The Financial Side of a Medieval Priory by Priscilla Royal

Posted by on Mar 23, 2015 in Featured Book, Medieval Great Britain | 2 comments

Satans-Lullaby185x280Most of us think medieval priories were places of prayer and contemplation, filled with men and/or women who forsook the world to devote their lives to prayers for souls in purgatory, purification of their own bodies and the intense worship of God. What we don’t realize is that none of these establishments ever survived without a leader of either gender who was skilled in business and worldly enough to successfully lure funding from all possible sources. Rome did not fund her religious houses. They were dependent on donations, gifts, legacies, and the gratitude of pilgrims if they were lucky enough to be on a pilgrimage trail.

Prioresses and abbesses of single gender houses had a harder time because, in addition to finding money to pay for their own food and other costs of living, they had to pay for one or more priests. (The male houses usually had one amongst the flock.) They also were usually smaller establishments and thus less attractive to donors of significant means.

My fictional Prioress Eleanor was more fortunate. The Order of Fontevraud, to which she belonged, was favored by the Counts of Anjou—who just happened to produce King Henry II. He took his father’s fondness for the Order with him to England and actually got rid of the nuns and abbess in the Benedictine house at Amesbury so he might invite the Fontevraudines to take it over as a daughter house in England. Prioress Eleanor was also lucky because her Order was a double house of men and women where the Order itself and each house within it were ruled by women. She had the requisite priests in house or close enough to hand in other daughter houses.

But with the need to run a good business and still be her flock’s moral leader, a prioress (especially because she was defined as a “weak and irrational” woman) ran into the problem of how to walk the fine line between being too much in the world and not enough. In most Orders, a high ranking cleric would schedule regular reviews of monastic practices in all priories/abbeys in his region to stop any questionable practices. These investigative reviews included everything from diet, the quality of clothing, and any repairs needed to walls or fish ponds. Since the Order of Fontevraud answered only to Rome, the abbess decided when, by whom, and to what extent her daughter houses should be visited. Evidence suggests, not surprisingly, that reviews were rarely done and were almost always fiscal.

That brings us to Satan’s Lullaby, my eleventh series book, in which Prioress Eleanor has been told to expect an investigator from the mother house, a man who is the abbess’ brother and soon to be named a bishop in France. Not only does this event have political implications, but it also proves that nothing precludes jealousy and revenge against a leader who has been successful in running a profitable religious house.

Priscilla Royal, March 23, 2015

2 Comments

  1. Good to see that Prioress Eleanor is back ‘in harness,’ so to speak. I always enjoy this series.

    • Thank you! She is beginning to wonder if I will ever let her rest. Not likely…