Medieval Oblates: Who Were They?

Not all medieval monks had vocations. A good chunk of them had no choice about their monastic careers at all. Instead, they were donated to a monastery as children and raised to be the perfect monks. These boys are called oblates.

Parents Giving Their Child to a Monastery as an Oblate

In my research, I’ve found oblates to be a group that is often mentioned but hardly ever elaborated upon. To make things more difficult, there isn’t really a lot of information online about them. And if there is, it’s often not easily accessible or free. Most of the books I’ve seen on oblates are either no longer in print or incredibly expensive. Or if the information is not in book form, it is a thesis/paper/article that you need special access to get to. However, because I’ve been researching oblates for over a year now (I’m writing a novel about one!) I have managed to collect a number of sources. Due to my own frustrations about the lack of easily accessible information, I have decided to write a little series of articles about oblates on this blog (with sources down below of course!). Today my first article will answer the question, who were oblates?

As previously stated, oblates were boys donated to monasteries by their parents. Typically they were about five to seven years old, but they could be older. For example, the monk Orderic Vitalis was given to his monastery when he was around ten or eleven. Eventually the boy would grow up and take monastic vows to become an official monk. He could take vows as old as seventeen or as young as fourteen. The monk/Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc suggested that an oblate could take vows whenever his monastic community he was deemed emotionally mature enough to do so.

Why all the variation? Well, oblation occurred for quite a few centuries across different monastic orders. Because of this, certain aspects of the practice would change over time depending on where the oblate was and what order the oblate was given to. Some orders frowned upon oblates while others welcomed them with open arms. In fact, in the early Middle Ages oblation was the primary recruiting technique for Benedictine monasteries!

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Sources:

Cerling, Rebecca King. “Taking Their Place: Benedictine Child Oblates at Eleventh-Century Canterbury Cathedral Priory.” University of Southern California, 2014. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll3/id/423486

Hodgson, S. G. (2019). Climbing Ladders: Childhood and Monastic Formation in England, c.950-1200. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. (Can be found here.)

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.)

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Noble Man Who Decided to Convert After Watching Some Monks Get Whipped

It’s been a hectic week for me, so I’ve decided to skip ahead in The Dialogue on Miracles and write about one of the shorter chapters. Usually, I try to be academic on this blog, however today we will be a bit more relaxed as this is one of the stranger parts of the text. (At least it is strange to my 21st century way of thinking!) I am focusing on Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two, “Of the conversion of Dom Adolphus, bishop of Osnaburg” (pg. 31).

In this story our main character is a young man named Dom Adolphus. He was from a noble family, but in his youth he was a canon of Cologne. One day he went to Kloster Camp. (AKA Kamp Abbey, Altenkamp Abbey, Alt(en)feld Abbey, or Camp Abbey. The place sure does have a lot of names!) While there, Dom Adolphus went to mass. However, that’s not the interesting part of this chapter. The interesting part is what Dom Adolphus saw while he was praying after the service.

Once mass was over, the monks in the monastery rushed to the different altars for confession. As part of their penance the monks had to remove their habits (at least the part covering their backs!) and be whipped. And Caesarius of Heisterbach’s narrator is careful to note that monks of all ages were doing this. So the young and the elderly were whipped while “humbly confessing his sins” (pg. 31). They must have had amazing self-control to be humble and calm while they were being beaten!

Now you would think that this sight would alarm Dom Adolphus. Or if it didn’t alarm him, you would think he would be glad that he wasn’t in the monks’ position. Well, if you thought that (which is a valid way of thinking, by the way) you are very wrong. Instead of being freaked out, the sight of a bunch of monks being beaten made Dom Adolphus want to become a monk himself! It’s definitely interesting that the prospect of physical punishment made this man decide to change careers. This may be blasphemous, but it makes me wonder if Dom Adolphus was thrilled about being whipped for reasons that were not entirely holy. If that’s the case, becoming a monk is not a great way of going about to achieve those desires.

As you can probably guess from the chapter title, Dom Adolphus didn’t stay a monk for long. Soon after becoming a monk he was made bishop of Osnaburg. (Or as the area is called now, Osnabrück.) Interestingly, the text explicitly states that Dom Adolphus was “recommended both by his noble birth and his sanctity” (pg. 3) for the bishopric. However, if I had to guess, I think his noble birth probably had more to do with his new position than his sanctity!

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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/n53/mode/2up

Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, A Transgender Saint

Content Note: Brief Mention of Sexual Violence

If you haven’t read my preface to the Queer Saints series, I recommend doing do. There I explain why I’ve chosen to use the term “queer” as well as why I am focusing on saints in particular. You can find the preface here.

Marinos and his father entering the monastery | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today’s saint will be Marinos the Monk. Before we begin, I would like to make a few notes. Because Marinos lived before the word transgender came into the English language in 1974, we really cannot say for certain whether or not he would call himself such. That being said, in multiple hagiographies he does show quite a few traits that trans people today can sympathize with. So while he may not have called himself trans, I think more than a few trans people can relate to how he felt. Due to this, I argue that Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine. Because Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine, I will be referring to him with male pronouns.

If you are interested in doing further research about Marinos, you should be aware he is called by many different names, including his dead name. I believe this is partially due to the amount of hagiographies dedicated to him, the amount of translations, and the fact he lived before the year 1000. If you can only find limited information about “Marinos the Monk” you may have to look up “Marina the Monk.” The main source I used for this article refers to him as “Marina” and “Mary.” However, both of these names are feminine, so I will be referring to him with the masculine form of the name: Marinos.

There is some debate over what century Marinos lived in. Sources vary, but he probably lived sometime between the fifth and eighth centuries in the Byzantine Empire. To be more specific, Marinos lived in either modern-day Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. Despite the differing opinions on where and when exactly he lived, the main elements of his story are pretty much always the same.

In all of the texts I’ve found, Marinos’ mother had passed away while his father, Eugenius, lived on. In my main source, Marinos is raised until adulthood in the secular by his father, but in others once his mother dies Eugenius wants to join a monastery. Either way, at some point in Marinos’ life, his father decided to give all of his possessions to the poor and become a monk.

Marinos is doesn’t want to be left alone in the world, so he begs Eugenius to take him with him. Eugenius is reluctant at first. After all, he’s not going to a double monastery where there are monks and nuns. Marinos clarifies by saying that he will cut off his hair and dress as a man. After some convincing, he agrees and Marinos is finally allowed to embrace a more masculine appearance. But before they go to the monastery Eugenius warns his son of the dangers of what they are doing. Marinos is to keep himself out of trouble and be on his best behavior at all times so the risk of him being outed is kept to a minimum.

Once at the monastery, the other monks decide that Marinos is probably a eunuch due to his lack of facial hair and soft voice. They also speculate that his appearance may have to do with all the fasting he’s doing. Marinos’ fasting may have had a double purpose. Not only is fasting considered holy, but if a menstruating person’s body gets under a certain fat percentage, their period stops.

Marinos wasn’t just considered holy because of his fasting. He took Eugenius’ words to heart and as a result he was the perfect monk. He was admired for his humility, obedience, and devotion to God. After his father died, Marinos’ dedication to the monastic life increased. In fact, he was so pious that God gave him several gifts. This included the ability to banish demons and heal others by laying his hands upon them. Clearly Marinos was in God’s favor if he was able to do that!

Despite Marinos’ reputation for piety and holiness, he does get wrapped up in a horrible scandal. The monastery he lived in had about forty or so monks living there. Due to the size, monks were often sent out into the secular world on business. Because their errands may be far away, sometimes the monks had to stay over night at an inn. The local innkeeper did his very best to show the monks as much hospitality as possible. His hospitality is important to remember later on.

One day, the abbot chose Marinos to go on a business trip. He was specifically chosen as Marinos was known for his piety, humility, and over all good behavior. After all, if you want to send someone out to represent your organization, you want to choose the person known for their ability to behave themselves. And if your organization is a religious one, it’s vital to maintain a good and pious appearance. You don’t want to have a troublemaker ruin your monastery’s reputation! It’s also important to note that according to several sources this was Marinos’ the very first trip outside the monastery.

So Marinos and three other monks go on their trip, stay at the inn, and return home. To their knowledge, it’s a successful and uneventful errand. Unfortunately, during their stay, things are not going so well for the innkeeper’s unmarried daughter. Depending on the source, she either had a one night stand, was seduced, or sexually assaulted by a soldier. Aware of the possibility of pregnancy, the soldier told her that if she did conceive a child, she should blame the handsome young monk Marinos. And the daughter did become pregnant.

(I will note that in another hagiography, it’s not an innkeeper’s daughter that becomes pregnant, but a random peasant’s daughter. In this version, Marinos goes out to get wood and stays at the peasant’s house for the night, thus giving the daughter a reasonable explanation on why she was interacting with Marinos. Here the biological father is still a soldier.)

Needless to say, when her pregnancy becomes obvious the innkeeper is not happy. After all, he’s been going out of his way to give the monks a nice place to stay and in return one of them impregnates his daughter. To give some cultural context, his daughter has basically been defiled forever and will never be marriageable material. To add to the scandal, monks take a vow of celibacy. Not only is the innkeeper under the impression a monk has slept with his daughter, left her with an illegitimate child, he is also a massive hypocrite. To compound the seriousness of the situation further, Marinos has a reputation for piety, blessed by God with holy gifts, and the first thing he supposedly does on his first trip out into the secular world is sleep with someone. Or depending on the source the first thing he does is rape someone, which is obviously far, far worse than a consensual one-night stand.

When the innkeeper discovers the pregnancy, he immediately goes to the monastery and demands to see the abbot. Once the abbot hears the accusation he is appalled and vows to throw Marinos out once he returns from his trip. (Though in some sources the abbot doesn’t believe the innkeeper and waits for Marinos’ side of the story before making any decisions.) While they are waiting, the innkeeper goes out of his way to make sure everyone knows what kind of monks are at the local monastery.

It’s never specified how long he was gone for, but eventually Marinos and the other monks return. The abbot has words with him. Instead of outing himself or even saying that he didn’t do it, Marinos takes all the blame. Again, depending on the source he either doesn’t say anything at all (which the abbot takes as an admission of guilt), throws himself sobbing on the floor saying he had sinned as a human, or he says he has sinned as a man. No matter what he does the end result is always the same: he is thrown out of the monastery, with no one the wiser about the fact he cannot actually father children. However, Marinos does not leave town. Instead, he sits outside the monastery’s gates no matter the weather and tells everyone who asks why he’s there. He tells them that he has sinned and that sin was fornication.

Eventually the child is born. The innkeeper takes the baby, finds Marinos, and throws the baby boy at his feet. I don’t know if the innkeeper literally threw the baby or not, but either way Marinos now has the child. Not wanting to punish the boy for his parents’ sins, Marinos decides to raise him as his own. Some sources say the baby was given to him immediately after birth while others say he was weaned first. In the texts that say Marinos was given a newborn, he leaves the monastery’s gates to find milk. He’s able to get some from a few local shepherds. And as the caretaker of a new baby, Marinos has to deal with everything that comes with being a new father. This includes the baby’s crying and soiled diapers.

After about three years, the monks at the monastery are starting to get uncomfortable with this arrangement. They think that he’s been punished enough. So they go to the abbot and ask him to let Marinos back. The abbot says no. Fed up, the monks threaten to leave. Not only are they are sick of seeing Marinos suffer, they say that if Marinos can’t be forgiven after three years how can they be forgiven at all? Finally the abbot concedes. Marinos and his son are let back into the community. However, there is a condition. He loses all status (the monastic life has a hierarchical structure) and has to do all the degrading and humiliating chores as well as take care of the child and his duties as a monk. Marinos agrees, doing everything with no complaint.

Years pass. His son grows up and becomes a monk as well. Then one day Marinos doesn’t show up for services. And then he doesn’t show up the next day. Or the next. Disturbed, the abbot sends some monks to looking for him. Marinos is found in his cell, dead. The abbot orders him to be prepared for burial. It is only then that they discover Marinos was born female, thus he was innocent the whole time. Absolutely horrified at what they had all done to poor Marinos over the years, the entire monastic community freaks out. The abbot especially. He is so horrified at what he did he spends three days sobbing at Marinos’ corpse. He only stops when Marinos’ voice basically tells him to calm down, he’s forgiven because he didn’t know, but if the abbot did know about his innocence then he would not be forgiven. But he didn’t, so all is forgiven.

Quickly the innkeeper is told that Marinos has died. At first he kind of shrugs it off, saying he hopes God forgives Marinos. The abbot reveals the truth. Needless to say, the innkeeper is also horrified and he prays for forgiveness over what he has done. His daughter, who is possessed by a demon, is summoned. She admits that Marinos was never the father and it was actually a soldier. Once she confesses, the demon leaves her body. Depending on the source, the daughter either spends the rest of her life repenting at Marinos’ grave or she and the soldier make a pilgrimage to the grave to confess what they did before all. Also apparently after a monk touches Marinos’ body the blindness in one of his eyes is cured.

Based on this story, it’s safe to say that Marinos was gender nonconforming at the very least. He had the opportunity to out himself and clear his name, but instead he chose to stay true to the man he was.

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Main Source:

Stouck, M. (1999). Medieval saints: A reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

You can purchase this book here on Amazon. (Though I will note that I found my copy at a used book store!)

Other Sources:

Roland Betancourt’s Transgender Lives in the Middle Ages through Art, Literature, and Medicine

The Golden Legend’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk

John Sanidopoulos’ Blog Post About Saint Marinos the Monk

QSpirit’s Article About Saint Marinos the Monk

Vidi Aquam Lebanese Saints

Wikipedia’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk

Queer Saints: An Important Preface

On this blog I have several on going series I am writing/have written. They all focus on medieval written texts. However, this series will be much different. Instead of writing about established texts, I will be writing my own hagiographies of medieval saints. Specifically, saints that can be read as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I know that there is a lot of controversy about claiming historical figures’ sexualities as well as the use of the word “queer” in general so I want to clear things up before I begin writing the hagiographies.

Why use the word queer?

I have two reasons why chose to title this series “Queer Saints” instead of “LGBTQ+ Saints.” The first reason has to do with the word “queer” itself. In the past the word was used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. In recent years it has started to become reclaimed by the community. (Including myself.) Now days, the term has another meaning: simply anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender. (Cisgender meaning anyone who is not transgender.) Because I am writing about historical figures, it’s impossible to say what labels they would give themselves. So instead of giving them a solid label (like gay, bisexual, asexual, trans, etc.) I am arguing that these saints can be read as queer. In that they behave in similar ways that people today who use those labels do.

The second reason I have titled this series “Queer Saints” has to do with which view point I plan to write these hagiographies through. I plan to write with queer theory in mind. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines queer theory as “an approach to literary and cultural study that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality.” Basically, it means that we can’t just assume everyone is straight and cisgender. I will also note that I say “in mind” because a lot of things written through the lens of queer theory are extremely inaccessible to the average person. I want everyone to be able to understand what I’m saying. (Personally, I think a lot of queer theory authors write the way they do because if you can’t understand what someone is saying you can’t argue against their bad points. But that’s a topic I will not be exploring, as this is a medieval blog and not a ‘Why I Think Academic Writing Should Be Easy To Read’ blog.)

Why are you writing about saints?

I’m writing about saints is because I find a lot of their stories extremely interesting. And despite the Roman Catholic Church’s less than stellar treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community, there are many saints that don’t conform to Western society’s ideas of what “normal” is. While I’m not super religious myself, (I was raised Catholic) I think it’s important for queer religious people (especially younger folk) to see that people like them have been loved, accepted, and even favored by God. There is a lot of self-hatred that comes when you cannot conform to what society wants the norm to be. And if I can help at least one person out there, then I think I’ve done a good job.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Seven, The Details Regarding Divine Office

Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of Signifying the Hour for the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 62). This short chapter is split into two sections, each about a sentence long. The first section instructs the abbot on how he should call his monks for Divine Office (or the Work of God as Saint Benedict calls it in the chapter title). The second section explains other little practicalities that must be taken into account when singing the Divine Office.

The beginning of Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.75r | Source: The British Library

The first section of the text begins by saying how it’s the abbot’s responsibility to call the monks for services, whether it’s day or night. Or if the abbot isn’t able to do this himself, he is to find a “careful brother” (SB, pg. 62) to do it for him. Saint Benedict stresses how important it is “that all things may be done at the appointed times” (SB, pg. 62). As The Rule of Saint Benedict was written long before the invention of alarm clocks, this may have been easier said than done!

However, Terrence G. Kardong argues that Saint Benedict isn’t really talking “about punctuality as he is about prompt response” (pg. 379). This wouldn’t be the first time Saint Benedict expects his monks to respond immediately when called. (In Chapter Forty-Three he stresses how important Divine Offices are and what happens to monks who are late.) In a time before reliable clocks, one really can’t argue whether or not they still have a few minutes before they truly need to be in a certain place. Now days you can look at your watch/phone/laptop/microwave/whatever and think, ‘Eh…I’ve got another minute before I need to go.’ But that isn’t the case for Saint Benedict’s monks. (At least not until they all got watches!) Instead, when the bells were rung (or a gong/wooden clapper was struck depending on what a monastery had) (Kardong, pg. 379) for Divine Office the monks were expected to show up when called.

The second section explains that the abbot should be the first one to begin singing the psalms and antiphons. Afterwards, the other monks can join in. But they can’t just start singing whenever they want! Instead, they are to sing “each in his order” (SB, pg. 62). Monastic communities were based on a hierarchical system. It wouldn’t be proper if someone lower in rank tried to sing before someone higher.

That isn’t the only case of Saint Benedict warning his monks to know their place in this particular chapter. He warns his monkish reader that “no one [should] presume to sing or to read” (SB, pg. 62) during Divine Office. This doesn’t refer to singing or reading in general. It refers to whoever is leading the service. However, it’s not as if an abbot would say ‘Who wants to lead today’s worship?’ as soon as everyone was at their place in the pews and monks would race to the pulpit. Monks were appointed to do so (K, pg. 380).

That being said, I find it within the realm of possibility that a monk may approach his abbot in private and request to lead the service. I can also imagine the abbot gently turning the monk down because he vastly overestimates his ability to do so in a way “that the hearers may be edified” (SB, pg. 62). After all, reading ancient manuscripts is not the easiest thing to do. Combined with the facts that the monk may not be completely literate, the prayers are in Latin—a language he may not totally understand—and the manuscripts have no punctuation (K, pg. 380), conducting services would be difficult to do without making more than a few mistakes. Again, I find it easy to imagine an over confident monk thinking he could do it successfully because he’s just started to become good at memorizing psalms. (And I’m sure we’ve all vastly overestimated our abilities to do something right, only to fail miserably. I know I have!)

Finally, this part of the text ends with this line:

“And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.” (SB, pg. 62).

By ending the chapter like this, Saint Benedict reminds his monks not only on how they should conduct services, but how they should act as monks in general. By being humble, serious, aware of their place before God, and by always obeying their abbot.

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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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

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