Medieval Queerness

It’s June! If you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community (and maybe even if you aren’t), you know what that means: it’s pride month! 

Seeing as 2022 has been a terrible year for trans rights (and will almost certainly get worse), I’ve decided that this month (and perhaps longer) I will write about aspects of medieval queer culture. I will cover primarily European medieval queer history as that is what I am most knowledgeable about. (If you know good sources for other areas of the world, please let me know! I want to broaden my knowledge.) 

Before I go further, if you aren’t familiar with terms like “cisgender” or why I choose to use the word “queer,” I recommend that you read my article “Queer Saints: An Important Preface.” I wrote it back in 2020, so there’s some statements I’ve changed my mind on, but it’s still a good little introduction to anyone new to queer history. 

And if you are new to history, it may surprise you to discover queerness was prevalent in European medieval culture. Contrary to popular belief, being not straight/gender non-conforming was not invented in the 1960s. 

While the words heterosexual and homosexual were invented in the 1890s, and the word transgender was invented in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean everyone was straight or subscribed to traditional gender roles. They either didn’t have the words we do now, or called themselves something different.

I’ve complied a list of the queer medieval things I know about. Obviously as I learn more, I will add on to this list. Certain topics I will write about further in the future (or have already written about). Today’s list will simply name the item and provide a very brief description of it. The depictions vary from positive to negative. 

The items are divided into categories to make it easier for readers to find specifically what they are interested in. The categories are art, anecdotes, literature, people, poetry, and theology. Each category will include a brief explanation about it. 

Queer Medieval Anecdotes

Anecdotes include miracle stories, exempla, excerpts from chronicles, letters, memoirs, etc. Basically, any sort of story medieval audiences were told really happened or they were supposed to pretend it really happened. Some anecdotes here may seem fantastical to my modern audience, but I’m not going to argue the validity of each story. 

Dialogue on Miracles

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s two volume collection of miracle stories, Dialogus miraculorum, (AKA The Dialogue on Miracles) is filled with tales about people who do not conform to traditional gender roles and sexualities. The depictions vary from somewhat positive to negative. 

There are over 700 stories in the work, so I will list a few notable examples for brevity’s sake. More will be added in the future.

Gender Non-Conforming Demons

The Dialogue on Miracles is filled with stories about demons who switch between masculine and feminine forms to seduce and tempt humans. There are so many examples in the text it would take too long to list them all. 

Brother Joseph: Volume I, Book I, Chapter 40

After being orphaned on the way home from a Jerusalem pilgrimage, a young trans man experiences many shenanigans and near death experiences before finally becoming a monk. The shenanigans and near death experiences include transporting secret messages, accidentally helping a thief, being hanged and saved by an angel, and dealing with a bunch of horny monks. 

Queer Medieval Art 

Art is pretty explainable. Any motifs/subjects in medieval visual mediums. This does have some overlap with theology.  

Jesus Christ’s Side Wound

It’s not a vagina. It’s a side wound, I swear.

MPreg Jesus

Yes, you read that right. There are depictions of Jesus giving birth. It’s from His side wound and He’s giving birth to the Church, but it’s still a depiction of childbirth nonetheless. 

Satan Birthing Sinners

Yup, Mpreg Satan is also a thing. However, in the artistic depictions of this, he’s also eating the sinners before birthing them. (Arguably you could interpret it as Satan defecating the sinners but the way it’s portrayed looks more like childbirth.)

Queer Medieval Literature

In contrast to the previous category, Queer Medieval Anecdotes, Literature lists stories that are intended to be fictional/have an over arching narrative tale to tell. Some of these items are technically poetry, but they tell a narrative story with fictional characters, so I’ve put them here.

Le Roman de Saint Fanuel

Saint Fanuel, a cis gender man, accidentally gets pregnant from a magic apple. He gives birth to Saint Anne. (The Virgin Mary’s mother.) It’s not biblically canon, but someone wrote it.

The Monk’s Ordeal

A German story about a naive cis gender monk who thinks he’s pregnant after misinterpreting how sex works. 

Yde and Olive

A poem about a princess who turns into a man.

Queer Medieval Miscellaneous

This category includes things like social norms, words, laws, etc. They all go in miscellaneous as I don’t want this list to get too overly complicated. Plus a lot of concepts here have a lot of overlap.

Ergi

An Old Norse slur for being the passive partner during sex between two men. Quite literally fighting words as if you called someone else this, they were in their legal right to fight/kill you. And if the person called this didn’t do anything about it, they could be outlawed.

Hares

Hares symbolized sodomy in the Middle Ages. (At least, it was one thing hares symbolized.) But why were hares associated with sodomy? Well, animal folklore was a popular genre in medieval European literature. However, folklore was misconstrued as scientific fact. And a crucial piece of hares’ folklore was that each year they were alive they grew, well, another bottom (to put it politely). Comparing someone to a hare meant that you were implying they participated in sodomy.

Queer Medieval People

Personally, I don’t like giving real historical people labels as I don’t know exactly what they would call themselves if they were alive today. However, based on observable behaviors, we can safely guess that some people certainly would not call themselves straight or cisgender. Depending on the historical figure and primary sources available, they may have already told us how they identify. 

Aelred of Rievaulx

A Cistercian abbot who wrote about the love he felt for other men. Lots of homoerotic language in his work “Spiritual Friendship.”

Eleanor Rykener

A 14th century trans woman who worked as an embroideress and sex worker in southern England. Unlike others on this list, the only reason she wasn’t lost to time is because of the surviving court records regarding her arrest for sodomy. 

Joan of Arc

While she did refer to herself as “Joan the Maid” she’s on this list as she is famous for her gender non-conforming style of dress. 

Marinos the Monk

A trans man who became a monk with his father. He was known to perform miracles and was accused of fathering a child with a local woman. I’ve written about him in detail as part of my Queer Saints series

Queer Medieval Poetry

While some of the queer medieval literature is in a poetical form, they are fictional stories with characters. Here, I have put poems that don’t necessarily have a fictional narrative, per se. Rather, they are poems that discuss the author’s personal thoughts. There is some overlap with Literature. 

Monastic Love Poetry

Monks wrote a lot of love poetry to other men, including their fellow monks. Some poems are rather tame and arguably are for a best friend. Other poems not so much.

Prayer for Transformation, an Excerpt from “Evan Bohan” by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir

This section is part of a larger poem by the Jewish philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus. In it, Kalonymus laments being born a man instead of a woman. In the past, this excerpt was interpreted to be satire and “humorous.” 

However, as any trans person could tell you, the poem is a heart wrenching depiction of extreme gender dysphoria. Prayer for Transformation is distressingly relatable for anyone gender non-conforming. 

Queer Medieval Theology 

I’ll mostly be discussing Christianity as that is what I am most familiar with culturally. I don’t know enough about other faiths to speak with any sort of confidence about their religious practices or beliefs. 

However, if you aren’t Christian and there’s queerness in your faith dating back to the medieval era, feel free to reach out!

Jesus as Mother

This relates back to Jesus’s side wound and giving birth. 

Sources:

Abbouchi, Mounawar. “Yde and Olive.”  Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/mff/vol53/iss4/1/

(transcription), Aharon N. Varady, Aharon N. Varady (translation), Nir Krakauer (translation), Isaac Gantwerk Mayer (translation), Steven Greenberg, and Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus ben Meir. “תפילה להפך – מאבן בֹחן: Prayer for Transformation, from the Poem ‘Even Boḥan’ by Rabbi Ḳalonymus Ben Ḳalonymus Ben Meir (1322 C.E.) • The Open Siddur Project ✍ פְּרוֺיֶּקט הַסִּדּוּר הַפָּתוּחַ.” the Open Siddur Project . the Open Siddur Project, August 31, 2020. https://opensiddur.org/prayers/civic-calendar/international/transgender-day-of-visibility/prayer-of-kalonymus-from-sefer-even-bohan-1322/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Joan of Arc and the Lord Have an Understanding: She’s on a Mission from God.” The Mediaeval Monk, June 4, 2022. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2022/06/04/joan-of-arc-and-the-lord-have-an-understanding-shes-on-a-mission-from-god/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, a Transgender Saint.” The Mediaeval Monk, April 25, 2021. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2020/09/12/queer-saints-marinos-the-monk-a-transgender-saint/.

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, MS W.218 Book of Hours (Cistercian) fol. 28v: https://www.thedigitalwalters.org/Data/WaltersManuscripts/html/W218/description.html

Boswell, John. Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 

“Caesarius of Heisterbach.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarius_of_Heisterbach.

“Ergi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 27, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergi

Gutt, B. (2019). Medieval trans lives in anamorphosis: Looking back and seeing differently (Pregnant men and backward birth). Medieval Feminist Forum, 55 (1), 174-206. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/7/

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of heterosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/heterosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of homosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/homosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of transgender,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/transgender.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp.

Heisterbach, 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/n4/mode/2up.

“John/Eleanor Rykener.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 16, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John/Eleanor_Rykener.

“Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, April 18, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalonymus_ben_Kalonymus.

M.W. Bychowski, M.W. “Eleanor Rykener.” The Lone Medievalist. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://lonemedievalist.hcommons.org/women-of-the-middle-ages/eleanor-rykener/.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 270b, fols. 6r: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/4cf7e9d2-c06e-4029-a3b1-152736320897/

“Poetry 101: Learn about Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices with Examples – 2022.” MasterClass. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-learn-about-poetry-different-types-of-poems-and-poetic-devices-with-examples#15-types-of-poetic-forms.

Stehling, Thomas. Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. Garland Pub., 1984. 

Swan, Emily. “Jesus’s Vagina: A Medieval Meditation.” Medium. Solus Jesus, November 8, 2019. https://medium.com/solus-jesus/jesuss-vagina-a-medieval-meditation-ef78367ac2af.

“The Monk’s Ordeal by Der Zwickauer.” Short Story. In German Verse-Couplet Tales from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries. S.l.: SCHWABE AG, 2020. 

Tova Rosen. “Circumcised Cinderella: The Fantasies of a Fourteenth-Century Jewish Author.” Prooftexts 20, no. 1–2 (2000): 87–110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/prooftexts.20.1-2.0087.

Part 2: Historia Calamitatum: Including Comments Whenever I Think Abelard is Insufferable

Last year I started reading Henry Adams Bellows’ translation of Peter Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum: The Story Of My Misfortunes. I found Abelard so insufferable I could barely get through the book, so I started writing a commentary on it. I kind of forgot about this project, so I never finished writing the commentary. However, I did comment up to around chapter six. I might go back to working on it.

If you want to read the first part, you can find that here. I recommend reading that section first as it gives some context to how I formatted my commentary.

Chapter 2 Of The Persecution He Had From His Master William Of Champeaux—Of His Adventures At Melun, At Corbeil And At Paris—Of His Withdrawal From The City Of The Parisians To Melun, And His Return To Mont Ste. Geneviève—Of His Journey To His Old Home

Based on this chapter title alone I know this one is about to be a doozy!

I came at length to Paris, where above all in those days the art of dialectics was most flourishing, and there did I meet William of Champeaux, my teacher, a man most distinguished in his science both by his renown and by his true merit.

Okay, at least you are praising someone other than yourself.

With him I remained for some time, at first indeed well liked of him; but later I brought him great grief, because I undertook to refute certain of his opinions,[…]

Ope. There it is.

[…]not infrequently attacking him in disputation, and now and then in these debates I was adjudged victor.

You sound like a delight to teach, Mr. Pretentious. Though I’ll give you points for admitting you weren’t always the winner.

Also I wonder if I can insert the eye roll emoji here…

Now this, to those among my fellow students who were ranked foremost, seemed all the more insufferable because of my youth and the brief duration of my studies.

Yeah, I don’t think they were the insufferable ones Pierre.

Out of this sprang the beginning of my misfortunes, which have followed me even to the present day; the more widely my fame was spread abroad, the more bitter was the envy that was kindled against me.

Christ, you are full of yourself!

It was given out that I, presuming on my gifts far beyond the warranty of my youth, was aspiring despite my tender, years to the leadership of a school;[…]

The wording here is kind of awkward but I think he’s trying to say that he wants to run his own school despite the fact he’s still pretty young? A good enough goal I guess. And at least he’s somewhat self-aware he’s too young to do that. (How old is he though?)

[…]nay, more, that I was making read the very place in which I would undertake this task, […]

Never mind about him being self-aware. I am a fool for giving him too much credit.

[…]the place being none other than the castle of Melun, at that time a royal seat. My teacher himself had some foreknowledge of this, and tried to remove my school as far as possible from his own.

I wonder if the teacher does this to avoid competition or because he just can’t stand Pierre. (It’s funnier if I call Abélard by his first name. I don’t know why.)

Working in secret, he sought in every way he could before I left his following to bring to nought the school I had planned and the place I had chosen for it.

That’s super petty and I kind of love it.

Since, however, in that very place he had many rivals, and some of them men of influence among the great ones of the land, relying on their aid I won to the fulfillment of my wish; the support of many was secured for me by reason of his own unconcealed envy.

Sooo…people are only supporting you because they hate your teacher (William?). Not because of your own merit? Not a thing to be bragging about Friendo.

From this small inception of my school, my fame in the art of dialectics began to spread abroad,[…]

*Eye Roll*

Very humble of you.

 […]so that little by little the renown, not alone of those who had been my fellow students, but of our very teacher himself, grew dim and was like to die out altogether.

Your arrogance is amazing and I fear it will only get worse. Christ on a bike, how more boastful can you get???

Also putting others down isn’t a good look.

Thus it came about that, still more confident in myself, […]

Oh, I have no doubt you are confident in yourself!

I moved my school as soon as I well might to the castle of Corbeil, which is hard by the city of Paris, for there I knew there would be given more frequent chance for my assaults in our battle of disputation.

So dramatic!

No long time thereafter I was smitten with a grievous illness, brought upon me by my immoderate zeal for study.

Okay, I can relate regarding over working yourself. Take care of your mental health readers!

This illness forced me to turn homeward to my native province, and thus for some years I was as if cut off from France.

Aren’t you still in France? Pierre, you are from France. Or did your nervous breakdown affect you so much that you were in a dissociative state? If so, that’s rough and this is the first time so far I feel kind of bad for you.

And yet, for that very reason, I was sought out all the more eagerly by those whose hearts were troubled by the lore of dialectics.

I no longer feel bad for you.

But after a few years had passed, and I was whole again from my sickness, I learned that my teacher, that same William Archdeacon of Paris, had changed his former garb and joined an order of the regular clergy. This he had done, or so men said, in order that he might be deemed more deeply religious, and so might be elevated to a loftier rank in the prelacy, a thing which, in truth, very soon came to pass, for he was made bishop of Châlons.

While I do not doubt people tried to seem more religious to get a higher place in the church, I can’t help but think Pierre is either projecting here or gossiping about William because he does not like him/thinks he’s better than him.

Nevertheless, the garb he had donned by reason of his conversion did nought to keep him away either from the city of Paris or from his wonted study of philosophy; and in the very monastery wherein he had shut himself up for the sake of religion he straightway set to teaching again after the same fashion as before.

To him did I return, for I was eager to learn more of rhetoric from his lips; and in the course of our many arguments on various matters, I compelled him by most potent reasoning first to alter his former opinion on the subject of the universals, and finally to abandon it altogether.

Bragging, bragging, bragging!

Now, the basis of this old concept of his regarding the reality of universal ideas was that the same quality formed the essence alike of the abstract whole and of the individuals which were its parts: in other words, that there could be no essential differences among these individuals, all being alike save for such variety as might grow out of the many accidents of existence. Thereafter, however, he corrected this opinion, no longer maintaining that the same quality was the essence of all things, but that, rather, it manifested itself in them through diverse ways. This problem of universals is ever the most vexed one among logicians, to such a degree, indeed, that even Porphyry, writing in his “Isagoge” regarding universals, dared not attempt a final pronouncement thereon, saying rather: “This is the deepest of all problems of its kind.” Wherefore it followed that when William had first revised and then finally abandoned altogether his views on this one subject, his lecturing sank into such a state of negligent reasoning that it could scarce be called lecturing on the science of dialectics at all; […]

We are throwing lots of shade here!

[…]it was as if all his science had been bound up in this one question of the nature of universals.

Thus it came about that my teaching won such strength and authority that even those who before had clung most vehemently to my former master, and most bitterly attacked my doctrines, now flocked to my school.

Braggy McBragerson.

The very man who had succeeded to my master’s chair in the Paris school offered me his post, in order that he might put himself under my tutelage along with all the rest, and this in the very place where of old his master and mine had reigned.

Christ on a bike, I am starting to get Mary Sue vibes from Pierre here! But yes, go on about how so amazing and fantastic you are that the chair of the school quit so he could learn under you.

If this were a work of fiction, I would call BS on this plot point. Heck, I might do that anyway! You ARE a very unreliable narrator after all. (At least those are the vibes I am getting!)

And when, in so short a time, my master saw me directing the study of dialectics there, it is not easy to find words to tell with what envy he was consumed or with what pain he was tormented.

He was probably mad an arrogant, annoying little jerk raised the ranks so fast. You are quite annoying Pierre.

He could not long, in truth, bear the anguish of what he felt to be his wrongs, and shrewdly he attacked me that he might drive me forth.

I doubt it’s because he thinks he’s wrong!

And because there was nought in my conduct whereby he could come at me openly, he tried to steal away the school by launching the vilest calumnies against him who had yielded his post to me, and by putting in his place a certain rival of mine.

You just love making enemies wherever you go, don’t you? Here’s a word of advice: if you run into one jerk in the morning, you met one jerk. But if you run into jerks all day, you are the jerk. And you seem to be running into a lot of them lately.

So then I returned to Melun, and set up my school there as before; and the more openly his envy pursued me, the greater was the authority it conferred upon me.

* Eye roll *

Even so held the poet: “Jealousy aims at the peaks; the winds storm the loftiest summits.” (Ovid: “Remedy for Love,” I, 369.)

I didn’t think you could get more pretentious, but here we are!

Not long thereafter, when William became aware of the fact that almost all his students were holding grave doubts as to his religion, and were whispering earnestly among themselves about his conversion, deeming that he had by no means abandoned this world,[…]

Fine, I’ll (reluctantly) give you that. William’s actions (even if I do not think he’s doing it because of envy. I think he’s doing it because he’s sick of your nonsense and thinks you need to be taken down a peg or ten) are NOT very monk like AT ALL. He certainly has not abandoned the world!

[…]he withdrew himself and his brotherhood, together with his students, to a certain estate far distant from the city. Forthwith I returned from Melun to Paris, hoping for peace from him in the future.

I kind of hope you never get peace from this guy.

But since, as I have said, he had caused my place to be occupied by a rival of mine, I pitched the camp, as it were, of my school outside the city on Mont Ste. Geneviève. Thus I was as one laying siege to him who had taken possession of my post.

I feel kind of bad for this rival. He probably just wanted a job or something. Then again, the world of academia can be ruthless. (It’s like a toned down version of Game of Thrones!)

No sooner had my master heard of this than he brazenly returned post haste to the city,[…]

William is NOT acting particularly monk-like. Then again, based on the primary sources I’ve read, medieval monks were some of the pettiest people in the world. lol

Also I can imagine William getting SO MAD when he hears that Pierre has returned and is making that return everyone’s problem.

[…]bringing back with him such students as he could, and reinstating his brotherhood in their for mer monastery, […]

Some grammatical errors on the part of the original translator?

[…]much as if he would free his soldiery, whom he had deserted, from my blockade.

Not sure if you are being literal here with the military references but I guess it makes sense to use “soldiery” and “blockade” metaphorically as you do come from a military family. (One reason why I don’t believe Death Of The Author is a valid form of literary criticism! The author’s life will ALWAYS have an effect on their writing!)

In truth, though, if it was his purpose to bring them succour, he did nought but hurt them. Before that time my rival had indeed had a certain number of students, of one sort and another, chiefly by reason of his lectures on Priscian, in which he was considered of great authority. After our master had returned, however, he lost nearly all of these followers, and thus was compelled to give up the direction of the school.

Oof.

Not long thereafter, apparently despairing further of worldly fame, he was converted to the monastic life.

I wonder if he was actually devastated about losing those followers or if he just had a monastic calling. I am reading this with the impression that our good friend Pierre is a HIGHLY unreliable narrator so it could be either or. Though I suppose losing everything would make one want to run away to a monastery. (That is what we in the writing business call foreshadowing, kids!)

Joining a monastery whenever you suffer even the slightest inconvenience in life comes up a lot in literature in general. (Not just medieval lit!) That’s one reason why chapter 58 of The Rule of Saint Benedict makes it so difficult for adults to join the monastic life!

Following the return of our master to the city, the combats in disputation which my scholars waged both with him himself and with his pupils, and the successes which fortune gave to us, and above all to me,[…]

Yup. It’s definitely all about Pierre. I guess I’ll give you points for PRETENDING like this is not just your own personal victory. (But only half a point as you make it incredibly obvious this is only about you!)

[…]in these wars, you have long since learned of through your own experience.

Are you addressing Jesus here? Or the reader?

The boast of Ajax, though I speak it more temperately, I still am bold enough to make:

When were you NOT bold?

      “… if fain you would learn now
       How victory crowned the battle, by him was
         I never vanquished.”
               (Ovid, “Metamorphoses,” XIII, 89.)

Pretentious and arrogant!

But even were I to be silent,[…]

I think your head would explode if you even TRIED to be quiet. In fact, I don’t think it was physically possible for you to shut up.

[…]the fact proclaims itself, and its outcome reveals the truth regarding it.

While these things were happening, it became needful for me again to repair to my old home, by reason of my dear mother, Lucia, for after the conversion of my father, Berengarius, to the monastic life, she so ordered her affairs as to do likewise. When all this had been completed, I returned to France, […]

WAIT. Shoot, I forgot that at this time Brittany was not a part of France. Okay, disregard my comments on the top of page 13 about Pierre being a native of France. Whenever I look him up, the articles say he’s French. (Which is true now. Whoops.)

[…]above all in order that I might study theology, since now my oft-mentioned teacher, William, was active in the episcopate of Châlons. In this held of learning Anselm of Laon, who was his teacher therein, had for long years enjoyed the greatest renown.

Byland Abbey’s Medieval Ghosts | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 8

Here is the YouTube link for episode 8 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk Podcast! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk Podcast’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Anchor

What happens after you die has fascinated and confused humanity for thousands of years. One explanation comes in the form of ghost stories. Join Viktor Athelstan each week as he shares medieval stories and discusses aspects of medieval culture. Today’s story-driven episode features twelve fifteenth-century ghost stories from Byland Abbey, England.

Source:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

Medieval Demon Vision Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 2

Here is the YouTube link and audio file for episode 2 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Figuring out Spotify and iTunes has been slightly difficult, so I am posting things here until I get all that sorted out. Enjoy!

Today we return to the Dialogue on Miracles. This time I share some stories about clergymen seeing demons.

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/mode/2up

Interesting Penances in the Canons Attributed to Saint Patrick

Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why.  Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick. 

It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.) 

For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. 

A woman confessing to a priest. Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v.
A woman confessing to a priest | Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v | Source: The British Library

While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod. 

Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus

Section 6

This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77). 

Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!

Section 8

At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77). 

The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other. 

Section 9

This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other. 

While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow. 

Section 14

If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.  

The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!

Section 16

If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance. 

While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!

Section 19

If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.

The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband. 

Section 22

Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment. 

Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft. 

Section 31

If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80). 

Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening. 

Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick

Section 9

If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.

It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general. 

Section 11

After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).

There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium. 

Section 25

If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister. 

Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever. 

Section 27

When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85). 

Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place! 

Section 28

When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery. 

In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid. 

Sources:

McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990. 

Örsy, Ladislas M. , Huizing, Peter J. and Orsy, Ladislas M.. “canon law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/canon-law. Accessed 2 September 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage