The Midwife’s Apprentice By Karen Cushman Book Summary and Review

Content Note: Discussions of abuse and spoilers for The Midwife’s Apprentice.

Usually, I don’t do book reviews here (I think I may have written two before) but I figured I would spice things up today before returning to my usual content! Today I will be reviewing the children’s book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.

The Book’s Summary:

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a story about a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl living in medieval England. (The narration never specified her age as the girl doesn’t even know how old she is.) At first, the girl is nameless, only going by “Brat.” We are introduced to Brat as she crawls into a dung pile to sleep. Brat is a homeless, wandering orphan trying to get out of the cold. She also goes into the dung pile to hide from some boys who are tormenting her.

The boys do find her and start tormenting Brat, giving her a new name: Beetle. (As in dung beetle.) They are chased away by a woman who asks Beetle if she is dead because if she is dead the woman has to get the bailiff to take her body away. Beetle opens her eyes, revealing that she is in fact alive. This woman is Jane Sharp and she is the local midwife. She tells Beetle she’ll feed her and give her a place to sleep if she works for her. Hungry, not wanting to sleep in the dung pile anymore or venture off to another village to beg, Beetle accepts and becomes Jane’s servant and eventual apprentice.

However, Jane is not doing this out of the kindness of her heart. Jane is a cruel woman who not only torments Beetle but her patients as well. She is verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive to pretty much everyone she interacts with. Jane also refuses to go to women who can’t pay her hefty fees, often causing women to have to give birth with no help, other than their local neighbors. While Jane isn’t a professionally trained midwife as it’s the Middle Ages and the knowledge was passed down from woman to woman, she does know her stuff. What I’m saying is, women died in childbirth all the time and if something goes horribly wrong you want someone there who knows what they are doing even if they are a horrible human being. To make matters worse for her patients, Jane is the only midwife in the area and if you want a lesser chance of dying in childbirth, unfortunately, you have to put up with her.

Jane looks down upon Beetle and treats her horribly. She thinks Beetle is an idiot and abuses her physically and emotionally at every chance she gets. However, Beetle is not as stupid as Jane and the others in the village make her out to be. The more work she does for Jane, the more and more she learns. Soon enough Beetle has memorized Jane’s medical recipes and can make them on her own. This gives Beetle a sense of freedom.

Over the course of the book, Beetle starts to become her own person. She makes friends, gets some revenge on people who have wronged her, rescues a few boys, and overall has quite a few adventures. Eventually, she decides to rename herself Alyce. At first, no one will call her Alyce, but as time goes by more and more people do. Soon enough Alyce is loved and even more respected than Jane due to the kindness she gives patients that have been abandoned by the older midwife. (After all, Jane has absolutely no qualms with leaving patients and their babies to die if someone richer has just gone into labor.)

Despite the respect Alyce gets, she is still young and does not know everything. After a patient’s baby gets stuck, Alyce panics and Jane has to come to the rescue. Alyce, ashamed that she could not help, gives up midwifery. She runs away from the village and starts working as a servant at a somewhat far off inn.

There at the inn, Alyce learns more practical life skills and even learns to read and write thanks to the lessons of a traveling scholar. At one point Jane visits the inn but doesn’t see her. While Jane is telling the scholar about midwifery, Alyce overhears her complaining about her. Jane is annoyed with Alyce and basically says she needs an apprentice who won’t give up at the slightest hint of trouble. Babies don’t stop being born just because the midwife has a personal crisis. (Which, as much as I do not like Jane, is true.)

Time goes on and Alyce still works at the inn as a servant. She has absolutely no intention of returning to midwifery but then something happens: a woman has come to the inn who is in labor! At first, no one in the woman’s traveling party can believe it because 1) no one knew she was pregnant (least of all herself!) and 2) she and her husband thought they were barren. But after the innkeeper feels the woman’s stomach she tells them that she is most certainly pregnant and the pain is not from a stomach worm. The husband is totally in denial and basically says “No, she’s not pregnant. I mean, yeah, my wife has gotten really fat lately but that’s because she won’t stop eating. I’m not a father!!!”

But the woman is pregnant and she’s in labor and the baby is coming now.

At first, the innkeeper helps her but soon enough she’s doesn’t know what to do. All this time Alyce has been watching but not saying anything. Alyce has been too terrified of screwing up again to help. But eventually, she knows she has to. Alyce comes to the rescue and the baby is safely delivered. It is only when Alyce is able to help the woman does she realize that she is meant to be a midwife. She returns to Jane, who won’t have her at first. But Alyce remembers what Jane said previously: she needs someone who doesn’t give up. Alyce pesters Jane for a while and eventually, she is let back in to continue her training. This is where the book ends.

The Book Review:

I enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I thought it was a good book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads. It’s a pretty short book so I finished it within a day. (It’s a children’s book so of course, it’s short.) The story is well written and Alyce is a likable character. Admittedly, she’s a bit bland at first. At the start of the book, she’s extremely timid and not very interesting. However, her shyness is due to the fact she has spent the entirety of her life (or at least the life she remembers) in a world that neglects and abuses her. After all, she has no family, no money, no home, and no name. So it’s extremely satisfying to watch her become her own person and gain the confidence that comes with realizing she is capable, worthy of love, respect, and she’s not just a burden like the world has told her her entire life.

And Alyce finally choosing her own name is something I can really relate to. The moment she does so was extremely touching.

Karen Cushman does a fantastic job of making Jane extremely unlikable. I absolutely hated Jane. (However, that is the point of her character.) Jane is abusive to everyone around her and to add to how horrible of a person she is, she’s also having an affair with a man who has a wife and thirteen children! Her character also shows that even the people you are supposed to trust won’t always (if ever!) have your best interests in mind. It’s an important lesson for kids to learn that sometimes you can’t trust your doctors, especially when it comes to childbirth. There are so many cases out there of doctors and midwives refusing to listen to or flat out abusing their laboring patients (especially women of color). While The Midwife’s Apprentice takes place in medieval England, the fact that patient abuse is still extremely dominant today is important for kids to learn about so they can protect themselves in the future.

In other reviews I’ve read of The Midwife’s Apprentice, people have a lot of issues with Alyce returning to her abuser at the end of the book. Her return is definitely problematic, but I understand why she did so. Jane is the only person Alyce knows who has the knowledge she needs to be a proper midwife. While her return is not ideal at all the ending does have a lot of hope to it. It’s stated throughout the book that Jane is terrified of another midwife taking her business and at one point Alyce does take her patients. Hopefully, once Alyce has learned all she can from Jane she will be able to leave for good and take care of the village’s parents instead of Jane.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I think it’s an excellent book and I recommend it for children and adults alike.

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 8: Construction Woes

You would think that the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds would learn to behave themselves, but I’m afraid that’s not the case! Once again we are returning to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. This week’s installment features two stories about building buildings and construction materials.

A bishop and two monks | Royal 11 D IX f. 210v | Source: The British Library

***

Before we get into our first tale, I need to give you some context. In the twelfth century, feudal lords often owned windmills. If you wanted to use them, you had to pay to do so. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was extremely wealthy, owned pretty much all the surrounding land and the abbot was considered a feudal lord. Due to this, Abbot Samson owned all the windmills in the area. At least he was supposed to.

Apparently, Herbert, one of the monastery’s deans, had built his own windmill at Haberdon manor, at the edge of the abbey’s property. Abbot Samson was not happy to hear this. In fact, he was furious. He was more than furious! According to Jocelin, the author of the chronicle, Samson was so angry he could barely eat or speak. But Samson was a man of action and he was not going to allow Herbert to go around building windmills. So what did Samson decide to do? Destroy it of course!

The day after Samson found out about the windmill, he ordered the sacrist (who Herbert was deputy for) to get a bunch of carpenters to take apart the building. Samson also specified that the wood making the windmill should be stored in a safe place. (Presumably for future use.)

Once Herbert heard about this plan, he immediately went to Samson and argued that he should be able to keep his mill. After all, he had built it on his freehold land, he was only going to use it for his own grain so he wouldn’t be taking away the abbot’s business, and no one owned the wind. Samson was not convinced. In fact, these explanations just made him even angrier! Samson is documented saying this iconic line:

“I am as grateful to you as if you had cut off both my feet. By God’s mouth, I shall not eat bread until your handiwork is destroyed.”

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, pg. 53

But that wasn’t all Samson said! In his anger, Samson made several arguments as to why Herbert’s windmill was not allowed. One, not even the king is allowed to build stuff on abbey property without the abbot’s permission. Two, there would be a loss to Samson’s mills. People would start going to Herbert’s and because they are freemen Samson legally cannot stop them. And three, no mill is allowed on abbey property that does not belong to him. Though apparently, the cellarer owns his own mill but that’s because it was built before Samson had become abbot. Samson makes it very clear that if the cellarer had tried to build it after he became abbot Samson would have destroyed it too. Finally, Samson orders Herbert to leave before he tells him what he’s going to do to his mill.

This scolding terrified Herbert so much that he immediately went to his mill to ask his son what he should do. (Even though the Church had been trying to get priests to be celibate for years there were still some who got married and had kids anyway. Herbert is one of them.) His son advised him to take it down. So, Herbert rehired all the laborers who built the mill to remove it. This was done so quickly that by the time the sacrist’s carpenters came by there was nothing there!

***

Our next story starts when Geoffrey Ridel, the bishop of Ely, asks Abbot Samson if he can have some timber from the abbey’s lands. The bishop had plans to build some large buildings at Glemsford. Now, Abbot Samson most certainly did not want to give this guy any wood, but when a bishop asks you for something it’s wise just to give him what he wants. It’s best in the long run not to offend the men in charge. However, just because Abbot Samson didn’t want to offend the bishop, doesn’t mean he didn’t hop at the chance to keep the trees when the opportunity arose!

When Abbot Samson was staying at Melford parish, Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger approached him to ask if the bishop could have timber from Elmswell. However, this wasn’t what he meant. The messenger should have said “Elmset.” For context, Elmset was a wood near Melford. (And Melford was next to Glemsford.) Elmswell was located fifteen miles away. Also, it did not have the kind of wood the bishop wanted. Abbot Samson was a bit confused about this. Luckily for him, a forester named Richard heard about the request and privately told Samson what was up.

Apparently the week before, the bishop had sent some of his carpenters to Elmset to scope out the best trees for timber. This included marking all of the best trees. (I guess Richard didn’t think this was weird because he only told Samson about what he saw just then.) Once Samson heard this, he realized what had happened: the messenger meant to say Elmset instead of Elmswell. But he did say Elmswell. So the gears in Abbot Samson’s head started turning and he more than happily told the messenger that the bishop could totally take some timber. From Elmswell. The messenger still hadn’t realized he made a HUGE mistake, so he happily went to the bishop to tell him the good news.

Once he told the bishop, Geoffrey Ridel was not happy. In one translation of the chronicle, the bishop “reprimanded [the messenger] severely” while in another he gave the messenger “much abuse.” It’s not specified exactly what that means, but presumably it wasn’t good! The messenger was quickly sent back to correct this error.

Meanwhile, Abbot Samson quickly got to work. Once the messenger had left the next day, Samson heard mass, got his own carpenters, and headed down to Elmset. There he had all his men cut down all the marked trees as well as mark over a hundred other ones with his sign so they stayed Bury St Edmunds’s property. The newly marked trees would be cut down as soon as possible so they could build the rest of the great tower.

When Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger finally returned to Melford, he got there too late. All of the trees, including the ones the bishop and Abbot Samson marked, were already cut down. The bishop would have to find timber somewhere else!

Jocelin ends this event by commenting how amusing he found the whole thing. After all, if the bishop hadn’t already marked the trees, Samson would have given them to him (however reluctantly). But he did and Abbot Samson did not appreciate his presumptuous behavior. Both men acted in ways unbefitting of men who are supposed to be dedicated to God. The bishop was sneaky and Samson was petty. However, these aren’t the only cases of misbehaving monks! There are so many more in Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds alone!

Sources:

Addy, David. From the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta 1066 to 1216. 30 Jan. 2015, www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/Chronicle/1066-1216.htm#samson. 

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. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.

***

Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!

Sources:

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

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

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

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. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

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

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/