The Epistle of Thurstan of York
The Letter of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, to William of Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Legate of the Apostolic See, gives a very colourful and sometimes amusing account of the events which set the stage for the founding of Fountains Abbey. The Letter was written in the last months of 1132. No less a person than Bernard of Clairvaux proclaims the merits of the author, Archbishop Thurstan:
The splendor of your work and your reputation among men have combined greatly, as I know, to your credit. Your deeds prove that yours is no undeserved or empty reputation, for facts themselves bear out what hitherto has everywhere been reported of you . . .  I admire you. . . .
Thurston not only had a great understanding and appreciation of monastic life, as is seen in this letter, but also a personal desire to embrace it, as is evident from another letter addressed to him by St. Bernard. Thurstan's Letter is brought forward as a witness to the fact that the Cistercian Fathers sought to live the evangelical life according to the monastic tradition expressed in the Rule of St. Benedict.
Thurstan repeatedly and explicitly states that this was the intent of the Founders of Fountains Abbey:
. . . men who were determined to correct their way of life according to the Rule of St. Benedict, or rather, according to the truth of the Gospel.(3)
These brethren with many tears sought nothing but . . . that they might not be impeded from living in evangelical peace and observing the Rule of the Blessed Father Benedict.(4)
All of them are seeking full observance of the Rule and of their profession and likewise of the Gospel.(19)
. . . these men who wish truly to obey the Gospel of Christ and the Rule of St. Benedict . . .(20)
The Epistle of Thurstan, Archbishop of York
To William his most revered Lord in Christ's love, by the grace of God Archbishop of Canterbury and Legate of the Apostolic See, Thurstan, by the same grace, Archbishop of York, expresses the earnest desire that his Lord might grow in Christ and never fall away.
1. It is the highest honour of an ecclesiastical dignitary to give the best counsel to the finest sons of the Church when they are in most difficult situations. Wherefore, my venerable Lord and esteemed Father, we have decided to bring to the attention of your Paternity an unusual thing which has happened recently among us here at York.
2. Indeed, it is well known and certain to many men how great in the eyes of all is the goodness and virtuous renown of the outstanding Monastery of St. Mary's of York. Because it is without doubt true that when riches increase, virtue begins to wane and be less constant, some of the brethren of this monastery for the past half-year, moved by divine inspiration I believe, have begun to be very concerned about the manner and condition of their way of life. The gnawing of their consciences, as they have testified, has caused them much distress. For they fear that they would be wholly failing if they did not live out in a holy way their awesome vows. Whence, these brethren of York were struck with a very terrible fear in that they seemed to carry out their profession in nothing, or, at least, in very few things. They feared, indeed, lest they were running or had run, if indeed not to damnation itself, at least in vain because of the guilt that lay upon them for such great infidelity to their vows. They believed it to be a crime, or rather insanity, to bear the yoke of the Rule of St. Benedict not unto salvation but unto condemnation.
3. Therefore, disturbed by these things, these brethren undertook to make known the concern that was burning in their hearts to their Prior, Richard, revealing their fear concerning their transgressions. They sought his help to correct the situation; and lest he fear to be of help out of considerations of prosperity or adversity, they adjured him by the Spirit of God and the Name of Christ. He was alarmed at the novelty of the thing they offered. But although among his own his position was the best, once he heard the quiet call to a better life, he pondered seriously upon the doubtful promise of his transitory good fortune. For a short time he took counsel within himself, considering the alternatives, and then he made his decision. He promised not only to help, but, indeed, to ally himself with their desires. What then? Within a short time the number increased to fully thirteen who were determined to correct their way of life according to the Rule of St. Benedict, or rather, according to the truth of the Gospel.
4. Therefore, on the Vigil of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, our beloved brother, Prior Richard, on whom almost the whole care of the monastery rested, taking with him his Subprior, Gervaise, who was well known among his brethren for his religious spirit, went to their Lord Abbot and frankly made known to him the whole matter as it had developed. The Lord Abbot, a man who, in his own way and according to his own lights, is decent and good, but, however, overly simple and unschooled, was terrified by the miracle of this new spirit. He denied that he could change in his monastery the ancient rites and the usual practices which generally obtained throughout the whole world. But the Prior, as a man well read, responded: "Father, we do not seek to introduce anything crude or new. We must undertake with all our strength to observe by God's grace the true and age-old service of our blessed Father Benedict, or rather, the more ancient Gospel of Christ, which precedes all vows and rules. We do not seek to detract in any way from the rest of the monks. We are not envious of their practices. We know that in every place one Lord is served. We fight under one King. Both in the public square and in the cloister the same grace of God prevails and wins out. For Job is stronger on his dungheap than Adam in Paradise. Whatever the blessed Benedict established, the whole of it was designed by the Providence of the Holy Spirit, so that nothing more useful, more holy, or happy can be conceived. As he knew and taught that idleness was the enemy of the soul, he arranged that certain times should be given to reading and to fervent prayer and that certain times be given to labor and to work, in such wise that at one time the soul would be fruitfully employed, at another, the body, and thus both would be saved from weariness. And, moreover, he added this, 'Coarse jests and idle words or words that move to laughter, these we exclude forever from every part of the cloister. For such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his mouth.' And in another place he says: 'At all times a monk should be zealous for silence, but especially during the night hours.' How diligently this decree has been observed is not unknown to anyone who knows our practices. For while some are going to church after collation, others step aside to jest and to exchange useless and garrulous talk, as if the evil of the day were not sufficient, unless there were added to it that of the night."
5. He added many things, moreover, concerning the delicate food, the sweet and expensive variety of drinks, the expensive quality of the clothes. "This was not the taste of our blessed Father Benedict; it was not what he taught. He did not attend to the colour of the clothes but to the needed warmth. He did not look after the tastiness of the vegetables. Rather, necessity was hardly satisfied by frugality. St. Benedict acknowledges as his own only those who live in the monastery under a rule and an abbot. So, venerable Father, if you will allow, we will hasten back to the purity of the Gospel, to evangelical perfection and peace. For we see that nothing or very little shines forth in our conduct and in our actions which was taught by Christ. We are filled with concupiscence, we are angry, we quarrel, we steal from others, we go to court to get our goods back, we defend ourselves with fraud and lies, we follow the ways of the flesh and its desires, we live for ourselves, we please ourselves, we fear being overcome, we glory in overcoming others, we oppress others and seek to avoid being oppressed, we envy others and we glory in our own perfections, we take our pleasure, grow fat on the sweat of others, and the whole world does not suffice for our wickedness. It seems as if the Gospel had perished and become impossible for us.
6. "We think of the monks of Savigny and Clairvaux who recently came to us. The Gospel so clearly shone out in them that it must be said it would be more useful to imitate them than to recite it. When, indeed, their holy life is seen, it is as if the Gospel were being relived in them. They alone do not seek their own. They alone possess nothing by which they would seek to prefer themselves to their brethren. They alone do not seek the harm of their neighbours. They are content to cultivate a little land and to use some cattle. And these things, indeed, they do not desire to have except insofar as God wills it. Because when God wills to take them away from them they donot seek to keep them. For them, if I be not mistaken, it is fitting to say: 'The world is crucified to us and we to the world.' For them it is fitting to say: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,' because they have no trespasser from whom they wish to demand anything. Happy, indeed, are men such as these whose clothing, food, and whole way of life savour of the Gospel. Their portion is God alone. They know, insofar as it is humanly possible, how to be filled with the love of God and neighbour. Adhering to God alone, they so fully leave behind all temporal things except for a poor contemptible habit, they desire nothing over which a neighbour could become angry."
7. "Therefore, Father, never let it seem to be impossible to hold fast to the Rule of St. Benedict, as long as God gives us such examples as these who go before us in the way of holiness and virtue so that we may follow them. If, indeed, because of the nearness and the noisiness of the people we are not able wholly to follow them, let us at least advert to our way of life and profession according to our Rule, and moreover, to the fact that we are not monks but rather dead men."
8. In this manner, the Lord Prior, Richard, spoke with their Lord Abbot, Geoffrey, concerning the reformation of their monastery. The Lord Abbot did not receive these words with joy because it is difficult to change long standing practices.
9. Nevertheless, confessing himself to be unlearned and less perspicacious, he asked if he might be more fully informed in writing as to how such things could be accomplished in his monastery. Prior Richard willingly accepted this and was not slow in fulfilling it. He wrote that they ought to conform to what the Rule permitted in speech, clothes, and food. He so carefully explained the arrangement and order of the monastery that it seemed as if the Rule could be observed in the city hardly less perfectly than in a desert. Knowing secular affairs well, he arranged their temporalities with such fidelity that he in no way departed from evangelical justice. Everything concerning the incomes from churches and tithes, in regard to the investment of which monks are usually held to be more reprehensible, was to be undertaken and done with the legitimate and canonical advice of the bishops, and they were to be used only for the poor, the pilgrims, and for guests. He decreed that the monks were to live by agriculture and the rearing of cattle.
10. When the rumor of all these things began to reach the others 1 the anger of the rest of the community burst forth in a jealous rage' They thought that this man and his companions should be sent into! exile or thrown into prison.
11. After meeting with them many times in different places for friendly talks, the Lord Abbot saw that only with difficulty could he change what his predecessors seemed to have upheld. Nevertheless, wishing in this matter to use good counsel, he put off a full reply until after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Meanwhile some of the brethren, vainly fearing that they were to be constricted by more than the regular discipline, began, out of envy toward the Prior and the others, to plot like the Pharisees. If the benignity of some had not brought about a delay, immediate persecution would have burst out.
12. At the same time the rumour of the internal strife spread among the people outside. We heard this talk among the people, but the truth of the matter remained hidden. Then Prior Richard, bringing with him the Subprior and the Secretary of the monastery, came to make the truth of the situation known to us. They sought the clemency of St. Peter and of ourselves in order that they might begin without delay to undertake to observe what they had vowed. They said their need was pressing, especially because the brethren had so conspired that if any one of them said anything about his profession he would be excommunicated. Some of the companions of the Prior, shaken by fear or self- love or vanity, so turned back because they could not otherwise find peace, that they confessed it as a fault that they had said anything about observing their profession.
13. Therefore, I, Thurstan, by the grace of God, Archbishop of York, heard these servants of Christ who, according to the command of St. Benedict, wished to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. I feared to offend in them Christ's grace if I did not receive their just petition with pastoral concern. It pertains to the primary responsibilities of a bishop to provide for monks a sacred peace and to comfort the oppressed in their need. Therefore, taking the advice of holy men, I convoked the Lord Abbot Geoffrey and the Prior Richard with his Subprior to a suitable place in order that with some other holy men I might peacefully receive the petition of the brethren and the reply of the Abbot.
14. These brothers, with many tears, sought nothing but what they had previously asked, namely, that they might follow the poor Christ  in voluntary poverty, that they might carry the Cross of Christ in their own bodies, that they might not be impeded from living in evangelical peace and observing the Rule of the blessed Father Benedict. To do this, they earnestly sought the permission and the paternal help of their Lord Abbot. And, indeed, the Lord Abbot with tears confessed that their undertaking was something very much needed and he promised that he would not stand in the way of their desire, which was holy, but without the consent of his chapter he dared not promise anything in regard to the assistance they sought.
15. And so the Lord Abbot returned to the monastery with his monks. In the meantime there was peace and a day was established on which I would come to their chapter and, with some religious who would come with me, would treat with the Abbot on this matter. Meanwhile, the rest of the brethren displayed their envy with increasing cruelty as these men sought more manifestly to carry out their desire. They called in some men from the Great Abbey and some monks of Cluny who were dwelling in the neighborhood. And in their presence and with their approval they deprived these monks, as men who had profaned and deserted the common order, of every dignity and responsibility in the monastery, for, after the Abbot, the greatest responsibility in the monastery had been in their hands. All of this happened in the interim.
16. On the established day, early in the morning, I prepared to come to the chapter of the monks. I had almost arrived at the very door–with me there were a number of wise and religious men: Hugh, the Deacon; William, the Prior of the Clerks Regular of Cisbarne; William, the Treasurer; Hugh, the Archdeacon; Serlo, the Canon; Alfred, my Chaplain and Canon; and Robert, the Chaplain of the Hospital. We had left our horses outside the inner gate with a few men.
17. Then, as I have said, as we were about to enter the door of the chapter, the Lord Abbot met us at the door with his monks, who fairly filled the chapter room. He forbade me to enter unless some of the clerics who were with me were sent away. I was scarcely able to reply that I ought not to enter upon such an affair without my clerics who were good and wise men and their friends, when, behold, the whole chapter resounded with shouting and terrible cries. It seemed that I was faced with the seditious outburst of drunken and debauched men rather than with the humility of monks, of which nothing was there. Many rose up, and swinging their arms as if they would charge to the attack, cried that they would leave if I entered. I said: "God is my witness, that I came as a Father, with no thought of inflicting harm on you, desiring only that there be peace and Christian fraternity among you. Now, in truth, because you have sought to take away from me what pertains to the episcopal authority and office, I, in like manner, take from you what you need. I place your church under interdict." Then one of them, Simon by name, said: "We would prefer to have our church a hundred years under interdict." To this all assented and cried in upraised voices: "Seize them!" Seizing the Prior and his companions, they began to pull them away, wishing, as they had decided among themselves, either to throw them into prison or to send them into exile. The latter, indeed, having no other hope of escaping their hands, clung to me, looking for the peace of Peter and our peace. So we ran to the church, and they, all the way, screamed and cried: "Seize the rebels! Apprehend the traitors!" Thus we escaped into the church. The Abbot and the rest of his monks returned to their chapter.
18. While this was going on, the men of the Abbey stood around the closed doors and the entrance gates as if lying in ambush. We (as I must truly confess), fearing an attack from the monks, took care to bar, from within, the door of the church which opened on the cloister. Meanwhile, the news spread abroad and people gathered, but no untoward thing was said or done by them.
19. Since, therefore, nothing could be done to establish concord among the monks, we returned home, taking with us the group: twelve priests and a subdeacon. Several of them are learned men. All are seeking full observance of the Rule and their profession and likewise of the Gospel. And so they dwelt as guests in the house of St. Peter, our residence. They are in no wise deterred from their proposal by the violence they have suffered. However, the brethren of the abbey, on their part, carry on without restraint, and the Abbot–I know not for what reason–has gone off on a journey.
20. Wherefore, we beseech your paternity, in Christ, to defend with your authority the interests of these monks who desire to change to a stricter and more austere life. If, in fact, their Abbot comes to you, guide him back to peace with your God-given authority and wisdom, and warn him not to impede the holy resolution of his sons. If he has already come and gone, we ask that through the present messenger you send letters to him, exhorting him not to stand pertinaciously against these men, who wish truly to obey the Gospel of Christ and the Rule of St. Benedict, but rather to give them his assistance and the opportunity to do as they desire. The Abbot and his monks ought at least in this to imitate the Egyptians and the Babylonians, who allowed the Israelites to go in quest of the Land of Promise. Indeed, when Jacob secretly fled from Laban's domination, Laban, after a cruel persecution, let him return to his fatherland. In truth, they are not to be thought deserters but prudent men who wish to leave a place where there is greater liberty to sin, desiring one where they can live more safely in communion with God. Indeed, Christ himself threatens them! Did he not rebuke the Pharisees in that they themselves did not enter, and would not permit others to enter? It is indeed known to all that the Rule of St. Benedict commonly, and it might be said almost everywhere in the world, has lost its proper place and observance in almost everything. Really, no one can be sufficiently amazed that some dare to promise before God and his saints with such solemnity that which they will daily neglect, or, if I might speak more truly, will be compelled not to observe. What the prophet says fits them perfectly: "This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." And, as the Apostle says: "They confess with their voice to know God but in their deeds they deny him."
21. Perhaps it is true that many act in this way. Frequency makes for audacity. Truly, I must say in sorrow, it is deceived, it is wholly deceived, this audacity of the monks, because a multitude of sins does not grant impunity to the sinners. Wherefore, those who wish to observe the Rule of their profession are not to be impeded but to be protected. They are not to be reprehended when, for this reason, they hasten to change their place, for God is not chosen for the sake of a place. The place is chosen for the sake of God. St. Benedict clearly testifies that in every place it is the same Lord God who is served, the same King for whom the battle is fought. In the Conferences of the Fathers, the hermit Joseph said very clearly that man was more faithful to his profession who went where he could more fully live out the precepts of the Lord of faith. And, indeed, "He who helps us in our needs and in our tribulations helps us to seek a holy situation." If I be not mistaken, they should be considered Pharisees and heretics who do not fear nor permit others to fear what Truth himself has said: "Unless your justice exceedsthat of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." For, if an angel from heaven preaches other than that which must be preached, let him be anathema. And he preaches a Gospel other than Christ's Gospel who tries to impede men who seek angelic peace and the observance of the Rule of their profession. Whoever he be, he must be totally refuted, as Truth himself says: "If your right eye scandalize you, tear it out and cast if from you." Nothing in the body causes more pain when it is wounded, or is more carefully taken care of, than the eye. Nevertheless, when it becomes an impediment, it must be spiritually torn out. For this is the prudence of the serpent, to free the head–that is, the mind– from all folly that can wound the soul.
22. Because of the scandal of the weak, who have less ability to discern the truth, we ask Your Holiness and all who wish to hear this petition of ours, to endeavour, insofar as it is possible, to restore peace between the Abbot of York and these brothers. We ought to recall what happened in the affair of the Molesme monks, which is quite similar. The Cistercians went forth to establish and found a most perfect way of life which has set the whole Church at wonder. The Lord Hugh, of venerable memory, the Archbishop of Lyons, with true Christian piety praised the extraordinary purity of their life. They faithfully undertook a renewal of the Holy Rule and a total living of it. And then, when complaints of the jealous came to the knowledge of the Apostolic See, Pope Urban II issued a decree to the effect that as long as the Abbot returned to his duties as Abbot in his former monastery, none of the others who wished to persevere in a full living of the Rule should suffer any impediment or molestation. Indeed, it is clearer than light that in their wonderful way of life the truth of the whole Gospel shines forth.
23. We have been very long, and perhaps tiresome, in this letter. But, although it will not please them, it seemed that the situation of the monks remaining at St. Mary's should be clearly set forth, lest only the opinion of these jealous men be known, which should not be the case.
24. May Your Holiness prosper in Christ.