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:

Heisterbach, 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:

Heisterbach, 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:

Heisterbach, 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.