Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds
Jocelin of Brakelond
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [12th c.]
These notes originally written 30 October 2005.
I stumbled upon this little volume in a used book store and, as I’ve an amateurish interest in medieval culture, decided to buy it. Written by a monk of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (in Suffolk, England) in the 12th century, it narrates various happenings in that monastery over a period of about 30 years.
There is no overriding narrative here. The author — Jocelin of Brakelond by name — seems to have simply jotted things down when the fancy took him. Most of what he records pertains to the politics, both internal and external, of the monastery, and with financial matters. There is one amusing section in which he records the fees paid to the monastery by knights of the district. If I was looking for spiritual exhortation or insight into monastic piety I quickly learned that I should look for it elsewhere.
Though the events of the monastery are not exactly of earth-shattering importance, the book does give one a fascinating view into medieval life at the time. Jocelin himself is a wise old bird whose observations of his fellow monks are carefully weighed and perceptive. He does not shrink from relating the drama and discord surrounding elections within the monastery. In the background of the community’s life we see the Kings of England (who on a few occasions come to visit), the life of the surrounding town, and in the distance the waging of the Third Crusade.
The most interesting part of the book to me was the account of the fire at the shrine of St. Edmund, and of the subsequent translation of the body and examination of the corpse (by then about 300 years old and still, says Jocelyn, incorrupt). I found it a real delight.