Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

medieval-theft
A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire
Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

Queen_Mary_Psalter_Marriage_feast_at_Cana
Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.