Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: Men Attempting to Become Monks for All the Wrong Reasons

Just because someone wants to become a monk, doesn’t mean that they should. Sometimes they try to become monks because the devil is making them do it, sometimes they just want to steal stuff, and other times they have a really bad gambling addiction and see no other way out of their debts. Today’s article will be discussing Chapters Nine through Twelve of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Each chapter is pretty short, so if you’re interested in reading them in full, I’ve provided a link to page 17 at the end of this article.

Our first story is from Book One, Chapter Nine. A doctor named Stephen de Vitry has decided that he wants to be a monk at Clairvaux Abbey. He’s educated, important, and everyone knows who he is. At least it’s implied that everyone knows who he is as “the whole valley was rejoicing at his coming” and they are positively thrilled that the monastery will receive “so important a convert” (pg. 18). However, things are not as they seem.

 

Picture from Harley MS 1527 f.50r Monks are talking to Christ while a demon talks to the monk. Writing in Latin is on the left side of the picture.
Monks talking to Christ (?) and a demon talking to the monks.  | Harley MS 1527 f.50r | Source: The British Library

 

Everyone else may be excited Stephen wants to be a monk, but our good friend St. Bernard is suspicious. He has a bad feeling that Stephen isn’t there for the right reasons. And he’s not. Turns out that the devil convinced him to be a novice so Stephen can lure more committed novices back into the secular world. Specifically, novices that Stephen taught through letters.

Despite St. Bernard’s concerns regarding Stephen’s predatory nature, he lets the man be a novice. Though he only does this so “he might not cause pain to the weaker brethren” (pg. 18). I believe this means that St. Bernard doesn’t want to upset the more delicate monks by telling them that the famous Stephen de Vitry is a jerk. Or maybe St. Bernard just didn’t want to listen to people pester him about letting Stephen in. Either way, he lets the man in despite the fact Stephen will never become a monk.

And Stephen de Vitry doesn’t. He spends the year of his novitiate trying to lure other novices back to the secular world (or at least the “evil spirit” (pg. 18) in Stephen does) but to no avail. None of the novices are tempted and Stephen leaves the monastery, humiliated.

Chapter Ten begins with two priests coming to Heisterbach Abbey to become monks. As is custom, they are turned away. After all, how do you know someone really wants to be a monk unless they spend a few days begging to be let in? One of the priests skedaddles, but the other, Goswin, begs so much and so hard that eventually he’s let in.

He’s there for less than six weeks before he takes a bunch of stuff and flees. (It is not specified what exactly that stuff is.) Turns out Goswin didn’t actually want to join the monastery. Literally, the only reason he was there was to steal “in obedience to the orders of him who had brought him there” (pg. 18).

 

 

A medieval drawing of a boy in a cherry tree eating/stealing the cherries. Under the tree is a man with a club.
A boy stealing cherries from a tree. (Not exactly related to chapter ten, but theft is still occurring!) | Add MS 42130 f.196v | Source: The British Library

 

 

After the Monk tells this story (there’s a reason this text is called Dialogue on Miracles!), the Novice suggests that maybe, just maybe, Goswin came to the monastery with a genuine desire to be a monk. His hopeful suggestion is answered with an extremely blunt “Assuredly not” (pg. 18).

The Monk goes on to explain that theft was Goswin’s intention the entire time. He knows this because a lay brother overheard Goswin and his friend plotting to lie to the monks. It makes you wonder why the lay brother neglected to tell any superior about what he heard. Though in the lay brother’s defense he didn’t actually overhear them mention any sort of specific scheme for thievery. But still. Blatantly discussing lying is something you mention to the people in charge. Especially when there is a heavy vetting process for new monastic recruits!

However, our good Monk does not go into this further. Instead, he begins the story of the next chapter.

Chapter Eleven is about a young canon with a severe gambling addiction. The canon is from Cologne. According to Google Maps, it is about an eight-hour walk from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey or twenty-three miles. So it’s long-distance but not undoable. (The trip can definitely be done on an impulse, is what I’m saying.)

 

Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey
Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey

 

When the canon arrives, the younger monks are thrilled that he wants to join their community. They are so excited that they beg and beg and beg the abbot, Gevard. Despite their extremely annoying pleas, Gevard says no. See, Gevard has more than two brain cells. It’s pretty obvious to him that the canon is only there because he has a severe gambling addiction. Gevard knows this because by the time the canon arrived he had already gambled away the majority of his clothes and is only wearing a tunic. After being told to leave, the canon goes back to Cologne and he never mentions wanting to be a monk again.

While this reaction by the abbot may seem harsh, it’s pretty obvious the canon was just coming to the monastery to run away from all his problems. As stated before, it was common practice to refuse entry to any new recruit a few times before letting them become a novice. (Chapter Fifty-Eight of The Rule of Saint Benedict goes into this practice in detail!) Again, you want to make sure the newest member of the community is there for the right reasons. And speaking of reasons a person may try to be a monk, Chapter Eleven isn’t the only story of a man attempting to join a monastic community to escape his gambling debts.

Chapter Twelve tells the story of a youth deep in debt. Or to be more specific, a youth from a noble and wealthy family (so someone relatively important). The youth came to the monastery without telling his parents. The Monk comments on how it was relatively easy for him to become a novice (in stark contrast to the others who struggled to get in!). The Monk also comments on how he’s not going to name who the youth is as he really hopes that the young man will come back and he doesn’t want to embarrass the kid. (Though I suspect the fact that the youth’s family is rich and powerful is another reason the Monk is keeping quiet!)

A few days after the youth becomes a novice, his friends show up to bring him home.  Apparently, the only reason he wanted to be a monk in the first place was because he lost a good amount of money at a game, and in his humiliation, he panicked. To quote the text:

“They knew that he had lost a sum of money at some game and had taken the vows more from chagrin than from devotion.” (pg. 19)

His friends spend an unspecified amount of time trying to convince him to come back home. Eventually, they tell the youth that he really should pay off his debt, and once he does that he can come back ASAP. (Monks can’t own anything thus he can’t pay people back while at the monastery.) The youth deems this a good argument and goes with them.

It seems that the youth came to his senses about his devotion because the last few sentences of Chapter Twelve is dedicated to how he had to go through a bunch of legal processes to prove he made his vows “thoughtlessly and in distress and confusion of mind” (pg. 20). And to add the cherry on top, the youth assures them all if he had made his vows while in a state of mental clarity, he totally would have stayed.

In my opinion, I think the youth’s friends were doing him a solid by taking him home, but the Monk certainly doesn’t see it like that! He refers to the friends as “cunning” and in general his phrasing has a lot of negative connotations.

 

 

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/n39/mode/2up

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