Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/Brother Jucundus


At York were two religious houses—St. Mary's Abbey and St. Leonard's Priory—so close together that their walls abutted. The magnificent ruins of St. Mary's Abbey Church, the heavy fragments of the Priory Church of St. Leonard's, now stand in the gardens of the Botanical Society, and resound no longer to the sound of psalmody, but to the strains of the band playing marches, waltzes, and overtures.

At the close of the fifteenth century, before the Dissolution was thought of, there lived, and fasted, and prayed in St. Leonard's Priory a fat monk named Brother Jucundus. He had not been long in the house. He had joined the order in a fit of headache and remorse, after heavy potations on the occasion of the installation of a new Lord Mayor, and it is possible—probable, I suspect—that he somewhat regretted his precipitancy. Yet there was no escape. The irrevocable vows were on him; for life he was bound to eat only vegetables and bread, drink very small beer, and sleep only six hours in the night.

Convivial songs floated through his mind when he ought to have been chanting the Psalms of David, and the flavour of old sack rose upon his palate when he looked dolefully down at dinner-time into his mug of "swipes."

A year passed. The full paunch of Brother Jucundus began to subside; his fat cheeks to fall flabby, like the dewlaps of a cow; a dispirited expression took the place of the watery twinkle which had once animated his eye.

Come what might, Brother Jucundus felt he must have a fling. He should die without it. Just one jolification in the twelvemonth, and then he would put up for the rest of the year with beans and cabbage, small beer and matins before dawn.

York fair approached. York fair! of all that is ravishing! The shows of dancing dogs, the whirli-go-rounds, the giantesses and dwarfs, the "spice" stalls, the drinking-booths! To York fair he must, he would go, if condemned to a bean and a thimbleful of water for fasting dinner ever after.

And go he did. He managed it in this way:—After dinner the whole community took an hour's sleep. As they rose at midnight and dined at mid-day, this was very necessary, and the Priory was silent, save for snores, from one o'clock to two. At half-past one Brother Jucundus stole to the porter's lodge, found the porter asleep in his chair—so took possession of his keys; went to the Prior's apartment; the Prior was asleep; pocketed a crown from his money-box, and left the Priory.

At two o'clock the community awoke. The porter missed his keys. The Prior missed the crown. All the monks were summoned into the chapter-house, and all missed Brother Jucundus.

After long deliberation it was decided that two sedate and trusty brothers should be sent out in quest of him.

It was a bright, sunny afternoon. Jucundus had enjoyed himself amazingly. The amount of gingerbread horses and men he had consumed was prodigious. He had seen "The Spotted Boy" and "The Bearded Woman;" he had gone round in the whirligig on the back of a wooden horse; he had shot for nuts at a mark, and won his pocket full, which he cracked every now and then, and washed down with a draft of really good ale. And now, just now, he was going up in the boat of a great see-saw, with a foaming tankard in his hand, his jolly red face illumined with glee, and his ample throat thundering forth—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o,
Up, up, up we go-o-o;"

when his sweet jubilee was cut short by the sight of two monks from his Priory, with grim faces, making their way towards the see-saw.

Brother Jucundus tried to scramble out, and in so doing tumbled down. He was picked up. Either his libations, or the fall, or disinclination to return to St. Leonard's weakened his legs, and he tottered so much that the reverend fathers were obliged to put him in a wheelbarrow and roll him to the Priory gate. At the entrance stood the Prior with a brow of thunder.

Brother Jucundus looked pleasantly up in his face from out of his conveyance, smiled benignantly, and piped—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o,
Up, up, up we go-o-o."

The chapter was still sitting, stern and threatening.

The helpless monk was trundled in his barrow into the midst of the assembled fathers, to be tried and sentenced.

He had been caught, flagrante delicto, in a see-saw, drunk, riotous, and incapable. Nevertheless, Brother Jucundus was not disposed to view his case unfavourably. He looked round on the chapter with an affectionate glance from out of his watery eye, and the kindest, most winsome smile on his ruddy cheeks.

He was asked at once for his defence. He murmured, with a hiccup—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o."

The sentence was unanimous, and unfalteringly given. He was to be walled alive into a niche in the Priory cellar. The execution was to be carried into effect immediately.

As he was helped down the cellar stairs, some glimmer of his situation came in on the mind of Jucundus, and he sadly trolled out—

"Down, down, down we go-o-o."

A convenient niche was soon found. A cruse of water and a loaf of bread, with cruel mockery, were placed in the recess. The ready hands of zealous monks mixed the mortar, brought the bricks, and in a quarter of an hour Brother Jucundus was firmly walled in to his living grave.

Now for the first time did the extreme inconvenience of his position break upon the unfortunate monk. In the wheelbarrow he had been able to sit; here he was walled upright. It was cramping, intolerable. He kicked, he pressed backwards with all his might; and suddenly, with a crash, the wall behind him gave way, and he rolled backwards over a heap of fallen bricks into a cellar.

The shock brought him completely to his senses. Where was he? Now he saw the gravity of his offence—the terrible fate that had been prepared for him. Escape was fortunately open to him. He ran up the cellar stairs, and found himself in the Abbey of St. Mary's. The cellars of the two monasteries had adjoined; a wall alone had divided them. He had tumbled out of St. Leonard's into St. Mary's.

St. Mary's Abbey belonged to the severe Cistercian Order. Complete silence was one of the rules of the society. Except on Easter day, no monk might speak; on Easter day every one talked, and nobody listened. When Brother Jucundus accordingly appeared in the cloisters, no monk turned to look at him, or asked him "how the saints he had come there?" but swept by him like a ghost. Jucundus made himself as much at home as was possible. He took his place at table, ate and drank what was set before him, occupied a pallet in the common dormitory, lifted his voice in concert with the others in the Abbey choir, and nobody meddled with him. The monks, if they thought about him at all—and it was against their rules to think of anything but their own spiritual affairs—thought he was a new monk just joined in the usual accepted manner.

A twelvemonth passed. It had been dull in St. Leonard's; it was duller in St. Mary's. The day came round on which York fair was held, the day, that happy day, which had ended so dolorously.

Now the day before York fair the office of cellarer fell vacant in St. Mary's Abbey by the death of the monk who had presided over the wine and beer. The Abbot by a happy inspiration committed the keys to Brother Jucundus. Here was an opportunity! If York fair might not be enjoyed in the market-place and the Pavement, he would at least commemorate it in the Abbey cellar.

On York fair day, accordingly, Brother Jucundus, after having seen all his fellow monks safe in bed, stole down the stone steps into the vault where were the barrels, with a tankard in his one hand and a lantern in the other.

St. Mary's Abbey was often called upon to receive noble, even royal guests, and entertain them nobly and royally. It therefore contained barrels of very prime wine and very strong audit ale. Brother Jucundus went along the range of barrels trying one tipple after another. There is nothing so dangerous as mixing your drink, and this the reverend brother discovered at last, for he sat down, unable to proceed further, by the best cask of Malmsey, and turning the tap, filled his tankard.

Next day at noon the Cistercians assembled in the refectory for their frugal repast, dinner and breakfast in one: and as they had been up since midnight, and had eaten and drunk nothing for twelve hours, were tolerably hungry and dry. But the mugs were empty. At the Abbot's table even was neither wine nor beer. The silent fraternity bore with this some time, but at last even the rules of the Order could not keep them perfectly silent. They shuffled with their feet, growled and grunted discontentedly. At last the Abbot, in a voice of thunder, shouted—

"I want my beer!" and the example of the head becoming infectious, "Beer, beer, beer! we all want our beer!" resounded from every part of the refectory.

"Where was the cellarer?" Nobody knew. At last two brothers were commissioned to go to the cellar and fetch ale. They presently returned with awe-struck countenances, beckoned to the Abbot to follow them, and led the way along the cloisters down the cellar stairs. Curiosity, though against the rule, was infectious, and all the monks crept en queue after the Abbot. When they reached the vault a shocking sight presented itself to their eyes. Brother Jucundus lay with his head against the butt of Malmsey, flourishing his tankard over his head, and feebly, incoherently, trolling forth—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o,
Up, up, up we go-o-o."

It was too flagrant an offence to be passed over. A chapter of the Order was at once constituted in the cellar itself. All the monks were present. Unanimously it was decided that after solemn excommunication with bell, book, and candle, the guilty brother should be walled up alive on the scene of his crime in that very cellar.

The awful scene of excommunication was proceeded with. It took some time, and during the ceremony Brother Jucundus gradually resumed consciousness—the fumes of Malmsey slowly evaporated. A convenient recess was found, where a heap of crumbling bricks lay prostrate. It was the identical nook out of which a year and a day before Brother Jucundus had escaped into the Cistercian Order and Abbey of St. Mary.

Into this niche therefore he was built. His terrible position had not, however, as yet forced itself on the monk's brain; he still tasted Malmsey, still was his heart buoyant, and with swelling lungs he roared forth his song—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o,
Up, up, up we go-o-o."

Now, it happened that the clocks in St. Leonard's and St. Mary's differed by a quarter of an hour. That of St. Leonard's was slower than that of St. Mary's. Consequently it was only just dinner-time in St. Leonard's Priory, and the cellarer, pitcher in hand, had just descended the stairs, and was filling his vessel with small beer, when he heard close to his ear, from behind the wall, a stentorian voice thunder forth—

"In dulce jubilo-o-o,
Up, up, up we go-o-o."

The voice, the strain, the words were those of Brother Jucundus, who a year and a day before had been immured at that very spot.

Down went the pitcher, and away fled the monk—amazement, admiration in his countenance, "A miracle! a miracle!" in his mouth—to the monks, just issuing from the church and the recitation of Sext and the office for the dead around the body of their Prior, lately deceased, and that day to be buried.

The whole community rolled like a tidal wave down the cellar-stairs, and stood with breathless awe in a circle about the spot where twelve months and a day before they had walled in Brother Jucundus.

It was a miracle—there could be no doubt of it. Eager hands tore down the wall, and revealed the reverend brother, hale and rosy as of yore, and at his side a loaf as fresh as when put in, and a pitcher still full to the brim.

There could be no doubt but that this was a special interposition to establish the innocence of the monk, and to indicate to the community who was to be their future Prior.

With one voice they shouted, "Jucundus our Prior! Saint Jucundus our head and father!"

On the shoulders of the enthusiastic brethren the miraculous monk was carried up-stairs and installed in the Prior's seat in the chapter-house.

Under him St. Leonard's jogged along very pleasantly, and he did much in his long rule of the monastery for its discipline and good order, if not to justify, at least to excuse the dissolution which fell on it immediately after his death.