Decoding Divine Enterprise, Part Two: The Spiritual Affairs of 13th Century Canterbury Cathedral

Luke Daly

The primary role of the precentor was music.

Whilst the previous article on obedientiaries concerned the domestic affairs or, the bodily life of the community, the following article examines the intellectual and spiritual affairs of the community through the offices of the precentor, succentor, the sacrist, and the shrine keepers. The primary role of the precentor was music. And whilst some of his duties were delegated to the succentor (such as teaching the young monks how to sing, recite psalms, and chant prayers in precession), he was responsible for the usage, supply, and condition of books as well as the materials used to copy books such as parchments or skins. His duties as a librarian also made him an instructor, holding daily classes in the cloister for novice monks and Latin classes in a room on the western side of the southern cloister-walk. As such, the precentor rarely features in the financial accounts and so sources on his day to day life are somewhat slim. The soul of the priory, however, was the church, and according to St Benedict, “nothing was to be preferred than the opus Dei.” Whilst the precentor and succentor are prominent figures within this divine service, the sacrists and their assistants were integral to the fabric of the church and the maintenance of the allegory of God upheld within the spiritual precinct. The sacrists, credited within the financial accounts as being two in number but known to have up to four assistants alongside them, oversaw the repair, extension, and improvement of the church as well as its shrines and altars. Equally, they oversaw the task of lighting and cleansing the church as well as maintaining its curtains, ornaments, sacramental vessels, and vestments. If the cellarer was crucial to the bodily life of the priory, then the sacrist was integral to its spiritual being. The sacrists and sub-sacrists would light the cressets and bowls of tallow to illuminate the cloister, nave, choir, and treasury after dark, and would awake before the brethren at midnight to light the dormitory before matins. The sub-sacrists also stood as guardians of the shrines and altars, and it was not uncommon for them to sleep in the last chamber and choir to safeguard the treasures and relics. As such, the expenses of the sacrist were relatively high. As discussed in the previous article, the expenses of the sacrist were also impacted by the Baron’s War and Translation. What was particularly interesting about the expenses of the sacrist, however, was that the Translation of Thomas Becket itself was not the year with the highest expenditure. Rather, expenditure increases in the following four years, perhaps due to the rising income from the shrines and altars. Nevertheless, the period from 1225 to 1227 witnessed a drastic downfall until 1228 when the expenses begin to rise again. Whilst a relaxation of expenses after the Translation is witnessed within other departmental accounts, the sudden rise in 1228 may have been prompted by the calling of the Sixth Crusade. The accounts from this year onwards include payments to a dominus Ricardus crucesignatus, and so it was not entirely farfetched to conclude this increase as being related to the crusade.
Decoding Divine Enterprise, Part Two: The Spiritual Affairs of 13th Century Canterbury Cathedral
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Within each year, however, these expenses were typically the result of purchasing lead, glass, and other raw materials

Within each year, however, these expenses were typically the result of purchasing lead, glass, and other raw materials from workman fairs, as well as wax, tallow, hay, and straw from farms, and on occasion charcoal, wine, and incense. Wax alone had cost between 5d. and 7d. per pound when bought in bulk, and the accounts of 1223 show that 300lbs of wax was purchased at £6 15s. by the sacrist through the feretrarians. Wax was a hefty expense for the sacrist, especially when consideration is made for the fact that they had to maintain the candles of the whole monastery. The East Candle, known as cereus paschalis, contained 300lbs of wax alone. Combine this with the 50lbs of wax needed for the seven-branched candelabrum, the 3lbs of candles require on the feast of Purification, and the 2lbs of candles carried in processions, it was not surprising that a large amount was spent on just wax. As mentioned, the treasurer accounts note two sacrists for most years: Andrew and Roger are credited in the financial accounts as the sacrists from as far back as 1207 until 1219, Herlewin was then solely mentioned alongside a sub-sacrist Hubert from 1220 until 1226, whereby from 1227 until 1230 (and presumably further), two sacrists are named as Bartholomew and John. Given that they were as integral to the spiritual life of the priory as the cellarer was to the bodily life, they may well have rotated on fixed periods. This is uncertain but demonstrates that these roles required a team of monks to be sufficiently undertaken. Most important of all in regard to the spiritual essence of the monastic body were the shrine keepers. From 1198, the Treasurers received all offerings made at the following altars: ● The Tomb of St. Thomas, situated in the crypt. ● The Altar of the Martyrdom, positioned in the north-western transept. ● The Corona, located at the eastern extremity of the church. ● The Shrine of St. Thomas (After 1220). ● The High Altar. ● The Altar of St. Mary, located in the nave. ● The Altar of the Cross, also in the nave. ● The Altar of St. Michael, situated in the south-western transept. During the pre-exile years, the offerings attributed to these shrines and altars averaged around £426 3s. 7d. per year, of which the Tomb gathered £309 5s. 0d., Corona £39 17s. 6d., High Altar £39 19s. 10d., St. Mary’s Altar £8 9s. 0d., Holy Cross £1 2s. 0d., and St. Michael’s Altar 16s. 3. During this period, the total revenue of Canterbury was £1,406 1s. 8d. meaning that the offerings contributed over 30% of the total income. The offerings were highest in 1200-1201 when King John and Queen Isabella were crowned by Archbishop Hubert at Canterbury. During this period the offerings amounted to £620 4s. 0d. Compared to pre-exile figures, the offerings never fully return to the £426 average. Rather, the average from 1213 – 1230 sits between £350-£400. Nevertheless, there is a considerable increase in 1220 which is marked by the Translation of St. Thomas Becket as well as the 50th anniversary of the archbishop’s murder. The treasury accounts lack a definitive reference to the construction of the shrine but given that the rather unhelpful reference ‘ad diversa negocia’ (various investments) also increases this year to £465 2s. 8d. it is probable that the shrine’s construction fees were incorporated here alongside the payments for the bull of indulgences from Pope Honorious III.
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Nevertheless, this event is recorded by contemporaries as quickly becoming a major festival

During the whole celebration, which lasted two weeks, hay and provender were provided along the entire pilgrim route from Canterbury to London. It is also reported that a banquet was held four days prior to the ceremony which reportedly catered for 30,00 people. This is reflected within the accounts as £1154 16s. 5 ob. of the £2307 18s. 2d. of total expenses in 1220 was earmarked to the cellarers for these abnormally high provisions required for the overwhelming number of pilgrims. Considering that, in the previous year, the amount allocated to the cellarer was £442 8s., this would demonstrate a 161% increase in allocated expenditure for the office. On the actual day of Becket’s translation, wine is reported to have run in the gutters. The treasurer’s accounts of this year show that £190 15d. Ob was spent on wine alone which is over double the amount spent in the following year. The amount spent by Langton on the ceremony was so large that they were still being paid by Archbishop Boniface in the 1240s. A large proportion of this expenditure was allocated to, as Matthew Paris states, providing a coffer covered with gold and jewels for the saint to rest in more honourably. The newly built shrine, however, was not the only shrine to receive vast numbers of pilgrims. The receipts of the individual altars were as follows: High Altar £54 15s. 8d., St. Mary £13 4s. 9d., St. Cross £2 9s. 8d., St. Michael 14s. 5d., Shrine £702 11s.4d., and the Martyrdom £93 0s. 2d. Whilst 1220 – 1223 suggests a relatively successful period of attracting pilgrims, all of the shrines and altars witness a steady decrease in revenues after the Translation. This decrease, at around 5.2% each year, is most probably just a natural relaxation of pilgrim visitors to a ‘normal’ level rather than suggesting a lack of devotion. That being said, whilst the proportion of offerings to the total income was around 30% before the exile, in 1220 this proportion increased to 46% due to the vast number of pilgrims received. This was reinvested into the priory and Honorius III allowed one-quarter of these revenues from the Translation to be diverted towards rebuilding the cathedral chevet until its completion. As such, after the two decades of strife witnessed by the monks at Canterbury, the Translation and its offerings provided the necessary injection of income required to reach stability. Yet, although the body and spirit of the monastic enterprise have been examined, revenues and expenses of cathedrals like Canterbury were not confined to its holy grounds. Rather, there were also those who managed the external business and investments of the community, most importantly their estates and agricultural yields. This will all be explored in the third and final part of this mini-series on the 13th-century divine enterprise.
Decoding Divine Enterprise, Part Two: The Spiritual Affairs of 13th Century Canterbury Cathedral

Luke Daly

I am Luke Daly, a Medieval Historian who specialises in religion and saints of the 1000-1300s. I am due to start my PhD in October but in the meantime am writing a book with Pen and Sword Publishing called ‘Sainthood: A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories.’ I am also host of The Daly Medieval Podcast.
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