Hagiographies are a fascinating genre of medieval literature. Join Viktor Athelstan each week as he shares medieval stories and discusses aspects of medieval culture. Due to my recent surgery, this episode is quite short. Today I share the stories of Saint Anastasia and Saint Eugenia from The Golden Legend.
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.
Today at The Mediaeval Monk Podcast we are taking a look at The Rule of Saint Benedict! This text was widely used as a guideline to monastic life. I am reading the prologue as well as chapters 1 through 5.
It’s still October, so it’s time for some more spooky medieval ghost stories! Today I will cover stories four and five of the Byland Abbey ghost stories. Each story is pretty short. Story four is only a paragraph long and story five consists of two sentences. Unlike the previous ghost stories, stories four and five do not include anyone conjuring a ghost.
A long time ago, a man named James Tankerlay died. Despite being the rector at Kirby, James Tankerlay was buried in front of Byland Abbey’s chapter house. He must have missed his old parish because James had a tendency to make frequent nightly visits. During one of these visits, James visited his old mistress…and blinded her by blowing out one of her eyes!
After this incident, Byland Abbey’s abbot and monastic community decided that something had to be done. Their solution was to dig up James Tankerlay’s body and coffin and hire a man named Roger Wayneman to chuck it into the nearby Lake Gormyre. (Or Gormire depending on the translation.) As Roger did this, his cart’s oxen became so frightened they almost drowned.
Story four ends with the monkish author claiming he’s only writing down what he was told and he hopes that God isn’t mad at him for telling the story. He also asks for God’s mercy and salvation.
Unlike some of the previous ghost stories, this tale seems to be rather old. Or at the very least, it was a story that has been passed down through several generations. The anonymous author claims to have heard this story from some old men. It’s possible the Byland Abbey monk’s sources either heard this story in their youth from someone older or it happened when they were young.
Another notable difference is the destruction of James Tankerlay’s body. Instead of the Christian solution of conjuration and prayers, the abbot’s choice to destroy the body is quite pagan. In early medieval ghost stories and Icelandic sagas, revenants’ bodies are often destroyed so they can no longer terrorize the local population. This solution supports the theory the story’s origin is much older than the previous ones.
Similar to the previous stories, this one both explicitly gives names and hides them. The ghost and the person who threw the coffin into the lake are named, but the abbot who ordered it to be done is not. This would imply that even if the author does not approve of the abbot’s decision to destroy James Tankerlay’s body, he still wants to protect the reputation of the clergyman who ordered it to be done.
Finally, I find the author’s anxiety around even repeating this story particularly interesting. He clearly did not approve of the less than Christian solution of digging up and throwing a body into a lake to get rid of it! However, while his anxiety made him ask for God’s mercy for writing the text, he clearly did not consider it too blasphemous to include. I can’t help but wonder if the author included the story as a morality lesson, especially one for priestly concubines. Learning that your lover will blind you as a ghost would certainly be one way to deter women (and some men!) from hooking up with clergymen.
As this ghost story is only two sentences long, I will quote A.J. Grant’s translation in its entirety:
“What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.” (Grant, pg. 371)
This story is rather vague. There are no named characters and where exactly it takes place is not stated. There isn’t really even an ending. The author doesn’t tell us what happened after the woman carried the ghost into the house or why she did so. We also aren’t told if the ghost wanted to be absolved of their sins.
The way this medieval ghost story is written reminds me of how events were documented for certain chronicles. In that, the author wrote down the most basic information so the audience gets a general idea of what happened.
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, 2016, pp. 13–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5.
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
As of the time I’m writing this, it’s still October, so there is still time to celebrate spooky season! This month I am sharing some medieval ghost stories written by an anonymous Byland Abbey monk. In my last post I discussed the first Byland Abbey ghost story. It is a short tale about a ghost, a man, and some beans.
Today’s Byland Abbey ghost story is the longest out of the twelve tales. Despite being longer and having different characters from the first medieval ghost story, there are several tropes that reoccur in both stories:
A shape shifting ghost
The living character asking God for protection
The ghost requesting the living to help them get out of purgatory
A water hating/fearing ghost
These tropes are pretty common in medieval ghost stories.
This ghost story took place during the reign of King Richard II of England. The written text itself dates to around 1400 AD. Richard II died in February 1400, so it is safe to assume the events of the story occurred shortly before the author wrote it down. The recentness of the event is probably why the author went out of his way to not name the ghost. Excommunication from the church was a big deal, so this was probably still fresh in the ghost’s family’s minds. Stating that a person’s loved one suffered as a ghost is insensitive at best and flat out slanderous at worst. Defamation lawsuits were a common enough occurrence in the Middle Ages, so I understand why the author was extremely vague about who exactly the ghost was.
Our main character is a tailor named Snowball. One night Snowball traveled from Gilling East to his home in Ampleforth. It was a normal enough night until Snowball heard several ducks washing themselves in a stream. I don’t know too much about ducks, but I assume they usually leave washing themselves to the daytime!
To add to the weirdness, a raven suddenly flew around Snowball’s head before flying into the ground. The raven looked dead so Snowball got off his horse and went to pick it up. (Depending on the translation Snowball either picked the raven up or was about to.) Then sparks burst out of the raven’s sides!
Needless to say, the sparking raven frightened Snowball. He crossed himself and prayed to God that the raven wouldn’t hurt him. The raven did not seem to like this as it flew off cawing. Snowball mounted his horse to return home. He didn’t get far before the raven flew into him again. Unfortunately for Snowball, this time the raven knocked him clean off his horse!
Snowball lay on the ground for a bit in a terrified swoon. Eventually he regained some bravery and tried fighting the raven with his sword. This did not work. Snowball asked in God’s name that the raven wouldn’t hurt him and if it wanted to, God would make it leave. The raven flew away wailing…before returning in the shape of a chained dog. Snowball was so scared he used the hilt of his sword as a cross to ward off any evil.
Because the spirit kept coming back, Snowball decided it was time to conjure it through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to see exactly what it wanted. (In the Byland Abbey ghost stories helping the ghost is the best way to get rid of them.) Conjuring a ghost included asking it its name, why it was being punished in the afterlife, and what exactly Snowball needed to do to make the ghost go away. Luckily for Snowball, this worked.
The ghost told Snowball his name (which the author did not provide), he was excommunicated, a specific priest (once again nameless) needed to absolve him, and that one hundred and eighty masses had to be said for him. The ghost gave Snowball an ultimatum: get the desired answers from the priest or the ghost would make Snowball’s flesh quite literally rot off his still living body. (Also apparently the only reason the spirit could appear to him was because Snowball did not go to mass that day or receive the Eucharist.)
In case a sparking raven isn’t terrifying enough, the text describes the now conjured ghost as being on fire and he spoke through his guts instead of his mouth. Also Snowball could see the ghost’s insides through his mouth.
Snowball asked to bring a friend along when he returned. The ghost said no. However, Snowball was to bring the names of the four gospels and Jesus for protection because two other spirits lived in the area that were not as nice as him. These other ghosts took the form of a burning bush and a hunter so Snowball should avoid those things if he sees them. The ghost also requested that Snowball not tell anyone about this encounter besides the priests he has to ask about the absolution and masses.
Snowball promised he would and attempted to send the ghost to the stream, Hodge Beck. The ghost screamed at him not to do this so Snowball conjured the ghost to Brink Hill (or Byland Bank depending on the translation). The ghost found this agreeable and happily left.
Unfortunately for all involved, Snowball fell ill for a few days after this encounter. Once he recovered, Snowball went to York. In York, he visited the priest who excommunicated the ghost and asked about an absolution. The priest immediately said no. However, the priest promptly asked three other priests about what he should do. Snowball ended up having to bribe the original priest with five shillings to get the written absolution.
As a side note, five shillings was A LOT of money in the late fourteenth century, especially for a tailor like Snowball. The Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project estimates that Snowball would have had to work several weeks to earn five shillings.
As bribery is most certainly frowned upon, Snowball asked a clergyman named Richard of Pickering whether or not this absolution counted in the eyes of God and the law. Richard of Pickering gave Snowball the okay. Snowball proceeded to visit every monastic order in York to ask for the one hundred and eighty masses. The monks agreed to say them over the course of the next two to three days. Then Snowball buried the absolution at the ghost’s grave.
On his way to Brink Hill/Byland Bank to meet up with the ghost, Snowball’s neighbor confronted him about the rumor Snowball knew a ghost. The neighbor demanded Snowball tell him when and where he was supposed to meet the ghost. Snowball was afraid of displeasing God so he told him he was going right then and there and did the neighbor want to come along? The neighbor politely declined the invitation.
When Snowball arrived at the meeting place he drew a protective circle on the ground with a crucifix. Eventually the ghost appeared in the form of a she goat. The she-goat made some goat noises as it walked around the circle three times. It fell to the ground and then got up in the form of a tall thin man.
The author specifically says the ghost looks like one of the dead kings. This is presumably a reference to the popular medieval ghost story “The Three Living and The Three Dead.”
After the ghost made sure Snowball did everything he was supposed to, he explained after he was conjured to the time the absolution was buried three demons tormented him nonstop. However, now that he was absolved, the ghost and thirty other spirits would go to Heaven on Monday. (Or on the nearest moon depending on the translation.) The ghost told Snowball how to cure the wounds he gave him as a raven. (He had to wash himself with a piece of sandstone under a big rock in the river.)
Curious, Snowball asked about the two dangerous ghosts. The ghost refused to tell him their names, but he did elaborate on their backstory. The first ghost was a soldier who killed a heavily pregnant woman. This ghost was cursed to stay in the form of a calf with no eyes, ears, or mouth until Judgment Day. Even if Snowball conjured him, he would not be able to speak.
The second ghost was a religious man. He took the form of a hunter with a horn. Because he was devout while alive, he will be able to go to Heaven once a specific boy in the area grew up and conjured him.
Before leaving, Snowball asked there was anything he should do so he wouldn’t be cursed to become a ghost. There was. Snowball had to return the clothes he borrowed from his old war buddy. Snowball didn’t know where the man now lived, so the ghost told him he lived near Alnwick Castle. (According to Google maps Alnwick Castle is approximately one hundred miles away from Ampleforth, the town Snowball lived.)
Snowball then inquired about his greatest crime. The ghost told him it was the fact people were spreading rumors about which ghost Snowball met, thus accidentally slandering the good names of other dead people. Snowball asked if he should tell people the ghost’s name. The ghost said no.
Then the ghost told Snowball if he goes to live in one place he will be rich and in another he will be poor and have enemies. The text does not specify the place names. He also said not to look at any wood fires for the rest of the day before telling Snowball he couldn’t stand around chatting anymore and disappeared.
As Snowball walked back to Ampleforth, the ghost calf followed him. No matter how many times Snowball conjured him, the calf did not talk.
Finally, when Snowball returned home he was sick for several days.
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 13 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.
If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)
In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.
The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.
Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.
There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)
Old English Introduction
Penitential of Finnian
Canons of Theodore
Old English Penitential
Old English Handbook
Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.
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.