What Happened When a Medieval Monk Was Deathly Sick?

Thanks to the pandemic, illness and death are prominent thoughts in most people’s minds. For medieval monks, death and the possibility of Heaven were supposed to be constant thoughts throughout their lives as monastics. The thought of their own mortality must have been especially potent whenever one of their fellow brethren fell deathly ill. 

If a monk seemed to be close to death, it was more important to focus on the state of his soul, rather than his earthly body. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc offers an extremely detailed set of step-by-step instructions for what a monastic community was to do to help their ill brethren’s spiritual wellbeing. 

An architectural frame with Moses holding the tablets in a curtained Tabernacle (left), a dying monk under an arch (centre) and an angel speaking to men at an altar (right) | Add MS 42555 f.56r | Source: The British Library

When the sick monk felt as though he may be dying, he was to let the infirmarer know he wanted to be anointed. The infirmarer took his request to the abbot (or if the abbot was away, whoever was in charge at the present moment) at the next chapter meeting. Once the request was approved and chapter finished, the priest of the week, the sacrist, and four converses went to the church and collected the materials needed for a proper anointment. (Converses were monks who joined the monastery as adults.)

The priest and the converses went by the chapterhouse in a procession with the materials. The procession order and items are as follows:

  • The first converse carried holy water.
  • The second converse carried a cross. 
  • The third and fourth converses carried candlesticks.
  • The sacrist carried holy oil.
  • The priest, wearing his alb, stole, and maniple, carried a book.

Lanfranc’s Latin does not specify what book the priest carried. It only says “portans librum.” David Knowles translates this phrase to “carrying the book.” However, we can make an educated guess that the book is probably a bible, psalter, or religious text of some kind. 

As the procession passed the chapter house, all the monks there stood up. Because someone was dying, a wooden board was struck. This was standard practice to announce that someone was dying. After this happened, the rest of the community followed the procession while chanting the seven penitential psalms:

  • Psalm 6 
  • Psalm 31
  • Psalm 37
  • Psalm 50/51
  • Psalm 101/102
  • Psalm 129/130
  • Psalm 142/143

Depending on your bible/psalter’s translation, the psalms might follow either the Greek or Hebrew numbering system. To make sure you have the right translation, psalm 50/51 should be the “Miserere” psalm. 

They chanted the seven penitential psalms until the entire community had gathered around the dying monk’s bedside. The monks stood in their hierarchal order. Or if the space around the dying monk’s beside were too small, his brethren would do it as practically as possible. 

Once everyone was there, they sprinkled the dying monk with holy water. When the community finished chanting the seven penitential psalms they sang several more prayers including the Kyrie eleison and the Confiteor. 

When this was over, the entire community absolved the dying monk and vice versa. By forgiving each other of their sins, everyone could have a clear conscience. To cement feelings of goodwill, everyone kissed the dying monk. 

The priest anointed the dying monk. After doing so, he washed his hands and disposed of the water. Lanfranc suggested the dirty water either be thrown into the fire or down the sacrarium. (The sacrarium was a drain in the church.) The priest and the converses left the dying monk to fetch the Eucharist. 

Once they returned with the Eucharist, everyone knelt as a sign of respect. The dying monk had his mouth washed before receiving Communion. However, if he already received Communion that day, he did not receive it again. After having Communion, the dying monk was not allowed to eat any more meat. However, if he happened to miraculously get better instead of actually dying he could eat meat again. 

The rest of the monastic community continued to pray every day for their dying brother:

  • At the Morrow Mass during the Secret and post communion:
    • “Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”
  • The Morrow Mass itself
  • During the High Mass after the Sanctus:
    • Psalm 6 (sung in silence)
    • Kyrie eleison
    • Pater noster/ the Lord’s Prayer
    • Psalm 85/86
    • Mitte ei Domine auxilium de sancto 
    • “Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”

These prayers were dedicated to the monk until he either got better or took a turn for the worse. 

Sources:

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, Medieval Classics. 

Praying The Seven Penitential Psalms

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