
abbots, obedientiaries and officers; extravagance; accounts; audit; authorisation of
transactions; the use and safeguarding of the seal; proprietas (the individual
ownership of property by a monk) ; and, the provision of fit persons to offices.
The table on pages 27-8 gives details of the areas in which new or more detailed
controls were introduced in the northern, southern and provincial chapters. In general
the statutes w ere for universal application, but on occasion as will be shown below, a
statute was directed at a particular house.
The financial concerns arising from the management of temporalities are reflected in
the statutes of the chapters in two areas. First there is a concern about extending
knowledge of the business transactions of the house and of its financial position:
transactions must be made known to a greater body than the abbot alone; the financial
position of individual offices and of the house are to be recorded, calculated and
communicated. Secondly there is a focus on types of contract which might be or have
the potential to be burdensome to the house: alienations, leases, sales in advance,
One of the difficulties in enforcing the observance of statutes etc within a house was
the dependence on the ability and attitude of the abbot. Enshrined within the Rule of
St Benedict and within the statutes was the authority of the abbot: monks were
required praeceptis abbatis in omnibus obedire, etiamsi ipse aliter (quod absit) agat,
(to obey in all things the commands of the abbot, even though he himself (which God
forbid) should act otherwise).41 The Rule enjoins obedience even when commanded
to do hard or impossible things.42 Although the Rule exhorted the abbot to do all
things in the fear of God and in obedience to the rule, it placed no restrictions or
checks upon the powers of a negligent abbot.43 The abbot is instructed to take advice
from the brethren, but any decision is his alone. Chapter statutes repeat the
1310Y s15 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 269.
Rule, pp. 30-31.
Ibid., pp. 154-55.
Ibid., pp. 24-25.
requirement for all monks to obey their superior,44 but they also represent a
fundamental change to the position of the abbot in that they make consultation and
consent a necessary condition for certain types of business. Archbishop Pecham
(1279-92) recognised this, and when following a visitation of Glastonbury in 1281, he
gave the power of veto to the abbot’s councillors, he expressly stated that he was
superseding the Rule. 45
The importance of these areas is perhaps illustrated by the fact that in both sets of the
earliest statutes surviving from the northern and southern chapters, the second statute
is concerned with the powers of the head of the house. The wording of these statutes
is very similar and contains an inhibition on the heads of the house forbidding them to
do anything which might injure the income of the house or lead to the loss of its lands.
Furthermore grants of lands and corrodies are not to be made without the consent of
the chapter of the house. 46 On occasion, abbots had attempted to provide for or enrich
their own family members at the expense of their houses. The financial problems
which could be caused by an extravagant, corrupt or even careless prelate were well
known. The case of Roger Norreys, Abbot of Evesham (1189-1213), is well
documented and his conduct led to his eventual deposition by a papal legate.47
The potential difficulties which might arise from the exercise of his unfettered powers
by an unscrupulous or foolish prelate were evidently an ongoing cause of concern and
led to a greater detailing of the areas in which they required the consent of their
chapters to act. In 1253 the southern chapter decreed: Item ne abbates vel priores
proprios abates non habentes pro aliquo se obligent per cartam nec terras vel
maneria vendant aut invadient (mortgage) nisi de consensu sui capituli et eciam
1277C sxi(2): Pantin, Documents, p. 76.
D. Knowles, ‘Some aspects of the career of Archbishop Pecham: Part II’, English Historical Review,
57 (1942), pp. 194-5.
1221Y s2: ne prelati de terris vel redditibus monasterii ad manifestam lesionem vel perpetuam
alienacionem facere presumant; vel terras consuetudinarias in libertatem alicui concedere vel donare,
vel novas infeodaciones facere sine consensu capituli, vel alicui coredia hereditar vel liberaciones
aliquo titulo, vel alicuius pleg’ existere sine capituli consensu (No prelate shall presume to cause any
manifest injury or perpetual alienation of the lands or rents of the monastery, or to concede or to give to
any person the [house’s] customary lands in liberty, or to create new enfoeffments without the consent
of the chapter, or a hereditaty corredy or liveries with any title, or the pledge of anything to come into
existence without the consent of the chapter) in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 233.
Knowles, Monastic Order, pp. 333-345.
[capituli] generalis.48 Prelates were not to enter into obligations or sell lands or
manors except with the consent of their chapters and also of the general chapters of
The need for such controls as openness and consent and the possibility of a prelate
abusing his position are revealed by an appeal made by the Priory of Durham in 1266
to the northern chapter. The appeal was made against a former prior whose retirement
provision was subsequently deemed over generous and too great a burden upon the
house: ac statum monasterii sic graviter collapsi.49 It illustrates the growing
acceptance of the role of the whole community in the approval of large or unusual
transactions. The house alleged that the former prior used those sympathetic to him,
maiore parte et saniore congregacionis inscia et ignorante (the greater and more
experienced part of the congregation being unaware and ignorant) to gain his
extravagant retirement provision using the common seal of the chapter then in his
keeping. It was further claimed that the document relating to the same provision
should have been recited to the greater part of the convent, but was not.
In 1273, a new statute perhaps reflects this situation: Item quod maiora
monasteriorum negocia … tocius conventus aur sanioris partis consilio terminentur.50
Such general pronouncements needed however to be supplemented on occasion by
statutes directed at specific prelates: thus in 1310 the Abbot of Whitby was forbidden
to grant liberties or burgages without the consent of his chapter.51
In 1421 the articles proposed by Henry V sought to impose a tight limit on the size of
transactions which could be undertaken by a prelate without chapter consent. No
gifts, sales, or alienations exceeding 40s in value were to be made without lengthy
deliberation and the express advice, consent, and agreement of the whole convent.52
The need to obtain the agreement of the whole convent was evidently felt to be
1253C s1 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p50.
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, pp. 244-247.
1287Y s5: ‘Item that the greater business of the monasteries … should be determined by the whole
convent or the wiser part’ in Pantin, Documents, p.249.
1310Y s12 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 269.
Pantin, Documents, vol. II, p. 111: Item nichil de bonis et rebus dictorum suorum monasteriorum
ultra valorem quadraginta solidorum aliquibus personis donent, alienent vel vendant sine morose
deliberacione et expresso consilio, consensus et assensu tocius conventus.
unwieldy and unworkable, and the 40s limit too inflexible, as the criticisms of the
kings articles requested the replacement of ‘the whole convent’ by ‘the experienced
portion of the convent’, and the final agreed version removed the 40s limit and
replaced it with the more flexible summam aliquam notabilem (any notable sum).53
Similar restrictions were placed upon the powers of obedientiaries over the assets
pertaining to their offices as well. The 1287 Northern chapter necessitated the
consent of the convent and the superior for the granting of a corrody or liveries by an
obedientiary.54 The statutes provide an increasing level of detail on an expanding
range areas. The remainder of this section will examine in detail the regulations
adopted for a number of different types of transactions: obligations, deposits, loans
and leases; those issued for the prevention of extravagance and proprietas; and those
which instituted controls for the provision of fit persons to offices, the safeguarding
and use of the common seal, the rendering of accounts and their audit, and financial
The term ‘obligatio’ was used in roman law to denote a right to receive or a duty to
render a defined item or action. 55 In the statutes it might include a range of different
types of contracts including the sale of income in advance, the commitment to deliver
specified quantities of a specified item at a future date, such as forward wool sales,
pensions, and the obligation to repay borrowings. The northern statutes of 1287 detail
the consequences of unwise commitments and forbid entering such commitments:
Quia multa incommoda et enormia eveniunt domibus religiosis per instrumenta
obligacionum facta pro personis extraneis, decretum est sub pena deposicionis et
officii privacionis, ut nullus abbas … presumat obligare domum suam aut ecclesiam
pro quacum alia persona aut magnate in regno Anglie vel extra, ne forte pro
huiusmodi factis obligacionibus domus aliqua seu ecclesia iacturas graviores seu
importunas inquietaciones incurrat.56 The importance of this statute is perhaps
Ibid., p. 122 and p. 128.
1287Y s5: Item quod nullus obedienciarius vendat vel concedat corredia seu liberacionies sine
expresso consensu sui superioris et conventus (Item that no obedientiary shall sell or grant a corrody or
liveries without the express consent of their superior and convent) in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 255.
J. K. B. M. Nicholas, An Introduction to Roman Law, (Oxford, 1962), p158; J. B. Moyle (ed.),
Imperatoris Iustiniani Institutionum, (Oxford, 1931) p. 391.
1287Y s1: ‘Since many misfortunes and enormities befall monastic houses through bonds made in
favour of third parties, it is decreed upon pain of deposition or deprivation of office, that no abbot …
shall presume to bind his house or church in favour of any other person or magnate within the kingdom
reflected by its position as the first of twenty eight arising from the 1287 chapter. The
1310 northern chapter having noted that quia his diebus monasteria oneribus
subiacent solito gravioribus states that no pension is to be granted in excess of 40s
without the consent of the house’s annual chapter unless at a time of urgent necessity.
This is a rare example of a quantified limit being placed upon a transaction.57
Monasteries were often used as places of safekeeping. Westminster Abbey housed a
royal treasury which was the scene of a dramatic bur glary in 1303.58 The prior of
Durham Cathedral Priory acted as a royal and papal tax collector on occasion, and it is
likely that receipts were stored at the priory before delivery.59 The earliest set of
statutes for both provinces include a requirement that any deposits accepted into the
house should be with the knowledge of the prelate, and that should the prelate himself
accept the deposit, he should do it with three brothers as witnesses: Nullus depositum
in monasterium [ab] aliquo recipiat nisi de consciencia prelati ; nec prelatus hoc
faciat, nisi cum trium fratrum laudabili testimonio.60 The statute does not mention the
recording of the deposit in writing, but the compilers were evidently aware of the
need to be able to provide the testimony of reliable witnesses in the event of a dispute
between the depositor and the house. Although repeated in 1249, 1277, and 1278 in
the southern chapters, and by the joint chapter of 1343 nothing further is added in
terms of documenting the liability due to third parties, or the recording of more
complex transactions such as partial deposit withdrawals.
In 1249 a new statute specifically on loans appears: Et cum fieri debeat contractus
mutui, ita procedant prelati, quod fratribus quibus presunt liqueat quanta pecunie
summa, quibus certificacionibus quibus conditionibus et quibus terminis debeatur, et
in quos usus acceptum mutuum sit conversum. Et si aliquis sine consensu capituli
super mutuo contractum fecerit, monasterium minime obligetur nisi per viros
fidedi gnos probatum fuerit dictum mutuum conversum fuisse in utilitatem monasterii
of England or without, and so perchance no house or church shall incur more heavier losses or
distressing worries for bonds of this type made’ in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 254.
1310Y s11 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 269.
E. H. Pearce, Walter de Wenlok: Abbot of Westminster (London, 1920), pp. 146-7; T. F. Tout, ‘A
mediæval burglary’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, ???? (1915), pp.??-??
1221Y s32: ‘No one shall receive a deposit within the monastery unless with the knowledge of the
prelate; and the prelate shall not do this without the praiseworthy witness of three brothers’ in Pantin,
Documents, vol. I, p239.
manifestam. 61 Thus the chapters accept that on occasion the contracting of a loan was
a necessity, but insisted that the prelate must speak to the brothers present and inform
them of the amount of the loan, of the details of the documentation, of the conditions
of the loan, the repayment dates and the use to which the loan would be put. The
monastery would not be bound by any loan contracted without the consent of its
chapter, unless it could be proved that the loan had been used for the manifest benefit
of the house. In 1277, a similar statute adds that the names of the creditors had to be
provided, and that no loan agreement w as to be sealed with the common seal of the
house wit hout the agreement of the prelate and the chapter, or at least its greater or
more experienced portion. 62
Monastic houses were endowed with a variety of scattered estates and holdings, some
of which were tenanted and others on occasion were managed directly by the monks.
Over the fourteenth century and beyond there was a general trend to reduce the
amount of land being directly managed and to lease it out.63 Thus leases and their
terms engaged the attention of the chapters: there was a danger that a long lease could
lead to the loss of land and the ability to charge market rents. Statute 2 of the 1287
northern statutes concerned the difficulties of controlling and regaining properties
which wer e rented out on a lease for a large number of years and limited the length of
a lease to 15 years and demanded the consent of the convent.64 The same chapter
forbade any obedientiary from leasing the lands belonging to his office without the
consent of his superior and the convent, and a prohibition w as placed upon the priors
or wardens of cells of granting any lease in excess of ten years on pain of being
1249C s1f ‘and when a borrowing contract is necessary, prelates should proceed thus, that it shall be
made clear to those brothers present what sum of money, with what certificates, conditions, and due
dates is owed, and in what use the accepted loan will be converted. And if someone without the
consent of chapter for the loan shall make a contract, the monastery is not at all bound unless said loan
was approved by worthy men for the manifest utility of the monastery’ in Pantin, Documents, vol. I,
1277C s8 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 66.
Dobie, ‘Development’, p. 146.
1287Y s2: Item propter alienaciones fortuitas que evenire possent alicui monasterio de terris aut
tenementis ad firmam dimissis usque ad terminos ultra modum diuturnos, statutum est quod nulli
abbati vel priori decetero liceat in quibuscumque firmis dimittendis terminum quindecim annorum
excedere, nec huiusmodi firmas alicui sine consensu conventus concedere (again on account of
accidental alienations which may happen to the lands and properties of any monastery rented out for an
immoderate period, it is decided that no abbot or prior shall be allowed to agree any leases in excess of
fifteen years, and no lease of this type should be granted without the consent of the convent) in Pantin,
Documents, vol. I, pp. 254-55.
deprived of office. 65 In 1310 the limit for leases granted by the heads of cells was
reduced to one year unless special consent was obtained from the superior.66 All four
houses of the northern province had a number of subsidiary priories or cells, ranging
from nine at Durham to one at Selby.67 The register of St Bees, a cell of St Mary’s
York, contains earlier examples of leases being granted for life, whereas later in 1279
and 1290 eight year leases were granted. 68 Surprisingly the southern chapter does not
deal specifically with leases, and the united province makes no reference until the
statutes of 1444 when prelates are forbidden to lease lands without solemn
Extravagance was an obvious means by which the financial houses could be
impoverished and was also one of the causes of criticisms of the black monks.69 The
first chapters of both provinces noted that prelates w ere said to be known for their
extravagance, and sought to limit abbatial expenses by restricting the number and
apparel of their servants to a respectable standard: et quia prelati ipsi per quasdam
superfluitates notari dicuntur et monasteria aggravari, omni deliberacione
providerunt ne aliquis prelatus servientes habeat numero et apparatu modum
honestum excedentes, unde ordo monachilis in aliquo argui possit levitatis.70 For the
monks all excesses in food and drink were to be curtailed.71 In 1287, the priors of
York, Whitby and Selby were ordered not to have their own chambers, chaplains,
horses or attendants beyond those of the subprior of Durham since they were of the
same condition and rank. 72 These concerns over extravagance were still a concern in
1287Y s4 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p255.
1310Y s14 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p 269.
M. Heale, The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries (Woodbridge, 2004), pp. xvi-
Wilson, J., The Register of the Priory of St Bees (Surtees Society, vol. cxxvi, 1915), pp. 50, 408 and
Dobie ‘Development’, p155.
1221Y s4 ‘And since the prelates themselves are said to be known for certain extravagances, they
have provided with all deliberation that no prelate shall have servants exceeding in number or
appearance a respectable standard, so that the monastic order cannot be accused of unworthiness’ in
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 233.
1218/19C s18 and 1221Y s26: omnes superfluitates amputentur, in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 11
and p. 237.
Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 253.
1421 when the proposed articles of Henry V criticised the scandalous equipage of
abbots’ riding parties.73
Proprietas was the sin of owning private property, which was banned in the Rule and
described as a vice to be utterly rooted out.74 Houses could suffer loss if property
being administered for the common good was used by an individual monk for private
purposes. It continued to be a problem throughout the later middle ages.75 In the
1221 statutes of the northern chapter, prelates were instructed to ensure that monks
were adequately provided with food and clothing, thus removing an excuse for falling
into proprietas.76 Monks were also forbidden to receive money or hold money unless
for the administration of an office committed to them.77 The rendering of correct
accounts as described below also enabled them to avoid the charge of proprietas.
Chamberlains were instructed not to give monks the money for their clothing.78 The
1343 statutes forbade the use of private chests with locks unless for the purpose of
running an office. 79 Henry V’s articles repeated the prohibition of this ‘execrable and
detestable crime’, and added that should a monk have custody of gold or silver, he
should also have a written indenture detailing the items in his care, of which the other
portion should remain with the head of the house.80
An important control was to ensure that competent persons filled the important offices
of the house. Early statutes of both provinces forbid the granting of a priorate or
obedience in return for money.81 This ruling was also important in the context of
simony. In 1253, the southern chapter forbade the granting to an inexperienced youth
of an office which would involve duties outside the monastery. 82 In 1277 prelates
Pantin, Documents, vol. II, p. 111.
Rule, pp. 84-85: hoc vitium radicitus amputandum est.
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. II, pp. 287-289.
1221Y s3: prelati monachis suis tam sanis quam egris secunum facultatem loci omnia necessaria in
victu et vestitu inveniant horis competentibus, ut sic tollatur omnis occasio proprietatis (Prelates shall
procure for their monks both well and ill all necessities in food and clothing according to the means of
the place at appropriate times, so that any opportunity for proprietas is removed) in Pantin, Documents,
vol. I, p. 233.
1221Y s7 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 233-4.
1218/9C s15 in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 11; and 1221Y s23, ibid. p236.
1343 sIII(11), Ibid, vol. II, p.39.
1219C s7 and 1221Y s8, ibid., vol I, p.17 and p. 234.
1253C s3, ibid., p 50.
were forbidden from appointing officials secretly in their chamber; instead
appointments were to be made publicly in the chapterhouse. They were also
instructed to select prudent and faithful monks.83 There was also a concern to avoid
the confusion which could occur should an obedientiary or office holder die during
his period of office. A statute of 1287 instructs infirm obedientiaries and those who
w ere near death to resign their office and all that they hold without delay, having
given account and made confession to the abbot or his deputy. Such an obedientiary
was also forbidden to entrust his office to another without the abbot’s permission.84
The 1343 statutes repeated these instructions in somewhat more detail by for example
explaining that when an obedientiary died in office there w as a greater chance of
fraud occurring. 85
Seals were important in validating documents and thus the use or abuse of the seal of
the house was a subject for control. A 1277 statute stipulates that it is to be stored
safely in a container requiring three or four key, of which one was to be retained by
the abbot and the others to be kept by monks with the approval of the convent.86 In
1343 it was stated: ut quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus approbetur (that which affects
everybody should be approved by everybody) and so any documents to be sealed
were to be recited and sealed in chapter or in the presence of the seniors of the house.
The minimum of three separately guarded keys is reiterated. 87
The 1218/19 statutes of the sout hern province are somewhat brief on this matter
merely stating that obedientiaries should render faithful account of their receipts and
expenses to the prelate and some of the more experienced members of the house.88 It
is worth quoting Statute 31 of the 1221 general chapter of the province of York in full
as it gives an indication of the manner in which officials and obedientiaries were
desired to carry out their responsibilities:
1287C s22(1), ibid., p. 84.
1287 N s18: Obedienciarii gravi infirmatate detenti, et maximein periculo mortis constitute,
administaciones suas et omnia que habent, de ipsis facta racione et confessione primo abbati vel
alicuivices eius gerenti sine mora resignent, nec cuiquamalii sine abbatis permissione aliquid
assignanre presumant, cum in eorum potestate non constiterit: secus agents veluti proprietarii
puniantur, ibid., p. 257.
1343 s2(8), ibid., vol. II, p38.
1277C s2(10) in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 66.
1343 s5(1-2), ibid., vol. II, p.42.
1218/19C s22, ibid., vol. I, p. 12.
Item nullus monachus det vel accipiat aliquid ad manifestam sui
monasterii lesionem. Hoc maxime omnes obedienciarii observent;
sollicite precaventes ne bona sibi commissa illicite distrahant ac
consumant set in utilitatibus ecclesie fideliter expendant; et statum officii
sui [cum] requisiti fuerint prelato suo fideliter ostendeant. Bursarius vero
celerarius et granetarius de omnibus receptis et expensis suis modo debito
et consueto fideles reddant raciones. 89
Here is almost a triple hierarchy of responsibility: all monks were to give or receive
nothing to the detriment of their house; all obedientiaries were to manage the assets of
their office carefully and produce a status90 when required; and finally, the three
named officials of bursar, cellarer and granator were to render accounts containing all
items of income and expenditure.
In 1276, there is reference to a specific house: Item provideatur bursarius apud Seleby
qui reddat compotum de redditibus domus.91 This instruction to appoint a bursar who
would render accounts of the rents of the house echoes the system in operation at
Durham Cathedral Priory which stands in contrast to the standard form of manorial
accounting seen elsewhere. This standard form of manorial accounting charged the
manorial official with the rental income arising in the manor.92 At Durham in contrast
the collection of rents was administered centrally and the manorial officials were not
responsible for rent collection. Thus they were dependent on the bursar for any cash
income which they might require. 93
The 1249 statutes provide greater detail on the necessary accounting process for the
southern province: omnes eciam prelat i semel in anno statum domus sue coram
conventu recitent, et de omnibus receptis et expensis obedienciarii in presencia
1221Y s31: ‘Again no monk should give or receive anything to the manifest detriment of their
monastery. All obedientiaries should observe this in the highest degree; carefully guarding against the
unlawful alienation or waste of the goods entrusted to them, but using them faithfully for the advantage
of the church; and when required they shall make known faithfully the circumstances of their office.
Indeed the bursar, the cellarer and the granator shall render faithful accounts of all receipts and
expenses in due and accustomed form’ in Pantin, Documents, vol. 1, p. 238.
A status was a listing of the assets and debts of a particular office. A ratio or compotus in contrast
comprised listings of receipts and expenses.
1276Y s2, in Pantin, Documents, p.251.
For an example of manorial accounts including rental income see M. Page, The Pipe Roll of the
Bishopric of Winchester 1301-2 (Winchester, 1996).
Halcrow ????; Dobie Bursar ????
abbatis …convocatis ad hoc aliquibus de discrecioribus domus, bis vel quarter in
anno si fieri potest, fideles reddant raciones, ut de melioracione vel deterioracione
monasterii reddantur cerciores.94 Thus, with the aim of ascertaining whether the
position of the house had improved or deteriorated, prelates once year w ere to give an
account of the status of their house to the convent, and obedientiaries w ere to give
account of all their receipts and expenses twice or four times a year to the abbot and
some of the more experienced monks. In 1277, the frequency of accounting for
obedientiaries was reduced to once in the year in line with the status to be given by
the prelate. 95
The permeation of a culture of accounting can be seen in the above mentioned 1266
appeal of Durham Cathedral Priory for the reduction of an earlier over generous
settlement. They requested that for the avoidance of the charge of proprietas, the
retired prior should be held accountable as any other monastic official, and should
render an account each year on a specified date. 96 In 1287 the heads of cells are
specifically included within the requirement to account : Item quod omnes priores et
custodes cellarum singulis annis infra quindecim post festum sancti Michaelis vel
ante pro mandato superiorum maticem domum suam visitent, statum domus sue pure
simpliciter ac fideliter cum laudabili testimonio fratrum secum commorancium suo
superiori et conventui ostensuri.97 The head of a dependent cell had to render a status
once a year on a regular accounting date, although this could be demanded earlier by
the superior. This status had to be rendered ‘ purely, simply, and faithfully’ and had to
be vouched by a third party, that is by one of the other monks residing in the cell.
Henry V’s articles required abbots each year within a month after Michaelmas
tatum et fidelem racionem omnium bonorum … in capitulis coram toto
conventu… nomina debitorum, quibus debent, et a quibus debetur, et causas plane in
scriptis redigentes’.98 This article uses both the terms status and racio, which
1249C s1(i), Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 36.
1277C XXII(3),and XXIII (1), ibid., pp. 84-5.
Ibid., p. 247.
1287Y s4: ‘Item that all priors and wardens of cells each year within the fifteen days after the feast
of St Martin, or before if commanded by their superiors, shall visit their mother house to show the
status of their house purely, simply and faithfully with the worthy testimony of the brothers there
staying with them to their superior and convent’ in Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p.255.
Ibid.,, vol. II, p. 111.
suggests that a reviews of all assets and liabilities and of income and expenses was to
be undertaken. The accounts w ere to be written and lists of debtors and creditors
w ere required. The monks responded that the intended time scale was too brief: quia
infra tam breve temporis spacium non possunt compoti ballivorum et aliorum
officiariorum reddi, neque ex sequenti status monasterii infra tam breve temporis
spacium cognosci. This provides a useful insight into the wider accounting process at
a monastic house. The accounts of manorial officials and other offices had to be
prepared and heard before the overall position of the house could be assessed. 99 The
monks won the day and the agreed final version merely states that they should render
accounts at least once in the year.100
Audit and review
The process of auditing accounts is not specifically mentioned, but can be understood
to have occur red when the accounts w ere rendered. Although they would most likely
be offered in written form from around 1250 onwards, the examination would be an
oral process involving the reading out of the account and a scrutiny of its contents
item by item, and their approval or rejection as seemed appropriate to those present.
The issue of travelling expenses to enable monks to visit family or friends provides an
example of amounts being reviewed for reasonableness. A 1276 statute ordained that
the monk should receive an amount for his journey from an obedientiary, and that he
should show this amount to his prelate, who would make up any shortfall or give
instructions concerning any excess.101
More ambitious instructions for the wider financial management of a house are rare.
As seen above, in one instance the provision of a bursar was mandated for a particular
house. However the provincial chapter of 1343 did contain an important innovation,
in that it advocated the desirability of taking surpluses remaining to one office or
obedience and their use to satisfy shortfalls in another: insufficiencia unius per
alterius habundanciam relevetur (the insufficiency of one office is to be relieved by
the abundance of another). Otherwise, at the discretion of the prelate, a surplus might
be used for the common good of the house: vel secundum discretam prelate
providenciam ipsa habundancia in alios usus communes et necessaries convertatur.
Ibid., p. 122.
Ibid., p. 127.
1276Y s5, ibid., vol. I, p. 252.
One wonders whether this statute may have led officials to spend all their income
as they would be unable to retain any surpluses for use in future years. It would be
interesting to investigate the account rolls of particular obedientiaries where this
system was in operation to see if there was a tendency to use up any potential surplus
on non essential expenditure. The statutes of Henry V attempt to go further in the
imposition of a single centralised receiver.103 This suggestion was rejected by the
monks as being contra antiquam consutudinem laudabilem and perhaps would have
been difficult for a single monk to cope with the work involved. Certainly at Durham
in the 15th century, the office of the bursar w ho received the larger part of the house’s
entire income was seen as overly onerous, and in 1438 an experiment was tried where
his receipts were split into three and shared with the cellarer and the granator.104
Thus the general and provincial chapters laid down a variety of regulations for the
better management and control of monastic temporalities. Restrictions were made
upon the power of prelates and officials to enter contracts and chapter consent became
a necessary condition. Prelates and officials were both made accountable and
instructed to render periodic accounts.
The above section has looked at the controls which were adopted by the chapters of
the black monks. The imposition of new regulations will almost inevitably encounter
resistance from those who see no need to alter the status quo. A monk of Worcester
Cathedral Priory provides a good example of such resistance. To a copy of the
statutes issued by Gregory IX for the Benedictines, he added in liturgical parody: Tu
autem Domine auctorem confunde (O Lord may you confound the author).105 The
remainder of this paper will consider the impact of these statutes on the practices
within individual monasteries. It will start by considering how the statutes were
communicated to the monks. Then it will consider visitations both as a source of
evidence for the implementation of new controls and as a means of their enforcement.
Finally it will review the sanctions available for the enforcement of the statutes.
1343 s3(10), ibid., vol.II , p. 39.
Ibid., p113; Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. I, p. 59.
R. B. Dobson, Durham Priory 1400-1450 (Cambridge, 1973), p. 253.
Pantin, ‘General’, p.198.
To ensure each and every monk of the order was aware of the contents of the statutes,
each house was instructed to retain a copy of current statutes,106 which were to be read
out aloud during the daily chapter meetings.107 Letters were composed by the
presidents of the chapters which included all statutes issued and copies of these were
provided for every house.
Once a statute had been issued, it was the responsibility of the head of each house to
ensure that it was followed. The major mechanism to check that the statutes were
being observed was the visitation. Three authorities could instruct or conduct
visitations: the papacy and its legatine representatives; bishops and the chapters
themselves. This paper will look briefly at legatine visitations as the papacy was the
ultimate source of much of the regulation to which the Benedictines were subject, and
in more depth at chapter visitations as these were concerned specifically to ascertain
the extent to which Benedictine houses were run in accordance with the statutes of the
general and provincial chapters.
Even before the issue of In singulis regnis, a papal legate, John of Feretino, had
visited the English monasteries of Evesham, Ramsey and St. Mary’s York, and from
this last visitation undertaken in 1206 a set of injunctions survives.108 These
injunctions are as might be expected more detailed than the statutes subsequently
passed by the chapters, as they address the specific circumstances of an individual
house. They established two treasurers to receive all the revenues of the house
(including those of the abbot and obedientiaries, although the funds belonging to each
office were to be kept separately in individual purses and to be dispensed to each
office as needed) and demanded quarterly statements. They also foreshadow the use
of surpluses accumulated in one office to be used to subsidize another office, a system
not embedded in the statutes of the black monks until 1343 (see above). In 1232,
some ten years after the system of triennial chapters had started to operate in England,
a general visitation of all monasteries was ordered by Gregory IX, and he appointed
Pantin, Documents, vol. II, p.27.
1249C s44, ibid., vol. I, p.45; 1287N s23, ibid., p.258.
C. R. Cheney, ‘The papal legate and English monasteries in 1206’, English Historical Review, 46
(1931), p.445, p.447 and pp. 449-452.
special visitors for those houses which were exempt from episcopal visitation. 109
Statutes issued by these visitors at Bury St. Edmunds and Westminster in 1234
survive, and their wording closely resembles that of the equivalent statutes issued by
the southern chapter in 1225. At Bury St. Edmunds they demand the consent of the
chapter for important transactions, the avoidance of extravagance; and, the reading
out of general chapter statutes twice a year. 110 However as at St Mary’s above, some
of the financial instructions w ere quite detailed: the rents of the house w ere to be
written on three rolls, one of which w as to remain with the abbot, another to be kept
by the procurator (presumably involved in rent collection), and the third to be
deposited in the treasury. Additionally a primitive budgeting system w as set up which
divided the income of the house into four portions, which w ere to be used for the four
quarters of the year.
In contrast to the somewhat sporadic pattern of papal and episcopal visitations, those
conducted by the visitors appointed by the chapters were extremely regular. Each
house was to be visited once every three years shortly before the following chapter.
Thus in 1250 the northern chapter specified that the visitations were to be conducted
in the period immediately preceding the next chapter of 22 September 1253. The
prior of Whitby and the subprior of Durham were to visit York and Selby on 6 July
and the priors of York and Selby were to visit Whitby and Durham on 18 July.111
Unfortunately only a modest number of documents relating to chapter visitations
survive. They do however include a series of questions to be asked at a visitation, a
list of more detailed questions put together from the detecta of an initial investigation
at Whitby, replies to such detailed questions from the abbots of Whitby and Eynsham,
and finally a list of comperta relating to Durham Cathedral Priory.
The first of these, a series of articles of enquiry for a visitation, dates from shortly
after 1363.112 Visitors were to start (article 1) by checking that any rulings made by
the previous visitors were being observed. Other areas to check were whether the
Paris, Chronica Majora , vol. III, p. 234; R. Graham, ‘A papal visitation of Bury St. Edmunds and
Westminster in 1234’, English Historical Review, 108 (1912), p. 728.
Pantin, Documents, vol. II, pp. 82-89.
constitutions and regulations of popes and chapters w ere being read aloud in chapter
(article 9); whether the seal of the house w as adequately safeguarded, and not used
except in the presence of the convent (article 32); whether annual accounts w ere
rendered for the house, its offices and cells (article 37); whether the abbot consulted
the house on important business (article 39); whether the house was overburdened
with corrodies and other liveries (article 40); and, whether suitable monks were
appointed as obedientiaries (article 43). These questions echo the requirements of the
chapter statutes and appear to demonstrate a determination to identify any areas in
which the house was failing in its observance.
From Whitby survive the articles against the abbot and monks made during a
visitation of 1366. 113 These are likely to have been compiled after consideration of
the detecta, the information which had emerged or been alleged during the initial
separate examination of each monk of the house. The abbot is accused of being
responsible for material collapse of the house, and as an example of a poor business
transaction he is charged with selling two sacks of wool, which should have realised
200 marks, for only £40. He is also accused of selling corrodies without the
knowledge of the convent. Interestingly, further supplementary questions had been
noted by the visitors. For example they w ere to enquire about the number of
corrodies sold, their value, to whom and the ages of the purchasers: information
which would enable them to evaluate the terms of the contracts. A comparison of the
income of the house, the number of sheep and the yield from wool sales done for the
years 1356 and 1366 is said to have revealed falls from £540 to £420, from 4000
sheep to 1040 sheep and from £94 to £20 respectively. Despite these decreases it was
alleged that £420 was still sufficient as an annual income for the house, and thus that
there was no need to sell timber, corrodies and incur debts. He was further accused of
rewording chapter statutes to remove contents which restrained his powers and of
inserting clauses in their place in his favour; and of bullying monks into consenting to
the use of the common seal for disadvantageous contracts. The detailed replies of the
abbot to each of these charges have also been preserved. 114 In his defence he claims
that the monastery was seriously burdened with debts on his appointment and that the
wool sale, and many of the other contracts mentioned were done with the consent of
Ibid., vol. III, pp. 279-303.
Ibid., vol. III, pp. 303-8.
the house in a situation of urgent necessity. Following this the Abbot of York, one of
the chapter presidents, requested a full financial report on the abbey to be sealed with
the common seal of the house listing all receipts and all debts. This report detailed all
the income of the house, the forward sales, expenses, and debts, and gives an idea of
the complexity of the accounting done by the house and the extent of its analysis by
the visitors. One of the abbot’s main points w as to compare the indebtedness of the
house at the start of his abbacy with the current level. He could refer to an inventory
compiled at the start of his period of office in accordance with the constitutions of
Benedict XII, which listed debts totalling £419, and compare this to a current level of
£167. The evidence points to a deeply divided community, but the abbot remained in
office until his death eight years later.115
Another set of replies, dating from 1363-6, of an abbot to a list of seventy one articles
based upon the comperta arising from a visitation survives from Eynsham Abbey.116
Again, these demonstrate the detailed inspection of financial matters made during a
visitation. The abbot referred to specific accounts rendered by various officials, and
actually quoted figures from the accounts of the cellarer and granator in his defence.
Elsewhere, major financial problems and mismanagement do not appear to have been
an issue. At Durham a set of comperta from a visitation conducted at some time
between 1384 and 1393 revealed no major financial, accounting or control issues.117
The only specific mention of money w as in a rebuke that the monks received it for the
purchase of their clothes. The poor state of the roofing of the dormitory and infirmary
is mentioned which may have indicated a shortage of finance for repairs. (The
dormitory was rebuilt 1398-1404). Otherwise the issues are rather colourful: an
incapable and deaf barber w as a danger to the monks, and pigeons w ere fouling the
A variety of sanctions existed by which visitors could seek to impose conformity with
the statutes of the chapters. To start with, for those who feared God, there was the
sentence of excommunication which was imposed upon all these who defrauded the
church or were guilty of proprietas even though their offence remained undiscovered
Knowles, Religious Orders, vol. II, p. 206
Pantin, Documents, vol. III, pp. 34-52.
Ibid., vol. III, pp. 82-84.
by human agents.118 Monks convicted of an offence could be sent to a cell, given a
restricted diet, or perhaps deprived of office. A house which did not implement any
corrigenda imposed following a visitation could be denounced in general chapter.119
The abbot himself could be removed as happened to the abbot of Chester who was
compelled to resign in 1362.
So what can be concluded about the role of the general and provincial chapters in the
development and enforcement of accounting and financial controls in Benedictine
houses. First the chapter statutes attempted to restrict the authority of the abbot,
which was unlimited in the Rule of St. Benedict, by requiring the knowledge and
consent of the house or its more experienced portion for all important transactions.
Secondly they insisted upon the periodic accountability of all monks entrusted with an
office: accounts had to be prepared and rendered publicly at least once a year. The
statutes are not however as detailed as many of the instructions for reform left
following an episcopal visitation, and chapter visitations have left few instances of
corrigenda. The impact of the statutes upon procedures at individual houses will
require the detailed analysis of the records of individual houses to ascertain when
accounting procedures and controls were changed and the reasons which lay behind.
The chapters certainly did not make detailed prescriptions: the form and content of the
accounts to be rendered was never described, and usually the chapters preferred a
flexible term to an absolute quantifiable limit for transactions and expenses. However
they did reiterate the need for consent and transparency, factors which were likely to
reduce the incidence of financial mismanagement and decay as were the regular
1218/9C s22: Pantin, Documents, vol. I, p. 12.
1273N s4: ibid., p.249.
Accounting and Financial Controls of the Chapters of the Black Monks
1218 1219 1221 1249 1253 1273 1276 1277 1278 1287 1310 1343 1421 1444
Details of control S S N S S N N S S N N J K J
Abbots S2 S2 S1 S23/1 S2
Obedientiaries S22 S31 S17 S3 S14 S3
Cells S3 S14
Alienations/unwise S2 S2 S1h S1 S2/6 S1 S11
Extravagance S3 S4,
Proprietas S6 S3, S17/1,
Sale of offices S7 S8
Accounts S22 S31 S1i S22/3 S4 S8
Deposits S24 S32 S17/4 S3/10 S3/12
Seal S2/10 S5/1 S8
Consent S2 S2 S1 S5 S2/5, S2, S11
7,8. S3 S14
Leases S1f- S2 S14 S9
Fit persons S3 S22/6 S18 S3/4
Loans S2/8 S3
Cross subsidies S3/10
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