What Happened When a Medieval Monk Was Deathly Sick?

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. 

An architectural frame with Moses holding the tablets in a curtained Tabernacle (left), a dying monk under an arch (centre) and an angel speaking to men at an altar (right) | Add MS 42555 f.56r | Source: The British Library

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:

  • Psalm 6 
  • Psalm 31
  • Psalm 37
  • Psalm 50/51
  • Psalm 101/102
  • Psalm 129/130
  • Psalm 142/143

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)
    • Kyrie eleison
    • Pater noster/ the Lord’s Prayer
    • Psalm 85/86
    • 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. 

Sources:

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, Medieval Classics. 

Praying The Seven Penitential Psalms

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

 

 

Source:

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

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

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

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

 

How Sex and Religion Shaped Medieval Gender Roles

Content Warning: Discussions of Misogyny, Sex, and Menstruation, Mentions of Miscarriage

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

 

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the roles of men and women in medieval society were greatly shaped by the scientific and philosophical understanding of bodies, sex, and reproduction. The basis of these understandings primarily came from religious texts that eventually transferred over into law and scientific studies. However, due to the length of the Middle Ages as well as the different religions, and cultures, such understandings of gender roles varied. However, this is not to say that there were not several overarching themes, especially ones concerning women and their bodies, in the different cultures and religions during the medieval period. For example, both Christianity and Judaism understood a woman’s role in society in similar ways.

 

Hunterian_Psalter_-_H229_f7v

Adam, Eve, and the Snake | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

In Jewish communities, religious texts shaped their understandings of gender roles. The biblical story of Adam and Eve “justified…women’s secondary place in human creation” (Baskin 39). Eve was made after Adam, thus women were considered second to men in the social hierarchy. The concept that God had made men physically more powerful (Park 92) furthered the idea that a woman needed to be subordinate to her husband and to men in general. However, rabbis also used “Eve’s responsibility…in all human mortality” as well as “women’s essential otherness from men” as an explanation for why women must be kept “separate” (Baskin 38). These separations included why women were not allowed to participate in their faith in the same way men were. Women were even expected to support their husbands’ and sons’ religious studies instead of being able to gain spiritual knowledge for themselves (Baskin 39).

In Christian society, clergymen also used religion as evidence of women’s inferiority. Like in Judaism, the Christian understanding was that if “God made women physically weaker than men” (Park 84) then women must be the inferior gender. One medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, went even so far as to argue that if God had not made women subordinate, then men would have no choice but to direct their lustful actions elsewhere, including towards other men (Park 84). Same-sex attraction was unacceptable in medieval society, as the church considered any non-potentially reproductive intercourse between any genders as sodomy. For context, the Christian church considered “bestiality…only marginally less serious than homosexual sodomy” (Brundage 43). Thus if a woman was not subordinate to a man’s wants and desires his eternal reward was at stake.

This is not to say that men were considered more lustful than women, as is the thought in modern times. The opposite is true. In medieval society, women were thought to be the lustful gender, not men. The idea that “women [were considered] temptresses [was] one of the defining elements of female sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Salisbury 87) and it was a prominent one. Women may have been thought of as subordinate, but being lustful was simply another way for men to scapegoat women. The scientific understanding at the time was a man’s masculinity was dependent on his semen. If he had too much sex, he would be losing the very essence of what made him a man as well as his “masculine control” (Salisbury 86).

Christian clergymen also used the story of Adam and Eve to explain the different roles men and women had in medieval society. Their explanation focused mainly on sex and sexuality instead of the social status of women. However, it is important to note these religious understandings gradually seeped over into other aspects of medieval life. Due to the first humans’ disobedience against God, sex was regarded as “a consequence of sin” (Brundage 35). This understanding led church leaders to set up a hierarchy of eternal reward based on a person’s past sexual experiences. A virgin would be rewarded the most, “chaste widows” (Elliott 25) came second, and married people came third. For most secular people, this statement was neither threatening nor particularly motivating. In fact, secular society expected people to get married (Karras 75).

The clergy were painfully aware they were fighting a losing battle when it came to controlling their followers’ sexual desires. In an act of reluctant compromise, the clergy told the “less heroic Christians” (Brundage 35) that if they absolutely had to have sexual intercourse, they must be married, the act must be for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and under no circumstances should sex strictly be for pleasure or for fun (Brundage 35). Eventually, in the seventh century, these conditions were fleshed out to include “specific guidelines for acceptable sexual behavior” (Brundage 36). The rules were so specific it was nearly impossible for a married couple to have sex and not sin.

 

flowchart

A Flowchart Regarding When Medieval Couples Were Allowed to Engage in Sexual Behavior | Source: thehistoryblog.com

 

It should be noted that the majority of ecclesiastical court cases were because of these sins, thus “greatly increase[ing]…the church’s income” (Brundage 39). This observation makes one wonder if the church’s main reason for creating such specific guidelines was simply an excuse to make money by exploiting the sexual desires of both men and women. However, Christian ecclesiastical courts considered “extramarital sex…as sinful for a man as for a woman” (Brundage 42). When compared to fornication, the crime of adultery was viewed “primarily as a female offense and [the courts] only occasionally punished men” (Brundage 42).

Adultery was not the only guideline that focused on women. Marital intercourse was forbidden if a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding (Brundage 36). Jewish communities put a tremendous amount of pressure on women and their bodies as well. Female menstruation was considered “regular” while male “discharges and states of ritual impurity” (Baskin 43) were not. Menstruation was thought of as impure. Thus, it was a Jewish woman’s responsibility to know her cycle extremely well, so she would know when to take her “ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual relations could resume” (Baskin 44) between her and her husband.

The scientific understanding of the human body was what led these faiths to believe menstrual blood was toxic, thus further shaping the roles women were expected to keep in society. Because women were considered cold and men were considered hot, menstruation was what burned off the impurities in a woman’s body (Salisbury 89). This lead to the belief menstruation was good for the health of a woman but toxic for a man who came into contact with a woman’s menstrual blood (Salisbury 89). It was considered dangerous not only to men but to anything that came into contact with it. Isidore of Seville wrote menstrual blood would kill crops, make wine turn sour, damage metal, and give dogs rabies (Park 87).

In Judaism, laws were made specifying that men were not only not allowed to touch a menstruating woman; he was also to avoid making “eye contact and [staying out of her] physical proximity” (Park 92). In the central Middle Ages, this law eventually escalated into something even stricter than before (Baskin 44). Menstruating women were “forbidden to enter a synagogue…to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin 44). The following of this law was isolating for women and it further emphasized the role of women as lesser than in the social hierarchy.

 

Hildegard_von_Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Not everyone agreed with this. One woman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, argued that it was men who produced toxic discharges and not women (Salisbury 93). According to John M. Riddle, Saint Hildegard “is a good indication of popular culture during the Middle Ages”. While other writers received their information from classical texts, she received her knowledge “from her culture” (Riddle 269). Such information concerned reproductive health, including what plants a woman should consume should she wish to have an abortion. Riddle explains that understanding what plants could induce a miscarriage was commonly shared information amongst medieval women. Knowing how to make “contraception and early-term abortifacients” (Riddle 269) was vital information for medieval women, especially when it is taken into consideration how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was. After all, “women at all social levels [died] in childbirth” (Green 357).

Regardless of the dangers of reproduction, men and women had sexual intercourse anyway. Not every Jewish man followed the guidelines set forth by his religious leaders. There must have been many cases of men touching or going near menstruating women because in the thirteenth century, the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote down the typical punishment for a man who disobeyed the law (Baskin 44). These punishments “included extensive fasting, lashing, immersion in icy water” and they were “applied only to men” (Baskin 44). Unlike in Christian society, Jewish women were not considered “self-conscious entities” (Baskin 44). Christian clergymen also wrote down acceptable punishments for those who disobeyed religious rules. Confessors were given “pastoral manuals and handbooks…[that went into] such great length and in such detail with sexual sins that…the conclusion [is] these behaviors must have flourished…among medieval people” (Brundage 41).

According to James A. Brundage, the majority of the laity did not believe that having sex, particularly sex outside of marriage, was a sin. This idea is emphasized by the fact the previously mentioned handbooks actually warned priests that when they questioned their parishioners about their sexual digressions, they needed to be careful lest they give their parishioners any ideas (Brundage 42). However, priests were not so innocent themselves. Starting in the fourth century, celibacy was encouraged amongst priests, but not required. It was only when the church reformed in the second half of the eleventh-century celibacy became required for priests (Brundage 36). The priests did not take this new requirement well. Many priests already had wives and children. It did not help the reformers that the requirement was a blatant “attack on women” (Elliott 27). One argument for required celibacy was “priestly hands…must not be sullied by…the genitals of whores (i.e., the wives of priests)” (Elliott 27). Priests’ reactions to the announcement included attacking and running a bishop out of town as well as burning “a supporter of clerical celibacy” alive (Brundage 36-37).

Obviously, this hypocrisy was not unknown to the laity. Several tropes in medieval literature called out the church concerning their opinions on sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras writes that stories would include “lusty priests [who would] seduce the women who confess to them [as well as] monks and nuns [who would] engage in secret liaisons”. There was even an entire genre of literature, the French fabliaux, dedicated to stories where “both men and women [found] joy in sexual intercourse” (Karras 2). Some of the characters in these works were members of the clergy.

Overall, the roles for men and women in medieval society were heavily dependent on religious understandings of the body, sex, and reproduction. These religious understandings in all faiths were used as a way to control people, women especially. Religion not only shaped people’s ideas about themselves, but it was also used as a tool to shape the scientific and legal understanding of gender roles. By shaping these aspects of society, the clergy could to some extent have control over people’s lives in almost every manner.

 

 

Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49. SOLO.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33–47.

Elliott, Dyan. “Gender and The Christian Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–35. SOLO.

Green, Monica. “Caring for Gendered Bodies.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 345–358. SOLO.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:” Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

Park, Katharine. “Medicine and Natural Philosophy: Naturalistic Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 84–98. SOLO.

Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 261–275.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Twenty, Reverence at Prayer and Some Historical Examples of Clergy Not being Particularly Reverent

For this blog post, I’ve jumped a bit ahead in The Rule of Saint Benedict. In my last post, I covered chapter seven. I’ve decided to skip chapters eight through nineteen as they mostly detail how Divine Offices were said. While there are a lot of good insights into the praying aspect of monastic life, I’m not super interested in dissecting the offices. I may come back to those chapters in the future, but for now, I want to talk about what was and was not considered the proper way to pray.

Add. 39636  f.10 (full page and detail)

Benedictine monks chanting | BL Add 39636, ff. 10, 13, 28, 29, f. 10 | Source: PICRYL.com

Chapter Twenty is titled ‘Of Reverence at Prayer.’ As you might be able to tell from the title, this chapter is about praying respectfully. Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader that praying to God should be similar to making “any request to men in power” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). Meaning that you should only “do so…with humility and reverence” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God isn’t your friend so you must pray to Him “with all lowliness and purity of devotion” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God also doesn’t have all day to listen to you so your “prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,” except of course you are lucky enough to have it “prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). That being said, when praying as a community prayer should be kept short and the “all [should] rise together” at “the signal given by the Superior” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41).

If Saint Benedict was telling his monks to pray respectfully and to keep it short, was long, disrespectful prayer a problem? Admittedly I haven’t done much research into prayer during Saint Benedict’s life (he lived between the years 480 AD and 547 AD) but I have done some research into monasticism during the later medieval period. And the answer is yes. Yes, disrespectful (for lack of a better term) prayer was an issue at some monasteries. Three of my four examples weren’t exactly bothersome to God but to the people around the worshipper.

(I’ll note that the people I’ve listed as examples were Cistercians and not Benedictines. However, the monastic Order of Cistercians also follow The Rule of Saint Benedict. Ironically, it can be argued that the Cistercians are more strict about The Rule than the Benedictines!)

660px-São_Bento_e_São_Bernardo_(1542)_-_Diogo_de_Contreiras

Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard (1542), by Diogo de Contreiras | Note: St. Benedict is in black and St. Bernard is in white | Source: Wikipedia

 

 

Caesarius of Heisterbach documents an incident where “one nun genuflected overenthusiastically…and injured her knee” (Kerr, pg. 98). As a result of this injury, the nun had to go to the infirmary. While recovering, the Virgin Mary visited her. The Virgin Mary wasn’t exactly pleased with the nun showing off and she was “reprimanded” (Kerr, pg. 98). The nun was also “warned that in the future she should be modest and discreet in her prayers” (Kerr, pg. 98).

A minor knee injury isn’t the only documented example of overenthusiastic worship. A twelfth-century nun called Ida the Gentle had a tendency to “fall into ecstatic trances after receiving the Eucharist” where she would lose “all physical control” (Kerr, pg. 153). These trances would involve Ida crying out during services, falling down, “unable to speak or move,” her face would change color, “and her eyes flashed” (Kerr, pg. 153). Despite Ida’s spiritual journey, her worshipping style was considered to be a bit too much by the nuns and priests she lived with:

“The community acknowledged that Ida’s turns were a mark of her spirituality and considered her privy to Divine Knowledge, but her behavior was nonetheless regarded as disruptive and irreverent and Ida was consequently barred from attending the Eucharist.” (Kerr, pg. 153)

Of course, not only nuns had issues with reverence at prayer. In Villers in Belgium, there was a lay brother named Arnulf who “was periodically overcome with jubilant laughter” as a result of “an inward flow of Heavenly Grace” (Kerr, pg. 153). Whenever this happened Arnulf would leave wherever he was and “run into the church to be alone” (Kerr, pg. 153). There he would ‘”dance until the wine of his drunkenness was gradually digested”‘ (Kerr, pg. 153-154). Like Ida the Gentle’s trances, Arnulf’s laughing and dancing did get him into a bit of trouble. Sometimes he found this laughing to be embarrassing, especially when people didn’t understand that it was very much “involuntary” (Kerr, pg. 154). To make matters worse for Arnulf, “some considered it evil” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

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Bernard of Clairvaux | Source: Wikipedia

 

Bernard of Clairvaux also had some problems when it came to reverence at prayer. However, his problems weren’t necessarily because of the way he worshipped. Instead, his problems were a consequence of “years of austerity” and by “his later years” (Kerr, pg. 154) he had completely destroyed his digestive system. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that disrespectful worship, at least not in regards to God. What was an issue was how Bernard of Clairvaux tried to get around his tendency to vomit up his latest meal.

Instead of accepting that he was too sick to “participate fully in the liturgical day” (Kerr, pg. 154) Bernard decided the best solution was to install a basin in the choir for him to throw up into. Julie Kerr wonderfully describes the monks’ reaction to the vomiting during services as such:

“This was not, however, a satisfactory arrangement.” (Kerr, pg. 154)

Needless to say, the monks found his constant throwing up extremely gross. In the end, Bernard of Clairvaux was “compelled to withdraw from communal activities” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

 

Main Sources:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

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

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

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

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 15, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Ninth Question to Gregory the Great: Communion, Mass, and Sexual Dreams

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory the Great as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Today will be my last post about this letter as we’ve reached the final question:

IX. Augustine’s ninth question: May a man receive communion after a sexual illusion in a dream; or, if a priest, may he celebrate the holy mysteries? (Bede, pg. 81)

 

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Devil tempting a sleeping monk | British Library Royal 10 E IV f. 221 | Source: Medievalists.net

 

Like Gregory’s other answers to Augustine, this question also has several answers depending on the surrounding circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that the cause of these dreams is the result of three types of actions: “over-eating…excess or lack of bodily vigour [sic], and…impure thoughts” (pg. 82). If the dream is the result of “bodily vigour [sic]” (pg. 82) then “it need not be feared”(pg. 82). Gregory says people shouldn’t worry about it because it’s not something that the person directly caused. Instead, these dreams are something that just kind of happens in the mind. However, this is not the case for the other two actions.

If the sexual dream was caused by gluttony then things should be taken a bit more seriously. Gregory says that “a greedy appetite” has the power to “run riot and overloads the repositories of the bodily fluids” and as a result, “the mind is to blame” (pg. 82). Even though Gregory has no problem saying that the priest caused these dreams because of his gluttony, he also tells Augustine that the priest is still allowed to say masses on feast days and “administer the sacrament” (pg. 82) if there are no other priests around to do it for him. However, Gregory does wish that the priest would be moved by “humility” and “refrain from offering the holy mysteries under these circumstances” (pg. 82). 

 

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Communion of the newly ordained priests | BL YT 24, f. 76 | Source: Picryl.com

 

Interestingly, the priest can still receive communion as long as he hasn’t “been excited by impure thoughts” (pg. 82). Gregory goes on to explain that while some people have these sexual dreams they “are not mentally disturbed” (pg. 82) by them. He argues that even though the brain “remembers nothing that occurs during sleep” it still remembers “greedy appetites” (pg. 82). On the sinfulness scale, Gregory considers gluttony induced lust bad, but it’s still pretty low in terms of just how terrible it really is. 

But what if a priest is having sexual dreams because they are having sexual thoughts while awake? Well, according to Gregory that’s pretty bad, but it’s important to consider how the priest reacts to it. Are these sexual thoughts merely intrusive suggestions? Does he “take pleasure in it” (pg. 83)? Or does he “assent to it” (pg. 83)? Each scenario is caused by a different thing:

“Suggestion comes through the devil, pleasure through the flesh, and consent through the will.” (pg. 83)

 

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Monk being carried off by a herd of demons | Source: Pinterest.com

 

Once the priest knows what kind of impure thought he’s been having he can figure out how to move on from there. Gregory says that even though the devil may suggest a sin, “no sin is committed unless the flesh takes pleasure in it” (pg. 83). But if a person’s body takes pleasure in this action, “sin is born” (pg. 83). That being said, Gregory argues that it’s only when “deliberate consent is given, sin is complete” (pg. 83). 

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 2: Menstruation and Sexual Relations

Today we are still focusing on Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory, as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In my previous post,  I discussed the first half of Augustine’s eighth question to Gregory. As the question is extremely long (as well as Gregory’s answer), I am going to focus on the second half, starting with Augustine’s questions regarding menstruation. Here is the question in its entirety:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (Bede, pg. 76-77)

Despite Gregory’s opinions on breastfeeding, his opinions on menstruation are a bit more progressive. (Some of them, anyway.) Gregory tells Augustine that “the Old Law prescribed death for any man who approached a woman” (Bede, pg. 78) while she was menstruating. That being said, Gregory also argues that a person “should not be forbidden to enter church during these times” (Bede, pg. 78). His logic for this is the same reason why people should be allowed to enter a church after they give birth:

“[F]or the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control.” (Bede, pg. 78)

 

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Christ healing a bleeding woman | Source: Wikipedia

 

Gregory reminds Augustine that Christ healed a woman who “suffered an issue of blood” (Bede, pg. 78) and if that woman was allowed to touch Christ, why shouldn’t someone who is menstruating not be allowed to go to church? And why should they “be forbidden to receive…Communion at these times” (Bede, pg. 79)? They aren’t doing anything “blameworthy” (Bede, pg. 79). After all, “the monthly courses of women are no fault, because nature causes them” (Bede, pg. 79). I find Pope Gregory’s acceptance of menstruating people into church particularly noteworthy because this wasn’t the case for all religions. For example, in a Jewish text “written in Palestine or Italy in the ninth or tenth century, a menstruating woman was forbidden to enter a synagogue, to come into contact with sacred books, to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin, pg. 45). While it’s unfortunate that people might be forbidden to worship purely because they are menstruating, I understand why this might be the case before the invention of tampons or adhesive sanitary napkins. 

That being said, if a menstruating person chooses not to receive communion “out of a deep sense of reverence” (Bede, pg. 79), Gregory considers this “commendable” (Bede, pg. 79). However, at the end of the day, Gregory stresses to Augustine that “how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure?” (Bede, pg. 79).

 

 

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Luxury and Lust: a couple of lovers; an old man reading, approached by a devil | Source: Picryl.com

 

Speaking of pure minds, Gregory moves on to impure ones when he answers Augustine’s question regarding men entering church after having relations with their wives. Right off the bat Gregory says that “it is not fitting” (Bede, pg. 79) for a man to come to church if he hasn’t washed or if he has. Gregory then clarifies that it’s not physical impurities that he’s particularly worried about, but spiritual ones. Gregory doesn’t regard men “as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind” (Bede, pg. 80). He also wants men to think this way about themselves. After all, how can one worship God properly if they are still thinking about “wrongful passions” (Bede, pg. 80)?

The answer is that you can’t.

 

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Babies being baptized | BL Harley 1527, f. 104v | Source: Picryl.com

 

However, like the rest of Augustine’s questions concerning sex and the human body, there are exceptions to the rule. Gregory is pretty clear with regards to when and why (married!) people should have sex:

“Lawful intercourse should be for the procreation of offspring, and not for mere pleasure; to obtain children, and not to satisfy lust.” (Bede, pg. 81)

So if you are a man who has had relations with your wife before you attend church, why did you do it? Was it strictly for pleasure? Or were you and your spouse trying to conceive? If you were strictly motivated “by a desire for children” (Bede, pg. 81), Gregory says that “he is to be left to his own judgement [sic]” on whether or not you should attend mass or receive communion. Similar to the choice a menstruating person must make in regards to worshipping, Gregory thinks that it is up to you as long as your intentions are pure.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 1: Baptism, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding

In Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he documents the letter Augustine of Canterbury sent to Pope Gregory after he was consecrated as a bishop in Britain. As mentioned in my last post, Augustine’s letter is filled with many questions about how to run the English church. These questions are separated into nine different categories. Last time I wrote about Augustine’s third, fourth, and fifth questions. Today I want to discuss the first half of Augustine’s eighth one.

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A Page From a Manuscript on Midwifery | Source: Wikipedia

Usually, Augustine asks two or three questions for each category. This is not the case for the eighth category. Here he asks eight different questions all relating to pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and/or the sacraments of baptism and communion. You can feel Augustine’s panic as he asks Pope Gregory what he should do and how he should act. After all, Augustine was a monk and most likely had very little experience when it came to sex, pregnancy, and childbearing bodies. (That’s not to say that other clergy didn’t, but that’s another post for another day!) 

I want to share the exact quote so you can see what I mean when I say Augustine is panicking:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (pg. 76-77)

The last statement in this block quote has several amusing implications. Personally, I’ve interpreted Augustine’s comment about the “uncouth” English in two ways.

My first interpretation is that people keep asking Augustine questions about topics he’s incredibly shy about and he doesn’t know how to answer them properly. But they keep asking him and he’s panicking because he doesn’t want to talk about sinful things, but he has to because he’s the bishop. Another way we can interpret the last sentence is that Augustine has gotten himself all worked up about these matters to the point he’s freaking out, but he doesn’t want to admit to the pope that he’s curious about these very sinful things, so he blames his curiosity on other people.

Either way, these aren’t the questions of someone who knows what to do. These are the questions of someone who is very embarrassed and panicking.

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After The Birth of Philip II of France | Source: Wikipedia

As always, Gregory replies to Augustine. However, when I was reading Gregory’s reply, I could sense some annoyance in the pope:

“I have no doubt, my brother, that questions such as these have arisen, and I think I have already answered you; but doubtless you desire my support for your statements and rulings.” (pg. 77)

This is the medieval equivalent of ‘per my last email.’ (If you are unaware, ‘per my last email’ is an extremely passive-aggressive way to ask your coworker ‘can you read? I already told you this.’) Luckily for Augustine (and for us!), Gregory doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he tells Augustine what to do.

For Augustine’s first question (“May an expectant mother be baptized?”), Gregory basically asks Augustine, why shouldn’t she be? After all, “the fruitfulness of the flesh is no offence [sic] in the sight of Almighty God” (pg. 77). Gregory goes on to argue that even though Adam and Eve sinned and God took away their “gift of immortality” (pg. 77), He still gave humans the ability to reproduce and have children. Not allowing a pregnant person to be baptized would be “foolish” (pg. 77) and that baptism is an act “by which all guilt is washed away” (pg. 77). Here, Gregory is reminding Augustine that it wouldn’t be right to deny a person salvation just because they are pregnant. God gave people the ability to have children and they shouldn’t be punished for something God made them destined to do.

Because God made people able to have children, people don’t have to wait to go church after childbirth, even though it says a person should in the Old Testament. Gregory argues that he understands the waiting period to be “an allegory” (pg. 77) and if a person were “to enter [a] church and return thanks in the very hour of her delivery, she would do nothing wrong” (pg. 77). He also argues that it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that makes a person unfit to enter a church, it’s sexual intercourse. (Or as Gregory delicately phrases it, “bodily pleasure” (pg. 77).) The pain of childbirth is the “penalty” (pg. 77) for having intercourse, so there’s no need to punish a person and their child by denying them baptism.

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Woman Breastfeeding While on Stilts | BL Royal 10 E IV. f., 29v | Source: Picryl.com

Gregory’s answer to the question “how soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife?” (pg. 78) is pretty simple. He says that a husband should wait until the baby is no longer nursing. However, Gregory is aware that not all parents personally breastfeed their children and he does not like the concept of wet nurses. He claims that “when women are unwilling to be continent, they refuse to suckle their children” (pg. 78). In Gregory’s mind wet nurses encourage people to have sex sooner after childbirth. If I had to make an educated guess, I don’t think Gregory knew that sometimes people have a hard time nursing. Baby formula doesn’t exist at this point in time so a wet nurse is the next best option. (Unless you feed your baby animal milk but that’s not a good way to get important nutrients.) Of course, there are other reasons a parent might hire a wet nurse, but Gregory does not realize this. Finally, Gregory is sure to add that “those who observe this bad custom…must not approach their husbands until the time of their purification has elapsed” (pg. 78).

 

While the phrasing of this practice is unfortunate, purification after childbirth isn’t strictly a Christian thing. Many cultures have some sort of period where a parent is considered “unclean” after giving birth. That being said, you can interpret this as the time that allows a parent to rest after childbirth. A lot of things can go wrong during the birthing process and it’s important to allow a person to heal. Think of this as an early version of maternity leave.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.