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Jocelin of Brakelond

Jocelin of Brakelond

Circa 1156 - Circa 1215
Monk AND Chronicler

Sources

Jocelin’s Life. Jocelin of Brakelond is well known as a monastic chronicler of medieval Europe, but little is known of his biography beyond what he revealed in his writings. He was born around 1156, probably in the English town of Bury St. Edmunds. The name or Brakelond comes from one of the ancient street names there. By 1173 he had become a novice in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, under the care of Samson of Tottington, who was then master of novices. When Samson became abbot of Bury St. Edmunds in 1182, Jocelin became Samson’s chaplain and close companion. Throughout his life in the monastery, Jocelin filled monastic offices such as guest master and almoner, and gained a reputation for devotion and determination. A fellow monk described Jocelin as “a man of excellent religious observance, as well as a power both in word and work.” Jocelin outlived his mentor Samson by at least several years. Samson died in 1212, and the last record of Jocelin appeared in 1215, when the new abbot consulted him about some of the abbey properties.

Becoming an Author. The date when Jocelin began writing is uncertain, but his purpose is clear: “I have undertaken to write of those things which I have seen and heard, and which have occurred in the church of Saint Edmund, from the year in which the Flemings were taken without the town, in which year also I assumed the religious habit, and in which Prior Hugh was deposed and Robert made prior in his room. And I have related the evil as a warning, and the good for an example.” His chronicle covers the years 1173-1202, spanning the government of two abbots and the reigns of several English kings. Like many other medieval chroniclers, Jocelin seldom wrote about himself, except for the time he focused on his failings in a chapter titled “How the author spoke his mind too hastily.” Instead, the chronicle dwells on politics within the monastery and between the monastery and secular and other ecclesiastical powers. Central to the chronicle is the figure of Abbot Samson, whom Jocelin depicted as a savior after the well-intentioned mismanagement of the previous abbot. Because of Samson’s key role, the chronicle is often called as much a biography of Samson as an account of the history of the monastery.

Personalities in the Monastery. Strong personalities emerge throughout Jocelin’s story, and one of the dominant themes is the opposition Abbot Samson faced inside and outside the abbey. The monks schemed over who should become abbot, whispered behind closed doors about Samson’s plans, and plotted against him. Jocelin condemned these actions, and the plotters always failed. He also supported Samson’s involvement in what modern people might call worldly affairs. Jocelin described Samson as an active and ambitious landlord, fighting for abbey property rights, suppressing rebellious townsmen, and controlling upstart lords. He served as a judge for the region and supported Richard the Lionhearted during his captivity in Austria (1192-1194). Jocelin did not remain separate from the world either; as guest master and almoner he provided for travelers who needed shelter at the monastery and distributed alms to the local needy. Jocelin and his chronicle are testimony to the central place of monks and religious communities in medieval Europe—and the humanity of those communities.

Sources

Thomas Carlyle, Jocelin of Brakelond: From Past and Present (New York: Rudge, 1923).

Jocelin of Brakelond, The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

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