Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?
Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.
The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.
Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.
After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics.
From Daedalus to the Wright Brothers to NASA flying a tiny helicopter on Mars, the concept of flight has fascinated humanity for millennia. This was no different for an 11th-century monk named Eilmer (AKA Elmer/Oliver. Oliver is due to a misreading). Eilmer of Malmesbury was briefly mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum. Sadly this text is really the only surviving account we have about Eilmer. That being said, his works about astrology (now lost) were referenced as late as the 16th century.
What does an astrologer monk have to do with flight? Well, when Eilmer was a young monk he decided that he was going to try to fly. His plan included making wings and jumping off of Malmesbury Abbey’s tower. And it worked! Eilmer flew! Well, sort of. He flew for about six hundred feet before the wind became violent, the air current changed and he crash-landed. Fortunately for Eilmer, he survived the crash. Unfortunately for Eilmer, he broke both legs. His injuries were severe enough that according to William of Malmesbury he “was lame ever after.” Apparently, for the rest of his life, Eilmer lamented his experiment would have worked had he not forgotten to add a tail. (Some modern writers say that Eilmer’s abbot forbade him from doing a second experiment, but this is not in the primary source. Dom Aelred Watkin added this tidbit to his account in the 1950s. While not factually accurate, it certainly is funny to think about.)
There are a lot of myths/legends about people trying (and failing) to fly. However, it is extremely likely Eilmer’s experiment did in fact happen. For one, William is considered to be an extremely accurate medieval historian. It helps that William came from the same monastery as Eilmer and Eilmer died less than one hundred years before William finished his chronicle. William probably heard the story from monks who knew Eilmer as an old man.
When exactly did Eilmer attempt to fly? Well, we don’t have an exact date but Dr. Lynn White’s research does give us a general estimate of when it happened. See, Eilmer isn’t just famous for his flying. In fact, William seems to have added that as more of an after thought. William focuses more on how Eilmer had seen Halley’s comet twice in his life. This is very imporant for dating his life story. The second time he saw the comet was in 1066. Eilmer recognizes it as the comet he saw in his childhood. Because Halley’s comet appears every 75-76 years or so, the first time Eilmer saw it had to have been in 989. Assuming Eilmer was about five or six at the time (five to six being old enough to remember things) he would have been in his early 80s in 1066. William says Eilmer was in his early youth when he tried to fly, so he was probably less than 25 years old at the time of his experiment. This puts the date sometime from the years 1000 to 1010.
We don’t know for certain what Eilmer’s flying machine looked like, but we do have some clues thanks to William’s description, cultural context, and modern-day aviation. We do know Eilmer used wings he attached to his hands and feet. William uses the Latin term “pennae” when describing them so the contraption could not have been a parachute or a balloon of some sort. They were probably rigid, maybe hinged, and possibly meant to flap like a bird’s. (I will note that humans do not have the right muscle structure to fly by flapping their arms.) They would have to be pretty big to carry him. James of Wanborough theorizes that they were around 100 square feet, probably made of ash or willow (the wood most likely to be available to Eilmer at the time), and covered in a light cloth or parchment. Because Eilmer did in fact fly for a good distance before he crashed, he had to have been a small man. However, that is all scientific speculation.
Even though we no longer have his astrological works or really any other evidence of Eilmer’s existence besides William’s account, I want to stress how remembered he was throughout the Middle Ages. William was not the only historian to write about him. Some other medieval historians include (but are not limited to!) Helinand, Alberic, Vincent of Beavais, and Ralph Higden. Unfortunately, they all seemed to use William’s account as their source so they don’t have any new information about Eilmer. (In fact, Ralph Higden even misread Eilmer’s name as Oliver! Thanks to this, Eilmer was referred to as Oliver by other historians.) And it wasn’t just medieval people who were fascinated by Eilmer! From William’s chronicle to the modern day Eilmer is a figure who has fascinated generations.
Finally, as a little treat, I would like to share this YouTube video I found about Eilmer. It’s a short silent animation. I think you will enjoy it! You can see it here.
White, Lynn. “Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition.” Technology and Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 1961, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3101411. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)
In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.
The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.
Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.
There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)
Old English Introduction
Penitential of Finnian
Canons of Theodore
Old English Penitential
Old English Handbook
Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.
I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)
I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.
Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.
Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.
I post images from medieval manuscripts and occasionally reels. I like to do polls and every few weeks I’ll do a little dice game on my story. People send me an action, I’ll roll a 20 sided die, and I’ll create a mini-story depending on how high the roll was. (The higher the number the more successful your action was.) So far there is an ongoing story about a hapless alchemist. (You can see previous submissions in my highlights.) Sometimes I do giveaways.
I have a TikTok as well. I finally caved and made one. You can find my account here:
So far I’ve only posted a few videos. They mostly pertain to medieval topics and art, but I’ve also posted a book review. I’ll probably be posting other mini book reviews there as well. Other videos include explaining what fabliaux are, showing some recipes from the Lacnunga, and rating medieval art.
Content Note: Discussions of Sexual Assault, Violence, Racism, and Anti-Semitism
What do you think about when you hear the words “medieval literature”? Do you think of chivalric romances filled with brave knights rescuing fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons? Or do you think about Icelandic sagas, starring wild Vikings conquering far-off lands and murdering anyone who enrages them? Perhaps you think of stories of holy men and women performing saintly miracles? Or maybe, just maybe, you think about comedic poems filled with references to the obscene.
If you thought about the last option, you certainly would not be wrong! Medieval literature wasn’t just about knights, Vikings, or saints. One genre, in particular, was all about the common man. And the common man was always up to some sort of mischief.
As you can probably guess from the title, this genre is called the fabliau, or fabliaux if plural. Fabliaux are Old French poems that are made up of eight-syllable lines paired into couplets. The poems vary in length but it’s common for a fabliau to consist of about 200 to 400 lines. This genre of poetry was most popular during the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. In total, about 150 fabliaux exist in their entirety. However, that doesn’t mean only 150 fabliaux ever existed! Who knows how many other of these poems have been lost to time.
Fabliaux were mostly written by anonymous jongleurs, who were the French equivalent of the minstrel. However, the keyword there is “mostly.” A good portion of surviving fabliaux do have known creators. The social status of the authors varies. Some were amateur writers while others were professionals. Here is a list of some known authors who wrote fabliaux:
Guillaume le Normand
Jean de Condé
Gautier le Leu
Marie de France
These are most certainly not all the named authors out there, but this list should give you a sense of how many people were known to have written fabliaux. A good chunk of the people named wrote several fabliaux as well.
What exactly were fabliaux about? While they did have different topics, their overarching theme was to satirize medieval society. If other forms of medieval literature were designed to glorify knights and the Church, fabliaux did the exact opposite. I will note that some fabliaux feature knights, but these men are certainly not brave or noble. In fact, they are extremely far from it! The satirical nature of fabliaux was executed in extremely crude ways. No topic was off-limits. Fabliaux are filled with sex, crime, violence, adultery, and excrement. So much excrement. Like, it’s kind of insane how many fabliaux include excrement in some way or another. Upper-class characters were usually portrayed as antagonists to the lower class/marginalized heroes. Or if they aren’t outright villains, then they are often on the receiving end of pranks pulled by the lower status characters. Some stock characters include cuckolded husbands, adulterous wives, lecherous priests/monks (who when they aren’t sleeping with the wives are going after innocent virgins), lecherous knights, and excrement obsessed peasants.
Fabliaux were written specifically to entertain and to make people laugh. However, they also demonstrate just how awful society and people in that society could be. While the marginalized heroes rarely succeed in climbing the social ladder, they still succeed in preventing the privileged characters from taking advantage of them. As long as they are clever, witty, and quick thinking, the heroes may even get their revenge and teach the antagonists a lesson or two about attempting to screw over the vulnerable. That being said, a good amount of these “tricks” are simply flat-out violence or even rape.
Women in fabliaux are rarely treated well. The genre as a whole is extremely misogynistic. Women are punished for a variety of “offenses” which often just boils down to being a virgin and not wanting to have sex with a man, talking too much, trying to take control of things her husband feels like isn’t her business, among other things. Fabliaux show just how badly medieval society thought of women. However, you do get the occasional fabliau where the woman is the hero and manages to outsmart men in power who are trying to wrong her.
For a good chunk of time after the Middle Ages, fabliaux were pretty unknown. Of course, some scholars read them, but they weren’t really known until the nineteenth century. During this time, Europeans were rediscovering a lot of medieval literature to elevate their history (in historically inaccurate ways I will note). And as you can see from the rise of white supremacy, it unfortunately worked.
Due to the obscenity of the genre, there were quite a bit of mixed feelings about fabliaux. While other countries had big sprawling epics, France had poems about peasants and excrement. That’s not exactly what you want when you are trying to glorify your past. In the minds of French scholars, something had to be done. So instead of admitting that medieval French wrote obscene things and had very dirty minds, nineteenth-century academics went into full-on denial mode. Their denial mode was just flat-out racism and anti-Semitism.
Scholars tried to claim that it wasn’t the French who wrote all those dirty poems. Oh no, they came from somewhere else. That somewhere else being Indian, Persian, and Jewish cultures. The (false!) argument was that there were some similarities between some of the fabliau and folklore from those cultures. And while there were some similarities, only eleven fabliaux out of the one hundred and sixty-ish poems sort of kind of resembled an Eastern source. That’s 6.88%. That is a minuscule amount. Thanks to human nature, there will always be some overlap between different cultures’ stories. Think of all the different versions there are of Cinderella! (I will also note that one of the people spouting off this nonsense, Anatole de Courde de Montaiglon, did not actually know any Hebrew what so ever so all of his “arguments” about linguistics came from a place of extreme ignorance.)
Overall, the fabliau is a fascinating genre. It allows modern people to look into the past and observe how attitudes towards society, social status, and humor change (or don’t). It also makes you realize that humanity as a whole still finds poop jokes funny centuries later. Even if people are in extreme and dangerous denial about that fact.
Today I return back to A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent for more stories about the fight between the holy and the demonic. In my last post about this topic, I shared a few stories about demons and the Devil tormenting dying monks. However, the dying were not their only targets. Demons seemed to be more than happy to target monastic children as well. Guibert of Nogent was one such monastic child. When Guibert was twelve, his mother moved to the Abbey of Saint-Germer-de-Fly. (Retiring to a monastery was all the rage in the Middle Ages.) He followed her there soon after. And surprise, surprise, when a young person is raised in a monastery, it increases the likelihood that they want to join the monastic life. (After all, it is what they know, they have a social circle there, and being raised in a monastery gives you an extremely limited amount of secular career options.) During his time as a novice, Guibert was tormented by the demonic.
Our first story comes from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. Here Guibert recounts an instance where the Devil tormented him in his sleep. How did the Devil do that, you ask? By giving Guibert horrible nightmares of course! Unlike other monks, Guibert didn’t dream of beautiful women. Instead, his dreams were plagued by images of dead men. Specifically, men Guibert had either seen killed or had heard about their gruesome deaths. (Guibert does not specify where he saw people killed in the first place, but evidently, it was something he witnessed in his childhood.) These dreams disturbed young Guibert so badly that his tutor often had to come into his bedroom to comfort him. In fact, if it wasn’t for his tutor checking up on him, Guibert insists that would have gotten out of bed, screamed, or perhaps even had a mental breakdown.
Guibert describes the massive amount of anxiety he felt during these occurrences. He acknowledges that his fears sound might silly and childish, but explains that unless you have gone through the terror yourself, you can’t understand or even imagine how overwhelming it is. Sometimes his nightmares were so bad that it was impossible for him to go back to sleep. To add to the horror of it all, even if he had someone with him it didn’t make the terror go away. When you are alone, the nightmares are either equally as bad or worse than before. I will note Guibert’s claim about having someone nearby contrasts with his previous statements about his tutor. Perhaps he meant that even if someone is there with you while you sleep, you’ll still have nightmares? Either way, the Devil plagued young Guibert’s dreams and nothing really seemed to help.
Our second story is also from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. It begins immediately after the first story. One winter night, young Guibert woke up due to “an intense feeling of panic.” At first, he’s not too scared because he has a lamp in his room and it allows him to see everything. Then things take a turn. Above his bed, Guibert hears whispers. A lot of whispers. And he does not know what they are saying, nor can he see who or what they are coming from. Suddenly Guibert falls back asleep. This brings him absolutely no peace. In his dream, he sees a dead man standing in front of him. According to one of the many voices Guibert hears, the dead man died (or was killed, depending on the translation) in the baths. Seeing another dead man is too much for young Guibert. He wakes up and jumps out of bed, screaming.
Now things become even worse for poor little Guibert’s psyche. His lamp suddenly goes out. Guibert is engulfed in darkness. That is when he notices the enormous shadow of the Devil. This really frightens him. Once again, he claims he would have gone mad if it weren’t for the help of his tutor. Apparently, his nightmares were frequent enough that his tutor started staying with him to comfort him when they happened. Luckily, the tutor was there that night and that is exactly what he did.
Guibert goes on to reflect why he believes the Devil targeted him. His conclusion is he was too devout and the Devil wanted to corrupt him. According to him, the Devil succeeded. Guibert spends a few sentences lamenting over how he would have been much more successful in life if he had only stayed true to God.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.
A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination. Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.
Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.
While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.
Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.
Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.
Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”
His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)
Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
The research I’m doing for my article on medieval penitentials is taking much longer than I thought it would, so today I will be sharing stories of some misbehaving medieval monks! However, today I will be using a different primary source than the one I usually do. So instead of Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, I will be using The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Guibert of Nogent was a pretty interesting man. His memoirs tell us a lot about what life was like as a monk in 11th to 12th century northern France. He was also a total mama’s boy, which isn’t super relevant to this article, but I feel that is something you should know.
The first instance I’ve chosen to talk about can be found in Book One, Chapter Eightof A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Here, Guibert makes his problems with oblates known. In a previous post, I’ve explained what oblates are, but I would like to give you Guibert’s description as well:
“…monks brought there [to monasteries] in early life through the piety of their kin.”
A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 25
These men have been brought up from early childhood in monasteries. So naturally, they are quite sheltered. If you’ve ever been to college, you’ve probably met someone who was extremely sheltered and has just tasted freedom for the first time. And once someone gets that taste of freedom, they tend to nuts as they absolutely do not know how to handle it. Well, according to Guibert, this was happening to former oblates as well! Apparently, it was quite common for these sheltered monks to be sent out of the monastery on errands and it was even more common for them to go wild when it came to spending money that they should not be spending.
However, going on shopping sprees weren’t the only way former oblates misbehaved. Guibert claims that they could be extremely self-righteous about their behavior. Allegedly, these monks were not particularly afraid of the sins they committed. Instead, they thought they never committed the sins they did! (Or at least they pretended that they had no idea what you were talking about if their sins were mentioned.) To make their hypocrisy worse, whenever these not-very-self-aware monks got any sort of power inside the monastery they were pretty rotten to everyone else. That’s certainly not a way a man of God is supposed to act!
Ironically, despite all their bad behavior, Guibert still thinks that former oblates are very important. (In my translation of the text, he calls them “precious.”) He is writing in the early 12th century and the Church has started giving oblation the side-eye. Fewer and fewer monastic orders are accepting child donations, so monks who grew up in monasteries are becoming increasingly rare. These kinds of monks are supposed to be more pure and innocent than monks who were exposed to the secular world. In theory, they should be better monks. In practice, we know that not to be the case thanks to Guibert’s description of them.
Our next story comes from Book One, Chapter Sixteen.In his early teens, Guibert joined a monastery. However, things were not all smooth sailing for young Guibert. He had a tendency to get into quite a bit of conflict with the older monks. Now, if you take Guibert’s words at face value, everyone else was jealous of him because he was so smart and loved learning so much and no one understood why he loved to learn and they were constantly attacking him because he was smarter and better than everyone else. However, if you read between the lines (and take into consideration a few conversations his mother and tutor had with him in previous chapters), it’s safe to guess Guibert was just being an annoying smug little know-it-all. Here’s a quote that I think displays the truth quite well:
“…they began to notice that I equaled them, or even, if I may say so, surpassed them. So they became so furiously, wickedly indignant with me that I became weary of incessant disputes and attacks; and more than once I regretted having ever become so interested in learning or having acquired it. Indeed, my concentration was so perturbed by these discussions, and so many quarrels sprang up from the ceaseless questions related to that learning, that it seemed to me that my colleagues were determined only to detract my attention and to create obstacles for my mind.”
A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 55
Guibert goes on to lament about how everyone else was just trying to bring him down and they were all so cruel to him. He claims that they asked him questions that were supposed to make his “mind duller.” This did not work as apparently they just made him smarter. Furthermore, Guibert flat out admits that his fellow monks accused him of “letting a little learning go to [his] head.”
Now, perhaps what he was claiming was entirely true. Perhaps they were all jealous of him. However, I think it’s pretty clear that Guibert was being a smart-aleck. After all, monasteries were centers of learning and education. Guibert was just one of many, many boys throughout history sent to a monastery to get a good education. And if everyone around you is telling you off for being annoying, there’s a common denominator in that situation and that common denominator is you. At some point, you have to realize you are in the wrong. It seems like everyone was super annoyed with Guibert. Besides, even if they were in the wrong, Guibert was still bragging about how smart he was. According to The Rule of Saint Benedict, monks are supposed to be humble. In fact, humility is the most important trait for a monk! Guibert was most certainly not being humble here, thus he was not behaving as a good monk should.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
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 casesout there ofdoctors 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.