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Durham Priory Locelli

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Jurisdiction 1: DiocesanDocument category 1: Cathedral memoranda and correspondence
From region: County DurhamFrom place: Durham Priory
Relevant material from 1237 to 1507
The designation locelli (from Latin locellus, lit. ‘a little place’) originally referred to boxes or chests in which important documents were stored. Now referring to a category of important Priory documents, the Durham locelli contain several fascinating records for ‘performance’ from pre-Reformation Durham. For example, there is a very early record of the presumed death of a tight-rope walker who apparently fell from the towers of Durham Cathedral! This appears in Durham Priory Locelli VI:20, under the 1237 ‘Objections of King Henry III to the Election of Prior Thomas Melsonby as Bishop’ (DUL Loc.VI:20). Among other accusations, the king was accusing the prior of manslaughter by (apparently) having let the performer attempt such a dangerous act on his cathedral church.

Other valuable records include:

• a letter of King Edward III of 1372, written to the Prior and convent of Durham, requesting prayers and processions to assure success in his proposed campaign against the King of France (Loc.I:55);

• a record of a complaint made by the priory following a Benedictine visitation in the last decades of the fourteenth century (Loc:XXVII). In it, the monks complain that minstrels and others (who were presumably performing in the Prior’s Hall) are being allowed to use the privies in the building where the brothers are eating;

• from 1394, there is a letter from Bishop Walter Skirlaw to the Prior, giving instructions for religious processions during a time of war (Loc.XVII:5); in this case, King Richard II had embarked for Ireland towards the end of September of 1394 in order to quell rebellion;

• sometime around 1435, the Archbishop of York, John Kempe, wrote a very disconsolate letter to Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham, commanding processions and other penitential acts (Loc.:XVII.21); in this document, reference England’s recent troubles may be an allusion to the Burgundians’ desertion of their alliance with England in September 1435, when the Archbishop had himself presided over the unsuccessful English negotiating team;

• Loc.XVII:15 contains a comperta (a list of findings) made by the Bishop after his visitation of Durham Priory. Here the monks complain that visiting lords should help provide for their own performers (minstrels, acting troupes, etc.), rather than relying on the meagre provisions of the priory;

• Loc.XIII:22 contains a payment to ‘minstrels’ by the priory;

• Loc.XX:21 is a letter dated 20th October, 1452, from the Bishop of Durham to the Prior, written in time of plague and commanding processions and other penitential acts;

• Loc.XXVII:29 tells us a bit more about church drama in Durham in the period: it contains a list of petitions dating from May, 1464, and notes, among other things, that the Sub-Prior should ‘be the keeper of the chalices and missals pertaining to liturgical plays’;

• an inventory of the Prior’s of 1464-5 lists payment to ‘minstrels’ and other servants (Loc. XVIII:110):

• Loc.XVII:38 contains yet another letter from the Bishop of Durham (in this case Lawrence Booth; 1457-76) to the Prior, requesting processions in time of trouble; in this case, the Bishop relays a papal request for processions in support of a proposed crusade to the Holy Land (1465);

• finally, an inventory of 17th September, 1507 (Loc.XXXVII:10) containing record of a payment to a minstrel named ‘Craykke’.

The locelli represent a category of document of medieval origin, though somewhat modified in modern times. It consists of a variety of papers that are grouped roughly according to subject matter, though with occasional deviations; thus most of the requests for processions are in Loc.XVII, some documents connected with visitations appear under Loc.XXVII, and wills of secular people are in Loc.XXXVII. A brief calendar, available in the Search Room of the Palace Green Library in Durham, was searched for any document that might contain anything relating to performance. All documents that might possibly contain any relevant were then read in detail.

These pre-pub records have been made available by the REED: Durham editors John McKinnell and Mark Chambers. We are grateful to Durham Cathedral and Durham University Libraries for making these documents available to us.