Eating Meat: How Medieval Monks Found Loopholes Concerning Their Diets

Despite The Rule of Saint Benedict’s strict guidelines on a monastic diet, over time people started tweaking the rules. Or if they weren’t outright changing them, then they were finding loopholes. Similar to other religious rules, laxity developed over time. Of course, there were some monks, nuns, and religious orders who were strict about what a person can and cannot do, but much like people today, a good majority were deliberately creating ways to get around the rules.

 

Add MS 42130 f.206v two fellows roasting meat
Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

 

The Rule specifically says only the sick and infirm are allowed to consume the meat of four-legged animals. (And I will note that birds only have two legs, so I assume poultry was fair game.) So instead of eating in the refectory with everyone else, they would eat the meat in a separate room. As mentioned in my last post, the Carthusian order banned even the sick from meat-eating. This was due to concerns about monks faking illnesses just to get some bacon (or beef, lamb, mutton, etc.). If an entire order forbade meat because they were worried about monks pretending to be sick, that implies it was an ongoing problem in other orders.

Also in my last post, I mentioned how a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk wrote a treatise defending these practices. However, I didn’t mention his claim that Carthusians recovered quicker than Benedictines. According to him, if monks weren’t outright faking illnesses then they would delay their recovery time just so they could keep getting treats. Whether or not this is actually true is certainly up for debate. Again, it implies that this was an ongoing issue. And even if it wasn’t, it means people were worried enough to write this all down!

Despite their reputation, there is a case where a Carthusian ate meat while sick. Hugh of Lincoln was documented to have done this. However, he didn’t do it because his doctor insisted. Hugh had to be talked into it by the archbishop of Canterbury and other important, respected men before he agreed. That being said, when Hugh finally tried some pig’s feet (because that’s what the Holy Fathers recommended), he could barely swallow it thanks to his years of abstinence. Hugh was given some small birds to try instead and had similar problems. The main point here is that even some Carthusians were willing to adjust their diets if it came to that.

The Rule of Saint Benedict is clear regarding what a monk’s diet should be, but eating meat when monks weren’t sick slowly became a common practice. (That’s one reason why the Carthusians were so strict about it!) In 1336, Pope Benedict XII’s papal sanction allowed Benedictines to eat meat four days of the week as long as it wasn’t fasting season and they weren’t doing it in the refectory. Monks were to eat meat in the misericord. Additionally, at least half the community had to have their meals in the refectory so no one took advantage of the new rules. Allowing such laxity implies that the pope knew he was fighting a losing battle. Similar Saint Benedict and wine, sometimes it’s best to try to limit things instead of outright banning them.

They also had a tendency to bend The Rule. One way monks did this regarded what part of the animal you were eating. So a monk could eat the offal and entrails, but not actual muscle tissue. Benedictine and Cluniac monks decided that twice-cooked meat didn’t count as actual meat either. So you could eat stuff like meatballs or rissoles in the refectory but not a steak. Apparently, during the late twelfth century the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury decided that soup made from meat was fine too.

But that wasn’t the only mental gymnastics the religious were doing. Saint Thomas Aquinas decided that chickens were originally aquatic, thus they were fish. And because chickens were fish, they were okay to consume on fast days. There’s also a story that rabbit embryos weren’t meat either, but this just seems to be a myth.

If monks weren’t bending the rules, then they were ignoring them altogether. Walter Map claimed that while Cistercian monasteries sold bacon, they didn’t sell or throw out the rest of the pig. He cheekily wrote, “What becomes of them [the rest of the pig], God knows.” That being said, there is documentation of Cistercian monks being officially reprimanded for eating meat in the 1220s, so Walter Map wasn’t just speculating. And as mentioned in the last post, Peter the Venerable had much to say about how often monks ignored the rules and how they did so with luxury game.

All in all, monks (at least in larger monasteries) had a pretty rich diet. It was better than the majority of the medieval population, so it’s no wonder imagery of the fat, gluttonous monk became such a common theme in medieval satire!

 

 

Sources:

  • Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170.

(This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

  • Snowden, David. Flans and Wine: A Benedictine Recipe Book from Evesham Abbey. Lulu.com, 2015.

(This book can be purchased here.)

 

 

 

 

 

What Medieval Monks Ate: The Basic Monastic Diet and Special Treats

Yesterday I analyzed Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. If your only knowledge of monastic diets comes from The Rule, you might assume that medieval monks always ate healthily and had really boring meals. However, historically speaking that isn’t accurate. It’s not accurate at all. Like modern dieters, monks certainly had cheat days. In fact, in the centuries following The Rule of Saint Benedict being written, cheat days became the norm! In my next post, I will discuss how monks justified this, but today I want to focus on what exactly monks ate.

 

Harley MS 1526 f. 24v priests and king eating
Priests and a King with Dinner | Harley MS 1526 f. 24v | Source: The British Library

 

A basic monastic diet consisted of grains, legumes, bread, seasonal fruits and vegetables. The most common seasoning used was salt. Depending on where a monastery was located their basic diet may be a bit different. For example, at Cluny Abbey, their basic diet included boiled beans flavored with fat. Also depending on a monastery’s location was what their main drink was. It could be either ale or wine. To use Cluny Abbey again, their beverage of choice was wine. This was due in part to ale not being very common in this region of France. Ale was very common in England.

However, if there is a basic monastic diet, that implies there were non-basic diets as well.  And there certainly were! Over the centuries supplementary foods, or pittances as they are also called, were included at mealtimes. These special foods were served on special occasions such as feast days, holidays, anniversaries, and even whenever the abbot returned after a trip. Eventually from the twelfth century onwards, Benedictine pittances were served so often they just became a way for the cooks to introduce new foods to their brethren!

Pittances could simply be higher quality foods (like fine white bread instead of grainy black bread) or they could be delicacies. Because there were a lot of different types of pittances, I’ve decided to make them all into a categorized list. I will note that this is not a comprehensive list, nor were all things served at every monastery. Instead, it is just to give you a general idea of how varied a medieval monk’s diet could be.

 

Regularly Included Pittances:

  1. Eggs
  2. Cheese

Pastries:

  1. Dumplings
  2. Pancakes
  3. Cakes
  4. Other Special Bread Based Food

Seafood:

  1. Eel
  2. Lamprey
  3. Salmon
  4. Pike
  5. Trout
  6. Herring
  7. Mackerel
  8. Cod
  9. Whiting
  10. Cockle
  11. Mussels
  12. Oyster

Seasonings:

  1. Honey
  2. Pepper
  3. Mustard
  4. Cumin
  5. Saffron

Even though The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade meat, eventually some monastic orders started eating it regularly. Because humanity has not changed in the past couple of centuries, people had strong feelings about this. Carthusians were on a strict diet to the point not even their sick were allowed to consume meat. This angered other orders and they even accused the Carthusians of being inhumane! It even got to the point where one fourteenth-century Carthusian monk went out of his way to write a treatise saying how Carthusians were healthier than Benedictines.

Finally, for orders that ate meat, how much and what kinds they ate was also up for scrutiny. Peter the Venerable of Cluny had very strong feelings. Even though this isn’t an analytical blog post, I’m going to end this with a quote I found by him just so you can see how frustrated the man became over this issue. If I attempted to paraphrase it, you would lose out on all the sass. (And there is a lot of sass!)

“Beans, cheese, eggs, and even fish have become loathsome….Roast or boiled pork, a plump heifer, rabbit, and hare, a goose selected from the flock, chicken, in fact every kind of meat and fowl cover the table of these holy monks. But now even these things lose their appeal. It has come to… royal and imported luxuries. Now a monk cannot be satisfied but on wild goats, stags, boars, or bears. The forests must be searched, we have need of huntsmen! Pheas- ants, partridges, and pigeons must be caught by the fowler’s cunning, lest the servant of God should die of hunger!” (pg. 156 of Daily Life in Medieval Europe)

 

 

Sources:

  • Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170.

(This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty, Food and Drink in a Monastery

If there is absolutely something all living beings need, it’s sustenance. And monks are no exception! Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty of The Rule of Saint Benedict are dedicated to what types of food and drink a monastery should serve to the brethren. I say ‘should’ because in the years following the distribution of The Rule monks got extremely good at finding loopholes concerning their diets. But that is a post for tomorrow! (And I quite literally mean for tomorrow. However, once that post is published, I’ll link it here.)

Chapter Thirty-Nine is titled “Of the Measure of Food” (pg. 55). Saint Benedict starts off this part of the text by saying the daily meal can be eaten at either “the sixth or the ninth hour” (pg. 55). Or in other words, noon or 3pm. However, the length of a medieval hour fluctuates depending on the time of year, so summer hours will be longer than winter ones. Thus what may have been considered the ninth hour/3pm back then may be completely different now.

There should be “two dishes of cooked food” (pg. 55) served to the monks, no matter the time of year. Saint Benedict recommends this due to “the weakness of different people” (pg. 55). He goes on to explain that if a monk can’t eat one of the dishes, then at the very least he can eat the other. This prevents the monks with food intolerances/allergies from getting sick. Two different dishes of food should be enough to give everyone enough options. A third type of food can be added “if there be any fruit or young vegetables” (pg. 55) for the two original dishes.

In addition to this, monks should be given “one pound weight of bread…for the day” (pg. 55). They should get this amount of bread “whether there be but one meal, or both dinner and supper” (pg. 55). (Saint Benedict goes into more detail concerning how many daily meals brethren should have in Chapter Forty-One.) If monks are eating two meals the Cellarer will split up the bread. So “a third part of the pound” (pg. 55) is given to them at supper.

Now only eating one meal a day may seem a bit extreme to our modern three meals a day culture. (At least if you are a well off enough American. I’m not sure how often others eat in other countries.) And I’m sure those who do intense workouts/sports/athletics/etc. may be concerned for our medieval monks. So what happens if it’s harvest time or if the monks are doing a lot of physical labor? Then what? Never fear, for Saint Benedict has taken that into consideration:

“If, however, their work chance to have been hard, it shall be in the Abbot’s power, if he think fit, to make some addition, avoiding above everything, all surfeiting, that the monks be not overtaken by indigestion.” (pg. 55)

Once again Saint Benedict gives his abbots the ability to change and alter The Rule. As long as the monks don’t get too gluttonous, they are allowed to have extra food if their bodies require it. That being said, it seems Saint Benedict was concerned this may be taken too far as he spends the next few sentences warning his monkish readers about the dangers of gluttony. Like many of his other warnings, it includes a bible quote.

Finally, this chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying that different ages should get different amounts of food (after all, you wouldn’t give a five-year-old the same portion you would give a thirty-year-old) and that no one should eat “the flesh of four-footed animals” (pg. 55). Unless you are “very weak” or “sick” (pg. 55). The weak and the sick are allowed to have meat from four-footed animals. (More on how monks got around this rule in tomorrow’s post!) 

 

Monk_sneaking_a_drink
A Monk Sneaking a Drink | BL Sloane 2435, f. 44v | Source: Wikipedia

 

Chapter Forty is titled “Of the Measure of Drink” (pg. 56). In this chapter, Saint Benedict discusses how much wine a monk is allowed. He gets rather sassy about it too.

This part of the text begins with Saint Benedict admitting that he has some doubt when it comes to saying how much nourishment each individual should consume. While this is wise, it’s also a bit ironic seeing as the whole purpose of The Rule of Saint Benedict is to tell others how they should live. But I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere and for Saint Benedict, that line is at booze.

Despite his hesitations, Saint Benedict still decides “one pint of wine a day” (pg. 56) is enough for each monk. Like with meat, exceptions will be given to the sick. Exceptions will also be given depending on other external factors such as where the monastery is located, what type of work the monks are doing, and how hot it is during the summer (pg. 56). The “Superior” (pg. 56) of the monastery can give monks extra wine as long as no one drinks too much or gets drunk. The text goes on to remind the monkish reader that “God gives the endurance of abstinence” and those who can abstain “shall have their proper reward” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict may have spent a lot of time listening to his monks complain about not having enough wine. Saint Benedict also did not seem that fond of monks drinking wine because in the last third of the chapter he gets very sassy about it:

“And although we read that wine ought by no means to be the drink of monks, yet since in our times monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree not to drink to satiety, but sparingly: because ‘wine maketh even the wise to fall away.'” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict realized he was fighting a losing battle when it came to getting his monks to stop drinking wine. This quote has the same energy as an exhausted parent saying ‘well if you’re going to drink I would prefer that you do it in the house.’ Like that exhausted parent, Saint Benedict knows forbidding wine is never going to actually work. And if monks won’t listen to an outright ban, there is a possibility they will listen to a request for moderation instead.

Finally, the chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying if a monastery is too poor for the amount of wine he recommends, or can’t afford wine at all, “let those who dwell there bless God and not murmur” (pg. 56). So basically, don’t complain about not having enough wine. For the love of God, stop complaining about the wine.

 

 

Main Source:

  • 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.)

Other Sources:

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

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Eight, The Monastic Equivalent of Watching (Educational!) Television While You Eat

If you were a big reader as a child, I’m sure you may have heard the phrase “no reading at the table!” during meal times. If you grew up in a monastery you may have also heard that phrase (or seen it through sign language), but not for the reasons you might think!

 

monks-from-bl-lansdowne-346-f-47-ce79ba
Monks with a Book | BL Lansdowne 346, f. 47 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Instead of allowing monks to bring their own books to the table, Saint Benedict instructs that a weekly reader be chosen. This weekly reader is chosen on Sunday and reads to his fellow monks throughout the week. (Hence the name.) This makes a lot of sense. During the time Saint Benedict is writing The Rule, all books were made by hand. And when you’ve spent months (or even years) transcribing and illuminating a book, I imagine watching some clumsy monk spill wine on your hard work would incite anger.

At the end of the day, it’s best to have someone read for everyone. It should also be noted that depending on the size of the library and the monastic community, there may not be enough books for everyone to read all at once. In fact, a monastery’s library might not actually be a library at all, but a book cupboard!

Like the weekly servers, the readers started out their duty with a prayer “after Mass and Communion” (pg. 53) on Sunday. This prayer was “said thrice in the Oratory” (pg. 53). The reader also received a blessing before beginning his job. Also similar to the servers, the reader was allowed to “take a little bread and wine before he [begins] to read” (pg. 54). Once dinner/supper was over, the reader took “his meal with the weekly cooks and other servers” (pg. 54). Saint Benedict was definitely concerned about his monks fasting for “so long” (pg. 54).

Saint Benedict goes on to explain that mealtimes are not opportunities for monks to chat with each other about their day. In fact, monks aren’t allowed to talk to each other at all:

“The greatest silence must be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard there, nor any voice except that of him who readeth.” (pg. 53)

Monks are supposed to nourish both their bodies and their minds while they eat. How can one fully listen to the Word of God when they are gossiping with each other about how Brother So-And-So drew something lewd in his manuscript? The answer is that they can’t.

To prevent any idle chatter, Saint Benedict instructs his monks to “minister to each other” regarding “whatever is necessary for food or drink” (pg. 53). Not only should anyone ask for things, they should not need to. It’s a monk’s duty to make sure their fellow brethren have what they need. In Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict (link to that below) it is much more specific in what a monk is supposed to do. Instead of using the word “minister”, they use the phrase “pass each other such things.” I imagine that monks simply spend the entire time passing each other dishes of food and pitchers of drink.

But what happens when a monk wants something that’s not within easy reach? Or if he needs to use the restroom? Or there’s something else he needs to do/wants? Well, luckily for him, he’s not just stuck there. If “anything be wanted, let it be asked for by a sign rather than by the voice” (pg. 53-54). Monasteries had entire systems of sign language that they used. These sign languages were quite complicated and over time they were used more and more. Often to the point where it would have been easier to just let the monks talk! (Tomorrow’s post will go into this in detail.)

Even though monks were allowed to talk to each other through sign language, there was one topic that was very much off-limits during dinner/supper: questions “about the reading or…anything else” (pg. 54). The reason asking questions was forbidden was that it might “give occasion for talking” (pg. 54). Anyone who has interacted with a young child knows that one question can spiral into a very long conversation. This is the same for adults too!

At the end of the day, Saint Benedict says that the only people allowed to talk while everyone ate were the readers and “the Superior should [he] wish to say a few words for the edification of the brethren” (pg. 54). That being said, in Julie Kerr’s book Life in the Medieval Cloister she points out that sometimes monks were allowed to talk with each other if an important guest was eating with them that day. This is just one example (out of many) of The Rule of Saint Benedict being more of a guideline to real-life monastic communities than a strict law.

 

 

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.)

Other Sources:

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

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Prioress Eleanor Series by Priscilla Royal

Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence at the End

 

Usually, I analyze historical texts on this blog. However, I want to do something a bit different. Today I want to discuss a book series that I’ve been enjoying.

Last year I really got sucked into mystery novels. There are a lot of subgenres in this particular genre. My personal favorites are historical ones where the detectives are clergy. I know that is a very specific niche, but you would be surprised just how many series there are out there with that premise! One such example is the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters. But I don’t want to discuss those today. Instead, I want to talk about the Prioress Eleanor books written by Priscilla Royal. (As you’ve probably guessed from the title!)

 

IMG_6631
My Copy of A Killing Season | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

The series takes place in late thirteenth-century England a few years after the Second Baron’s War. (The first book is set in 1270.) The story begins when twenty-year-old Eleanor of Wynethorpe is sent to Tyndal Priory to be their new prioress. It should be noted that Tyndal Priory is part of the real-life Order of Fontevraud, an order exclusively run by women. It should also be noted that the only reason Eleanor is prioress is thanks to King Henry III. The king elected her (with the Abbess in France’s approval) as a political move to thank Eleanor’s father for his loyalty during the war.

Due to this, as well as her inexperience and the fact Eleanor actually plans to rule the priory (instead of just letting the prior do it like the last prioress did), she faces quite a bit of hostility from the community of nuns and monks. However, Eleanor is a clever, witty woman who learns quickly. As the series goes on, she manages to gain not only the experience she lacks but the respect of others around her.

Then there’s Brother Thomas. He’s definitely a much more interesting and intriguing character. Unlike Eleanor, Thomas never wanted to be a monk. Instead, he was forced into the priesthood. How does one get forced into the priesthood? Well, that was actually a common occurrence in medieval society. But unlike other characters who were forced by their parents or joined because their spouse joined (as well as other reasons), Thomas did it to save his life. Before the start of the first book, he was caught in bed with his beloved childhood friend (another man) and imprisoned. Before he could be burned at the stake, a mysterious priest rescued him and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse: become a monk and work as his master’s spy or burn.

Needless to say, Brother Thomas took the offer.

 

FF726A65-C61E-457A-B1A4-E8649633670A.JPG
My Copy of The Sanctity of Hate | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

Several of the series’ overarching plot threads is Thomas’s trauma, PTSD, and his own personal conflicts with his faith. As I write this, I’m only on book nine out of the fifteen. By this book, Thomas has processed much of his trauma but in earlier ones, it is the main thing he is dealing with.

One thing I do like about these mysteries is that not every book takes place at Tyndal. While that can be annoying if you enjoy the characters who live near the priory (such as Crowner Ralf, Signy, and Gytha) I find it more realistic concerning the murders. If everyone kept getting murdered around Tyndal it eventually gets a little ridiculous. (It asks the question, why is everyone being murdered at this tiny priory in the middle of nowhere?) Granted, you could also ask why people keep getting killed around Eleanor and Thomas, but in some books, they arrive at the location after the crimes occurred.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can suspend my disbelief if they stumble across a murder but not if they keep happening where they live. After all, they are supposed to be clergy, not professional/amateur detectives who go out looking for this type of thing.

Another thing I enjoy is how much Royal captures the culture of the time period. Often times in historical literature you will have characters who very much have modern-day views. For me personally, I’m not a fan of this. If I’m reading a book that takes place in the Roman empire or wherever, I want them to have the cultural views of that time period. For example, if a story takes place in Ancient Athens, a female character isn’t going to be frolicking around freely without consequences. Royal does a very good job of portraying medieval views. You can tell she has done a lot of research for each story. (And as a bonus Royal includes a historical note and a bibliography in the back of each book so you can do further research as well!)

 

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My Copy of Covenant with Hell | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

While I do love Prioress Eleanor, there is one aspect I find a bit off-putting: the amount of sexual violence throughout the series. It’s important for authors to be careful when writing these topics. Royal usually handles her portrayal of rape and assault well, especially in regard to the effect it has on characters, of all genders. So many stories treat men being raped as some sort of joke when in reality it’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s extremely far from funny. Instead of it being a punchline, we see just how serious it is and just how much it has traumatized the characters (especially Thomas). However, sometimes the sexual violence feels gratuitous and irrelevant to the plot. Other times it is very relevant. Sexual violence is a horrible reality of the world we live in but the sheer amount of it in these texts becomes too much. I enjoy the Prioress Eleanor series (and will keep reading it) but I do wish Royal would find other ways to move the plot. 

Despite this, Prioress Eleanor is an excellent series overall. I recommend anyone who enjoys medieval mysteries give it a read.

 

Books in Order:

  1. Wine of Violence
  2. Tyrant of the Mind
  3. Sorrow Without End
  4. Justice for the Damned
  5. Forsaken Soul
  6. Chambers of Death
  7. Valley of Dry Bones
  8. A Killing Season
  9. The Sanctity of Hate
  10. Covenant with Hell
  11. Satan’s Lullaby
  12. Land of Shadows
  13. The Proud Sinner
  14. Wild Justice
  15. The Twice Hanged Man

 

If you want to learn more, you can find Priscilla Royal’s website here.

 

The Cost of Bad Kingship During the Wars of the Roses

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

 

The number one way to remind a country how important good leadership is is when your country’s leader does not want to do or is extremely bad at doing their job. This is true for the modern-day, as well as the past. It was especially true for England in the 15th century. Due to complex political structures, a bad kingship can cause a decrease in good living conditions, rebellions, and wars, which ultimately leads to death and destruction. Four kings ruled during the period 1450-1500. Each king caused death and destruction during their rule. However, the way some of this death and destruction was dealt out is more taboo than others, leading to certain kingships being overthrown sooner than others.

 

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Portrait of Henry VI | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

The first king who ruled during this fifty-year period was Henry VI. Overall, Henry VI was not a good king. However, this was not entirely his fault. Henry VI “succeeded his father in 1422 aged just nine months” (Horrox 234). To be a good king, one needs experience. A bad king does not have enough experience to know what they are doing. Nor do they care enough to try to either get the experience or ask several people who do have the same or similar experience. At nine months, a child does not even understand the concept of object permanence; let alone how to rule a kingdom. It also did not help that because Henry VI was crowned at such a young age, he had no frame of reference of how a good king should act, or rather, how a king should not act. In his minority, Henry VI could only go off of what his counselors told him. However, as he physically started to approach adulthood, it slowly “dawned on those around the king that he was never going to grow up” (Carpenter 92). Essentially, Henry VI either would not or could not be king. Either way, Henry VI’s lack of emotional maturity at this time caused “a group of grasping courtiers to take hold of his government” (Carpenter 93).

This ultimately led to a series of bad decisions and England was thrown into disarray in 1450, when the country lost Normandy, the duke of Suffolk was impeached, and Jack Cade’s rebellion occurred (Horrox 231). After these disasters, Henry VI’s counsel and court could no longer make it seem as though everything was fine with the king. After this truth was revealed to the public, “the court deepened its alienation from the realm, an alienation…a political opponent sought to exploit” (Harriss 7). It also did not help that in 1453, while the country was still facing these problems, “the recovery was fatally weakened by Henry’s mental collapse” (Horrox 231). Needless to say, one cannot be a good king when one is suffering from a nervous breakdown.

Another reason Henry VI’s kingship was terrible was because he did not like conflict. A good king cannot be afraid of conflict, especially in its early stages before it escalates into something deadly. Henry VI had a tendency to wait. After Richard of York argued that because of his ancestry he should have the throne, Henry VI somewhat agreed, telling York that he had to recognize him as king, but after Henry VI died, York and his descendants could have the throne (Crowland Chronicle 111-113). By trying to avoid conflict, Henry VI only caused more. He seemed to have completely forgotten that he already had an heir. This was a fatal mistake on Henry VI’s part. His proper heir would be killed in the battle of Tewkesbury while fighting for the Lancasters for the throne (Crowland Chronicle 127).

 

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Portrait of Edward IV | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

In contrast, Edward IV can be considered a relatively good king. Christine Carpenter even goes as far as to say, “he should be acknowledged as one of the greatest of English kings” (205). When comparing the second half of Edward IV’s reign to the entirety of Henry VI’s reign this is a safe statement to say. Unlike Henry VI, Edward IV was not afraid of conflict. After all, he had usurped Henry VI as king when Henry VI could not do a good job. Another way Edward IV was not afraid to get his hands dirty was when he managed to mend a large feud happening between noble families in the 1470s (Carpenter 216). When dealing with local conflicts Edward IV had the extremely valuable trait of being “prepared to change his mind…when he decided that he was backing the wrong party…once he realized that he was acting…against local wishes” (Carpenter 194).

However, he did make a few errors, especially in his early years, which resulted in fatalities. These fatalities can be easily chalked up to “the inexperience of youth” (Carpenter 92). When Edward IV first took the throne, he was eighteen years old and eighteen-year-olds are not known for their decision-making skills. One such mistake Edward IV made that ended up causing a domino effect into war was his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth Woodville was not considered good queen material. She was the daughter of a knight, thus not high up in the social hierarchy, a widow with children, thus not a virgin, and she was English when most kings at the time married foreign women for political reasons (Laynesmith).

By secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV ended up isolating his kingmaker, Warwick, who had arraigned Edward IV to marry a French princess (Carpenter 170). However, in the Crowland Chronicle Continuations, the author argues that it was not just Edward IV’s marriage that insulted Warwick. It was a combination of the queen “in accordance with the king’s will, arraign[ing] the marriage of [some family members] and many other affairs likewise, against the earl’s will” (115). Either way, Edward IV insulted Warwick and it is generally not a good idea to insult the person who made you king, for they can try to take your crown away, which is exactly what Warwick attempted to do. Warwick failed, but it resulted in several battles and many deaths.

Even so, Edward IV brought stability back to the country, even if it was extremely fragile (Horrox 232). However, this bloodstained stability was smashed to pieces thanks to his brother, Richard III. While both Richard III and Edward IV were usurpers and their crowns were gained by spilling blood, Richard III is widely to be considered an extremely bad king, even though “as king, it cannot be denied Richard did his best” (Carpenter 210). Unlike Edward VI, Richard III did not overthrow a regime that was slowly but surely tearing the country apart. Instead, after his brother’s death, Richard III was made “protector of the kingdom” (Crowland Chronicle 157) and as a result, he took the throne from Edward IV’s heir. Like Edward IV, Richard III killed the person who he usurped the crown from. However, Edward IV’s two heirs were children and killing children, especially the children of a beloved king, is generally frowned upon. Thus, Richard III was not particularly popular from the start of his rule.

 

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Portrait of Richard III | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

It should also be noted, when one is a usurper, the survivors of the previous dynasty and their allies need to be paid off or eliminated. Unfortunately for Richard III, “there was no relying on the loyalty of men who have been bought” (Carpenter 211). This caused a chicken and egg scenario where Richard III had enough resources for those loyal to him, but not enough for those who could be bought. Like Henry VI, Richard III “lacked…the political mastery without which the [kingship] was ultimately impossible” (Carpenter 211).

Following the fates of the kings before him, Richard III was usurped as well. He was killed in the battle of Bosworth and Henry VII took over the throne. Like the kings before him, Henry VII had claimed he was the rightful heir due to his ancestry. However, to further solidify his claim for the crown, Henry VII married Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York as he had promised he would do if he defeated Richard III (Laynesmith 36). Henry VII was also considered a good king. His kingship “rested on a sound financial basis, on putting the nobles firmly in their place and on effective order, secured by wise legislation and the disciplining of nobility” (Carpenter 220-221). In short, Henry VII was the exact opposite of Henry VI.

In the end, good kingship was extremely important during 1450-1500, mostly because there was a huge lack of it. Kings either did not have the mental capabilities needed to rule, the good decision making needed to rule, the charisma, or the slightly better ancestry their rivals had. However, the Wars of the Roses really can be traced back to one person: Henry VI. Because Henry VI was mentally incapable of good kingship, either from general immaturity, mental illness, or perhaps even an undiagnosed mental disability that hindered his capacities, one event lead to another and the end result was a conflict that lasted nearly fifty years and cost many people their wealth, land, and lives.

 

 

Sources:

Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, C.1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Harriss, G.L. “The Court of the Landcastrian Kings.” The Landcastrian Court: Proceedings of the 2001 Harlaxton Symposium , edited by J. Stratford, 2003, pp. 1–18.

Horrox, Rosemary. “England: Kingship and the Political Community, 1377-c. 1500.” A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 224–241.

Laynesmith, J. The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1505. 2004.

Pronay, Nicholas, and John Cox, editors. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459-1486. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1986.

 

 

 

Magic, The Christian Church, and The Illusion of Control

Content Warning: Discussions of Anti-Semitism, Anti-Paganism, and Anti-Catholicism

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Christianity’s stance on magic, and later on witchcraft, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What was once thought of as benign slowly became evil and a crime worthy of the death penalty.  However, it is important to note that these opinions fluctuated depending on the sect of Christianity, what type of magic was being performed, where the magical power came from and who was doing the magic itself, as well as what time period the magic was done and what country or region the magical acts took place in. All of these factors influenced the Christian Church’s opinions and influences on magic and witchcraft as a whole. However, magic was what gave people and the Church comfort and control over their lives.

Before the fifteenth century, there were only two types of magic that a person could use. These types of magic could either be beneficial (white magic) or harmful (black magic/maleficium) (Levack). Generally speaking, the Christian Church frowned upon both types of magic during the Middle Ages. Harmful magic, or maleficium, was seen as the worst of the two. After all, maleficium was what caused “bodily injury, disease, death, poverty, or some other misfortune” (Levack 5). The beneficial type of magic was referred to as white magic. White magic was “productive…[it helped] crops to grow or women to bear children” (Levack 5). White magic was also used to heal the sick or it protected people from evil spirits or witches (Levack 5). However, both types of magic allowed people to have some sense of control. Maleficium allowed people to control the people around them through harm while white magic allowed people to control their situations through productive means, as well as to counteract any black magic that was either done to them or about to be done to them.

Harley MS 1526 f.4v demons monks key reading
Demons with a Key and Monks Reading | Harley MS 1526 f.4v | Source: The British Library

However, starting in the fifteenth century and going into the early eighteenth century, there was a third type of magic: demonic witchcraft (Larner 3). Demonic witchcraft is what changed the religious and secular perception of magic forever. Demonic witchcraft tarnished the reputation of white magic and it associated magic, in general, with Satan and his demons. At first, the concept of demonic witchcraft was primarily an elite idea. In fact, “it was developed by the ruling class” (Larner 4). Before demonic witchcraft came into play, the average medieval European peasant did not give much thought to the morality of magic. At least, medieval European peasants did not think of magic as so morally corrupt that using it was a crime. And they certainly did not believe anyone who practiced magic should be executed for demonic witchcraft. During the Middle Ages, European peasants did not think white magic was necessarily bad until the idea was forced upon them. It was only when “the logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic” (Larner 4) did the witch-hunts and the executions of these so-called witches start.

Even though demonic witchcraft created an association of magic with evil, during the Middle Ages, before the fifteenth century, magic and religion were very much intertwined with each other. The connection between the two did not end abruptly once the Early Modern period started. The connection lasted through the Reformation and the rest of the Early Modern period. For example, Catholic rituals and prayers were often thought of in terms of magic. One way Catholic rituals were used by the general public was in magical healing. Magical healing used Catholic prayers because of “the old belief in the curative power of the medieval Church” (Thomas 178). Prayers such as “five Paternosters, five Aves, and a Creed, to be said in honour of the Holy Ghost and Our Lady” (Thomas 179) were used as part of healing charms. Even though church leaders during and after the Reformation attempted to forbid the Catholic elements, they failed. Protestant clergy did not realize that because Catholicism had the “power to give supernatural agency to the believer” (Purkiss 154), the rituals and prayers would not go away any time soon. This is significant because it means the average layperson could call upon the power of God to help heal a sick loved one, thus giving the laity the illusion of having more control over their lives. After all, without access to modern medicine, or any sort of health care besides folk medicine, and the Internet to research what could possibly be wrong with either themselves or their loved ones, magic and prayers were all some peasants had.

Now, it was believed by the general population that the only way to fight harmful magic was with more magic. However, in the sixteenth century, some elite Protestant clergymen did not believe in the existence of magic at all. It did not help the Protestant cause that one sixteenth-century writer, Reginald Scot claimed “only the Catholic Church took the subject of witchcraft seriously” (Clark 526). This meant that the average European population thought only Catholicism offered helpful solutions to healing and bewitchment. While Catholicism offered magical solutions such as “holy water, the sign of the cross, and all the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic exorcists” the Protestant solution was “prayer and repentance” (Thomas 265). In fact, due to the Reformation, there was a “reduction in the power attributed to holy words and objects” and “the more extreme Protestants virtually denied the existence of any Church magic at all” (Thomas 256).

Needless to say, Protestant laity did not find this particularly helpful. Because of this new belief, Protestant laity began to go to cunning folk for help because they believed their church would not. It did not help the Protestant Church’s argument that some of the cunning folk’s customers thought the cunning folk were taught their magic by God. It also did not help that some cunning folk went along with that idea (Thomas 266). In fact, because the Protestant clergy did not believe magic was “theologically neutral” (Thomas 266), they essentially forced some cunning folk to claim they were demigods to avoid being accused of being devil worshippers. As a result of all this, Protestant churches began to see cunning folk as competition. The Catholic Church, however, did not have the same problem. Catholic laity could pray to a saint for the same problem and the saint was supposed to help answer their prayers (Thomas 273).

The Christian faith did not just consider cunning folk as competition. Christian clergy also saw other faiths as competition to their own. This thought process caused “Church fathers [to] consign the religions…both Jewish and pagan, to the kingdom of Satan” (Levack 30). For the Jewish faith in particular, “many contemporaries believed that Jews were a magical people who…practiced secret cabbalistic rituals” (Roper 40). Because Christian clergy considered other faiths evil, this resulted in them demonizing the other faiths’ God/gods (Levack 30). The Christian Church’s anti-Semitic views also contributed to associating Judaism with witchcraft (Roper 40). Brian P. Levack goes on to state that many traits associated with the Christian Devil are also traits associated with pagan gods. Early Modern witches were known to confess that they were worshipping at “a horned beast as a god” (Levack 30). He says that this theory is why some scholars believe that Early Modern witches were practicing “an ancient fertility religion” (Levack 30). But Levack argues, “these confessions cannot…be taken at face value” (30). It is also important to note that in the Church’s attempts to convert European pagan peasants, they forbid “everyday practices such as folk healing, using love potions, or searching for stolen goods with the aid of a sieve” and referred to these practices as “un-Christian superstitions” (Ankarloo 60). I should note that demonizing other religions happened within Christianity as well. Protestants “believed that Catholics were emissaries of the Devil and the Pope was…the Anti-Christ” (Roper 16).

Despite Protestants thinking Catholics were literally from Hell, both Catholic and Protestant churches had strong stances against witchcraft. Ironically, while the official Christian stance on magic was that it was sinful and you should never use it or consult someone who uses it. Some clergy did not get the message. This could in part be due to the fact “Protestants’ views about witchcraft ‘rested on narrower foundations’ than did those of Catholics” (Clark 528). Clergy on the lower rungs of the church hierarchy were actually known for using magic themselves. In fact, “the roles of priest and magician were by no means clearly distinguished in the popular mind” (Thomas 274). This is in part to do with the fact that medieval clergymen were most likely to be the most educated person in the community and would know how to read and understand spell books “and formulae of conjuration which were employed in the invocation of spirits” (Thomas 274). Keith Thomas goes on to point out that medieval clergymen were expected to know divination, invocation, as well as healing. His parishioners would ask him for help accordingly. And of course, a clergyman was expected to know the art of exorcism.

After the Reformation, the expectations of the clergy changed. In France, quite a few clerics were accused of using “witchcraft and black magic” (Monter 43). Some of the clerics were arrested, two were “tried…and both were liberated”, one “had his paraphernalia burned” and others were executed (Monter 43). While it does seem extremely contradictory that the Christian Church would speak out against magic, but clergy would still use it, Keith Thomas makes an excellent point regarding this hypocrisy: “it was precisely because the Church had its own magic that it frowned on others” (273-274). This means that when someone used magic, including the clergy, it was extremely important to know what the source of that magic was. Magic could come from a natural source, from God himself, or from Satan and his demons.

In the sixteenth century, the official view of popular magic by both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were not positive ones. In fact, their views towards popular magic have been described as “hostile” (Thomas 258). Not only did the Church continue to punish the use of maleficium, they also started to punish the use of popular magic (Ankarloo 60). This is important because it reflects the Church’s evolving anxieties in the early part of the Early Modern period concerning all types of magic, not just kinds that had sinister results. It also reflects the Church’s changing attitudes towards using magic in general. As previously stated, the medieval Church gave laity the agency to harness God’s power through magic to help themselves and others. Now that agency and control had been taken away. Bengt Ankarloo also makes a point to say, “the vigilance of the Church in these matters was bolstered by the Reformation and Counter-Reformations of the sixteenth century” (60). This reflects the Church’s determination to convert people to their sect of Christianity as well to keep the people converted. With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church was given the opportunity to fix issues the elite clergy found problematic, but it also gave them a chance to find an excuse to further their influence in the lives of the lower class.

In conclusion, before the rise of the idea of demonic witchcraft, magic was widely tolerated, if not outright accepted by European society. It was only when the Christian faith started to associate magic with Satan and evil in the fifteenth century did witchcraft become a crime worthy of death. If magic had never been linked to demons, would there still have been the witch trials? Or would have European society thought up another way to dispose of those who were inconvenient to them? Either way, the use of magic was extremely important in Europe, especially in terms of religion. For peasants all across Europe, magic gave them a way to feel like they had some sort of control over their lives. When Catholic clergy used magic it legitimized their job position much more than if they had not used magic at all. 

 

 

Sources:

Ankarloo, Bengt. “Witch Trials in Northern Europe: 1450-1700.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 53-95.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Clarendon Press, 1997.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984.

Levack, Brian P.. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Monter, William. “Witch Trials in Continental Europe: 1560-1660.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 1-52.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. Routledge. 1996.

Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze. Yale University Press. 2004.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1971.

 

How Sex and Religion Shaped Medieval Gender Roles

Content Warning: Discussions of Misogyny, Sex, and Menstruation, Mentions of Miscarriage

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

 

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the roles of men and women in medieval society were greatly shaped by the scientific and philosophical understanding of bodies, sex, and reproduction. The basis of these understandings primarily came from religious texts that eventually transferred over into law and scientific studies. However, due to the length of the Middle Ages as well as the different religions, and cultures, such understandings of gender roles varied. However, this is not to say that there were not several overarching themes, especially ones concerning women and their bodies, in the different cultures and religions during the medieval period. For example, both Christianity and Judaism understood a woman’s role in society in similar ways.

 

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Adam, Eve, and the Snake | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

In Jewish communities, religious texts shaped their understandings of gender roles. The biblical story of Adam and Eve “justified…women’s secondary place in human creation” (Baskin 39). Eve was made after Adam, thus women were considered second to men in the social hierarchy. The concept that God had made men physically more powerful (Park 92) furthered the idea that a woman needed to be subordinate to her husband and to men in general. However, rabbis also used “Eve’s responsibility…in all human mortality” as well as “women’s essential otherness from men” as an explanation for why women must be kept “separate” (Baskin 38). These separations included why women were not allowed to participate in their faith in the same way men were. Women were even expected to support their husbands’ and sons’ religious studies instead of being able to gain spiritual knowledge for themselves (Baskin 39).

In Christian society, clergymen also used religion as evidence of women’s inferiority. Like in Judaism, the Christian understanding was that if “God made women physically weaker than men” (Park 84) then women must be the inferior gender. One medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, went even so far as to argue that if God had not made women subordinate, then men would have no choice but to direct their lustful actions elsewhere, including towards other men (Park 84). Same-sex attraction was unacceptable in medieval society, as the church considered any non-potentially reproductive intercourse between any genders as sodomy. For context, the Christian church considered “bestiality…only marginally less serious than homosexual sodomy” (Brundage 43). Thus if a woman was not subordinate to a man’s wants and desires his eternal reward was at stake.

This is not to say that men were considered more lustful than women, as is the thought in modern times. The opposite is true. In medieval society, women were thought to be the lustful gender, not men. The idea that “women [were considered] temptresses [was] one of the defining elements of female sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Salisbury 87) and it was a prominent one. Women may have been thought of as subordinate, but being lustful was simply another way for men to scapegoat women. The scientific understanding at the time was a man’s masculinity was dependent on his semen. If he had too much sex, he would be losing the very essence of what made him a man as well as his “masculine control” (Salisbury 86).

Christian clergymen also used the story of Adam and Eve to explain the different roles men and women had in medieval society. Their explanation focused mainly on sex and sexuality instead of the social status of women. However, it is important to note these religious understandings gradually seeped over into other aspects of medieval life. Due to the first humans’ disobedience against God, sex was regarded as “a consequence of sin” (Brundage 35). This understanding led church leaders to set up a hierarchy of eternal reward based on a person’s past sexual experiences. A virgin would be rewarded the most, “chaste widows” (Elliott 25) came second, and married people came third. For most secular people, this statement was neither threatening nor particularly motivating. In fact, secular society expected people to get married (Karras 75).

The clergy were painfully aware they were fighting a losing battle when it came to controlling their followers’ sexual desires. In an act of reluctant compromise, the clergy told the “less heroic Christians” (Brundage 35) that if they absolutely had to have sexual intercourse, they must be married, the act must be for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and under no circumstances should sex strictly be for pleasure or for fun (Brundage 35). Eventually, in the seventh century, these conditions were fleshed out to include “specific guidelines for acceptable sexual behavior” (Brundage 36). The rules were so specific it was nearly impossible for a married couple to have sex and not sin.

 

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A Flowchart Regarding When Medieval Couples Were Allowed to Engage in Sexual Behavior | Source: thehistoryblog.com

 

It should be noted that the majority of ecclesiastical court cases were because of these sins, thus “greatly increase[ing]…the church’s income” (Brundage 39). This observation makes one wonder if the church’s main reason for creating such specific guidelines was simply an excuse to make money by exploiting the sexual desires of both men and women. However, Christian ecclesiastical courts considered “extramarital sex…as sinful for a man as for a woman” (Brundage 42). When compared to fornication, the crime of adultery was viewed “primarily as a female offense and [the courts] only occasionally punished men” (Brundage 42).

Adultery was not the only guideline that focused on women. Marital intercourse was forbidden if a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding (Brundage 36). Jewish communities put a tremendous amount of pressure on women and their bodies as well. Female menstruation was considered “regular” while male “discharges and states of ritual impurity” (Baskin 43) were not. Menstruation was thought of as impure. Thus, it was a Jewish woman’s responsibility to know her cycle extremely well, so she would know when to take her “ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual relations could resume” (Baskin 44) between her and her husband.

The scientific understanding of the human body was what led these faiths to believe menstrual blood was toxic, thus further shaping the roles women were expected to keep in society. Because women were considered cold and men were considered hot, menstruation was what burned off the impurities in a woman’s body (Salisbury 89). This lead to the belief menstruation was good for the health of a woman but toxic for a man who came into contact with a woman’s menstrual blood (Salisbury 89). It was considered dangerous not only to men but to anything that came into contact with it. Isidore of Seville wrote menstrual blood would kill crops, make wine turn sour, damage metal, and give dogs rabies (Park 87).

In Judaism, laws were made specifying that men were not only not allowed to touch a menstruating woman; he was also to avoid making “eye contact and [staying out of her] physical proximity” (Park 92). In the central Middle Ages, this law eventually escalated into something even stricter than before (Baskin 44). Menstruating women were “forbidden to enter a synagogue…to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin 44). The following of this law was isolating for women and it further emphasized the role of women as lesser than in the social hierarchy.

 

Hildegard_von_Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Not everyone agreed with this. One woman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, argued that it was men who produced toxic discharges and not women (Salisbury 93). According to John M. Riddle, Saint Hildegard “is a good indication of popular culture during the Middle Ages”. While other writers received their information from classical texts, she received her knowledge “from her culture” (Riddle 269). Such information concerned reproductive health, including what plants a woman should consume should she wish to have an abortion. Riddle explains that understanding what plants could induce a miscarriage was commonly shared information amongst medieval women. Knowing how to make “contraception and early-term abortifacients” (Riddle 269) was vital information for medieval women, especially when it is taken into consideration how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was. After all, “women at all social levels [died] in childbirth” (Green 357).

Regardless of the dangers of reproduction, men and women had sexual intercourse anyway. Not every Jewish man followed the guidelines set forth by his religious leaders. There must have been many cases of men touching or going near menstruating women because in the thirteenth century, the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote down the typical punishment for a man who disobeyed the law (Baskin 44). These punishments “included extensive fasting, lashing, immersion in icy water” and they were “applied only to men” (Baskin 44). Unlike in Christian society, Jewish women were not considered “self-conscious entities” (Baskin 44). Christian clergymen also wrote down acceptable punishments for those who disobeyed religious rules. Confessors were given “pastoral manuals and handbooks…[that went into] such great length and in such detail with sexual sins that…the conclusion [is] these behaviors must have flourished…among medieval people” (Brundage 41).

According to James A. Brundage, the majority of the laity did not believe that having sex, particularly sex outside of marriage, was a sin. This idea is emphasized by the fact the previously mentioned handbooks actually warned priests that when they questioned their parishioners about their sexual digressions, they needed to be careful lest they give their parishioners any ideas (Brundage 42). However, priests were not so innocent themselves. Starting in the fourth century, celibacy was encouraged amongst priests, but not required. It was only when the church reformed in the second half of the eleventh-century celibacy became required for priests (Brundage 36). The priests did not take this new requirement well. Many priests already had wives and children. It did not help the reformers that the requirement was a blatant “attack on women” (Elliott 27). One argument for required celibacy was “priestly hands…must not be sullied by…the genitals of whores (i.e., the wives of priests)” (Elliott 27). Priests’ reactions to the announcement included attacking and running a bishop out of town as well as burning “a supporter of clerical celibacy” alive (Brundage 36-37).

Obviously, this hypocrisy was not unknown to the laity. Several tropes in medieval literature called out the church concerning their opinions on sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras writes that stories would include “lusty priests [who would] seduce the women who confess to them [as well as] monks and nuns [who would] engage in secret liaisons”. There was even an entire genre of literature, the French fabliaux, dedicated to stories where “both men and women [found] joy in sexual intercourse” (Karras 2). Some of the characters in these works were members of the clergy.

Overall, the roles for men and women in medieval society were heavily dependent on religious understandings of the body, sex, and reproduction. These religious understandings in all faiths were used as a way to control people, women especially. Religion not only shaped people’s ideas about themselves, but it was also used as a tool to shape the scientific and legal understanding of gender roles. By shaping these aspects of society, the clergy could to some extent have control over people’s lives in almost every manner.

 

 

Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49. SOLO.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33–47.

Elliott, Dyan. “Gender and The Christian Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–35. SOLO.

Green, Monica. “Caring for Gendered Bodies.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 345–358. SOLO.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:” Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

Park, Katharine. “Medicine and Natural Philosophy: Naturalistic Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 84–98. SOLO.

Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 261–275.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.