Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: What Happens When Novices Return to the World

Today we have another cautionary tale of what happens when a novice attempts to return to the world after taking vows. It is also another example of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s dislike of knights.

Chapter Fifteen focuses on an old ex-knight named Benneco. Our narrator, The Monk, knew Benneco personally and they happened to be novices at the same time. Despite Benneco’s age, he wasn’t particularly religious. He was also pretty flip-floppy about whether or not he actually wanted to be a monk. As a result, he had a tendency to saunter back to the secular world and then come sauntering back to the monastery. The Monk uses a lovely metaphor when describing this:

“[Benneco] would not listen to the advice of his brethren, and as a dog to his vomit, so did the wretched man return to the world.” (pg. 22)

(I will note that this is not the first time Caesarius of Heisterbach uses the ‘dog to vomit’ metaphor in The Dialogue on Miracles. He seems to love this metaphor.)

Royal 11 D IX f. 213v Novice returning to the world
Novice returning to the world | Royal 11 D IX f. 213v | Source: The British Library

Even though Benneco leaves once, he does come back again. The Rule of Saint Benedict (the guide monastic orders follow) tolerates a monk running away and returning three times. After the third time, the hesitancy is deemed ridiculous and the monk isn’t allowed back at all. In Benneco’s case, he leaves a second time to return to his secular home. There he falls extremely ill. Unfortunately for Benneco, he isn’t given a third chance. Instead, he dies an unrepentant secular man.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Why is this considered a miracle? It’s just some old guy dying.’ And that’s a good question! See, while Benneco is dying there’s a storm going on outside. But it’s not just any storm. This storm is specifically happening outside Benneco’s house and from the wording, it appears to only be happening around his house. To make things spookier, a ton of crows are flying over the roof. The omens freak everyone in the house out and they book it out of there. Well, except for an old woman. She stays.

The Monk ends the tale with this extremely forboding one-liner:

“See then how they die, who depart from God.” (pg. 22)

The Novice lightly comments how all the omens must be the result of demons and The Monk agrees. The Monk then goes on to warn his young student that anyone who unrepentantly looks back from the monastic life is doomed to Hell. He adds in a bible verse to further emphasize his point. After all, you can’t doubt what Jesus says!

But The Novice does. Not fully convinced, he points out that in The Rule of Saint Benedict things are much more lenient for people who want to leave:

“If it is so mortal a sin for a novice to return to the world, what then is the meaning of S. Benedict’s instruction that when the rule has been read over to the novice, it should be said to him: ‘” This is the law under which thou desirest to enlist; if thou canst: keep it, go forward; if not, go in peace.”‘ (pg. 23)

Once called out, the Monk quickly comes up with an excuse. Being that Saint Benedict thinks leaving is a horrible thing to do but if you are going to do so, you should do it as a novice, not as a full-blown monk. Furthermore, once you’re a novice you can leave your monastery but you can’t leave the monastic life. (It’s all very contradictory, however, this could be due to a translation error.) And if you want to leave the monastery or Order you have to get special permission from the Pope. To stress just how serious monastic vows are, The Monk explains that even secular people who have made vows to the abbot must follow them. They are no longer allowed to have a secular career or get married.

Clearly, this story is an attempt at making sure no novices leave the monastery. It’s easier to make a reluctant person stay through fear then sheer faith. It’s definitely a sketchy practice, though, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way monks made sure their brethren couldn’t leave if they wanted to. (But that’s another article for another day!)

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/n45/mode/2up