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 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.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

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A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire

Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

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Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

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

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.

King Ethelbert’s Fears About Magic and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last blog post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I talked about the adventures of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. (And even in my first post on An Ecclesiastical History I shared an excerpt about him!) Today I will be discussing another important man in the history of the English church: Augustine of Canterbury. In this post, I will focus on three stories about Augustine. (I will talk about Augustine’s letter to Pope Gregory next week as that deserves a post of its own.)

 

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Augustine of Canterbury Source: Wikipedia

 

The first excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Three. It is the year 596 A.D. and in the tenth year of his reign as pope, Pope Gregory decides to send missionaries to Britain. (As there are already a good amount of Christians in Britain, I believe that Pope Gregory wants to convert the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, as the Britons have already been converted.) Gregory chooses “his servant Augustine [and] several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation” (pg. 66). Augustine and his companions agree to go, but soon it becomes clear to them that they might be in over their heads. The group “progressed a short distance on their journey” (pg. 66) before wanting to return home. After all, none of them actually speak any English. And they consider Britain to be “a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation” (pg. 66).

Besides the fact Augustine and his companions don’t want to go to Britain because they think it’s full of pagan barbarians, I do think they had some valid concerns. After all, it’s extremely difficult to preach and connect with people when you don’t speak the same language. There is a lot of risk for things to get lost in translation, among other dangers. However, Pope Gregory did not think that their concerns were valid. The group sent Augustine back to Gregory to ask that they might return home. Instead of saying yes, Gregory gave them a letter of encouragement and sent them on their way to Britain.

It really stood out to me that Augustine didn’t actually want to go to Britain. Usually, with missionary stories (at least the modern ones I’ve seen) people are enthusiastic about going to another country to convert non-Christians. (Sometimes these modern-day missionaries are a bit too enthusiastic…to state it lightly. But that’s a post for another day.) Instead of being enthusiastic, Augustine “humbly request[ed]” that the pope “recall them from so dangerous, arduous, and uncertain a journey” (pg. 67). Even if Augustine didn’t want to go for the glory of God, he actually had a lot to gain by going to Britain. He “was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English” (pgs. 66-67). And as discussed in my last few posts, Britain wasn’t entirely pagan. Christianity was a thing in Britain and it had been for a while. However, instead of Roman Christianity, Britain practiced Celtic Christianity.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Five. Augustine and his companions have landed on the British Isle of Thanet and they are finally comfortable with the idea of preaching to the English. I think it helped that “at the direction of…Pope Gregory, they had brought interpreters from among the Franks” (pg. 69). The monks send these interpreters to the king of Kent, Ethelbert with this message:

[T]hey came from Rome bearing very glad news, which infallibly assured all who would receive it of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God (pg. 69).

Understandably, King Ethelbert was a bit thrown off by this. After all, that’s a lot of information to unpack. He sent a message back, which “ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed” (pg. 69). King Ethelbert made sure all the monks’ needs were taken care of while he figured out exactly what to do with them. Luckily for Augustine and his companions, King Ethelbert had a Christian wife so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Christianity. But it can still be off-putting to have someone want to preach to you, so I understand why King Ethelbert told the monks to stay put for a while. (Also, people preaching about religion is an almost guaranteed way for conflicts to start. King Ethelbert is aware of this as he later tells Augustine and the monks that he can’t “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation” (pgs. 69-70).)

 

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Augustine and King Ethelbert (Note Ethelbert’s not historically accurate helmet.)

 

Putting King Ethelbert’s political decisions aside, we come to what I consider the meat of this excerpt. (If the meat is the part I find particularly fascinating!) In the second paragraph of this three-ish paragraph chapter, Bede documents “an ancient superstition” (pg. 69) of King Ethelbert. King Ethelbert is concerned that Augustine and the other monks are “practisers of magical arts” (pg. 69), so refuses to meet them inside a building. Instead, King Ethelbert meets the missionaries outside so they don’t “have [an] opportunity to deceive and master him” (pg. 69). It’s the little details like this that I find so interesting. Here we have a documented folk belief that might have been lost to history otherwise. As someone who writes historical fiction, it’s details like these that I love to collect so I can make my fiction more realistic. Plus from an anthropological standpoint, the fact that a king (or anyone really) had a belief like this that effected their behavior lets us see a past culture better.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Six. The mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons is going pretty well. A lot of people have been baptized including King Ethelbert. However, after his own conversion, Ethelbert isn’t forcing anyone else to become Christians. While he is showing “greater favour to believers” (pg. 71) he’s doesn’t “compel anyone to accept Christianity” (pg. 71). Instead, Ethelbert “had learned from his instructors…that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion” (pg. 71). This is certainly a different way of doing things when you look at what other rulers from history (both distant history and more recent history) did when they converted.

 

Main Source:

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