RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London charity hospitals fundraising butchers religiosity
Subject: Collecting for charity
Original source: British Library, Cotton Ms. Vespasian B ix, ff.54-55
Transcription in: Norman Moore, ed. The Book of the Foundation of St. Bartholomew's Church in London, Early English Text Society, no.163 (1923), 24-25.
Original language: Middle English
Location: London
Date: ca.1130s


Chapter 22: Concerning Godric the butcher

When indeed the aforementioned church began to rise from foundations that the heavenly Father had put in place, and the reputation of the apostle's virtues was spreading throughout the neighbourhood, Rahere associated himself with a certain elderly man known as Aelfwine, who had the seriousness of those his age and associated with that seriousness the wisdom of age. Not long before, that old man had built the church of St. Giles by the city gate whose name in English is Cripplegate, and had brought that project to a successful conclusion. Rahere thought this man could be a big help to him. He took him on as his associate and, with his advice and assistance, arranged and undertook all that needed to be done. It was the habit of this Aelfwine to roam the neighbourhood around the church, along with ecclesiastical officials, on the business of soliciting contributions for the relief of the poor men who were laid up in the hospital and for those who had been hired to build the church. He was diligent in bringing back whatever was handed over to him and dividing it among those who needed it. Now there was a certain butcher by the name of Godric, a hard man and acerbic, far more than he had any business being; not only would he refuse to give anything to someone who asked him, but he would scornfully insult them. One day, as this Aelfwine was going around to the butchers, one by one, after the others he came to this Godric and in the name of the apostle urged him with good and honest words, persevering unwaveringly, regardless of whether the moment were opportune or inopportune, despite his unwillingness to give anything; he [i.e. Aelfwine] was not willing to go away empty-handed. And when the old man came to the realisation that neither for the fear or love of God, nor for the shame that any normal man would feel, could that hard and stubborn heart be softened from its persistent refusal, he was driven to exclaim:

"What a sorry excuse for a man you are! Disrespectful and ungrateful towards the Giver of all things, for you will not share with Christ's poor folk those things given by heaven's grace. Wretched man, I entreat you to soften a little your hard and unfaithful heart, and open it up to the virtue of the glorious apostle – if you place your trust in him, I promise you that each heap of meat from which you give me a portion will sell faster than any other; and, what is more, without any reduction in its price."
This did nothing to stir up any charitable feelings in him, but worn down by the persistence of the supplicant, he brought forth a piece of the worst [meat] and threw it into his [i.e. Aelfwine's] pot and, calling them truants, told them to take themselves off. To which Aelfwine replied: "I shall not leave here until what I have foretold has come about." No sooner had he spoken than there came a citizen wishing to buy meat for himself and his household. And he bought that heap to which Aelfwine had referred, at the price of the seller, and carried it away with him. When the news of this spread throughout the butchers' market it was taken, as was fitting, to be a creditable miracle. From that time on, they began to be more enthusiastic about giving alms, more fervent in their devotions, and competed to be the first to give – particularly he, the hardness of whose faithless heart had been dissipated through the power of Christ the Lord, who promised to anyone giving a dishful of cold water to someone who comes in the name of a disciple that he will not go unrewarded.


This anecdote is one of many recounted in a work whose purpose is to describe the foundation in 1123 of a priory and hospital dedicated to St. Bartholomew and at the same time present (as Christopher Brooke puts it) a "prospectus" illustrating to pilgrims or the sick the efficacy of the hospital as a place of miracles. St. Bartholomew was not one of the foremost saints, but there had been previous English foundations dedicated to him, including close to London a hospital at Rochester/Chatham in the late eleventh century.

The founder of the London institution was Rahere, a man of whom we have almost no mention other than in this work. According to the author, Rahere was of humble birth, but sought to improve his lot by becoming a hanger-on at the court of King Henry I. This description, which probably stems from Rahere's own self-deprecating story of his youth, uses terms that suggest he was some kind of court jester, although Professor Brooke proposes that he may rather have held some clerical position at the court. Whichever is the case, he seems to have prospered and become more serious at the same time; a man of this unusual name is found as a canon of St. Paul's.

Regretting his youthful follies, Rahere made a pilgrimage to Rome where, becoming seriously ill and fearing that he had not yet cleansed his soul, he vowed that if he were restored to health he would build a hospital for the poor. On his return journey, still feverish, he had a vision of hell, followed by one of St. Bartholomew, who instructed him to build a church in the London suburb of (West) Smithfield. Later in that century FitzStephen painted an appealing picture of the horse market at Smithfield; the "smooth field" was evidently already by the 1120s dedicated to the horse and cattle markets and Rahere, when he obtained licence from the king to proceed with his plans, faced erecting church and hospital on ground to the east; much of this area was marshy, but Rahere built on the higher part, which had been used for public executions (the gallows thereafter being moved further west, to a spot now under the present meat market at Smithfield). The land given him by the king was expansive enough for a large priory to be built and a separate hospital close by, to the southwest. He began that task in 1123 and, by recruiting citizens to help him with reclaiming the land, fundraising, transporting building materials (the stone being imported) and building, work had proceeded sufficiently for the site to be consecrated by the end of 1129.

The account of these events was set down by a canon of the priory, in the years following the death in 1174 of Rahere's successor. The author claims to have obtained information from those who had known Rahere. The surviving copy of this account dates from ca.1400. It is likely that the book incorporates elements of fact amidst its propaganda.

Whether true or not, the story above provides a small corrective to documentation of charitable foundations and gifts, indicating that not everyone was of a charitable frame of mind. At the same time, while the charitable foundations of the twelfth century are more commonly associated with royalty or the nobility, wealthy citizens were also active either as founders or as donors, and the story of Godric implies that he was an exception to the rule of charitable giving. While the stories in the foundation book talk in terms of modest donations, the survival of hospitals and other such foundations relied upon their endowment with real estate, usually from bequests.

Rahere became the first prior of the Augustinian community he established. In 1133 he secured a royal charter, giving the priory various privileges and exemptions, and licensing a three-day fair around the feast of St. Bartholomew; this fair, which had apparently grown up because of the crowds of pilgrims, sick, cured persons etc. who gathered at the church on the feast-day, became one of the major cloth fairs of medieval England. By Rahere's death in 1143 only the eastern end of the church had been completed; its choir is today one of the few medieval structures to remain standing in London. Furnished with royal and papal grants of privileges, St. Bartholomew's went on to become a wealthy priory, although the hospital became distanced from it at the end of the century; Rahere's successor as prior appointed a businessman, Adam the Merchant, to run the hospital. A charter of 1147 defines the purpose of the hospital as to provide shelter and care for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and orphans; in the fourteenth century, the hospital was focusing its efforts on looking after the sick poor until they had recovered, caring for pregnant women until after they had given birth, and maintaining children born in the hospital until they were seven years old. A separate building, south of the Thames, was set up as a leper house.

Although the account, unlike FitzStephen's written around the same time, does not have London as its focus, its miracle stories throw some light, incidentally, on urbanisation in England and there are points of comparison with what FitzStephen reveals. We have reference to the specialized markets in London – that at Smithfield, and the Shambles just within the walls south of the site of St. Bartholomew's – as well as the Jewish quarter. We see that the brewing of ale was already a task associated primarily with women in the first half of the twelfth century. Rural residents were coming in to London to buy or sell food in the markets there, paying toll at the city gates, while the women were taking on piecework, spinning cloth to be sold by the wives of the citizens. Mentions of prostitutes and pimps reflect another trade for which London was well-known. We hear of commercial voyages from London to the "ends of the earth". Meanwhile, Flemish merchants were heading for London's harbour; two such ventures are mentioned, one involving a fleet of eleven ships owned by the merchants and carrying domestic goods made by Flemish craftsmen. There are also references to the coastal trade between Dunwich and London, ships setting out from Sandwich and Dover, as well as travel between Norwich and Yarmouth, and between Northamptonshire towns and London – one case involving a young man possibly off to seek his fortune in London, and another involving the transport of logs to be sold in London. One merchant of Hastings is mentioned as bringing wine from foreign parts to London in his ship, in a story in which we hear how many Hastings houses were lost in a great fire.

In another anecdote, a Colchester victualler perceived the king's war in Wales (1157) as an opportunity to supply the army, and was able to make a good profit from his venture (relying on coastal rather than overland transportation), some of which he then reinvested in other business deals. He was so occupied with his business dealings that he could not find the time to go to St. Bartholomew's to donate a few pennies he had apparently vowed to give in return for success in his venture. When his money was stolen on the return journey, he called on the saint for aid, only to be upbraided for fraudulent dealings to earn exorbitant profit, and for being dilatory in fulfilling his vow. Naturally the story ends with him fulfilling his charitable obligations.

Yet another story reflects on the role of the hospital, and why people placed faith in its ability to restore them to health:

"Another man, named Aldwyn, lived in a town which is called Dunwich on the sea-shore, who was so crippled that he had not the free use either of feet or hands.... When the story of the miracles of the most blessed apostle reached him he began to raise his sorrowful spirit with a better hope and to promise himself that he would have health if he should be carried thither.
Therefore... he paid the passage money and was set on a ship and, being carried to the church, was set in the hospital of the poor and supported there some time of the alms of the said church. Meanwhile, by the virtue of the apostle he began to revive and his longed-for health began to return bit by bit. And so at first, bent though he was, he made with his hands little things such as distaffs, weights, and other girls' gear. Next as his steps grew stronger and his limbs enjoyed their natural vigour, he followed the more important works of those who cut logs with axe and hatchet, and not long after practised the craft of carpentry in the same church and throughout the City of London as he had been taught as a boy, blessing God whose eyes are on them that fear Him and on those who hope in His mercy."
[E.A. Webb, ed. The Book of the Foundation of the Church of St. Bartholomew, London. Oxford: University Press, 1923, 26-27]



"apostle's virtues"
The reference here is to the efficacy of prayers to St. Bartholomew, one of the 12 apostles, whether at the church dedicated to him or elsewhere, for healing the sick or protecting those in danger; a number of such miracles having been recounted earlier in the book.

Alfunine in the original, although a different source renders the name as Aelmund.

"church of St. Giles"
Built just outside the walls, a little east of the site for St. Bartholomew's, its location might suggest a role as a leper-house, but we know it only as a parish church; not long after Queen Matilda built a leper hospital dedicated to St. Giles in the Fields just west of London (Holborn). South-west of St. Bartholomew's, the extra-mural parish church of St. Sepulchre Newgate was also built by an individual or group associated with Rahere.

In the sense of someone who avoids work, preferring to live by begging from others

"made a pilgrimage"
An implicit association is often made between Rahere's change in attitude and the gloom that overtook the king's court after Prince Henry drowned when the White Ship sank in November 1120. However, the book of St. Bartholomew's states that Rahere was prior for 22½ years, yet he died in September 1143. If this is not an error by the writer (which seems unlikely, for the writer clearly knew 1143 was the year of death), it may be a matter of licence, with the priorate being dated back to the conception of Rahere's plan. Since that would point to early 1121, when Rahere was already lingering sick in Rome, he is likely to have departed for Rome prior to the death of Prince Henry. An alternate inspiration for his conversion might have been the death of Henry I's queen in 1118; Matilda's own good works had included the foundation of the Augustinian priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate and the hospital of St. Giles (see note above).

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Created: March 14, 2003. Last update: December 18, 2011 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2011