Medieval monks had dirty habits

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THEIR GRAVE, black garb was a decoy, it seems; their reputation for monastic rectitude a wild exaggeration. The monks of the Middle Ages in Yorkshire bent the rules and were shamelessly sinful.

The licentious nature of the Augustinian Black Canons, revealed in research for York University's Borthwick Institute, depicts Kirkham Priory, established in 1121 on the banks of the Derwent in Malton, as a hotbed of indiscipline.

The Archbishop of York is depicted as a baffled bystander amid the mayhem, helplessly trying to keep order among the canons who were hugely popular with the locals and demonstrated a cunning that would have taxed today's fraud squad.

In the 13th century, one prior explains in letters to the archbishop the case of a canon, Thomas, who forged two seals and applied them to forged letters, requesting money. On the run in Northumberland with these medieval-style credit cards, he obtained money to finance "high living the length and breadth of England". He was captured and had been in the priory jail for 17 years before the archbishop inquired of his crime.

It is the most colourful of many misdemeanours. The canons hoarded gifts, including clothes, forcing an injunction that they turn out their possessions once a year. Their intimacy with the locals led them to escape at night, forcing the archbishop to ban "drinking or indecent pleasure" outside the precincts of the priory.

For all the revelry, they did good work. "They went out and about, helping people to interpret documents," said a spokesman for English Heritage, which runs the abbey. "They were a kind of social services for their day. They might have been earthy but they did a lot of good."