Viewpoint: The Good Old Days in the Church were not always so great

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Recently I have been reading up on cathedral and monastic life in the Middle Ages. Things, it turns out, were not always as great as we might expect in that glorious age of faith.

Particularly illuminating—and entertaining—are the correspondences between bishops and their clergy, the chronicles of abbeys, and the records of episcopal visits to their cathedrals.

The official register of Archbishop Rigaldi of Rouen carries an account entered on March 19, 1248. The Archbishop lists the more common vices of the cathedral clergy, among them “tavern-haunting, drunkenness, and gambling.” He also complained that “the clergy wander about the church and talk with women during the celebration of the divine service.” Apparently many clergy had businesses on the side and were not above using cathedral money in their adventures. Not surprisingly, the Archbishop found that cathedral “revenues were mismanaged.”

In medieval England, where one might expect things to be a little more sedate, life in the cathedrals was far from upstanding.

As recorded in his official register on October 15, 1330, the Bishop of Exeter complained that the cathedral clergy “fear not to exercise irreverently and damnably certain disorders and laughings . . .  during the solemn services of the church, which is shameful to recite and horrible to hear.”

The Bishop describes one troublesome practice which he found: “Those [clergy] who stand in the upper stalls of the choir and have [candles] within their reach at matins, knowingly and purposely throw drippings . . . from the candles upon the head or the hair of those who stand in the lowers stalls, with the purpose of exciting laughter and generating discord.” The Bishop threatened excommunication upon the misbehaving clergy.

It wasn’t always the high jinks of the cathedral clergy that got episcopal ire up. Sometimes, it was just the dirt. When the Bishop of York visited his cathedral in 1519, he upbraided the clergy for the filthy vestments and the general disarray of the cathedral. He complained that “the little altars are so ragged and torn that it would be a great shame to see such in any uplandish town.” Translation: That sort of sloppiness you might find at St. Hilda-in-the Sticks, but certainly not at the cathedral,

The Bishop went on to complain that the tapestries stored in the clergy house were lying around so that “dogges” do on them what “dogges” are inclined to do. The Bishop of York was fastidious indeed, for the list of complaints goes on for another three and a half pages.

Relations between the Bishop of York and his clergy were often such that the clergy addressed the bishop as “Thou rascal,” Thou Scoundrel,” “O wretch.” Modern expressions such as “Bishop, I’m feeling a little upset with you right now” are an improvement.

One of my favorite stories is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle concerning Abbot Thurston of Glastonbury. The Abbot experienced resistance among the monks when he tried to introduce the French style of singing chant. The Abbot’s solution was to station Norman archers in a good shooting position in the abbey church and when the monks persisted in singing in the traditional manner, the Abbot signaled to the archers, who then let the monks have it.

Needless to say, they were great and anonymous saints among the medieval clergy and monastics, but we are well warned not to romanticize the Middle Ages—and to recognize correlatively that our own generation is not so terrible.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent’s parish, Salt Lake City.

By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City.


  1. Norman archers to keep liturgical musicians in line. What a great idea. Reminds me of a story, probably apocryphal, about the conductor Otto Klemperer. Shortly after being diagnosed with a brain tumor he supposedly began a rehearsal by placing a German luger on his conductor’s stand. Hey, whatever works.

  2. I’m particularly fond of the story (possibly apocryphal) of the young Franz-Josef Haydn, who, as a boy-chorister, was unceremoniously sacked from the choir of St Stephen’s, Vienna, for snipping the pigtail off the wig of the boy in front of him. Even more apocryphal is this supposed dialogue:
    “Choirmaster: You shall be beaten for this;
    Haydn: No – I’ll leave the choir!
    Choirmaster: Very well, you shall leave the choir. But you’ll still be beaten…”

    (Not sure how far that gets us…)

  3. As recorded in his official register on October 15, 1330, the Bishop of Exeter complained that the cathedral clergy “fear not to exercise irreverently and damnably certain disorders and laughings . . . during the solemn services of the church…… with the purpose of exciting laughter and generating discord.”

    Gee, all this time I was led to believe that clown Masses were the product of Vatican II….

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