Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Altruism and self-interest

Why did Samson le Fort (or Samson Fortis as he is sometimes known) decide to establish a religious community in Harrold?  And why an Arouasian house?  As we know almost nothing about Samson we can only speculate.

There were many motivations for this type of  decision.   It cannot have been taken lightly: Samson gave up some significant personal wealth - enough to build a large house and to support a sizeable community of religious men and women, plus their servants.

Glastonbury Abbey as it might have been:
Probably the single most important reason would have been spiritual.   By establishing Harrold Priory Samson would have been investing in his afterlife.  As founder and benefactor the priests of Harrold (it was originally priests and nuns) would have been contracyed to pray for Samson's soul after his death: generally the founder would have a daily mass said for his benefit each day as well as having other prayers offered up for his soul. He may originally have had a special chapel built for this purpose in Harrold church.  Monasteries such as Glastonbury had packages available for benefactors: the more you gave, the more they prayed. It may be that Samson himself was buried in St Peter's, Harrold.

Another common reason for founding a religious community was as a result of a 'deal' with God. In this scenario the benefactor would be in a situation where he or she felt his life was in mortal danger. In this time of stress they would vow to do something amazing if only God (or a saint) would intervene and save their lives.  Common times for such vows were wars, sickness and travel.

Samson would have been required to provide military assistance to his king, Henry I, but in the years leading up to the foundation of Harrold Priory the realm was relatively peaceful.   After Henry's death,  by contrast,  the country descended into 20 years of civil war, but that's another story).  It  could simply have been a travelling drama: Samson would have had to move between his estates in England and those in Normandy: perhaps on one of these trips his ship got into difficulties and Samson 'did a deal' with God: save my life and I will found a monastery?  Some monasteries and nunneries were founded when their patrons set off for one of the Crusades: in this case, though, the First Crusade was over several years previously, and it would be another  few years before the next got underway.

Such a scenario is not so far fetched,  and this type of  vow was commonplace even at the end of the 19th century.   The endowment of Waterford church in Hertfordshire and its priceless collection of stained glass, was triggered by such a 'deal' when the wealthy benefactor was 'miraculously' cured of a terminal disease.  Medieval England, meanwhile,  was still affected by the White Ship tragedy of 1320 when 300 people,  including the heir to the throne and many leading nobles drowned in a simple accident off the coast of Normandy.

But why Arouaise?  The original 'mother' community seems to have been somewhere in the Pas de Calais region.  Perhaps Samson's ancestral lands were there?  Maybe he was merely seduced by the charms of Abbot Gervase?  The end result was that Harrold Priory was founded in 1336, as a daughter house of the Abbey of Arouaise.


Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

No comments:

Post a Comment