‘Unlike other monks, Cistercians wore plain, undyed wool – for which reason they were known as the ‘White Monks’. The return to heroic monasticism meant that they ate only the coarsest wheat bread, and were ordered to avoid coloured glass in the chapel, and gold and silver on the altar.
And they were not allowed to wear underpants. St Benedict had not mentioned them in his list of permitted clothing for monks, so the Cistercians would have no truck with the evil things – much to the amusement of a number of their contemporaries. Some called it ‘bare-bottomed piety’ and Walter Map, the twelfth-century author, wit and foe of Cistercians, suggested they shunned underpants ‘to preserve coolness in that part of the body lest sudden heats provoke unchastity’.’
‘This brings us back to Bury St Edmunds and its war between the monks and the townspeople. The town belonged to the abbey, which had benefited so much from various kings that it also owned the entire county of West Suffolk. The abbots built or expanded the town of Bury St Edmunds, and controlled its commercial life. Everyday business transaction involved a cut for the monks – whether a tradesman ran a barge on the river, a stall in the market, sold fish or supplied building materials. The abbey administered justice, and pocketed the fines it took. It ran the royal mint – being abbot of Bury St Edmunds was literally a licence to print money. The abbey even owned the horse droppings on the street – and of course the monks took their cut.
Whether it was collecting manure or grinding corn, every abbot guarded his monopoly jealously.’