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Greed, trickery and massacre

Monks chopping wood
© Bibliotheque Municipale de Dijon
<click to enlarge>
Monks chopping wood

The Hebrew brethren had a neighbour, an Egyptian knight, in part of whose estates they had settled; nor could prayer or price avail to move him (1)

Two of the Cistercians’ harshest critics, the satirists Gerald of Wales and Walter Map, recount an anecdote to show how the White Monks would stop at nothing to further their ambitions. This describes how one Cistercian community hatched a violent plan to secure the estate of its neighbour, who had refused their offers to either buy him out or to receive prayers in return for his land. Whilst the Cistercian house is not actually named, it is commonly held to be Byland and the knight in question, William Stuteville, who had taken the monks to court over lands in Coxwold and Kilburn.(2) The facts as they are presented here are most certainly a play on the truth, a rather colourful and exaggerated account of events. Nevertheless, the account is testimony to the Cistercians’ reputation for the effective exploitation of the land, and shows the extent to which this was censured by their critics as evidence of ruthless ambition.

The anecdote describes how the monks (‘the Hebrew brethren’) had failed to wrestle the land they coveted from their neighbour (‘an Egyptian knight’). Therefore, they sent a layman to the knight’s house, who presented himself as a stranger seeking hospitality in the name of Christ. However, once inside he, and several of the monks who were with him, initiated a massacre, killing the knight, his children and household. The knight’s wife managed to escape and fled to her uncle’s home. She returned to the site of the slaughter three days later, accompanied by her uncle, his kinsmen and neighbours. The party was astonished to find no sign of any former occupation: the land was now level with well-ploughed fields and there was no evidence of any buildings, enclosures or old fields. The woman’s uncle suspected that the White Monks were behind this seeming mystery. His suspicions were confirmed when he wandered through a gate and discovered several trees that were upended and sawn into blocks; these had clearly been removed from the site. The case was brought to court where the woman was able to identify the perpetrators of this terrible crime. The layman, apparently, confessed to everything after he had failed ordeal by water. He revealed that the monks had engaged his help, promising in return absolution from his sins past present and future, and assuring him that he could not be harmed by any weapon or ordeal by fire or water. Needless to say the man was hanged.(3)