Medieval Irish Monks: Mayhem and Murder

Mellifont Abbey's Lavado (communal washing place), from Francis Grose's 'Mellifont Abbey, Co Louth pl:2' published 1792. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Images. 
Over the Winter holidays I sat down and read Dr. Barry W. O'Dwyer's "The Conspiracy of Mellifont, 1216-1231" (Dublin Historical Association, 1970), which a fellow historian kindly gifted me some 20 years ago and has regrettably sat mostly idle on my bookshelf ever since.  

Essentially, the paper looks at the Irish Cistercian monasteries just after the arrival of the Normans and the influence the Norman conquest had on Irish ecclesiastical reform.  From a modern point of view, I would tend to assume ecclesiastical reform takes the shape of much discussion and argument amongst religieux albeit in a somewhat civilised manner.  Not so, gentle reader, not so.  

Dr. O'Dwyer recounts how the French Cistercian mother-house & general chapter's desire to reform Irish Cistercian houses & communities was met with much resistance and outright violence.  In 1216 a reform visitation to Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny was prevented by the abbot calling "out his whole community to oppose the visitation, and because of his contumacy, his disobedience and his disorderly conduct, he received the same sentence as the abbot of Mellifont and was deposed."  (O'Dwyer, The Conspiracy of Mellifont, 1216-1231, pg. 16)

Jerpoint Abbey by Katzegoesireland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  Images
In early August of 1228, Stephen of Lexington,  on his travels to visit various Irish Cistercian houses representing the Abbot of Clairvaux and intending to set the renegade houses to rights, chronicles that upon his arrival at Mellifont, "he found that sixty eight out of a total of one hundred and ten religious had already taken to the hills to avoid him, and they had carried with them the monastic charters, chalices and books as well as the processional cross." (ibid., p. 22) 

Later that month Stephen sent a lay-brother ahead of him to the community at Suir (Inislounaght Abbey, near Clonmel, I believe).  The prior of the Suir community laid a trap in the adjoining nunnery and when the lay-brother arrived he was ambushed, stripped, beaten and tortured.  One of the lay-brother's servants was able to escape to Clonmel to raise the alarm, a result of which was that a group of Irish monks were then sent to the prior at Suir to "persuade him to see reason". (ibid., p.23)  Not only did they fail but they returned to Clonmel and described this: "all the vigorous members of the monastery were armed and were drawn up in battle order, headed by the prior who had thrown off his cowl and stood in his scapular with a sword in one hand, a lance in the other and with a scabbard hung around his neck." (ibid., p. 23) Not. Messing. Around. 

Meanwhile, in Co Cork, "Fermoy became the centre of a further rebellion against the authority of the general chapter in 1229 and 1230.  The abbot appointed there after the deposition of 1227 was murdered in his monastery in 1230." (ibid., p. 21)  Stephen of Lexington is famously quoted as saying he found the "marks of death" amongst a "bestial people".   But did his experiences impress that attitude upon him or was he discriminatory towards the Irish Cistercian houses from the start? 

And why such adverse reactions to ecclesiastical reform? Church reform had begun in Ireland prior to the Norman Invasion (e.g. Synod of Ráth Breasail) on a variety of issues.  "it has been claimed that they would not have opposed reform of the Irish houses where reform was called for, but what they were opposing were the actions of the visitors who were too closely associated with the efforts then being made by the Anglo-Norman churchmen, secular and religious alike, to bring the Irish Church under their control by excluding Irishmen from ecclesiastical offices and by introducing the Norman culture, oftentimes forcibly, into the Irish monastic houses." (ibid., p. 29) In his conclusion, O'Dwyer suggests the location of the Cistercian houses themselves offer insight into understanding their resistance as those in the Marches would act to prevent a further spread of Anglo-Norman culture (Mellifont, Jerpoint) while those already in areas of Norman control (Fermoy, Inishlounaght) would fight and resist the strongest.  (Ibid., pp. 39-40)

The Conspiracy of Mellifont, 1216-1231 by Barry W. O'Dwyer





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