Rating 10 Weird Drawings I’ve Found in Medieval Manuscripts

I’m not really a list making sort of guy, but today I wanted to do something a little different. Since late June, I’ve been running an Instagram where I share images I’ve found in medieval manuscripts. During my searches, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of weird and strange things drawn in the margins. Today I want to share with you some of these images so you too can have some of the delight I’ve had while finding these. (After all, it’s a lot of fun to sift through manuscripts and find a weird thing you absolutely were NOT expecting!) I will also be rating these images on a scale of 1 to 10 on how weird I personally find them.

1.

Add MS 42130 f.13v | Source: The British Library

This little guy I found in the Luttrell Psalter. (A great source for weirdness!) I find him extremely endearing. Medieval manuscripts are filled with little monsters that are combinations of animals and humans. The technical term for them is “grotesque.” Grotesques are often found in the margins. Personally, I like to try to figure out what kind of animals the artist took inspiration from when drawing their grotesques. My educated guess is that this creature is made up of an owl for the face/head and some kind of hoofed animal for the feet and tail. (Though the artist definitely took some creative liberties by making those party’s green!) I’m not sure what kind of animal the red and white spotted body is from (if it’s from any animal at all!). The grotesque’s hood is definitely a very human element. While this image is certainly strange, it’s not the weirdest I’ve found.

Weirdness Rating: 4/10

2.

Add MS 18852 f.87r | Source: The British Library

Here we have another grotesque from a later manuscript. This is another manuscript that’s absolutely filled with delightfully weird creatures. The longer you look at this little guy the more and more you find. First off, he’s completely naked except for his rather fashionable hat. (Look at that feather!) He has the body of a baby but has the head of a grown man. That’s definitely an interesting and amusing style choice. He’s got bird wings and bird feet. (At least they somewhat resemble bird feet!) Then of course, he’s holding a flower but his hands don’t seem to have fingers. Over all, he’s definitely one of the weirder images I’ve found so far.

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

3.

Stowe MS 17 f.8r | Source: The British Library

Medieval people sure did love their snails! Here we have a snail with a human head. Or he could also been interpreted as a tiny human living in a snail shell. He’s a strange little thing, but certainly not the strangest. Either way, he certainly seems to be happy with his shell!

Weirdness Rating: 1/10

4.

Add MS 29433 f.47v | Source: The British Library

This grotesque is unlike anything I’ve seen before. They seem to have the body of some kind of dog (a greyhound perhaps?), the torso of a human, and their head is maybe some kind of nut? I believe the lower part of the body is so orange to match with the general color scheme of the manuscript. (Other grotesques in this manuscript have the green and orange color scheme.) However, what I personally find the weirdest is their head. So far this is the only grotesque I’ve seen where the head is a nut! (At least I think it’s a nut.) As a side note, I love how the grotesque’s body language suggests that they are all turned around. They certainly look as though they have something stuck on their head and are trying to make sure they don’t walk into anything.

Weirdness Rating: 7/10

5.

Yates Thompson MS 14 f.7r | Source: The British Library

If this creepy looking man wasn’t here, then this detail wouldn’t classify as weird. But he is here, so it’s made the list. Everything about this guy is extremely unsettling. He’s mostly naked except for his braies (at least I think they count as braies). His hood is barely covering his shoulders. He’s hunched over. And of course, he’s got a pretty scary look on his face. If I saw this man in real life, I’d probably avoid him!

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

6.

Add MS 62925 f.12v | Source: The British Library

There’s certainly a lot going on in this illustration. We have a bald head with a beard that has been impaled at the top of his skull and through his mouth by a golden spike. This golden spike is sticking out of the bottom of a luxurious sort of column. (The column goes up the entirety of the page and the first letters of each sentence are drawn as fancy initials in it.) Then to add to the overall strangeness of the decapitated head, he seems to be alive and reacting positively to the wyverns nibbling at his ears. While this is strange in itself (the wyverns nibbling), it becomes stranger with a bit more context. This is not the only image in this manuscript that features wyverns eating/licking a person’s body. On other folios I’ve found two images of people getting their feet licked/eaten. (If I had to guess, I think the artist may have liked the idea of wyverns licking people. But that is pure speculation on my part!)

Weirdness Rating: 9/10

7.

Add MS 24686 f.13r | Source: The British Library

This illumination answers the age old question of how merfolk would feed their merbabies. By breastfeeding of course! But in all seriousness, let’s analyze the weird. Besides the breastfeeding imagery (which implies that merfolk are more mammal than fish, also implying merfolk give birth to their young rather than lay eggs), there’s the creature doing a handstand on the mermaid’s tail. I’m not a parent, but I would assume it would be difficult to breastfeed while you had a person doing gymnastics on your lower half (whether you have a tail or legs). The creature seems to have hands for feet, so I don’t believe that they are intended to be a human being. Also, to add to the strangeness, even though the merbaby is, well, a baby, she has breasts too. That’s definitely an interesting stylistic choice and personally not one I would have chosen myself if I was told to draw a mermaid breastfeeding. So while breastfeeding imagery isn’t strange in itself, the other details about this drawing definitely amps up the strangeness.

Weirdness Rating: 5/10

8.

Add MS 62925 f.58v | Source: The British Library

This is definitely another image that has a lot going on in it! First we have the larger figure. It’s not quite human but not quite animal either. It has a long kind of s-shaped neck. (Think the front of a Viking longboat.) to continue with the boat comparison, the lower half of its body is shaped kind of like a boat. Though it also reminds me of a leaf, especially the orange part. The tail of this figure is also kind of weird looking. It’s long and a little curly but it doesn’t look like an animal tail. It makes me think of the geometric decorations that can usually be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Then of course you have its very human head. This poor fellow looks quite concerned! By the larger figure’s head is a little orange arrow that resembles a fishhook. Finally, we have a person in the larger figure. I’m not quite sure if the person is a child or an adult, but it’s certainly an interesting choice to have a person there!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10

9.

Add MS 37049 f.74r | Source: The British Library

Here we have a bunch of demons entering the jaws of Hell. While normally I wouldn’t consider this subject matter strange, I do find the artwork itself a bit weird. If I had to guess, I think the artist was either trolling or simply trying their best to draw something outside of their comfort zone. While I won’t describe each demon in detail, I will say that each demon has an extremely goofy looking face, including some silly bug eyes. Other interesting details include guts coming out of one demon’s stomach (who also has a skeleton face for some reason), another demon who seems to be pregnant, backwards thighs, duck feet, a spider (?) on one demon’s crotch, and the lamb (?) ears on the disemboweled demon. Medieval demons were often drawn having a combination of different animal and human traits, so these aren’t necessarily strange in itself. I just find how awful these demons look to be weird.

Weirdness Rating: 6/10

10.

Add MS 10294/1 f.1dr | Source: The British Library

Our final image! This one is weird! Of course, there’s the king pooping. But he’s pooping on two grotesques heads while also standing on their necks. The grotesques are kissing and don’t seem to be noticing what the king is doing. (Though to be fair, the excrement has not landed on them yet.) Nor do they seem to mind that the king is standing on them. Is it possible this image is a metaphor for oppressive rulers? Or is it just some artist finding poop funny? Who knows!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 4: The First Plot Against Abbot Samson

Today we will be returning to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Samson has been elected abbot and like with every new leader, changes are made to the status quo. But not everyone is happy with these changes…

***

In the first part of this series, I wrote about William the Sacrist and his tendency to go deep into debt under Abbot Hugh. Unsurprisingly, William did not change his spending habits after Abbot Hugh’s death nor did he change in the year or so that the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was abbotless. However, unlike his predecessor, Abbot Samson was having none of William’s nonsense. At his first chapter meeting as abbot, he essentially fired William. Samson appointed another monk as subsacrist (as that had previously been Samson’s position) and told William he was no longer allowed to do anything related to his sacrist duties unless he had the subsacrist’s permission. (I will note that William wasn’t the only person who’s job changed. At a later chapter meeting, a few wardens were given other monastic jobs.)

It seems to me that Samson’s decision to limit William’s power was intended as a sort of transition before the man was truly fired. Because soon enough, William was fired from his job as sacrist. William’s friends were not happy with Samson for doing this. They went around trash-talking Samson, saying that the dream had come true and that Samson was like an angry, raging wolf. (For context, before Samson was elected abbot, another monk had a dream that the new abbot would “rage like a wolf.”)

Trash talking wasn’t the only thing the monks did. As their anger over William’s firing escalated so did their determination to take action against Samson. Soon they wanted to plot against the man. Luckily for Samson, he heard about it before anyone could actually do anything to him. He also had enough time to figure out a way to handle this situation before he was truly in danger. And handle the situation he did.

So how did he handle it? Did he get rid of the plotting monks? Did he make William sacrist again? Did he run away? The answer to all those questions is no. Instead, Samson showed all the monks the receipts. And that’s not exactly a metaphor either.

The day after Samson discovered the plot, he came into the chapter meeting with a bag. In that bag were charters upon charters that William had approved without the monastery’s knowledge. They were under other people’s names but had William’s seal on it. In all, the money owed from these documents was £3,052 and one mark. And that’s not counting interest. The charters weren’t just for money either. Some of them pledged treasures belonging to the monastery. Treasures like silk copes, dalmatics, silver thuribles, and books bound in gold. So not only was William in debt, but he was also secretly pawning off very expensive items that he had no right to pawn off. (It’s important to note while Samson was able to buy back the abbey’s treasures and cancel the charters, it took him twelve years to pay back all these debts.)

To add to the dramatics of it all, as Samson showed everyone the evidence of William’s incompetence and what was essentially theft, Samson shouted this:

“Take a look at the wise policies of your sacrist, William!”

Needless to say, Samson got his point across.

Samson went on to give other reasons for why William was fired, but Jocelin does not list them. But the main reason William was fired has been lost to time as Samson refused to say what it was. Apparently, he did this so William wouldn’t “stumble.” If his bad financial decisions weren’t the main reason, it certainly makes me wonder what exactly William did that pushed Samson over the edge. And Samson would know a lot of what William did as he was the former subsacrist.

Then Samson made the new sacrist a monk also named Samson. To paraphrase the comedian John Mulaney, Samson the sacrist was a whole other person. I’m not saying Samson the abbot made himself sacrist. Everyone was happy with this choice as Samson the new sacrist was well-liked by all the monks.

For the finale of these dramatics, Abbot Samson had the sacrist’s house in the cemetery completely and utterly destroyed. Jocelin speculates he did this because of all the bad things that happened there. (Remember, Abbot Samson would know as he used to work for William as subsacrist.) One such activity was frequent drinking. Jocelin refuses to name the other things. This certainly makes one wonder what exactly William was doing with his spare time, especially when you take into consideration he wasn’t fired just for being horrible at his job…

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 3: Some Shenanigans Abbot Samson Had to Deal With

Once again, I am journeying back to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to find stories of not so holy men acting in ways Saint Benedict would not approve of. This text is rich in stories (and monastic gossip!), so I recommend reading it for yourself if you get a chance. But for now, let’s see what the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds have been getting up to since my last article about them!

***

In my last article, I wrote about the pettiness and drama that happened when the monks were trying to elect a new abbot. In the end, they elected the monk, Samson. Because of the previous abbot’s incompetence, Abbot Samson inherited a pretty bad financial situation. To get the monastery in the black Samson started cracking down on every possible form of income the abbey had. This included his knights. (Bury St Edmunds was a liberty so the abbot had his own knights, manors, and overall just had a lot of control other monasteries at the time did not have.)

After Samson was officially elected and made abbot, the locals paid homage to him. After doing so, Samson decided it was time to request aid from the knights. (Aid was a form of medieval taxes.) Each knight was supposed to pay £1. Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. The Liberty of Bury St Edmunds owed forty knights to the king. However, at the time Samson had fifty-two knights under his control. Because he had twelve extra knights that were not part of the required forty, the knights decided that these men should not have to pay. After all, they weren’t actually required and they just helped the other forty. Why should they have to pay the £12 when technically they didn’t even belong there?

Well, this did not go over well with Samson. The king wanted his £52 for all the knights. This meant that Samson constantly had to insist to the king that he only owed £40. Samson vowed to his friends that he would eventually get even with his knights “by paying them injury for injury.” That’s certainly not something you expect to hear from a man who is supposed to be holy!

***

After being elected, Samson checked out the state of all the abbey’s manors. Turns out, more than a few were being neglected. Some to the point that birds were living in them! This neglect meant they were losing money. And when you inherit a big debt, that’s not good. So Samson got to work. He kept records of who owed what, old buildings were repaired, chapels were built, additions were added to manors, and parks were made. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering where the misbehaving comes in.

Those parks weren’t just made so the abbey could have some nice green space. Samson filled them with game animals and hired a hunter with hounds. Whenever an important guest visited, Samson and a few monks would go to the park to watch a hunt take place. That’s not exactly something a monk is supposed to do. Especially when you take into consideration the fact monks aren’t supposed to eat meat. But fear not! Jocelin goes out of his way to reassure his reader that he never saw Samson eat the game. (Though, in my opinion, it may actually be worse he did that if the meat ended up going to waste. Jocelin never specifies who ate it, but I’ll assume it was served to the guest, and leftovers were given to the poor.)

***

Renovating and collecting fees were not the only things Samson got to work on. During his first chapter meeting as abbot, Samson laid down some new rules: everyone had to stop pawning the abbey’s stuff. Apparently pawning stuff had become a common practice for the monks of Bury St Edmunds! And to make matters worse, they often did it secretly! However, that doesn’t mean Samson banned the practice altogether. Now if a monk wanted to pawn items he had to get the convent’s permission to do so.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

***

Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!

***

Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!

***

During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.

***

A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!

***

Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 1: Some Real Life Stories of Men of God Acting Poorly

Even though medieval monks were supposed to be humble, holy, and obedient, they were still human. Not every man who joined the monastic life was a saint and not every monk actually had a vocation. Some monks had no choice in their career at all! (See my post on oblates for more information about that.) As a result of their humanity, they didn’t always do the right thing.

While there are many recorded accounts of monks misbehaving, today I am going to take my stories from the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin of Brakelond. As of my time writing this article, I’m only on page twenty-three of the text, however, there are already a lot of incidents Jocelin of Brakelond recorded! Due to the quantity, I will be making Misbehaving Medieval Monks a series. In the future, I plan to use other primary sources as well. If you know of any accounts you want me to write about, please let me know!

***

Our first instance of a misbehaving monk occurred while Hugh was still abbot of Bury St Edmunds. Abbot Hugh was not very good at his job when it came to maintaining the abbey’s finances. (He was also not very good at his job in other regards, but that’s not relevant to this story.) As a result, the abbey was regularly borrowing money from both Christian and Jewish moneylenders so they could maintain the appearance of wealth. Part of maintaining appearances included fixing up the treasury building as it had fallen into disrepair.

The sacrist at the time, William, decided that he was going to get that building fixed no matter what. So William secretly made his way down to a Jewish moneylender named Benedict. William borrowed 40 marks with interest and apparently did not pay Benedict back because his debt rose to £100. It is important to note that during this time period, Jewish people were under the king’s protection. Any debts owed to that person became a debt to the king when they died. Needless to say, the king was very invested in knowing who wasn’t paying up. So when William didn’t pay his debt, Benedict went to the abbey with a letter from the king.

Up until now, William had managed to keep his borrowing a secret from everyone. But when royal letters arrive, secrets do not stay secrets for very long. Needless to say, Abbot Hugh was furious. He was so angry he basically threatened to fire William from being sacrist. However, one monk (Jocelin doesn’t name who) convinced Abbot Hugh not to fire William. In the end, the monastery borrowed another £400 from Benedict. It was supposed to be paid back in four years. (Spoiler alert: it was not and the debt increased.) £100 of it went to Abbot Hugh. Abbot Hugh also refused to use his seal on the paperwork for the bonds, so the monastery’s seal was used instead. It seems that he did this so he could pretend William’s increasingly growing debt wasn’t affiliated with him, despite the fact William was his monk and the money was going towards his monastery’s buildings!

***

While Abbot Hugh was in charge another incident happened. The king had gotten word that the abbey was being severely mismanaged and as a result, sent his almoner to see what was up. All the monks were called together and the prior flat out lied to the man about how everything was great, there were no problems, their only debts were small and don’t worry about it, everything is fine and dandy. The almoner was basically like, ‘okay.’ And left. Then later when the Archbishop came with a clerk, the monastery lied to them about how everything was fine and do not worry.

However, this didn’t sit right with Jocelin. He asked his novice master, Samson, why he wasn’t speaking the truth. After all, Jocelin was under the impression that Samson didn’t really care about getting a higher-up position in the monastery or afraid of any man. Well, it turns out that Samson was afraid of other men. In reply, he basically told Jocelin that snitches get stitches and unless he wanted to end up in exile like their last prior, two other monks, and himself, he should really keep his mouth shut. Samson knew from experience what happens to monks who speak out against their abbot for the greater good. And in his case, he was locked up in Castle Acre.

***

Once again, this story of misbehaving monks started because one monk wouldn’t pay back his debts. The cellarer’s debt had risen to £60. Consequently, he was fired and replaced by a monk named Master Denis who did pay the debt. However before the old cellarer was replaced, Abbot Hugh ordered him to entertain all the guests whether or not he (Abbot Hugh) was actually at the monastery. Now, this might not sound like a big deal, but entertaining guests was the abbot’s job. So Abbot Hugh was shirking his duties onto someone else when he could have very well done them himself! (I assume if the abbot were off on a trip, the cellarer would be the one entertaining.)

Two days after Master Denis had become cellarer a few knights arrived at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Despite the fact Abbot Hugh was home, the knights were taken to the guesthouse instead of the abbot’s quarters. The previous cellarer may have taken on this extra job, but Master Denis was having absolutely none of Abbot Hugh’s laziness. So he brought the knights to Abbot Hugh and basically told him off in front of the guests.

Master Denis told Abbot Hugh that they both knew he was deliberately avoiding his duties, he would not entertain the abbot’s guests, if he didn’t like that, then here were the cellarer’s keys because he was going to quit and Abbot Hugh could find another cellarer. Well, it seems like Abbot Hugh didn’t want to find another cellarer because from then on, he entertained all the guests whether he liked it or not!

***

While the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was poorly run while Abbot Hugh was alive, things got worse after he died. So from late 1180 to 1182 the prior, Robert, was in charge until a new abbot could be elected. Even though Robert seemed to have good intentions, he was not meant to be a leader. (Based on Jocelin’s description of him, Robert kind of reminds me of Michael Scott from The Office.) Robert’s main goals were to keep everyone happy, avoid upsetting or angering anyone, and to make sure Bury St Edmunds maintained its hospitable reputation. In theory, these are good goals, but not in practice. As a result, the monastery’s obedientiaries went wild.

Remember William from the first story? Well with Abbot Hugh dead and Prior Robert ignoring the obedientiaries’ misdeeds, William really started misbehaving! He continued to not pay back his debts, he didn’t have any new buildings put up, any sort of money from offerings or gifts was wasted, and he got into the habit of giving stuff away that he should not have. In short, William stopped caring about his job. Due to the fact Prior Robert did not stop William’s ill-advised generosity, people started to consider Prior Robert pretty neglectful. After all, he was in charge and not doing anything to stop the bad behavior.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

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.