Medieval Christian Divination Part 1: Greek Oracular Texts and The Sortes Sanctorum

I think it’s safe to say that thinking about the future can be extremely scary. No one knows what is going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to figure it out! Medieval people were no different. Medieval divinatory practices are an extremely broad category, so today I will be discussing a specific subject of that: Christian divination. When I say Christian divination, I am referring specifically to divinatory arts that invoke God and/or use Scripture to foretell the future. After all, if you are invoking God and/or using Scripture then it doesn’t count as demonic magic. You are asking God for answers, not the devil. (Though I will note later on in the medieval period divination was associated with the devil.)

Usually, I write about medieval Europe, however, our first example of Christian divination actually comes from fifth to seventh century Egypt. Some early medieval Greek-speaking Christians used divination through oracular texts. Oracular texts were questions written on papyrus that asked God what decision they should make. The texts are simple yes or no questions. My copy of Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power has English translations of six of these oracular questions. The topics vary widely, so here is a list summarizing the six to give you a better idea of exactly what could be asked:

  1. Should the writer go on that journey to Chiout?
  2. Should we bring Anoup to the hospital?
  3. Is it your [God’s] will for the writer to make a business offer to the bank?
  4. Should the writer let Theodora marry Joseph?

Now, as you can probably tell, I’ve only included four topics out of the six. This is due to two reasons. The last oracular text is worded extremely vaguely. However, it does still have a What-Does-The-Future-Hold-For-Me vibe:

✝ Do not harm your soul, for what has come to pass is from god.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Then the business question is actually split into two. One version asks for a sign if the writer should not take the opportunity and the other asks for a sign if they should:

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is not your will for me to speak about the bank or about the weighing office, direct me to find out that I may not speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is your will and you help me get the banking business, I invoke you to direct me to find out and to speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Despite five of them being yes or no questions, only the marriage proposal actually includes the answer they got. (It was a yes.) Interestingly enough that one also specifies that the writer is asking the “God of the Christians,” implying that other gods are popular in their area.

***

Our next oracular text is also known as the Sortes Sanctorum, a.k.a “lots of the saints.” There are different versions of this text, however, my translation is from a seventh to eighth-century papyrus fragment. Because it’s an earlier version it primarily references God, Christ, and biblical figures instead of actual saints. Later versions were written. To use the Sortes Sanctorum you had to roll die/cast lots to see what your future held. The text itself is basically a bunch of numbered predictions and whatever numbers you rolled, that would be your future. Here is an example of one such prediction:

[25. Do not go] forth but [believe] in god: You will experience something good that you do [not] foresee.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

To use later versions of the Sortes Sanctorum medieval Christians couldn’t just open the book and start throwing dice. It was mandatory to perform a few rituals (for lack of a better word) before. Rituals also needed to be done before performing other versions of bibliomancy (using a book in divination). (I will be writing a whole separate article on bibliomancy later!) For another version of the Sortes Sanctorum, you had to choose the right day to ask the question, fast for three days, read a bunch of religious readings, pray a lot, go to several masses,  receive the sacrament of communion, and cast your dice on an altar. It was certainly a lot of effort to know your fate!

That being said, doing all of these things was important to do. Some church authorities considered fortune telling to be extremely pagan. By going out of your way to pray, you could have a good excuse that what you were doing wasn’t pagan but Christian in case anyone came around asking.

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 7: Flatterers, Finances, and Fun

Once again we are traveling back to the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds for tales about some misbehaving medieval monks!

A monk with a scroll and a messenger | Ms. Ludwig I 11 (83.MA.60), fol. 195 | Source: The Getty Museum

***

Samson is the new abbot of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. During this adjustment period (as the monastery had been without an abbot for about two years after the old one died) several monks really want to get into Samson’s favor. After all, if you have the abbot on your side you can further your own interests (including unholy ones!). But how is one to get a person’s favor quickly and easily? Throw compliments at him of course! Unfortunately for the monks, Samson was not particularly stupid and saw through their act instantly. Unfortunately for Samson, the flatterers kept coming to him and did not stop coming to him.

During his first year as abbot, the constant bombardment of fake friends bothered Samson. He was extremely suspicious of flatterers and borderline hated them. However, the author of the chronicle, Jocelin of Brakelond, notes that over time Samson was more willing to listen and be friendly towards them. But that does not mean Samson did everything they said! Samson knew that it was important to listen to them so they felt as if they had been heard. The flattering monks didn’t need to know Samson knew their advice wasn’t for the greater good of Bury St Edmunds.

One day, Jocelin was there to witness a particularly unctuous monk try to slither his way onto Samson’s good side. Even Jocelin, who is a bit clueless on a good day, saw what the monk was trying to do. Once he had gone, Samson asked what he was smiling about and Jocelin commented how many flatterers there were in the world. Samson told him that yes, the world is full of flatterers, but he has to listen to them if he wants to keep the peace. That being said, Samson was determined to do everything in his power to make sure they don’t trick him like they tricked his predecessor, Abbot Hugh. Because Hugh did everything they said, Bury St Edmunds was left completely destitute. Samson was determined not to make the same mistake.

***

One would expect a monk, especially an abbot, to be honest in all matters. Though if you’ve made it this far in my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series you definitely know that was not the case in reality! Even if Samson was extremely irritated with monks trying to deceive him, he was not above a little deception himself. In 1190, Samson wanted to buy Mildenhall Manor from King Richard. He offered the king 500 marks for it, claimed it was worth £70 a year, and that’s what the Great Roll of Winchester said it was worth. I’m sure this was with the implication that the king didn’t need to fact check this as it was officially written down! However, someone told the king Samson was a liar and the manor was actually worth £100 a year. Being lied to did not make King Richard happy. He told Samson that he would sell the manor for 1,000 marks and that was final. In the end, Samson did buy the manor for 1,000 marks.

Now, one could argue that Samson genuinely thought that Mildenhall was worth £70 a year. That was the official price after all! To that, I will point out we are talking about Abbot Samson here. This man was ruthless when it came to finances. I am 99.999999999999% sure that the man knew how much the manor was actually worth.

***

Our next story is extremely short. The bishop of Ely, who was a papal legate, held a council that included his complaints about the black monks. Apparently, more than a few monks said they were going on pilgrimages to the shrines of Saint Thomas Becket and Saint Edmund. In reality, they did no such thing. The monks were running around having fun instead of doing holy things.

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. 

Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

When I lived in Oxford during the spring of 2018, I visited Oxford Castle and Prison before going home. While in the gift shop, I decided to buy a few souvenirs to remember my visit. Besides a bottle of mint mead (delicious!) I also bought a few books. (My go-to souvenirs are books and mugs.) One such book was Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. I flipped through it at the time, but never actually read it all the way through. Well, that was until I picked it up again on December 14, 2020. I finished reading Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives a few days ago and I really regret not reading it all the way through sooner! It’s based on Terry Jones’ 2004 BBC documentary series (which admittedly, I have not seen yet). Each episode of the documentary is based on a different medieval profession and the book follows suit.

My copy of Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

The topics of the eight chapters are as follows: Peasant, Minstrel, Outlaw, Monk, Philosopher, Knight, Damsel, and King. Each chapter describes some misconceptions about the topic on hand before deconstructing it to show why it’s not quite true. For example, in the peasant chapter, Jones describes our modern idea of a medieval peasant (dirty, illiterate, rude, etc.) then goes on to gives historical evidence for why that’s not quite true. After explaining the truth, Jones also gives examples of why these misconceptions came to be, offering even more historical context. He points out that people keeping documentation will have agendas and these will make accounts biased. (The king chapter is a great example of this!)

Jones’ writing style is humorous and easy to read. It’s light-hearted, fun, and extremely witty. Jones also does a good job of including quotes from primary sources to help the reader get into the head of a medieval person. Not only that, the book has several pages filled with medieval art, which enhances the experience.

Overall, the text is entertaining, funny, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about the medieval period but isn’t quite sure where to start.

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 4: Night Clothes/Pajamas

If you’ve read the previous installments of my medieval monastic clothing series, you know what a monk wore in the daytime as well as the underwear they wore. But what did medieval monks wear to bed? Because the medieval era is a period of about one thousand years or so, it depended on what century he lived in.

A green monk reading | Ms. 107 (2011.23), fol. 352v | Source: The Getty Museum

In Chapter Twenty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict, the text is clear that a monk has to sleep clothed. He is also not allowed to wear a belt to bed or sleep with his knife for safety reasons. (The fact that Saint Benedict went out of his way to include this implies that this was an ongoing issue!) But what exactly did he mean by clothed? Well, in Chapter Fifty-Five it’s implied that a monk needed to wear his tunic and cowl to bed. After all, he is supposed to have two sets in case one is in the wash (or if he’s sleeping in it). But this is all in theory. What about in practice?

The answer varies depending on the century.

In the earlier middle ages, clothes specifically designated for nighttime were not really a thing. Night clothes/pajamas were a later medieval phenomenon. So, when Saint Benedict was writing The Rule in the early sixth century it made sense for monks to sleep in their day clothes. However, for hygiene reasons, a monk would wear his extra set of day clothes, not the clothes he wore that day. Ideally, of course. If his second set of clothes were in the laundry, he would have no choice but to sleep in the clothes he wore that day. Also, by sleeping fully clothed it took less time for a monk to get to the church for night offices.

It should be noted that Saint Benedict wasn’t the only monk writing guidelines for the monastic life. In other monastic Rules, what should be worn to bed was also specified. In these texts, monks were allowed a second tunic for sleep. Depending on the author, the tunic might be made of a heavier cloth or one specifically for night use.

Like other guidelines in The Rule of Saint Benedict, over time monks began to get rather flexible with their sleep attire. This is partially due to the fact monks were starting to sleep in separate cubicles instead of open dorms. Or if they didn’t get their own cell, monks would put curtains around their beds for privacy reasons. With more opportunities for privacy, it wasn’t necessary to protect your modesty by sleeping fully clothed. Eventually, a shirt, drawers, and stockings were considered acceptable. This was not without controversy. For example, King Henry V of England attempted to make monks sleep in their outerwear, but he gave up on trying to enforce these reforms. By the early fifteenth century, it wasn’t considered necessary to wear outer clothes to bed at all.

Then by the late fifteenth century, nightclothes was a thing. A monastic night coat was a circular garment that was (probably) thigh length. Monks were expected to wear it with drawers and hose. At Westminster in the 1490s, there is documented evidence of novices wearing night coats as well. This particular night coat was made of black cotton.

Nightcaps were worn too. They were made of linen. However, in the thirteenth century, they were considered an exceptional item. They were only given to monks who got sweaty at night. The nightcap was used so the monk’s sweat wouldn’t ruin their pillow.

Monks had slippers too. During the thirteenth century, Westminster monks were given a new pair two times a year: October 31st and the day before Palm Sunday. Depending on the date, the slippers would either be for winter or summer.

Sources:

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.)

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Hildemar’s Expositio Regulae http://hildemar.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8&Itemid=106

Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

“The Monks’ Clothing Page of the Cistercians in Yorkshire Project.” DHI, www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/index.php. 

Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE https://muse.jhu.edu/book/46804

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 3: A Medieval Monk’s Underwear (and Lack of it!)

In Chapter Fifty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict, our titular saint mentions that monks should only wear underwear while they are venturing outside the monastery and said underwear should be returned for washing as soon as the monk returns. That one sentence set off centuries of debate regarding monastic underwear. (If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict did not intend for all the controversy over underpants to happen, but it sure did!) However, before we get into all the petty monastic drama, let’s take a look at the evidence that monks did indeed wear underwear.

Initial S- A Monk Praying in the Water | Ms. 24, leaf 2 (86.ML.674.2.recto) | Source: The Getty Museum
Initial S- A Monk Praying in the Water | Ms. 24, leaf 2 (86.ML.674.2.recto) | Source: The Getty Museum

Evidence That Monks Wore Underwear

Even though The Rule of Saint Benedict says, in theory, a monk shouldn’t wear them, there is plenty of documentation showing they did in practice. I’ve selected ten instances proving this to be the case. (There are more instances out there, but I decided to cut the list off at ten for brevity’s sake.)

  1. Louis the Pious’s capitulare monasticum (a monastic capitulary) mentions that monks should be allowed two pairs of drawers.
  2. Adalhard’s rule for canons also mentions monks having two pairs of drawers.
  3. Whenever Alcuin was too sleepy to pray before bed he would strip down to just his shirt and drawers in an attempt to get the cold air to wake him up.
  4. Emperor Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire gave money to a monastery specifically for the monks to spend it on new underwear.
  5. Cluniac sign language had a sign for drawers.
  6. Cluniacs also had a very specific set of instructions on how a monk should clean his underwear if he ever had a nocturnal emission.
  7. Pope Nicholas I wrote a letter about clerics wearing drawers that basically said that they can wear underwear if they want, holiness is not determined over whether or not you wear them, and to please stop asking him about this.
  8. In the French poem Moniage Guillaume, the main character’s abbot tells him that if robbers ever bombard him to steal his habit he’s not allowed to fight them. However, if they try to take his drawers he is allowed to fight them to protect his modesty.
  9. In The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, Lanfranc specifies that monks must be fully dressed when they walk around the cloister. Just wearing underwear or going barefoot does not count as fully dressed.
  10. A monk at Andres in Pas-de-Calais mooned his abbot after asking for new drawers and being told no. (There is a lot more context to this story for why it escalated to this point, but that’s for another day!)

What They Were Called

When doing research, I came across several different English terms for underwear. Some of these were drawers, braies, and breeches. However, in Medieval Latin, there were two terms. The first one is “femoralia” (also spelled “feminalia”). The second term used is “bracae” (also spelt “braccae” or “bracchia”). These terms referred to the clothing’s cut.

The Cloth and The Cut

Depending on what century it was, the cut of a monk’s underwear would vary. And even in the same century, a monk might own different kinds of underwear. For example, Abbot Raoul of Saint-Remi was documented complaining about drawers that were made with fine thread so they left nothing to the imagination as well as drawers that were too baggy and used too much fabric. For a time at Farfa Abbey, the pattern was pretty standard: a pair of drawers would measure twice the circumference of a monk and was a foot from the crotch to the top. (Shorter monks would roll them so they would fit.) At Westminster, in the 14th century, a pair of underwear used two ells of cloth or around two and a half yards. This meant the drawers could be pretty long. However, around 1350 only a yard to yard and a quarter was allowed for one pair of drawers.

Most of the time, linen was the material of choice for underwear. According to one of Augustine’s sermons, linen was purer than wool. After all, linen came from a plant (so no sex was required to make it!). Linen also represented the inward and the spiritual while wool represented the outward and the physical. It should be noted that this little tidbit has only been found in one manuscript. However, even if Augustine himself didn’t think that it does imply that the scribe might have!

The Discourse

As previously mentioned, there was some discourse over whether or not a monk should actually be wearing underwear. One reason for the discourse can be traced back to Saint Benedict’s wording. As he lived in a Mediterranean climate, it was warm enough to go commando. However, for monks in colder areas, this was not practical. Saint Benedict knew this and made sure to clarify that northern monks were allowed to wear more clothes. As The Rule was written in the early 6th century, this gave monks and abbots plenty of time to debate what he meant by this.

One argument was over whether or not wearing drawers was Christian or pagan. After all, pagans were associated with pants (Germanic tribes) while Christians were associated with tunics (the Romans). It seems that priests were expected to wear drawers while on the altar, so when more monks were starting to become priests this was an issue. Aeneas of Paris argued that drawers signified chastity while the Cistercians considered them unwholesome. Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s opinion on the matter was simple: let monks wear them if they want and don’t shame them if they do.

The Cistercians’ Lack of Drawers

By the 9th century, pretty much everyone was on board with monks and priests wearing underwear. Of course, you had people who didn’t do it and there were some reforms in the 11th century, but generally speaking, wearing them was an accepted and expected practice. Then in 1098, the Cistercian Order was founded. For context, the founder, Robert of Molesme created this new religious order because he thought the Benedictines had strayed away from following The Rule of Saint Benedict too much. The Cistercians were going to follow The Rule to the letter. This included not wearing underwear. And pretty much everyone else went, “That’s stupid and we’re going to make fun of you for it.”

Orderic Vitalis and Rupert of Deutz simply wrote defenses on wearing underwear. Hildegard of Bingen argued that yes, people in Saint Benedict’s day didn’t wear underwear, but times had changed. (She was also an abbess and nuns were allowed to wear underwear for practical reasons.) Walter Map on the other hand had an absolute field day with this bit of information. He already hated the Cistercians, so this little tidbit made it even easier for him to make fun of them. Apparently, one Cistercian told Walter the reason they didn’t wear them was that the cold wind helped them quell their lust. Walter had this comment to make about that:

“If, however, the Cistercians can endure scarcity of food, rough clothing, hard toil, and such single inconveniences as they describe, but cannot contain their lust, and need the wind to act as a check for Venus, it is well that they do without breeches and are exposed to the breezes…perchance, the goddess hurleth her attack more boldly against those enemies whom she knoweth are more firmly guarded. However this may be, the fallen monk would have arisen with more dignity if his body had been more closely confined.”

Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles).

In the same text, Walter Map gleefully recounts a story about how foolish he thinks this practice is. Apparently one day Henry II, a monk named Master Rericus, and a bunch of soldiers and priests were riding down the street. A Cistercian monk saw them coming and rushed to jump out of the way. The lowly monk tripped and fell directly in front of Henry II’s horse. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it was a really windy day and the monk was not wearing underwear. His habit flew up around his neck and the poor man ended up accidentally flashing everyone. (Incidents like this is why Saint Benedict said drawers needed to be worn outside the monastery!) In response, King Henry II looked away and pretended that he saw nothing and this wasn’t happening. Master Rericus on the other hand quipped, “A curse on this bare-bottom piety.”

This one instance should give you a pretty good idea of what most people thought about the Cistercians’ stance on underwear. It certainly made them the butt of the joke!

Sources:

Cistercian clothing https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/quote.php

“Cistercian Monks and Lay Brothers.” The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity: Volume 1: The Middle Ages, by Jan M. Ziolkowski, 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 2018, pp. 117–170. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv4ncp86.7. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020.

Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005.

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.)

Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). Translated by Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle, Chatto & Windus, 1924. (You can find the breeches story here.)

Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

Shopkow, Leah. “Mooning the Abbot: A Tale of Disorder, Vulgarity, Ethnicity, and Underwear in the Monastery.” Prowess, Piety, and Public Order in Medieval Society: Studies in Honor of Richard W. Kaeuper, Brill, 2017, pp. 179–198. (Can be found here.)

The monks’ clothing https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/index.php

Tugwell, Simon. “‘CALIGAE’ AND OTHER ITEMS OF MEDIEVAL RELIGIOUS DRESS: A LEXICAL STUDY.” Romance Philology, vol. 61, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44741774. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 2: The Habit’s Symbolism

This is the second part of my series on medieval monastic clothing. You can find the first part here.

Now, monks didn’t wear a habit to look fancy. Far from it in fact! A monk’s habit was to show others his place in the world. It was meant to display that he had given up material things and dedicated his life to God. The habit itself was a symbol of the angelic, while the cowl (the hood) was a symbol of perfection. It was meant to protect a monk from evil whenever he went outside the monastery as well as when he slept. (Well, if he remembered to put it on before he fell asleep!)

Bas-de-page scene of two monks walking towards the right and looking surprised | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.174r | Source: The British Library

The Rule of Saint Benedict specifically says that the habit’s cloth should be bought locally and as cheaply as possible. This way a monk showed just how poor he was. However, there were debates over what was considered the cheapest option. Should the chamberlain buy the cheapest material that will wear out faster, meaning that he would have to spend more money in the long run? Or should he splurge a little on nicer fabric, causing clothes to last longer and thus spending less money? It’s certainly a difficult decision to make when you are trying to follow The Rule to the letter!

The symbolism of a monk’s habit wasn’t reserved just for the type of cloth. The color also had a deeper meaning. Black symbolized repentance as well as humility while white symbolized glory. (It should be noted that different orders wore different colors. Cistercians wore undyed wool, so they were nicknamed the White Monks or the Grey Monks. Benedictines were known as the Black Monks for their dyed black habits.)

Finally, because monks all wore the same thing, it showed that in theory thy were a community of brothers who loved and respected each other. (I say “in theory” because in reality, there could be a lot of petty drama in monasteries. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series if you’re interested in reading about some juicy monastic gossip!)

Sources:

Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005. 

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.)

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 1: What Did Medieval Monks Wear?

If you look up “medieval monk” on Google images you will find a lot of pictures of men dressed in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces. But how accurate is that? Well, if you are a Franciscan then it’s accurate enough. If you’re part of another order, then not so much. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be discussing monastic clothing. Today’s topic will be some of the items of clothing a European medieval monk may wear. I say “some” due to the span of medieval monasticism. The middle ages was a period of around a thousand years and Europe is a large place, so it would be very difficult for me to list every single item of clothing a monk may have worn during that time. So instead I will be listing the basics.

Abbot Maurus with a Staff and a Book | Ms. Ludwig IX 6 (83.ML.102), fol. 222v | Source: The Getty Museum

(It should also be noted that if a monk lived in a colder climate (like England) he would have a winter and a summer version of certain items of clothing. After all, it would not be a good idea to run around in the snow without something warm to wear!)

Outer Wear

  • A cowl
    • This garment was about ankle length. It would either be sleeveless or have short sleeves. Earlier cowls had open sides that could be tied shut. It had a hood and was worn as working/everyday wear. Depending on the time period, a cowl might just refer to a separate hood instead of the whole garment. A cowl can also be called a habit.
  • A frock
    • This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock had long sleeves. Frocks were considered to be a monk’s “good” clothes and would only be worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock might also be referred to as a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
  • A scapular
    • This garment is a rectangular piece of cloth that reaches the ankles both in the front and the back. In the middle, there is a hole for the head. A monk’s hood would be pulled through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It’s basically an apron. However, when a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular could be used as a handy pouch to hold stuff in.
  • A belt
    • Belts were allowed according to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Franciscans wore rope belts/cintures.
  • A riding cloak
    • This garment was worn when a monk was out riding on his horse. Depending on the fabric, it could be black, brown, or grey. Monks were only supposed to wear somber colors after all! However, that didn’t stop some monks from owning riding cloaks with striped linings, which was a big no-no.
  • Shoes
    • Monks would get several different types of shoes depending on the season. If they lived in a colder climate, they would be given a pair of lined shoes for the winter. In the summer they would get unlined shoes. They were also given slippers for nighttime wear.

Under Clothes

  • Drawers/Braies/Underwear
    • As long as you weren’t a Cistercian monk you would wear underwear. The discourse about monastic underwear is very involved (as well as absolutely hilarious) so I will be writing a completely separate article on it later in the month.
  • Hose/Socks/Stockings
    • These were made out of linen.
  • A tunic
    • For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length, and had tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.

Finally, I want to note how monks (at least the ones at Cluny Abbey) were able to tell what belonged to whom. Most of the clothes had the monk’s name written in ink somewhere on it. For a pair of underwear, a monk would embroider his name on them. This was due to the amount of washing they went through. However, if a monk was significantly taller/shorter/fatter than the others I’m sure he could find his habit just fine!

Sources:

Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Fortescue, Adrian. “Cowl.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 5 Dec. 2020<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04463a.htm>.

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005. 

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.)

Kit Overview: Clergy, Monks and Nuns http://wychwood.wikidot.com/kit-religious

Regia Anglorum Members Handbook: CHURCH https://web.archive.org/web/20150910174625/https://regia.org/members/handbook/church.pdf

Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

WHY DO FRANCISCANS WEAR BROWN? https://franciscanmissionaries.com/franciscans-wear-brown/

Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)

In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.

The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.

Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.

[…]

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons.
The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man—
then Woden took up nine glorious boughs,
striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces.
There the apple and the venom were destroyed,
so that it never wished to bring down your house.

Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair,
the wise Lord shaped these herbs,
holy in heaven, those he hung up—
set up and sent down into the seven worlds
for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away.
Garmund, the thane of God,
find those cattle and bear those cattle
and keep those cattle and hold those cattle
and bear those cattle home.

(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)

***

Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.

Sources:

Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 6: Jocelin of Brakelond is Kind of a Jerk

Even though the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds focuses mostly on Abbot Samson than anyone else, occasionally the author, Jocelin of Brakelond slips in several anecdotes about his own behavior. Despite Jocelin’s efforts to portray himself in a mostly positive light, he does admit to his past wrongdoings. This includes talking trash about one of his best friends. (Well, now ex-best friend at the time of him writing the chronicle!) While reading the text it’s important to keep in mind how Jocelin wants to portray himself. So I am more than sure that some of these incidents were worse than what he would have you believe. However, sometimes Jocelin does something so bratty that even he struggles to justify his behavior.

***

In this part of the chronicle, Jocelin took the time to describe Samson’s overall character. This includes how Samson looked, what his favorite foods were (Samson had a sweet tooth!), and even how hoarse his voice got whenever he caught a cold. Samson’s eating habits in particular were an interest to Jocelin. For example, Samson never ate meat but would ask for extra helpings of it so they could give it away to the poor. (It was a common practice for medieval monasteries would give their leftover food away to the poor. Samson wasn’t being a jerk or anything.) Another interesting tidbit Jocelin notes is that Samson was known for eating whatever is put in front of him. And one day, while Jocelin was a novice, he decided to put this to the test.

When it was Jocelin’s turn for kitchen duty, he made Samson a dish of extremely disgusting food and he put it on an extremely dirty and broken dish. Then he gave it to Samson and waited. And Samson ate it. To be more specific, Samson pretended he didn’t notice how disgusting it was and ate it. Despite the fact Jocelin was being a jerk, he did feel bad for doing this. So he grabbed the plate of food and tried to replace it with food Samson could actually eat. This was not acceptable to Samson. He became extremely angry that Jocelin dared to switch out his gross plate with a nice one.

By doing so, I believe Samson was making his point about what Jocelin had done. He was given something gross and he believed in eating whatever he was given. Samson was also known for detesting people who complained about the food they were given, especially if they were monks. If he let Jocelin replace his meal, it would look like he had complained, thus appearing to be a hypocrite to the rest of the monastic community. In addition to this, I think he wanted Jocelin to stew in his own guilt over the stunt he had just pulled. That way Jocelin would learn his lesson about messing with people’s food and not do it again.

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 5: The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ Finances

For part five of my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series, we are once again returning to The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds written by Jocelin of Brakelond. This particular text is chock-full of stories about tonsured men acting in ways that are rather unbecoming for men of God. Whether it’s being petty, actively malicious, or simply just being careless, this late 12th century and early 13th century has just about everything. Our first story features a monk being extremely careless.

***

In April 1182, Samson traveled to each of the manors he owned personally as the abbot of Bury St Edmunds as well as the manors the abbey/monks owned. While visiting, Samson made sure that everything was in working order. He also collected recognition from his tenants. (Recognition is a form of payment tenants give to their lord.) Samson had just been elected abbot, so this was a standard thing to do.

While Samson stayed at Warkton he was awoken by a voice telling him to get up and get up now. He did. To his horror, Samson found a lit candle in the lavatory that was just about to fall on some straw. Apparently, a monk named Reiner had left it there and forgotten about it. To add to the scariness of the situation, Samson quickly discovered that the house’s only door was locked and could only be opened with a key. And it gets worse. All the windows were impossible to open. Depending on the translation, they were either barred or just tightly shut. Either way, if there had been a fire everyone in the house would have been burnt alive.

Jocelin doesn’t comment on the incident any further, but it definitely makes me wonder whether the house was simply a fire hazard (like a lot of medieval dwellings) or if something more sinister was going on.

***

As time went on Samson’s financial skills increased. However, like all leaders, Samson wasn’t perfect (though Jocelin tries to get us to believe otherwise). Rumors spread that Samson was embezzling from the abbey’s sacristy, which was not the first time he was accused of doing so. Not only that, he was accused of saving his own money (as the abbot and the abbey’s finances were separate) instead of sharing the financial burden of running Bury St Edmunds, hoarding grain until he could sell it for a massive profit, spending more time at his manors than at the abbey itself and he let the cellarer do all the entertaining when guests arrived. Not only was Samson accused of being greedy but lazy when it came to hospitality. (Abbots shirking their entertainment duties off on the cellarer was a common problem at Bury St Edmunds.) By doing all this, Samson looked financially capable while the monks looked careless. After all, even if the abbot is the one taking the money, the convent will still appear to be inept if their accounts are low.

When Jocelin heard the criticisms he defended Samson. According to him, all the money from the sacristy was used to improve the church. Not only that, more good had been done with the abbey’s money in the fifteen years after Samson’s election than it had been in the previous forty years. Jocelin claims that even Samson’s worst enemy couldn’t deny that. Whether or not this is the truth is up to the reader. Jocelin justified Samson’s frequent absences from the abbey with the claim that Samson was happier at his manors than at home. Apparently, at the abbey, Samson was constantly bombarded by people who wanted stuff from him. Even so, I don’t think that gave him the right to avoid his monks as much as he did in the first few years of his abbacy.

As a brief side note, Jocelin recorded several incidents where Samson complained about how much he hated his job. When Samson wasn’t lamenting about wishing he never became a monk, he wished he was never made abbot. Apparently, he wanted to be a librarian.

***

At the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds monks going into debt was a common problem. In my last few posts, I wrote about previous incidents. Well, it was still a problem. At one chapter meeting, Samson collected all the monks’ seals that were used for taking on debts. There were thirty-three. Samson forbade any official from taking on debt over £1 without permission from the prior and the abbey. Jocelin notes that this was actually a pretty common thing to do. (Taking on debts of over £1.)

Besides going into debt, the monks also had a tendency to own stuff. This is a big no-no. Chapter thirty-three of The Rule of Saint Benedict explicitly forbids any monk from having personal possessions. (Unless of course, the abbot says it’s okay.) Samson did not say it was okay. He collected the keys to all the chests, cupboards, and hanapers in the monastery and forbid the monks from owning possessions without his permission. That being said, Samson did give every monk a small allowance to spend on good causes. One such good cause was the monk’s biological family (but only if they were poor).

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. 

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict. https://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0547,_Benedictus_Nursinus,_Regola,_EN.pdf