Finding Primary Sources of Medieval Texts Online

If you’re anything like me, when doing historical research you want to be able to read primary sources. Primary sources allow you to access what the author is thinking without the information being muddled in a centuries-long game of telephone. Of course, an author of a text may not write exactly what they are thinking, but through primary sources, we get a glimpse of what life was like through the eyes of a person who was actually there. We must always take into account context and bias when analyzing a source. (For example, if Lord A is trying to sabotage Lord B’s reputation, Lord A won’t tell the king how Lord B rescued all those orphans from a bear. Instead, Lord A will mention that Lord B has a tendency to poach bears in the king’s forest.)

When I write articles for the Mediaeval Monk I try to find as many primary sources as I can. However, I’m no longer a college student so accessing academic sources can be extremely difficult without buying full books. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t available texts out there! Because I study the medieval period most texts are in the public domain. The key is knowing where to look.

One good place to start is Wikipedia. (When I was in school we were always told that the site was unreliable. Luckily for us living in 2020, the editors are much more vigilant!) It’s a good jumping-off point. At the bottom of whatever article you read, there is an entire section dedicated to the references used. This will give you all the sources used for the article and often times it will include links to the sources. I will note that sometimes the only sources are secondary ones, but occasionally you can get lucky.

Another great place to look is Google Books. Depending on the book, you may not have access to the entire text. But it’s still a good place for free ebooks.

I will also use archive.org/the Wayback Machine/the Internet Archive. (It’s the same website just with different names.) Here you can find free ebooks (and download them too!) as well as old websites that are no longer on the web. Some books aren’t available for free downloads but you can borrow them for a certain number of days. (I don’t know too much about this feature as I haven’t used it before.) I’ve found a lot of interesting primary sources here.

What if you want to start learning but you aren’t quite sure what you want to learn about? There are two websites that I know of that allow for a little bit of exploration! (There are definitely others out there, but these are the ones I know about and use.)

The first one is Internet History Sourcebooks provided by Fordham University. (And here is a link to the same website but on archive.org.) This website either has actual medieval texts or links to texts on it. The texts available are organized according to culture and topic. Overall, it’s a great place to explore.

The second website is Medieval Death Trip. This website is for the podcast of the same name. (It’s a fantastic podcast by the way. I recommend listening to it!) The creator, Patrick Lane, provides the sources he used for each episode. Often times these sources can be found on Google Books or archive.org, but Medieval Death Trip is a great place to find and access topics that interest you without having to spend hours on Google Books and archive.org trying to find a very specific text.

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Time an Angel Shamed a Prior for Not Listening to a Monk’s Confession

Today’s post will be on the latter half of Book One, Chapter Six of Dialogue on Miracles. I’ve decided to focus on the second half as it’s a fascinating story filled with angels, confessions, and some good old fashioned Catholic guilt. The first half discusses what is better for the soul, going on a crusade, pilgrimages, or becoming a monk. While it does give us this zinger:

“Novice.—You think then that the Order is a higher vocation than a pilgrimage?

Monk.—It is judged higher, not by my authority, but by that of the Church.”

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 13)

I’m more interested in a story about an angel than that debate. (And I have strong feelings about people forcing others to convert to their religion, so I’m not going to touch that, lest this becomes an angry rant. If you’re interested in reading exactly what Caesarius has to say on the matter, there is a link to this chapter at the end of the post.)

 

Harley MS 1527 f.4v
Pretty Sure This is Zechariah Being Struck by an Angel, But I’m Not 100% Sure. Either Way, That Angel is Really Letting Him Have It And an Angry Angel is Relevant to Today’s Article | Harley MS 1527 f.4v | Source: The British Library

 

Starting at the top of page 14, the Monk sets the scene by giving the Novice a bit of context regarding the setting of the tale. A man and his buddy Walter have become monks after listening to Saint Bernard preach. Oddly enough, Walter is given a name despite barely being mentioned again, while the man the story is actually about is never named. After living at Clairvaux Abbey for a bit, a group of monks is going to Aulne. The man wants to join them, however, he doesn’t want to ask permission to go because he thinks his abbot will think he only wants to leave for a change of scenery. But he really wants to go, so he prays on it.

Luckily for the man, God happens to be listening. “A voice came to him” (pg. 14), basically tells him to just ask, and he’ll get what he wants if he actually makes the request. So the man does. His abbot says yes and gives him his blessing. So off the man goes to Aulne with Walter. And it’s a good thing he went too as he’s made the convent’s prior soon after his arrival.

One day the new prior is saying sext. (One of the Divine Offices, not the other definition!) As he’s doing so, a monk signs to him requesting the prior listen to his confession. Because the prior is, you know, busy saying the service, he signs back telling him to wait until he’s done.

Eventually, sext is over. They go into the choir (the part of the church where monks sit/stand to pray, not a choir that sings) so the prior can listen to the monk’s confession.

However, not is all as it seems. The monk isn’t the monk. Instead, it’s his guardian angel in disguise. And it’s a good disguise too. He looks exactly like the man, from his physical appearance to the clothes he’s wearing. But the prior does not know this. Well, not at first. It’s only when the prior goes to help the angel up after he “prostrated himself” (pg. 14) at his feet does he realize it’s an angel. But only because the angel disappeared before he could do so!

It occurs to the prior that this God’s way of scolding him for making the monk wait a bit for confession. After all, confession is good for the soul. Denying people salvation isn’t a great look. To drive the point home, the narrator Monk offers this nugget of wisdom to the Novice:

“When our superiors refuse us that which they are bound to use for our soul’s health, and especially that which is suggested to us by our guardian angel for our help, it is as if the refusal were made to the angels themselves.

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 14)

(Emphasis mine.)

After the disappearing angel incident, the prior immediately calls the monk who wanted confession over so he can perform the sacrament. The monk, feeling guilty about asking while the prior is busy, basically tells him that it’s alright and he can wait until tomorrow.

This is not satisfactory for the prior.

Still feeling his own guilt thanks to the angel, the prior threatens not to eat until he hears the monk’s confession. It just happens to be dinner time, so if he misses that meal he can’t eat for a while. Sufficiently guilty (and probably quite alarmed!) the monk obeys.

Then the prior makes a vow to God that no matter the time, how busy he is, or even if he’s in an Extremely Important Divine Office, he will always hear confession whenever he is asked to do so.

 

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n35/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Thief Who Became a Monk Just So He Could Steal Stuff

Today I want to jump right into Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Book One of the text is dedicated to stories regarding conversion—but not in the way you might think. In the context of Dialogue on Miracles, the word conversion isn’t referring to people becoming Christians. Instead, it refers to Christians becoming monks/nuns. Some of the chapters in Book One are more interesting than others, so I will be analyzing and summarizing the stories I find particularly fascinating. (That’s why I am starting with Chapter Three.)

 

monk-giving-a-chalice-and-host-to-mary-of-egypt-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-286-dc7c38
Monk giving a chalice and host to Mary of Egypt | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 286 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Unlike my series on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I’ll only be directly quoting the text when the wording is amusing, sassy, or I feel like the reader needs more context. If you wish to read the chapter I’m discussing (and I recommend you do so because of the stuff in here is WILD), I’ve provided a link to that part of the text at the bottom of this post.

Chapter Three starts off with the Monk explaining who told him this tale: Brother Godfrey, the ex-canon of Saint Andrews in Cologne, presently living in the same monastery the Monk and the Novice reside at, who heard it from a monk at Clairvaux. By telling the Novice this, the Monk is providing what seems to be a reliable source. Sure he didn’t witness this event himself but someone he knows heard it from someone he knows who did. Basically, there this story has made it through several rounds of telephone before making its way to the text, implying some of the information may be wrong.

Wrong or not, the story continues.

A wandering clerk ends up at Clairvaux and decides to become a novice. But not because he actually has a holy calling or because he wants to be closer to God. He wants to be closer to something in that monastery and it’s the chalices. Yes, this clerk decided to become a novice just so he could steal some treasure. However, stealing chalices is much harder to do when you’re just a novice and aren’t actually allowed access to the treasury. (Probably because the monastery keeps having ‘novices’ attempt to steal their gold!)

The clerk keeps planning on his theft the entire time he’s a novice (a whole year!) but again, the treasury is guarded extremely well. Does he give up? Nope! Instead, he decides that he’ll just become a monk and then steal the chalices! After all, when he’s a monk he’ll have easy access to them at mass. So he waits out the entire year of his novitiate and is tonsured.

However, things aren’t as easy as that. God is keeping tabs on him.

Once the clerk puts on his new habit God strikes. Though not violently. When he’s officially a monk (“for no sooner had he put on his monk’s dress” (pg. 9)) the clerk realizes the error of his ways. Thanks to God’s mercy he converts for real, leading to him actually being a good monk. In fact, he’s so good at it he’s eventually made Prior of Clairvaux!

Now, you would think he would just confess his crimes to a priest and keep quiet about the whole I’m–Gonna–Become–A–Monk–So–I–Can–Steal–Stuff plot. If so, you would be wrong. (I sure was!) Instead of being quiet about the whole thing, it ends up being his go-to story with the novices. Apparently, the novices found it to be a good teaching tool.

* * *

Personally, I find this story to be a bit unbelievable. I know the whole point is to teach others about God’s mercy and grace, but I think it’s a whole lot of effort just to steal a few chalices. It’s certainly a long con. However, I’ve never gotten the urge to steal some cups, so what do I know? At first, I also found it unusual that the other brethren trusted the would-be thief enough to make him prior but upon further reflection, I realized that more powerful people have done much worse and that hasn’t stopped their careers.

In the end, an argument could be made that this was all part of God’s plan to convert the sinful clerk into an upstanding member of society. I do believe that’s the moral of the story.

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n31/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Prologue

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles starts out in a way I’ve found quite a few older texts documenting extreme events do. It begins with the author saying how they were forced to write this, they didn’t want to do it, how they aren’t fit to do so, and to please excuse any mistakes the reader finds throughout the work. By doing so, Caesarius pushes the blame on others in case he misremembered anything as well as remaining humble about the effort he put into the text. The man is a monk after all!

 

838px-Caesarius_of_Heisterbach,_Dialogus_miraculorum
A Page From a Medieval Copy of Dialogue on Miracles | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The prologue also begins by saying how he was requested to write this so the stories wouldn’t be lost to history. Which, in my opinion, is a valid reason to write anything down. (Even the littlest of fragments can help future historians piece together a bigger picture.) Caesarius goes on to explain the format of the text. In that, it is written as a dialogue and divided into twelve separate books. (For a list of the book topics, I wrote that here.)

Then he gives a brief summary of what the reader can expect to find in the text. The stories include events occurring within and outside of the Cistercian Order. His reason for doing so is relatively simple. Whether or not the stories are about monks, they still provide moral instruction for the reader. Plus the stories were told to him by religious men so there is a kind of validity in that. And if there isn’t, Caesarius is quick to point out that he made absolutely nothing up, everything he’s written down is how it was told to him, and if anything he wrote down was wrong it’s the person telling him the story’s fault, not him.

There is quite a bit of deflection in the prologue.

After this, Caesarius explains his reasons for writing each topic of the book. That paragraph gives us this gem:

“Temptation holds the fourth place, because there are four who tempt us : God, the devil, the world and the flesh. The fifth place is suitable for the devil, because five is the apostate number. The sixth for simplicity, for six is the number of perfection, and simplicity is that which makes ‘the whole body full of light’ (Matt. vi. 22).”

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 2)

I find it particularly interesting that God is included in the list regarding humanity’s temptation. I also find it interesting that five is considered a good number for Satan instead of six. Nowadays, it’s six that has demonic connotations. (Or at least the number 666.) It makes me wonder what has changed and why Caesarius did not like the number five!

Finally, the prologue ends with a few biblical bread references.

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n21/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: A Quick Overview

So far I’ve analyzed two primary medieval texts on this blog (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and The Rule of Saint Benedict). Very soon I will be writing about a third. As you may have guessed from the title, our next text will be Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles. It is written as a dialogue (hence the name) between a curious novice and a wise monk.

 

Caesarius_von_Heisterbach_als_Novizenmeister
Caesarius of Heisterbach and a Novice | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Dialogue on Miracles is a collection of short stories dedicated to, well, miracles. Or at the very least occurrences that may or may not be miracles. I hesitate to call all the stories miracles as some of them are extremely mundane. In my analysis, I will be ignoring the boring stories and focus primarily on the more interesting ones.  It’s a long text divided into two volumes. These two volumes are further divided into twelve separate books. Each book is dedicated to a specific topic. The topics are as follows:

  1. Of Conversion

  2. Of Contrition

  3. Of Confession

  4. Of Temptation

  5. Of Demons

  6. Of Singleness of Heart

  7. Of the Blessed Virgin Mary

  8. Of Divers Visions

  9. Of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ

  10. Of Miracles

  11. Concerning the Dying

  12. Of the Punishment and the Glory of the Dead

 

While I may not get through the entire text, there are certainly a lot of different things to cover! And because I might not be able to cover everything I’ve included a link to volume one down below. That way you can read the entire text as well. As of the time I’m writing this, you can access and download the book for free on Archive.org. (Which is where the link will send you.)

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n4/mode/2up.

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Three, What Will Happen if You (a Medieval Monk) Are Late

While Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty in The Rule of Saint Benedict gives instructions on how to handle a monk’s grave faults, Chapters Forty-Three through Forty-Six deal with minor faults. Due to the chapter’s length, today I am only going to be discussing Chapter Forty-Three. I will discuss the other chapters at a later time as they are much shorter. (Forty-Four through Forty-Six make up approximately the same length as Forty-Three.)

The title is “Of those who come Late to the Work of God, or to Table” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) and unlike the chapter on silence after Compline, this part of the text actually discusses what the chapter title says!

 

Harley MS 5431 f.70v chap. 43 of the rule of st benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Three in a Medieval Manuscript  | Harley MS 5431 f.70v | Source: The British Library

 

Saint Benedict starts off by instructing his monkish reader that “as soon as the signal is heard” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) everyone is to drop what they are doing and head over to the oratory. The monks are to “hasten…with all speed” however, they need to do so “with seriousness, so that no occasion be given for levity” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Meaning that while a monk should hurry to Divine Office, he absolutely should not literally run to church. In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary of The Rule of Saint Benedict he explains that “monks ought to be eager to do what the Lord…requires in the moment” (pg. 354). Going to Divine Offices when called further enforces Saint Benedict’s never-ending quest for obedient monks.

The text goes on to state that “nothing…be preferred to the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). That being said, Kardong notes that there are some essential jobs that can’t be instantly dropped just so monks can go to church (pg. 353).

What happens if a monk puts something else before church? Especially for the Night Offices? What if a monk decides that a few more minutes of sleep won’t hurt? Then what? Luckily for him, Saint Benedict explicitly states that “the Gloria of the ninety-fourth Psalm…[is] to be said very slowly and protractedly” precisely “for this reason” (pg. 58).

But what if the monk sleeps for longer than he intended and by the time he reaches the oratory the Psalm is over? Well, late monks certainly are not allowed to “stand in his order in the choir” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Chapter Sixty-Three goes into this in more detail, but there is an important hierarchy in “traditional monasticism” (Kardong, pg. 355). Every monk has a place where he belongs. The fact that a late monk has to stand “last of all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) instead of his designated place in the hierarchy, is extremely significant punishment. However, Saint Benedict does give another option of where a late monk should go, and arguably it’s worse than just standing last in the order. If an abbot so wishes he can have a “place set apart…for the negligent” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58).

Whether he’s standing last in the choir or in the Late Monk Area of the church, the monk is there so “he may be seen…by all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). The text goes on to stress that is so a monk can make “satisfaction by public penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) Saint Benedict argues that a bit of “shame” is “fitting for them” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). After all, everyone else was able to make it to church on time. The late monk should “do what is necessary to regain a place in the good graces of God and the community” (Kardong, pg. 356).

It is vital that monks are allowed in the oratory during services no matter how late they are. Otherwise, they risk falling deep into sin:

“For, if they were to remain outside the Oratory, someone perchance would return to his place and go to sleep, or at all events would sit down outside, and give himself to idle talk, and thus an occasion would be given to the evil one.”

(Saint Benedict, pgs. 58-59)

To prevent this from happening, Saint Benedict insists on allowing latecomers to join the services. Even if a monk misses the first half, he doesn’t have to “lose the whole” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Besides, he can always make “amend for the future” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). This is a lovely little snippet that reminds modern readers that medieval monks aren’t so different from us today. Even in the past, people indulged in oversleeping, sitting down where you aren’t supposed to, and spreading some juicy gossip.

As for day Hours, the rules are pretty much the same. They still have to sit last in place/in the late monk seats and they have to do penance later. That being said, there is one key difference between treating latecomers to day and night services. If a monk is late in the day he should “not presume to join with the choir…until he hath made satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). The text does not mention this punishment for night Hours.

However, there is an exception. (And if you have been keeping up with my analysis of The Rule of Saint Benedict I’m sure you’ve already guessed what it is!) A late monk is allowed to join in with the singing if “the Abbot shall permit him so to do” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). (There are so many instances of the abbot being permitted to bend the rules that I’m going to start referring to this phenomenon as ‘The Abbot Exception.’) According to Kardong, this allowance would be communicated “by a nod of the head or some sign” (pg. 358). But just because the monk is given permission to sing, it doesn’t mean that he won’t “afterwards do penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

So we’ve gone over what will happen if a monk is late to church. What happens if he’s late for a meal? (Late here meaning missing the verse and prayers with everyone else.) At first, nothing will happen. He will “be once or twice corrected” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). If his tardiness becomes a reoccurring pattern that’s when things get serious. (But not as serious as it is in Chapter Twenty-Four when he had to wait three hours after everyone else ate!) A late monk is banned from the “common table,” has to eat alone, and doesn’t get his share of wine (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Being banned from the common table might either mean not sitting in the refectory at all or in the refectory but separated from the other monks (Kardong, pg. 359). A monk who misses out on the ending prayers gets the same punishment. Sharing a meal together is supposed to be a community event (Kardong, pg. 359). And it can’t be a community event if no one shows up at the proper time. 

In the last couple of lines, Saint Benedict bans taking “food or drink before or after the appointed hour” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). There are designated mealtimes for a reason and monks have to stick to them. Unless of course the monk is given an Abbot Exception. If a monk is doing “hard work” or is in the “summer heat” (Kardong, pg. 360) he’s going to need a bit of nourishment to hold him over. What happens is he refuses the snack at first but changes his mind later? Well, “he shall receive nothing…until he hath made proper satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

Or in other words, tough luck monk.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Two, Medieval Monastic Bedtime Stories

While Chapter Forty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “That no one may Speak after Compline” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) the majority of the chapter focuses on what books a monastic community should (and should not) read before everyone goes to bed.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.69v beginning of chap42 rule of st. benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.69v | Source: The British Library

 

However, before Saint Benedict starts off his reading list, the first line of the text stresses that “monks should love silence at all times…especially during the hours of the night” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Silence was also discussed back in Chapter Six, but it seems like Saint Benedict is reminding his monkish readers of this “traditional monastic value” (Kardong pg. 345). (Similar to the way Saint Benedict constantly reminds his audience about obedience and humility. You know, just in case the monks forgot.) In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong notes that the language Saint Benedict uses implies that he knows the brethren won’t be quiet all the time. This idea is further proven at the end of the chapter with this quote:

“[In regards to talking] unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 58)

I would also like to note that there is a difference in translation between my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict and Kardong’s. The Latin word Saint Benedict uses when referring to a monk’s love of silence is studere. Studere is the present infinitive of the word studeo. Studeo has a few meanings, but one meaning is ‘to strive after.‘ Kardong’s translation is much more direct (“Monks ought to strive for silence at all times”) while my copy of The Rule, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, is a bit more poetic in its phrasing (“monks should love silence at all times”). 

After this reminder, Saint Benedict begins discussing what the after supper routine should be. No matter if it’s a fast day “or otherwise” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) all the brethren are to gather together and listen to “four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). And yes, every monk is supposed to gather together to do this, “even those who may have been occupied in some work” (Saint Benedict pg. 58). The after supper reading is a group activity and it’s important monastic communities treat it as such.

If it’s not a fast day, then Saint Benedict recommends reading ‘”Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57). He explicitly bans the “Heptateuch” or “the Books of Kings” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) from being read. It can “be read at other times” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) but not before bedtime. According to the footnote in D. Oswald Hunter Blair’s translation, these biblical texts were considered “too exciting to the imagination” (pg. 57) to listen to before going to sleep. In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong explains that these parts of the bible are filled with “erotic episodes” and “violence” (pg. 347). Neither of which are great things to listen about just before bed. After all, the night time reading is supposed to enrich the monks’ spirits, not excite them. 

If it is a fast day then Conferences are also to be the text of choice. However, during fast days the reading will happen at a different time. Instead of being after supper, it will occur “a short time after Vespers” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). This allows the brethren to take a short break between the services and to prevent exhaustion (Kardong, pg. 348).

After all these instructions, Saint Benedict finally discusses what the chapter is supposed to be about: Compline. And it’s only discussed within a few sentences. Because everyone is already conveniently together Compline is said after the reading. Once the service is finished, “let none be allowed to speak to anyone” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). If anyone does speak he is to be “subjected to severe punishment” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Unless, of course, the exceptions mentioned at the start of this post occurred.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-One, What Time a Medieval Monk Ate

Chapter Forty-One of The Rule of Saint Benedict sets out the basic schedule for when monks are supposed to eat during the day. Depending on the season monks will eat at different times as well as different amounts.

The text starts off by suggesting the monks have dinner “at the sixth hour, and sup in the evening” (Saint Benedict pg. 56) between Easter and Pentecost. According to Terrence Kardong, the reason for Saint Benedict’s specificity with the Easter season (instead of just spring in general) is due to “the festal season [being] fundamental to his thinking” (pg. 333). As Easter is the most important religious celebration to Christians (or at least Catholics) it makes sense Saint Benedict would focus on it. 

Harley MS 5431 f.68v beginning of chap41 of Rule of Saint Benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-One in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.68v | Source: The British Library

After Pentecost, the meal schedule changes. Throughout the summer monks are to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays “until the ninth hour” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) or until about 3pm. During the rest of the week, monks get to eat at around noon. It’s important to note that for Saint Benedict fasting isn’t necessarily not eating the entire day, but instead eating later than usual (Kardong pg. 333). However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If the monks are “to work in the fields or are harassed by excessive heat” (Saint Benedict pg. 56) then the abbot can allow some wiggle room. In fact, it’s another one of the abbot’s duties to make sure the monks can do their tasks “without just cause for murmuring” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Saint Benedict explicitly writes this rule in case there is any confusion about what to do:

“Should they [the monks] have field labor, or should the heat of the summer be very great, they must always take their dinner at the sixth hour.”

(Saint Benedict pg. 57)

While it may seem that Saint Benedict is obsessing over the weather, it’s important to keep in mind where he is writing this. The where being southern Italy. As Kardong eloquently puts it:

The heat of summer in south Italy can be extremely oppressive and require careful marshaling of bodily energy.”

(Kardong pg. 334)

Monks’ mealtime schedule changes again “from the fourteenth of September until the beginning of Lent” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Monks are now to eat at 3pm. Because the days are shorter during the fall and winter, it’s not necessarily fasting.

However, monks do fast from “Lent, until Easter” when they get to eat “in the evening” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). While just saying ‘the evening’ is incredibly vague, Kardong suggests that Saint Benedict “could…mean ‘after Vespers'” (pg. 337). The text gives us a few more context clues regarding exactly what time in the next few sentences:

“And let the hour of the evening meal be so ordered that they have no need of a lamp while eating, but let all be over while it is yet daylight. At all times, whether of dinner or supper, let the hour be so arranged that everything be done by daylight.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 57)

So whatever Saint Benedict considered evening, it wouldn’t be before dusk. It also makes sense that Saint Benedict would want to ensure mealtimes are over before sunset. In an age without electric lightbulbs, “artificial lighting was of poor quality and costly in ancient times” (Kardong, pg. 337). It would be much more practical to just eat by the light of the sun. 

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Relics: The Escapades of Four Medieval Relics

This was originally posted on an old blog of mine in June 2019. I have moved it to The Mediaeval Monk as it fits here better.

 

What exactly is a relic? According to Wikipedia (as they have the clearest explanation) a relic “usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.”

 

Royal MS 18 D II f.148r pilgrims on road to canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes
Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes | Royal MS 18 D II f.148r | Source: The British Library

 

During the Middle Ages, having a relic of a saint was a pretty big deal. It would bring your abbey/monastery prestige, holiness, and of course, lots of money. Pilgrims would come so they could get favors from the saint and see some miracles. Offerings were left and the place they relic was at collected that money. So naturally, when you have a culture surrounding relics, shenanigans ensue. And some of these shenanigans are WILD.

*   *   *

One such shenanigan happened in Bonneval Abbey in France. Bonneval Abbey was home to Saint Florentius’ relics. Then in the 11th century, there was a big famine. Thanks to that famine, the monks had to start selling stuff for food. Gradually, they sold all of their stuff off. Well, almost all of it. The monks eventually had to sell Saint Florentius. But they didn’t sell all of Saint Florentius. They sold everything except his head. So the guy who bought it, Aelfsige, brought a headless corpse back to Peterborough Abbey.

Honestly, I would have loved to see how they decided how much of poor old Saint Florentius they were going to sell. How do you barter for the majority of a body? It wasn’t until I learned about this, did I realize how silly the concept of buying everything but the head is. People will want skulls of things, but what happens to the rest of the body?

*   *   *

Another funny thing concerning people buying parts of saints’ bodies happened to Saint Bartholomew. During a famine in Italy, the Bishop of Benevento kept Saint Bartholomew’s arm precisely to make money. The bishop traveled around Italy and France with the arm, getting gifts. The bishop eventually went to England because the country was pretty wealthy at the time and the queen, Queen Emma, had no problem giving money to the church. But then the bishop realized that he hadn’t gotten enough money on his travels.

So he asked Queen Emma if she wanted to buy Saint Bartholomew’s arm. Queen Emma was like, sure, but is it real? Then the bishop was like, yeah, of course, it’s real and swore an oath. Queen Emma bought the arm.

*   *   *

We can’t talk about relic shenanigans without mentioning the duplicates. Because of Viking raids, people were naturally a bit on edge concerning their monastery’s relics getting destroyed or stolen or something equally unfortunate. So people started lying about where the relics were and who had them and replacing what people thought were relics with random bodies. For example, a Danish king (or just a bunch of Vikings, the book wasn’t clear) stole Saint Albans and took him back to Odense. But a sacrist allegedly stole him back. That’s why three different places claim to have the body of Saint Albans.

Saint Albans’ relics aren’t special in this matter. Two different places claim to have Saint Benedict. There are more stories like these, but these are the two I read about in the book I have.

*   *   *

Our last story for today is that of Saint Faith. She died in the 3rd century but in the 5th century, a basilica was built for her at Agen. Then in the 9th century, her body was stolen and taken to Conques, which according to Google maps is about 111 miles away from Agen. And because Saint Faith was now at Conques, people started visiting the town. Also, apparently, if you asked the monks at Conques who lived there, they would mention Saint Faith, as if she were still alive. Also, when people who admired her or her relics traveled, people would set aside land to make a new home for her. The little places were as far away as London as there was a parish built there for her.

 

 

Source:

Brook, Rosalind, and Christopher Brook. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.