“Obo-san bin—or “Mr. Monk Delivery”—

Rentamonk a la japonaise

Rentamonk a la japonaise

The Japanese, it seems, are heavily exercised by the latest Amazon product line. No, they’re not yet into delivering sushi, nor have they cornered the market in tea ceremonies. In Japan, and only in Japan, they can rent you a monk. Monks are necessary for certain family events, such as funerals, but as society becomes less devout, fewer households have easy access to a monastery and the job of finding a suitable celebrant has become harder. So now they can go online and hire one from Amazon, for a small fee. In fact, a smaller fee than a monastery would charge.

Conservative Japanese are outraged and there are calls for Amazon to end this service. But is paying for a monk’s services and ensuring you got your money’s worth really that new?

Well I think not, if we allow for a little social change between the early middle ages and now. In theory, under the Rule of Benedict, having private possessions was a ‘wicked practice’, so it would have been against the rules for Amazon to pay the monk directly.[1] Not that this would have held Amazon up for long. And even in the early middle ages, if you were rich enough you could get round this by donating to the monastery as a whole, which could hold possessions, in cash or in kind.

It was not unusual for kings or lesser nobles to borrow a monk. Wahlafrid Strabo of Reichenau was borrowed to be tutor to the son of Louis the Pious and even after the task was done and he became an abbot in his own right, he could still be borrowed back for affairs of state. Which is how he came to drown in the Loire but that’s another story. Nor was it unusual for kings to require a monk’s time in writing a required text, as many dedications show. A letter from Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda reports on a conversation with Louis the German, who had asked him to write a commentary on the psalms. Hrabanus apparently turned him down, on the sensible grounds that he had already written one and dedicated it to someone else, but later seem to have relented somewhat and agreed to write a different work and dedicate that to Louis. Borrowing a monk was therefore perhaps not always easy. The monk had to agree to be borrowed. Or at least, a monk of the stature of Hrabanus did.

But this is borrowing not renting. In fact, of course, the rent was being paid separately, in that the monasteries themselves were given gifts of land. The rich gave a great deal of land, which eventually caused problems as the monasteries grew into important landowners in their own right. But the not so rich also became local patrons and there are records extant in some areas as to what these gifts were.[2] What is more, many monasteries were small foundations, what Innes calls ‘house monasteries’. Apart from providing surplus daughters with something useful to do, the main point of these monasteries, and indeed of the larger ones, was to pray for the souls of the family before and after their deaths.

The rich could therefore in a sense employ a monastery. And they wanted to get the full value form their money. So the ‘staff’ would be expected to indulge them by acceding to other minor requests like accommodating a disgraced wife or writing a theological work, dedicated to the sponsor so as to emphasise his or her piety.

Doesn’t Amazon’s new service therefore just represent a twenty-first century approach to the same thing? Cash rich, time poor people who retain just enough belief in the afterworld or simply want to be seen to be doing the right thing have always delegated the task of prayer to specialist services. And they have always ensured that they got value for money. Only now they can do it on the internet. And cheaply.

[1] Rule of Benedict Chapter 33

[2] Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Middle Ages

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