It’s October! To celebrate spooky season, I am sharing some medieval ghost stories. There are a lot of medieval ghost stories out there, so today’s source comes from Byland Abbey. Byland Abbey was a medieval monastery in Yorkshire England. Today all that remains of it are ruins.
Luckily for people who like historical ghost stories, there was a fifteenth century monk who was just as interested in the genre as we are today. The anonymous monk wrote the ghostly tales down in the back pages of a twelfth century manuscript. The manuscript can now be found at the British Library under the number Royal 15 A XX.
Each of the ghost stories is relatively short. However because there are twelve stories in all, I will cover them either individually or I will combine them. Some of the stories are longer than others. (Story two is several pages long!) My goal is to cover all of them before the end of October.
The ghost stories were originally written in Latin. The Byland Abbey ghost stories take place in Yorkshire. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these stories offer a good insight into how the average person went about their day in the early fifteenth century, including their thoughts, concerns, jobs, and even their names. Some characters are named and others are not. It’s possible the author left out the names because he either didn’t know them or he wanted to keep the people involved anonymous. Either way, his stories are fantastic glimpses into the medieval period!
In this tale a living man is transporting a peck of beans. The story does not specify where exactly he’s carrying them, but I assume the man is taking them home or maybe to the market. Unfortunately for the man, his horse breaks its leg (or shin bone depending on the translation) so the man has to carry the beans himself.
As the man walked along he suddenly came across another horse in the middle of the road. However, this horse was not an ordinary horse. It stood on its hind legs with its front hooves extended out in front of it. I don’t know much about horses, but I don’t think they normally hang out in the middle of roads standing like humans! The man must have thought so too because in his terror he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and commanded the horse not to hurt him.
The horse transformed into a hay bale. However, it was no ordinary hay bale because there was a light in the middle of it. The man became even MORE terrified and invoked God to keep him from harm.
Finally the specter transformed once more. On the third time it transformed into a man. The ghost told the man his name, the reason he was wandering the roads (which the author does not specify), the remedy (again, the author does not specify, but I assume he wanted prayers for his soul), and offered to carry the man’s peck of beans.
The living man said yes to the help. The ghost carried the beans until they reached a river. However, the ghost did not want to cross the river, so he gave the man the beans back and disappeared. The author adds that the living man did not see how exactly the ghost returned the beans. One moment the ghost was carrying them and the next the man was!
Afterwards, the man arranged for masses to be said for the ghost’s soul. He also made sure the ghost was absolved of his sins. Apparently this helped the ghost.
Our first story is a good example of how medieval authors occasionally mixed contemporary ghost beliefs in a single tale. Medieval ghost stories often fell under two categories: religious and revenants. To summarize, religious ghosts warned the living about the dangers of Purgatory and begged for prayers to help their souls get to heaven. Revenants caused chaos. The anonymous Byland monk documented both elements in this story. (The ghost scared the living man but he also wanted the man to help his soul.)
I also find it interesting that the ghost was unwilling (or unable!) to cross the river. Ghosts are figures that are stuck between the living world and the dead. Ghosts that are in Purgatory are stuck between Heaven and Hell. It makes sense that a figure stuck in an in between place can’t cross a definite barrier like a river. The accompanying essay to the English translation by the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project suggests that the river symbolizes purity. Because the ghost’s soul is in Purgatory (and thus not pure) he cannot cross it.
The fact that the man was carrying beans is significant too. In Ancient Greece, Pythagoreans believed beans carried the dead’s souls. Beans were also eaten on All Saint’s Day, which is the day after Halloween. Autumn was a time where people believed the living world and the afterlife were the closest, relating back to the ghost being in an in between space.
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 8 Oct. 2021.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Thanks to the pandemic, illness and death are prominent thoughts in most people’s minds. For medieval monks, death and the possibility of Heaven were supposed to be constant thoughts throughout their lives as monastics. The thought of their own mortality must have been especially potent whenever one of their fellow brethren fell deathly ill.
If a monk seemed to be close to death, it was more important to focus on the state of his soul, rather than his earthly body. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc offers an extremely detailed set of step-by-step instructions for what a monastic community was to do to help their ill brethren’s spiritual wellbeing.
When the sick monk felt as though he may be dying, he was to let the infirmarer know he wanted to be anointed. The infirmarer took his request to the abbot (or if the abbot was away, whoever was in charge at the present moment) at the next chapter meeting. Once the request was approved and chapter finished, the priest of the week, the sacrist, and four converses went to the church and collected the materials needed for a proper anointment. (Converses were monks who joined the monastery as adults.)
The priest and the converses went by the chapterhouse in a procession with the materials. The procession order and items are as follows:
The first converse carried holy water.
The second converse carried a cross.
The third and fourth converses carried candlesticks.
The sacrist carried holy oil.
The priest, wearing his alb, stole, and maniple, carried a book.
Lanfranc’s Latin does not specify what book the priest carried. It only says “portans librum.” David Knowles translates this phrase to “carrying the book.” However, we can make an educated guess that the book is probably a bible, psalter, or religious text of some kind.
As the procession passed the chapter house, all the monks there stood up. Because someone was dying, a wooden board was struck. This was standard practice to announce that someone was dying. After this happened, the rest of the community followed the procession while chanting the seven penitential psalms:
Depending on your bible/psalter’s translation, the psalms might follow either the Greek or Hebrew numbering system. To make sure you have the right translation, psalm 50/51 should be the “Miserere” psalm.
They chanted the seven penitential psalms until the entire community had gathered around the dying monk’s bedside. The monks stood in their hierarchal order. Or if the space around the dying monk’s beside were too small, his brethren would do it as practically as possible.
Once everyone was there, they sprinkled the dying monk with holy water. When the community finished chanting the seven penitential psalms they sang several more prayers including the Kyrie eleison and the Confiteor.
When this was over, the entire community absolved the dying monk and vice versa. By forgiving each other of their sins, everyone could have a clear conscience. To cement feelings of goodwill, everyone kissed the dying monk.
The priest anointed the dying monk. After doing so, he washed his hands and disposed of the water. Lanfranc suggested the dirty water either be thrown into the fire or down the sacrarium. (The sacrarium was a drain in the church.) The priest and the converses left the dying monk to fetch the Eucharist.
Once they returned with the Eucharist, everyone knelt as a sign of respect. The dying monk had his mouth washed before receiving Communion. However, if he already received Communion that day, he did not receive it again. After having Communion, the dying monk was not allowed to eat any more meat. However, if he happened to miraculously get better instead of actually dying he could eat meat again.
The rest of the monastic community continued to pray every day for their dying brother:
At the Morrow Mass during the Secret and post communion:
“Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”
The Morrow Mass itself
During the High Mass after the Sanctus:
Psalm 6 (sung in silence)
Pater noster/ the Lord’s Prayer
Mitte ei Domine auxilium de sancto
“Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”
These prayers were dedicated to the monk until he either got better or took a turn for the worse.
Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, Medieval Classics.
NOTE: This article is a rewrite. You can find the original here.
If you image search “medieval monk” many photos of men in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces will appear. How accurate is that? If the monk was a Franciscan, it is accurate enough. If he was part of another order, then not so much.
A medieval monk’s basic wardrobe included a habit, shoes, and underwear. Depending on the century, area of Europe he lived in, and his religious order, other items of clothing are added or subtracted from this list. For example, Cistercian monks did not wear underwear. If a monk lived in a colder climate, such as Scandinavia or the British Isles, he owned summer and winter clothes.
Due to the span of time and the land area the European Middle Ages refers to, it is very difficult to list every single item of clothing any given medieval monk may have worn. The basic list of a habit, shoes, and drawers is expanded upon down below.
A medieval monk’s clothing consisted of outerwear and underclothes. Outerwear is clothing the general public and a monk’s peers saw. Outerwear symbolized a medieval monk’s vocation to God and the Church.
By wearing such distinct clothes, everyone around him knew he was a monk. Knowing if a person was a monk was helpful if a secular person wanted a blessing or needed a religious figure of some kind in an emergency. If a medieval monk caused trouble, his outerwear announced to the world his hypocrisy. There is a reason medieval literature often stereotypes monks as lecherous gluttons!
The cowl or habit was an ankle-length garment. It was worn while a monk worked and for general everyday wear. In the early Middle Ages, cowls had open sides that tied shut if the monk so wished. The sleeves on the cowl varied in length:
Cowls had a hood attached as well. When reading primary sources, it is important to keep in mind the meaning of the word “cowl” shifted over the centuries. At one point it referred to the entire garment. Later on, cowl was synonymous with a separate hood.
This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock only had long sleeves. Frocks were only worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock is also called a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
The scapular was a rectangular piece of cloth. There was a hole in the middle for the monk’s head. Once a monk put his head into the scapular, the fabric would go down to his ankles both in the back and front.
A monk’s hood went through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It was similar to an apron. When a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular was used as a handy pouch to hold tools and other daily items a medieval monk might need during the day.
The Rule of Saint Benedict allowed belts. Franciscans wore rope belts called cinctures.
A medieval monk wore a riding cloak when traveling long distances. Depending on the fabric, the riding cloak could be black, brown, or grey. In theory, a monk only wore somber colors. In practice, medieval monks owned riding cloaks with colorful striped linings. This was frowned upon.
Medieval monks owned different kinds of shoes for different seasons and time of day. If a monk lived in a colder climate, they owned a pair of lined shoes for the winter and unlined shoes for the summer. Medieval monks owned slippers to wear at night.
A medieval monk wore clothes under his outerwear for modesty and practical reasons. While The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade monks from wearing underclothes in their monastery, the text made it clear that monks had to wear underwear while out in public. This was to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions that might come about thanks to a gust of wind or a freak accident. There was a lot of discourse over wearing underwear.
Medieval monks wore other types of underclothes as well. What he wore under his habit depended on the year he lived, the climate of the area he lived in, and what order he was a part of.
In the Middle Ages, underwear was also referred to as drawers and braies. Typically they were made out of linen. A medieval monk’s underwear had different cuts depending on the monastery. As long as the medieval monk was not a Cistercian, he wore underwear. If he was, he did not. Cistercians were mocked for this fashion choice.
Socks were also called hose and stockings. They were made out of linen.
For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length garments with tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.
How Did Medieval Monks Tell Which Habit Belonged to Which Monk?
Because medieval monks wore similar clothes, steps were taken to avoid confusion over which habit belonged to who. Unless a monk was particularly tall, short, fat, or thin the habits looked very similar.
To avoid confusion, the monks marked their clothes with their names. For most clothes they wrote their names in ink somewhere on it. For underwear, a monk embroidered his name on them. They did this because underwear was washed much more often than the woolen habit.
What a medieval monk wore depended on a variety of factors. The monk’s clothing had a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning. It is similar to modern day clothing. In the 21st century we wear clothes to cover our bodies and keep us warm, but we also wear clothes to announce our status to the world.
Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:
His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)
When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community:
Step 1: The monk was shaved.
Step 2: He entered the choir an hour before chapter.
Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness.
Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”)
Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”)
Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.)
Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier.
Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick.
Step 12: He made three genuflections.
Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.)
And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously.
If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future.
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119-120. Medieval Classics.
In my last post, I discussed what happened if a monk felt a little under the weather. Today’s post will describe what happened if a monk was sick enough to go to the infirmary. My main source is The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. It was written in the 11th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, so these instructions are specifically what an 11th century Canterbury monk was to do when ill. However, in his Constitutions, Lanfranc does say that other monasteries are more than welcome to use this text as a guideline for themselves.
If the monk’s illness was deemed too severe for him to be in the vicinity of the rest of the community, the abbot would tell the infirmarian to take him to the infirmary for treatment. Once there the sick monk was allowed to rest and given whatever he needed (if it were possible). If he were super sick he was allowed to eat meat. (The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade meat for healthy monks.) Part of his treatment included religious rituals. Lanfranc instructs the infirmarian to sprinkle holy water over the beds of the sick after Compline.
The infirmarian’s duties included making sure that the sick monks were actually sick and not just faking it. Based on Lanfranc’s wording, if you weren’t bedridden, you weren’t sick enough to stay in the infirmary! And if you weren’t sick enough for the infirmary you were well enough to participate in services. The infirmarian checked his patients by the light of a lantern. He did this before the Trina Oratio was said. (The Trina Oratio were three prayers said before Nocturns. Nocturns are part of the nightly divine hours, so the infirmarian did his rounds sometime before 2 am.) If the infirmarian thought you were faking, he was to publically accuse you in chapter the next morning!
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119–120. Medieval Classics.
Lanfranc. “The Infirmarian.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 89-90. Medieval Classics.
Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?
Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.
The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.
Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.
After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics.
From Daedalus to the Wright Brothers to NASA flying a tiny helicopter on Mars, the concept of flight has fascinated humanity for millennia. This was no different for an 11th-century monk named Eilmer (AKA Elmer/Oliver. Oliver is due to a misreading). Eilmer of Malmesbury was briefly mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum. Sadly this text is really the only surviving account we have about Eilmer. That being said, his works about astrology (now lost) were referenced as late as the 16th century.
What does an astrologer monk have to do with flight? Well, when Eilmer was a young monk he decided that he was going to try to fly. His plan included making wings and jumping off of Malmesbury Abbey’s tower. And it worked! Eilmer flew! Well, sort of. He flew for about six hundred feet before the wind became violent, the air current changed and he crash-landed. Fortunately for Eilmer, he survived the crash. Unfortunately for Eilmer, he broke both legs. His injuries were severe enough that according to William of Malmesbury he “was lame ever after.” Apparently, for the rest of his life, Eilmer lamented his experiment would have worked had he not forgotten to add a tail. (Some modern writers say that Eilmer’s abbot forbade him from doing a second experiment, but this is not in the primary source. Dom Aelred Watkin added this tidbit to his account in the 1950s. While not factually accurate, it certainly is funny to think about.)
There are a lot of myths/legends about people trying (and failing) to fly. However, it is extremely likely Eilmer’s experiment did in fact happen. For one, William is considered to be an extremely accurate medieval historian. It helps that William came from the same monastery as Eilmer and Eilmer died less than one hundred years before William finished his chronicle. William probably heard the story from monks who knew Eilmer as an old man.
When exactly did Eilmer attempt to fly? Well, we don’t have an exact date but Dr. Lynn White’s research does give us a general estimate of when it happened. See, Eilmer isn’t just famous for his flying. In fact, William seems to have added that as more of an after thought. William focuses more on how Eilmer had seen Halley’s comet twice in his life. This is very imporant for dating his life story. The second time he saw the comet was in 1066. Eilmer recognizes it as the comet he saw in his childhood. Because Halley’s comet appears every 75-76 years or so, the first time Eilmer saw it had to have been in 989. Assuming Eilmer was about five or six at the time (five to six being old enough to remember things) he would have been in his early 80s in 1066. William says Eilmer was in his early youth when he tried to fly, so he was probably less than 25 years old at the time of his experiment. This puts the date sometime from the years 1000 to 1010.
We don’t know for certain what Eilmer’s flying machine looked like, but we do have some clues thanks to William’s description, cultural context, and modern-day aviation. We do know Eilmer used wings he attached to his hands and feet. William uses the Latin term “pennae” when describing them so the contraption could not have been a parachute or a balloon of some sort. They were probably rigid, maybe hinged, and possibly meant to flap like a bird’s. (I will note that humans do not have the right muscle structure to fly by flapping their arms.) They would have to be pretty big to carry him. James of Wanborough theorizes that they were around 100 square feet, probably made of ash or willow (the wood most likely to be available to Eilmer at the time), and covered in a light cloth or parchment. Because Eilmer did in fact fly for a good distance before he crashed, he had to have been a small man. However, that is all scientific speculation.
Even though we no longer have his astrological works or really any other evidence of Eilmer’s existence besides William’s account, I want to stress how remembered he was throughout the Middle Ages. William was not the only historian to write about him. Some other medieval historians include (but are not limited to!) Helinand, Alberic, Vincent of Beavais, and Ralph Higden. Unfortunately, they all seemed to use William’s account as their source so they don’t have any new information about Eilmer. (In fact, Ralph Higden even misread Eilmer’s name as Oliver! Thanks to this, Eilmer was referred to as Oliver by other historians.) And it wasn’t just medieval people who were fascinated by Eilmer! From William’s chronicle to the modern day Eilmer is a figure who has fascinated generations.
Finally, as a little treat, I would like to share this YouTube video I found about Eilmer. It’s a short silent animation. I think you will enjoy it! You can see it here.
White, Lynn. “Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition.” Technology and Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 1961, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3101411. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.
A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination. Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.
Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.
While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.
Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.
Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.
Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”
His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)
Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
The research I’m doing for my article on medieval penitentials is taking much longer than I thought it would, so today I will be sharing stories of some misbehaving medieval monks! However, today I will be using a different primary source than the one I usually do. So instead of Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, I will be using The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Guibert of Nogent was a pretty interesting man. His memoirs tell us a lot about what life was like as a monk in 11th to 12th century northern France. He was also a total mama’s boy, which isn’t super relevant to this article, but I feel that is something you should know.
The first instance I’ve chosen to talk about can be found in Book One, Chapter Eightof A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Here, Guibert makes his problems with oblates known. In a previous post, I’ve explained what oblates are, but I would like to give you Guibert’s description as well:
“…monks brought there [to monasteries] in early life through the piety of their kin.”
A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 25
These men have been brought up from early childhood in monasteries. So naturally, they are quite sheltered. If you’ve ever been to college, you’ve probably met someone who was extremely sheltered and has just tasted freedom for the first time. And once someone gets that taste of freedom, they tend to nuts as they absolutely do not know how to handle it. Well, according to Guibert, this was happening to former oblates as well! Apparently, it was quite common for these sheltered monks to be sent out of the monastery on errands and it was even more common for them to go wild when it came to spending money that they should not be spending.
However, going on shopping sprees weren’t the only way former oblates misbehaved. Guibert claims that they could be extremely self-righteous about their behavior. Allegedly, these monks were not particularly afraid of the sins they committed. Instead, they thought they never committed the sins they did! (Or at least they pretended that they had no idea what you were talking about if their sins were mentioned.) To make their hypocrisy worse, whenever these not-very-self-aware monks got any sort of power inside the monastery they were pretty rotten to everyone else. That’s certainly not a way a man of God is supposed to act!
Ironically, despite all their bad behavior, Guibert still thinks that former oblates are very important. (In my translation of the text, he calls them “precious.”) He is writing in the early 12th century and the Church has started giving oblation the side-eye. Fewer and fewer monastic orders are accepting child donations, so monks who grew up in monasteries are becoming increasingly rare. These kinds of monks are supposed to be more pure and innocent than monks who were exposed to the secular world. In theory, they should be better monks. In practice, we know that not to be the case thanks to Guibert’s description of them.
Our next story comes from Book One, Chapter Sixteen.In his early teens, Guibert joined a monastery. However, things were not all smooth sailing for young Guibert. He had a tendency to get into quite a bit of conflict with the older monks. Now, if you take Guibert’s words at face value, everyone else was jealous of him because he was so smart and loved learning so much and no one understood why he loved to learn and they were constantly attacking him because he was smarter and better than everyone else. However, if you read between the lines (and take into consideration a few conversations his mother and tutor had with him in previous chapters), it’s safe to guess Guibert was just being an annoying smug little know-it-all. Here’s a quote that I think displays the truth quite well:
“…they began to notice that I equaled them, or even, if I may say so, surpassed them. So they became so furiously, wickedly indignant with me that I became weary of incessant disputes and attacks; and more than once I regretted having ever become so interested in learning or having acquired it. Indeed, my concentration was so perturbed by these discussions, and so many quarrels sprang up from the ceaseless questions related to that learning, that it seemed to me that my colleagues were determined only to detract my attention and to create obstacles for my mind.”
A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, pg. 55
Guibert goes on to lament about how everyone else was just trying to bring him down and they were all so cruel to him. He claims that they asked him questions that were supposed to make his “mind duller.” This did not work as apparently they just made him smarter. Furthermore, Guibert flat out admits that his fellow monks accused him of “letting a little learning go to [his] head.”
Now, perhaps what he was claiming was entirely true. Perhaps they were all jealous of him. However, I think it’s pretty clear that Guibert was being a smart-aleck. After all, monasteries were centers of learning and education. Guibert was just one of many, many boys throughout history sent to a monastery to get a good education. And if everyone around you is telling you off for being annoying, there’s a common denominator in that situation and that common denominator is you. At some point, you have to realize you are in the wrong. It seems like everyone was super annoyed with Guibert. Besides, even if they were in the wrong, Guibert was still bragging about how smart he was. According to The Rule of Saint Benedict, monks are supposed to be humble. In fact, humility is the most important trait for a monk! Guibert was most certainly not being humble here, thus he was not behaving as a good monk should.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.