RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London cathedrals disrespect offences excommunication commerce sanitation recreation vandalism assemblies folkmoot
Subject: Disrespect for religious places
Original source: Lambeth Palace Library?, Reg. Braybrook, f.330
Transcription in: David Wilkins, ed. Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae ab Anno MCCCL ad Annum MDXLV, London, 1737, vol.3, 194.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: 1385


To all sons of Holy Mother Church into whose hands these letters come, Robert, by divine permission Bishop of London, gives greetings. Lord Jesus, our Saviour, when he entered the Temple, predecessor to the Church, and seeing there the Jewish populace more involved in buying and selling than in prayer, and in the uninhibited performance of other abominable acts there, by whipping them with cords ejected the buyers and sellers, and overturned the tables of the money-worshippers .... Now indeed, it has come to our attention through persistent reports made by many credible persons that on an almost daily basis, and particularly on days of worship and festival days, people – both men and women – are getting together at our cathedral church for the purpose of selling merchandize, goods, and other things; so that this place, which was created for the worship of God, has been perverted through the increasing iniquities of the people. At their stations there, as if they were in a public square or marketplace, they show disrespect [for the place] by exposing for sale and selling their merchandize, goods and other things. Not content with this, but as if degenerate and ungrateful sons, neither paying heed nor showing respect to their mother, they defecate next to the entrance and urinate upon the doors of our church, and in the churchyard; which, hardly surprising, is abhorrent and disgusting – not only in appearance but in its stench – to those persons who visit our church to perform their devotions.

There are also others – insolent, idle persons answering to no-one, troublemakers by nature, who would rather cause mischief than make themselves useful – who throw or shoot stones, arrows, and various other missiles at the crows, pigeons and other birds that nest or perch in the walls and recesses of the church. Not only that, but they play ball-games inside and outside the church, and engage in other destructive games, breaking or seriously damaging the glass windows and the stone carvings in the church; which, being of the highest craftsmanship and very expensive, are adornments throughout the church and add refinement to its fabric, giving pleasure to those who gaze upon them. In doing so they offend God, cause us and our church injury, and also expose their souls to grave danger.

With the intent, therefore, of putting a stop to these kinds of wicked, malicious, and injurious activities, insofar as we are able – to avoid the appearance of approval or sanction that would come from tolerating what ought to be suppressed, or letting it go unpunished, or looking the other way – we are by this document issuing a warning [to be proclaimed] three times, requiring that each and every person committing the types of offences mentioned above, within ten days of the publication of this document ... cease and desist from these kinds of wicked acts, on pain of sentence of major excommunication ... By virtue of the sacred obedience [owed us by] each and every rector, vicar, priest, and curate who is ordained in our city of London, we command and enjoin very strictly that they proclaim publicly and with all solemnity – with the ringing of bells, lighting of candles, and holding erect the cross in their hands – that all and any troublemakers who commit such offences after the issuance of our warning have been and are excommunicated. And this is to be proclaimed on the dates and at the times and places which they consider most effective.

Given in our palace at London, 9 November 1385, in the fourth year following our consecration.


St. Paul's was founded in 604 as the episcopal seat it has remained; its early foundation helped make it an integral part of the city and city life, rather than the imposition of a rival authority as was the case with cathedral-priory foundations in some other English cities (although this did not prevent jurisdictional disputes between city and chapter). Londoners' pride in St. Pauls was reflected in his figure being placed on the common seal of the city. The structure that existed in the Late Middle Ages was even more of a landmark than the present building, with a spire considerably higher than the current dome; it was the largest church in England, and even few continental cathedrals surpassed it. In that period the cathedral was surrounded by a sizable wall-enclosed precinct that consumed a large chunk of the western end of the city; the roads leading west out of the city had to circumvent this obstacle.

The precinct was a lively place. The bishop had his palace there, the canons and cathedral officials their residences; St. Paul's brewery and bakery, nearby, furnished bread for that community. The cathedral drew the citizenry to services, particularly on important holy days, and there were even two parish churches incorporated within the precinct. St. Paul's was a sanctuary and so among those it attracted were undesirables The folkmoot had its traditional meeting-place in the northeast corner of the precinct. Although there were few such gatherings in the Late Middle Ages, that area attracted congregations who came to listen to sermons or public proclamations delivered from St. Paul's Cross, near the folkmoot site, and the churchyard was a common assembly point for crowds. Because of the large area consumed by the precinct, it was inevitably a thoroughfare for the citizens, whether on daily business or taking part in civic parades. Men of trade and commerce met within the precinct, and even the cathedral itself, to make business deals; by the sixteenth century it had become notorious for this.

Bishop Braybroke's complaint and injunction is indicative of the alarm that the resident religious community was feeling because of the familiarity with which the citizens treated St. Paul's. From his perspective, things were getting out of hand. His was the earliest known of a series of efforts to prevent the cathedral precinct from being used as a place for inappropriate activities; the efforts continued up to the seventeenth century. From another perspective the abuses are indicative of the importance of churches in the everyday life of medieval townspeople.

As another instance of Bishop Braybroke's battle against contempt for the Church, in 1391 he sent instructions to the parish priests of London to warn barbers and scriveners among their parishioners not to conduct business on Sundays or religious festivals, but to abstain from work and attend mass instead. He attributed this disregard of holy days as due to sloth and greed. Yet the underlying concern was not simply with matters of immorality jeopardizing the souls of the offenders, but with the fear that Sunday opening of shops would spread to other crafts. The scriveners, who recorded a copy of the bishop's instructions in their company records, blamed the problem on outsiders practicing the craft without being subject to control of the company wardens, and used the concerns of the Church as a lever to try to assert more influence over practitioners, including a prohibition of Sunday work. Despite this, in February 1396 five scriveners were accused before the wardens of opening their shops, hanging outside the signs of their trade, and doing business on holy days. They and other scriveners of like mind put up an opposition to the wardens, who however appealed to the city authorities and had a ringleader thrown in gaol.



Robert Braybroke became Bishop of London in 1382, holding office until 1405. He was one of the most active of the medieval bishops of London. The year following his effort to cleanse the precinct, he was trying to resurrect observance of the festivals dedicated to St. Paul and St. Erconwald, while in 1392 he sought to prevent London shoemakers from working on Sundays or other holy days. Yet he was also considered lax in taking action against prostitution.

"defecate" "urinate"
This I take to be the meaning of naturae suae pondera foetida et horrenda, the locations given suggesting both bodily functions; the verbs in the sentence indicate both that they dropped their loads and then failed to clear away the faeces.

The original term, inhonestos, means shameful or inappropriate; but in this context it would appear that the connotation is harmful.

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Created: March 14, 2003. Last update: February 9, 2005 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2005