The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

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.)

The Lord listening to confession | Add MS 42130 f.185v | The British Library

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!)

  1. Old English Introduction
  2. Excarpsus Cummeani
  3. Penitential of Finnian
  4. Scriftboc
  5. Canons of Theodore 
  6. Old English Penitential 
  7. Egbert’s Penitential
  8. 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.

Sources:

Frantzen, A. (n.d.). Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/?p=index

Frantzen, Allen J. “The Tradition of Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 11, 1983, pp. 23–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44510760. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Oakley, Thomas P. “The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History.” Speculum, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, pp. 210–223. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050.

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

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

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

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

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

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

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

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

[…]

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

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

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

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

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

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

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

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

***

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 5: The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ Finances

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

The Three Living and Three Dead | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.123r | The British Library

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needless to say, Samson got his point across.

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!

 

Main Sources:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: Men Attempting to Become Monks for All the Wrong Reasons

Just because someone wants to become a monk, doesn’t mean that they should. Sometimes they try to become monks because the devil is making them do it, sometimes they just want to steal stuff, and other times they have a really bad gambling addiction and see no other way out of their debts. Today’s article will be discussing Chapters Nine through Twelve of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Each chapter is pretty short, so if you’re interested in reading them in full, I’ve provided a link to page 17 at the end of this article.

Our first story is from Book One, Chapter Nine. A doctor named Stephen de Vitry has decided that he wants to be a monk at Clairvaux Abbey. He’s educated, important, and everyone knows who he is. At least it’s implied that everyone knows who he is as “the whole valley was rejoicing at his coming” and they are positively thrilled that the monastery will receive “so important a convert” (pg. 18). However, things are not as they seem.

 

Picture from Harley MS 1527 f.50r Monks are talking to Christ while a demon talks to the monk. Writing in Latin is on the left side of the picture.

Monks talking to Christ (?) and a demon talking to the monks.  | Harley MS 1527 f.50r | Source: The British Library

 

Everyone else may be excited Stephen wants to be a monk, but our good friend St. Bernard is suspicious. He has a bad feeling that Stephen isn’t there for the right reasons. And he’s not. Turns out that the devil convinced him to be a novice so Stephen can lure more committed novices back into the secular world. Specifically, novices that Stephen taught through letters.

Despite St. Bernard’s concerns regarding Stephen’s predatory nature, he lets the man be a novice. Though he only does this so “he might not cause pain to the weaker brethren” (pg. 18). I believe this means that St. Bernard doesn’t want to upset the more delicate monks by telling them that the famous Stephen de Vitry is a jerk. Or maybe St. Bernard just didn’t want to listen to people pester him about letting Stephen in. Either way, he lets the man in despite the fact Stephen will never become a monk.

And Stephen de Vitry doesn’t. He spends the year of his novitiate trying to lure other novices back to the secular world (or at least the “evil spirit” (pg. 18) in Stephen does) but to no avail. None of the novices are tempted and Stephen leaves the monastery, humiliated.

Chapter Ten begins with two priests coming to Heisterbach Abbey to become monks. As is custom, they are turned away. After all, how do you know someone really wants to be a monk unless they spend a few days begging to be let in? One of the priests skedaddles, but the other, Goswin, begs so much and so hard that eventually he’s let in.

He’s there for less than six weeks before he takes a bunch of stuff and flees. (It is not specified what exactly that stuff is.) Turns out Goswin didn’t actually want to join the monastery. Literally, the only reason he was there was to steal “in obedience to the orders of him who had brought him there” (pg. 18).

 

 

A medieval drawing of a boy in a cherry tree eating/stealing the cherries. Under the tree is a man with a club.

A boy stealing cherries from a tree. (Not exactly related to chapter ten, but theft is still occurring!) | Add MS 42130 f.196v | Source: The British Library

 

 

After the Monk tells this story (there’s a reason this text is called Dialogue on Miracles!), the Novice suggests that maybe, just maybe, Goswin came to the monastery with a genuine desire to be a monk. His hopeful suggestion is answered with an extremely blunt “Assuredly not” (pg. 18).

The Monk goes on to explain that theft was Goswin’s intention the entire time. He knows this because a lay brother overheard Goswin and his friend plotting to lie to the monks. It makes you wonder why the lay brother neglected to tell any superior about what he heard. Though in the lay brother’s defense he didn’t actually overhear them mention any sort of specific scheme for thievery. But still. Blatantly discussing lying is something you mention to the people in charge. Especially when there is a heavy vetting process for new monastic recruits!

However, our good Monk does not go into this further. Instead, he begins the story of the next chapter.

Chapter Eleven is about a young canon with a severe gambling addiction. The canon is from Cologne. According to Google Maps, it is about an eight-hour walk from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey or twenty-three miles. So it’s long-distance but not undoable. (The trip can definitely be done on an impulse, is what I’m saying.)

 

Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey

Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey

 

When the canon arrives, the younger monks are thrilled that he wants to join their community. They are so excited that they beg and beg and beg the abbot, Gevard. Despite their extremely annoying pleas, Gevard says no. See, Gevard has more than two brain cells. It’s pretty obvious to him that the canon is only there because he has a severe gambling addiction. Gevard knows this because by the time the canon arrived he had already gambled away the majority of his clothes and is only wearing a tunic. After being told to leave, the canon goes back to Cologne and he never mentions wanting to be a monk again.

While this reaction by the abbot may seem harsh, it’s pretty obvious the canon was just coming to the monastery to run away from all his problems. As stated before, it was common practice to refuse entry to any new recruit a few times before letting them become a novice. (Chapter Fifty-Eight of The Rule of Saint Benedict goes into this practice in detail!) Again, you want to make sure the newest member of the community is there for the right reasons. And speaking of reasons a person may try to be a monk, Chapter Eleven isn’t the only story of a man attempting to join a monastic community to escape his gambling debts.

Chapter Twelve tells the story of a youth deep in debt. Or to be more specific, a youth from a noble and wealthy family (so someone relatively important). The youth came to the monastery without telling his parents. The Monk comments on how it was relatively easy for him to become a novice (in stark contrast to the others who struggled to get in!). The Monk also comments on how he’s not going to name who the youth is as he really hopes that the young man will come back and he doesn’t want to embarrass the kid. (Though I suspect the fact that the youth’s family is rich and powerful is another reason the Monk is keeping quiet!)

A few days after the youth becomes a novice, his friends show up to bring him home.  Apparently, the only reason he wanted to be a monk in the first place was because he lost a good amount of money at a game, and in his humiliation, he panicked. To quote the text:

“They knew that he had lost a sum of money at some game and had taken the vows more from chagrin than from devotion.” (pg. 19)

His friends spend an unspecified amount of time trying to convince him to come back home. Eventually, they tell the youth that he really should pay off his debt, and once he does that he can come back ASAP. (Monks can’t own anything thus he can’t pay people back while at the monastery.) The youth deems this a good argument and goes with them.

It seems that the youth came to his senses about his devotion because the last few sentences of Chapter Twelve is dedicated to how he had to go through a bunch of legal processes to prove he made his vows “thoughtlessly and in distress and confusion of mind” (pg. 20). And to add the cherry on top, the youth assures them all if he had made his vows while in a state of mental clarity, he totally would have stayed.

In my opinion, I think the youth’s friends were doing him a solid by taking him home, but the Monk certainly doesn’t see it like that! He refers to the friends as “cunning” and in general his phrasing has a lot of negative connotations.

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n39/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Thief Who Became a Monk Just So He Could Steal Stuff

Today I want to jump right into Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Book One of the text is dedicated to stories regarding conversion—but not in the way you might think. In the context of Dialogue on Miracles, the word conversion isn’t referring to people becoming Christians. Instead, it refers to Christians becoming monks/nuns. Some of the chapters in Book One are more interesting than others, so I will be analyzing and summarizing the stories I find particularly fascinating. (That’s why I am starting with Chapter Three.)

 

monk-giving-a-chalice-and-host-to-mary-of-egypt-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-286-dc7c38

Monk giving a chalice and host to Mary of Egypt | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 286 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Unlike my series on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I’ll only be directly quoting the text when the wording is amusing, sassy, or I feel like the reader needs more context. If you wish to read the chapter I’m discussing (and I recommend you do so because of the stuff in here is WILD), I’ve provided a link to that part of the text at the bottom of this post.

Chapter Three starts off with the Monk explaining who told him this tale: Brother Godfrey, the ex-canon of Saint Andrews in Cologne, presently living in the same monastery the Monk and the Novice reside at, who heard it from a monk at Clairvaux. By telling the Novice this, the Monk is providing what seems to be a reliable source. Sure he didn’t witness this event himself but someone he knows heard it from someone he knows who did. Basically, there this story has made it through several rounds of telephone before making its way to the text, implying some of the information may be wrong.

Wrong or not, the story continues.

A wandering clerk ends up at Clairvaux and decides to become a novice. But not because he actually has a holy calling or because he wants to be closer to God. He wants to be closer to something in that monastery and it’s the chalices. Yes, this clerk decided to become a novice just so he could steal some treasure. However, stealing chalices is much harder to do when you’re just a novice and aren’t actually allowed access to the treasury. (Probably because the monastery keeps having ‘novices’ attempt to steal their gold!)

The clerk keeps planning on his theft the entire time he’s a novice (a whole year!) but again, the treasury is guarded extremely well. Does he give up? Nope! Instead, he decides that he’ll just become a monk and then steal the chalices! After all, when he’s a monk he’ll have easy access to them at mass. So he waits out the entire year of his novitiate and is tonsured.

However, things aren’t as easy as that. God is keeping tabs on him.

Once the clerk puts on his new habit God strikes. Though not violently. When he’s officially a monk (“for no sooner had he put on his monk’s dress” (pg. 9)) the clerk realizes the error of his ways. Thanks to God’s mercy he converts for real, leading to him actually being a good monk. In fact, he’s so good at it he’s eventually made Prior of Clairvaux!

Now, you would think he would just confess his crimes to a priest and keep quiet about the whole I’m–Gonna–Become–A–Monk–So–I–Can–Steal–Stuff plot. If so, you would be wrong. (I sure was!) Instead of being quiet about the whole thing, it ends up being his go-to story with the novices. Apparently, the novices found it to be a good teaching tool.

* * *

Personally, I find this story to be a bit unbelievable. I know the whole point is to teach others about God’s mercy and grace, but I think it’s a whole lot of effort just to steal a few chalices. It’s certainly a long con. However, I’ve never gotten the urge to steal some cups, so what do I know? At first, I also found it unusual that the other brethren trusted the would-be thief enough to make him prior but upon further reflection, I realized that more powerful people have done much worse and that hasn’t stopped their careers.

In the end, an argument could be made that this was all part of God’s plan to convert the sinful clerk into an upstanding member of society. I do believe that’s the moral of the story.

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n31/mode/2up

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Relics: The Escapades of Four Medieval Relics

This was originally posted on an old blog of mine in June 2019. I have moved it to The Mediaeval Monk as it fits here better.

 

What exactly is a relic? According to Wikipedia (as they have the clearest explanation) a relic “usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.”

 

Royal MS 18 D II f.148r pilgrims on road to canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes

Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes | Royal MS 18 D II f.148r | Source: The British Library

 

During the Middle Ages, having a relic of a saint was a pretty big deal. It would bring your abbey/monastery prestige, holiness, and of course, lots of money. Pilgrims would come so they could get favors from the saint and see some miracles. Offerings were left and the place they relic was at collected that money. So naturally, when you have a culture surrounding relics, shenanigans ensue. And some of these shenanigans are WILD.

*   *   *

One such shenanigan happened in Bonneval Abbey in France. Bonneval Abbey was home to Saint Florentius’ relics. Then in the 11th century, there was a big famine. Thanks to that famine, the monks had to start selling stuff for food. Gradually, they sold all of their stuff off. Well, almost all of it. The monks eventually had to sell Saint Florentius. But they didn’t sell all of Saint Florentius. They sold everything except his head. So the guy who bought it, Aelfsige, brought a headless corpse back to Peterborough Abbey.

Honestly, I would have loved to see how they decided how much of poor old Saint Florentius they were going to sell. How do you barter for the majority of a body? It wasn’t until I learned about this, did I realize how silly the concept of buying everything but the head is. People will want skulls of things, but what happens to the rest of the body?

*   *   *

Another funny thing concerning people buying parts of saints’ bodies happened to Saint Bartholomew. During a famine in Italy, the Bishop of Benevento kept Saint Bartholomew’s arm precisely to make money. The bishop traveled around Italy and France with the arm, getting gifts. The bishop eventually went to England because the country was pretty wealthy at the time and the queen, Queen Emma, had no problem giving money to the church. But then the bishop realized that he hadn’t gotten enough money on his travels.

So he asked Queen Emma if she wanted to buy Saint Bartholomew’s arm. Queen Emma was like, sure, but is it real? Then the bishop was like, yeah, of course, it’s real and swore an oath. Queen Emma bought the arm.

*   *   *

We can’t talk about relic shenanigans without mentioning the duplicates. Because of Viking raids, people were naturally a bit on edge concerning their monastery’s relics getting destroyed or stolen or something equally unfortunate. So people started lying about where the relics were and who had them and replacing what people thought were relics with random bodies. For example, a Danish king (or just a bunch of Vikings, the book wasn’t clear) stole Saint Albans and took him back to Odense. But a sacrist allegedly stole him back. That’s why three different places claim to have the body of Saint Albans.

Saint Albans’ relics aren’t special in this matter. Two different places claim to have Saint Benedict. There are more stories like these, but these are the two I read about in the book I have.

*   *   *

Our last story for today is that of Saint Faith. She died in the 3rd century but in the 5th century, a basilica was built for her at Agen. Then in the 9th century, her body was stolen and taken to Conques, which according to Google maps is about 111 miles away from Agen. And because Saint Faith was now at Conques, people started visiting the town. Also, apparently, if you asked the monks at Conques who lived there, they would mention Saint Faith, as if she were still alive. Also, when people who admired her or her relics traveled, people would set aside land to make a new home for her. The little places were as far away as London as there was a parish built there for her.

 

 

Source:

Brook, Rosalind, and Christopher Brook. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.