A common search term that leads a lot of my readers to my website is “was there corporal punishment in medieval monasteries?” I’ve discussed corporal punishment in the context of The Rule of Saint Benedict (you can find those articles under this tag). However, I want to go into detail about physical punishment in European medieval monastic culture. Today I will discuss corporal punishment and the youngest members of the monastic community affected by it: the oblates.
Adults were not the only people who lived and thus could be punished, in medieval monasteries. Until the later Middle Ages, it was a common practice for parents to donate children to monasteries. Parents did this with the intention that the children would grow up to become monastics. These children were called oblates. (I’ve written more about oblates here.)
Like modern-day children, oblates could be quite mischievous and misbehave. Medieval monastic leaders and teachers were well aware of the possibility of bad behavior. Corporal punishment was one way adults disciplined oblates.
However, corporal punishment had other purposes besides discipline for bad behavior. The first purpose was to keep the oblate as pure and innocent as possible. The second purpose was to get them used to their place in the monastic hierarchy. Medieval European monasteries were extremely hierarchical. Because oblates were children, they were the lowest in that hierarchy. To have a well-run monastery, it was important for every member to know his place and obey his superiors.
In this article, I will discuss how monastic rules instructed abbots and novice masters to use corporal punishment on oblates, how educational texts written for monastic children by monastic adults portrayed beatings, and the different attitudes monastic leaders had towards the use of corporal punishment.
Corporal Punishment in The Rule of Saint Benedict
The Rule of Saint Benedict was one of the primary guidelines for medieval monastic life. In Chapter Thirty, Saint Benedict discusses the proper punishment for children. While excommunication was the most severe punishment in a monastic community, some oblates were too young to fully understand the gravity of it.
If a child was too young to understand why excommunication was so bad, Saint Benedict recommends corporal punishment instead:
“…let them be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes, in order that they may be cured.” (Saint Benedict, pg. 47).
Corporal Punishment in The Constitutions of Lanfranc
Another guideline for monastic life was The Constitutions of Lanfranc. Lanfranc was the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. He wrote his constitutions specifically for monastic life at Canterbury. Like Saint Benedict, Lanfranc discusses corporal punishment for children.
Lanfranc specifies that when the abbot is present in the monastery, no one is allowed to “strike a child or cause him to strip for flogging” (Lanfranc, pg. 116). However, that does not mean Lanfranc banned corporal punishment for oblates! Lanfranc specifies only abbots should physically punish oblates when the abbot is present. That being said, abbots can grant permission to other members of the monastic community allowing them to beat oblates.
Furthermore, if the abbot is away, the cantor is allowed to physically discipline any oblates that have made a mistake during religious performances. The prior can use corporal punishment on oblates as well. (But only if the abbot is away!)
Corporal Punishment in Ælfric’s Colloquies
Besides guidelines for monastic life, another source of information about corporal punishment for oblates can be found in educational texts written for said oblates. One such text was written by an abbot named Ælfric.
Ælfric lived in England at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century. One of his many written works was a colloquy for students learning Latin. A colloquy is a written conversation between two or more people. Oblates would enrich their Latin vocabulary and grammar by memorizing and performing colloquies.
While Ælfric’s colloquy focuses on common jobs in medieval society, corporal punishment is mentioned several times.
The first discussion of corporal punishment is at the beginning of the text. A few pupils approach a teacher and request to be taught how to speak properly. The pupils claim they would rather be the lesson be beaten into them than to continue to live a life where they speak poorly. They also mention the teacher is a kind man who would not hit them unless they asked for it.
The second mention of corporal punishment is about a page before the end. The teacher asks one of the boys if he was beaten that day. The boy says no he was not because he behaved himself. The teacher asks if his friends were beaten. The boy asks why would he ask such a thing and that he’s not going to snitch on his friends.
The third mention of corporal punishment is at the very end. One of the boys tells the teacher that occasionally his novice master hits him with a rod to wake him up.
In each instance, the attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly different. At first, the pupils crave being beaten. However, this could be hyperbole and simply just Ælfric’s way of emphasizing how important it is to learn to speak properly. In the second example, the boy is extremely suspicious of why the teacher wants to know if his friends are behaving. It’s possible that this indicates that some novice masters were pretty happy to have any excuse to physically hurt their students. The third example confirms this to be the case. Instead of gently poking his student awake, the novice master uses unnecessary force.
Corporal Punishment in The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata
Another medieval schoolbook was written by Ælfric Bata. Ælfric Bata was a student of the Ælfric discussed above. Like his teacher, he also wrote Latin colloquies for oblates. However, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata are much longer. His colloquies depict everyday life in an eleventh-century European monastery.
Medieval monastic corporal punishment is one of many scenarios Ælfric Bata wrote about. By mentioning corporal punishment so frequently and so casually in some colloquies, this implies monks regularly beat oblates. Or at the very least, threatened to do so. The threat of corporal punishment must have been a common enough occurrence that it was necessary for oblates to learn Latin vocabulary about the subject.
Like his own teacher, Ælfric Bata portrays corporal punishment in different ways. Sometimes it is serious while other depictions have a strong comedic slapstick tone.
In Colloquy 24, the novice master waits in the cloister for his oblates to approach him. Instead of immediately greeting him, the oblates try to figure out what kind of mood he is in. They are afraid that if he is in a bad mood he will beat them. One boy describes the novice master as having “a whip in his right hand and a lot of rods in his left” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 133).
This indicates that whips and rods were regularly used to dole out physical punishments. It also implies that some novice masters abused their power by taking out their anger on boys who did not deserve it.
In Colloquy 25 the novice master laments over the fact that no matter how many times he beats a certain bad student, the oblate still misbehaves. The novice master claims to properly love students, you have to beat them as “a master’s sympathy often harms a boy” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 143). He also uses bible quotes to back up his claim. The oblate is less than amused and tells him he’s sick of his threats. The novice master proceeds to quote probably every single proverb in the bible. In the end, he does not hit the misbehaving oblate.
In Colloquy 26 an oblate complains that he doesn’t have a clean pair of trousers. His only pair is bloody from the beating he got. In this case, the oblate was beaten with rods.
In Colloquy 28 Ælfric Bata depicts an actual beating. An oblate has been caught stealing and lying about it yet again. While stealing and lying are both serious crimes in themselves, doing wrong repeatedly and hiding your wrongdoings was considered particularly heinous in medieval monastic society.
The thieving oblate’s classmates list a ridiculous amount of things he was caught stealing. The thief admits it is all true, promises to stop, and wants to do penance again. However, all the previous penances his novice master gave him have done absolutely nothing to deter his thievery. Consequently, the novice master decides to use corporal punishment instead.
In an interesting turn of events, the novice master has the victims find the rods and hit the thief first. (He will go after them.) By allowing the victims to administer corporal punishment, the novice master lets the victims punish the thief as they see fit. In fact, the novice master even encourages the victims to hit the thief harder!
As a result, there is no risk of the victims thinking the novice master was too soft on him.
(I will note earlier in the scene the victims express confidence the novice master will administer a fair punishment.) They are allowed to get their revenge. This prevents any further resentment from the victims from turning into deadly violence.
Monastic communities could be quite small. Any anger bubbling under the surface could and often did result in great acts of violence. (It was not uncommon for monks to attempt to murder each other!) It is much safer to control that anger before it explodes into an uncontrollable situation.
As for the actual beating, the thief’s pants are dropped and the boys stand on either side of him. They proceed to hit different sides of his bare bottom.
While he’s beaten, the thief melodramatically laments about how much pain he’s in, how sad his life is, he never did anything wrong, everyone is against him for absolutely no reason, and he is most certainly dying from this beating, no one cares he’ll be dead soon, and he’s the victim. The oblate has absolutely no self-awareness his own actions caused no one to like him. Instead, he is convinced there is a grand conspiracy against him.
The novice master tells him to stop being sad and to live a good life he has to take accountability for his actions. The oblate must take on the mindset of “I have sinned and have not received what I deserved” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 171). The oblate promises to do so and never to steal again. That is when the novice master stops the victims from hitting him anymore. In the end, the novice master never hits the thief.
Interestingly enough, Ælfric Bata does not depict this incident of child abuse as particularly tragic or devastating. Instead, it would not be out of place in a modern-day slapstick comedy.
In conclusion, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata taught oblates the necessary Latin words an oblate might hear before, during, and after a physical punishment as well as the consequences for disrupting their monastic community with bad behavior.
(As a side note, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata also teaches oblates how to cuss someone out in Latin. Do what you want with that information.)
Attitudes Towards Using Corporal Punishment on Oblates
Religious figures such as Saint Benedict and Hildemar thought children were unable to understand the true gravity of excommunication. Instead, they thought corporal punishment was the only way to make children understand certain behaviors were bad.
The monks, Hildemar and Smaragdus, believed children needed physical discipline to control their behavior. In John of Salerno’s biography of Odo of Cluny, he describes how Odo used the “fear of his rod [so that] he might lead us like a shepherd to the joys of heaven” (Quinn, pg. 112).
Monastic leaders wanted oblates to grow up to be the perfect monks. Perfect monks were obedient, pious, and chaste. Oblates were raised in monasteries since childhood, so there was a possibility that childhood innocence could be preserved into adulthood. To ensure oblates retained their innocence, they were supposed to be monitored by several adults at all times. Novice masters watched out for any sinful, disruptive, and disobedient behaviors.
The threat of a beating could be enough to make children behave. One way novice masters did this was by simply carrying a whip on his person at all times.
That being said, monks recognized that sometimes beatings were not a one type fits all solution. If oblates continued to misbehave after beatings, novice masters should find a more punishment that the child responded better to.
While beating oblates was a common enough practice, that doesn’t mean it was always an accepted one. Just like modern day opinions about physically disciplining children, medieval opinions varied too. As you can see from the colloquies, some monks and abbots condoned using corporal punishment on oblates. However, this was not the case for every single medieval monastic who ever lived!
In the tenth and eleventh-century Europe, the ideal student-teacher relationship was a warm one. After all, oblates’ parents essentially abandoned them at the monasteries. Instead of being raised by their biological parents, oblates were raised by their new spiritual parents—the novice master.
A good novice master nurtured and cared about his boys. Ideally, this would create a warm, caring father/son dynamic between oblates and their teachers. Furthermore, this relationship would result in monastic boys respecting their teachers. Generally speaking, children are more likely to obey authority figures if they respect and love them. (Again, this is generally speaking. No child is perfect and no child does everything they are told all the time. However, the overall amount of times a child disobeys authority figures goes down if they respect them.) When children listen, beatings and other forms of corporal punishment are not necessary.
If a beating was the only way a novice master could get his oblates to behave, then he was considered bad at his job. Even in the Middle Ages people recognized the negative effect physical violence had on children. Saint Anselm argued that corporal punishment could do much more harm than good.
One day an unnamed abbot and Saint Anselm spoke about monastic discipline. The abbot complained that no matter how many times he beat his oblates, they only behaved worse instead of better. Saint Anselm, shocked at the abbot’s actions, asked what kind of men the oblates grew up to be. The abbot’s answered, “stupid brutes” (Quinn 113).
Saint Anselm explained that if you beat children like animals, they are going to grow up to act like animals. Children cannot be tamed like animals. Instead, children should be nurtured like a gardener would a tree. Furthermore, by continuously terrifying children with threats of harm and actually hitting them, children stop seeing any good in the world and become hateful. They only grow more hateful as adults.
Saint Anselm argued that oblates stop trusting the adults who repeatedly hurt them. Even if an abbot or a novice master is nice to them, the oblates are still suspicious of their intentions. Suspicious oblates grow up to be suspicious adults who cannot recognize genuine charity. They trust no one.
In short, by repeatedly beating oblates, monks are not raising people fit for heaven. Instead, they raise hateful men.
Saint Anselm asks the abbot why he hates the children so much that he treats them this way. After all, children are human too. Does the abbot want to be treated like his oblates?
Finally, Saint Anselm argued that to properly raise children to be good adults, they have to be nurtured. Abbots and novice masters needed to encourage oblates and treat them with kindness. They needed to take on the role of father and mother to the children. Children needed to be encouraged to self-discipline.
While hitting children was a popular discipline method in the secular world around Saint Anselm’s time, monastics were not raising children for the secular world. They were raising them to be monks.
Medieval monasticism valued self-discipline, patience, and humility. Teaching misbehaving children with gentleness and encouragement is difficult. By not constantly striking children in anger, novice masters learned patience and self-discipline. Thus, they also became better monks.
Ælfric. “Aelfric’s Colloquy: Translated from the Latin.” Translated by Ann E. Watkins, Kent Archaeological Society, www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf.
Bata, Ælfric. Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata. Edited by Scott Gwara. Translated by David W. Porter, The Boydell Press, 1997.
Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. Translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951.
Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
“Ælfric’s Colloquy.” British Library, www.bl.uk/collection-items/aelfrics-colloquy.
Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
McComb, Maximilian Peter. “STRATEGIES OF CORRECTION: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE 742-900.” Cornell University, 2018. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/59342/McComb_cornellgrad_0058F_10761.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
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,.
Ristuccia, Nathan J. “Ideology and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education.” American Benedictine Review 61:4 (2010). https://www.academia.edu/4129411/Ideology_and_Corporal_Punishment_in_Anglo_Saxon_Monastic_Education