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

After An 11th Century Sick Monk Ate Meat

The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:

Penance.

Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)

When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community: 

  • Step 1: The monk was shaved. 
  • Step 2:  He entered the choir an hour before chapter. 
  • Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
  • Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
  • Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness. 
  • Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
  • Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”) 
  • Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”) 
  • Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.) 
  • Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier. 
  • Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick. 
  • Step 12: He made three genuflections. 
  • Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.) 

And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously. 

If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future. 

Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119-120. Medieval Classics.

Monks vs. Demons! Part 1: The Devil and Dying Monks

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 demon and a sleeping monk | Royal MS 10 E IV f.221r | Source: The British Library

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.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

“Baron (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/baron. 

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.

***

Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 6: Jocelin of Brakelond is Kind of a Jerk

Even though the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds focuses mostly on Abbot Samson than anyone else, occasionally the author, Jocelin of Brakelond slips in several anecdotes about his own behavior. Despite Jocelin’s efforts to portray himself in a mostly positive light, he does admit to his past wrongdoings. This includes talking trash about one of his best friends. (Well, now ex-best friend at the time of him writing the chronicle!) While reading the text it’s important to keep in mind how Jocelin wants to portray himself. So I am more than sure that some of these incidents were worse than what he would have you believe. However, sometimes Jocelin does something so bratty that even he struggles to justify his behavior.

***

In this part of the chronicle, Jocelin took the time to describe Samson’s overall character. This includes how Samson looked, what his favorite foods were (Samson had a sweet tooth!), and even how hoarse his voice got whenever he caught a cold. Samson’s eating habits in particular were an interest to Jocelin. For example, Samson never ate meat but would ask for extra helpings of it so they could give it away to the poor. (It was a common practice for medieval monasteries would give their leftover food away to the poor. Samson wasn’t being a jerk or anything.) Another interesting tidbit Jocelin notes is that Samson was known for eating whatever is put in front of him. And one day, while Jocelin was a novice, he decided to put this to the test.

When it was Jocelin’s turn for kitchen duty, he made Samson a dish of extremely disgusting food and he put it on an extremely dirty and broken dish. Then he gave it to Samson and waited. And Samson ate it. To be more specific, Samson pretended he didn’t notice how disgusting it was and ate it. Despite the fact Jocelin was being a jerk, he did feel bad for doing this. So he grabbed the plate of food and tried to replace it with food Samson could actually eat. This was not acceptable to Samson. He became extremely angry that Jocelin dared to switch out his gross plate with a nice one.

By doing so, I believe Samson was making his point about what Jocelin had done. He was given something gross and he believed in eating whatever he was given. Samson was also known for detesting people who complained about the food they were given, especially if they were monks. If he let Jocelin replace his meal, it would look like he had complained, thus appearing to be a hypocrite to the rest of the monastic community. In addition to this, I think he wanted Jocelin to stew in his own guilt over the stunt he had just pulled. That way Jocelin would learn his lesson about messing with people’s food and not do it again.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Five, What to do When a Monk Makes a Mistake During Services

I am going to be furthering my analysis of Saint Benedict’s guidelines on monastic discipline. I’ve talked about it previously here and here. Today I will be discussing Chapters Forty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict. This chapter is pretty short (only two sentences!) but there is a lot of interesting language use in the original Latin that I want to go into.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.73v Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.73v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Five is titled “Of those who make Mistakes in the Oratory” (Saint Benedict, pg. 60). It focuses on careless mistakes made during services. If a monk messes up when reciting “psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson” he is supposed to make “satisfaction there before all” (SB, pg. 60-61). Saint Benedict doesn’t go into detail how a monk should punish himself, but Terrence G. Kardong guesses that he means prostration. (Or in other words, laying face down on the floor.) Needless to say, throwing yourself down on the floor after you mess up a word or two is going to be rather distracting to the other monks. (Apparently nowadays, if a monk makes a mistake he just makes some kind of hand sign like touching the bench and then his lips with his fingers (Kardong. pg. 366).)

If the monk doesn’t admit his mistake, he is to be punished severely. However, he’s not necessarily being punished for saying a word wrong or minorly disrupting services. Instead, the monk is really being punished for digging his heels in, refusing to admit he did something wrong, and refusing to reform (K. pg. 366). If you are running a monastery and you’ve got a bunch of stubborn monks who are acting horribly on purpose and won’t do any sort of self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before things escalate to a major disaster. It’s best to stop the bad behavior before things go too far.

So now we know how adults are supposed to be treated, but what about the children? What happens when an oblate messes up during services? Well, according to Saint Benedict the only solution is to whip them! Personally, I think beating a child for a minor mistake is a bit much. However, it was likely that the child was only beaten when he refused to admit he made a mistake and wouldn’t accept his punishment (K, pg. 366). It’s important to recall Chapter Thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict when analyzing this part of the text. Saint Benedict is of the firm belief that anyone who is “unable to understand the greatness” (SB, pg. 47) of his wrongdoing is to be beaten. There’s no point in doling out punishments if you aren’t going to learn from it. (Though I will note during the medieval period many different religious figures had different opinions about the morality of corporal punishment. But that is a different article for another day.)

Now I want to focus on the language in this passage.

The Latin text uses different words when talking about the mistakes monks can potentially make. Each word has a different connotation. In the title, Saint Benedict uses the word “falluntur” when referring to a mistake. Here the text talks as though the mistakes are made “as the result of bad will.” Then the term “neglegentia deliquit” is used. This term refers to negligence. So we go from doing this on purpose out of hate to an accident due to carelessness. Finally, the text uses the word “culpa” when referring to the children’s actions. This word is extreme in its definition. It can mean fault, defect, blame, guilt, and even crime. It can even go as far as to refer to “morally reprehensible faults.” The fact that the children are the ones Saint Benedict uses the harshest language with is interesting to me. Especially when one takes into consideration that a child’s mistake is most likely to be due to forgetfulness or ignorance. (Depending on their personality and how long they’ve been at the monastery of course!) (Kardong, pgs. 365 and 375.)

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. 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.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

Pope Leo and Attila (Yes, THAT Attila) in The Golden Legend

Attila the Hun is one of those famous historical figures I knew existed, but know very little about. As a result of my ignorance, I was surprised to learn that there are accounts of Attila and Pope Leo interacting with each other. Instead of doing a full analysis of their meeting, I want to look at how the text The Golden Legend tells it. Because The Golden Legend is a compilation of miracle stories and hagiographies, it is not exactly a reliable historical source. That being said, I want to take a deeper dive into why the author wrote the story the way they did.

When people are writing historical accounts it’s important to remember these things:

  1. Who is writing it?
  2. Why are they writing it?
  3. Who is their audience?
  4. What is their motive for writing it?

The answers to these questions will impact how you view the text. (By the way, these questions can and should be applied to media today too!)

 

Leoattila-Raphael

The Meeting between Leo the Great (painted as a portrait of Leo X) and Attila | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Before I begin my analysis of the story, I will retell the story:

Attila has invaded Italy. He is doing a very good job of destroying it too. Knowing that he can’t just let this happen, Leo spends three days and three nights praying in the church of the apostles for some kind of guidance. After doing this, Leo tells his men that he’s going to meet Attila and anyone who wants to come can join him. The two men meet up. Leo has just barely gotten off his horse when the mighty Attila throws himself at his feet!

Attila begs Leo to tell him what he wants. And Leo knows exactly what he wants! He wants Attila to leave Italy and release all of his Christian prisoners. (Apparently, Leo was not particularly concerned about anyone who was not a Christian.) The story doesn’t explicitly say whether or not Attila actually did this (as a side note, Attila did, in fact, leave Italy), but it does say how angry and shocked the Huns are at Attila’s conduct in front of Leo:

“And his servants reproved him that the triumphing prince of the world should be overcome of a priest.” (christianiconography.info)

Attila has an ominous response for his critics:

“I have provided for myself and to you. I saw on his right side a knight standing with a sword drawn and saying to me: But if thou spare this man thou shalt be slain, and all thy men.” (sourcebooks.fordham.edu)

And that’s the story of Leo and Attila’s meeting! Let’s start analyzing it.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies, collected by a friar named Jacobus de Voragine. While he didn’t write all of the stories himself, he was still a Christian, thus he has a Christain worldview. His intended audience is made of Christians as well. Furthermore, this story was written by Paul the Deacon who was also a Christian, thus he would be affected by a similar worldview/motive as Jacobus de Voragine. Hagiographies are biographies of saints and they are supposed to tell of the miracles they performed. So it’s only natural that the story is going to focus on the miracles done by and the holiness of Pope Leo.

Historically, Attila and Leo met and they negotiated for peace. In reality, how exactly Leo got Attila to leave probably wasn’t due to an angel or what have you threatening Attila and his people with physical violence. There were definitely earthly matters at play. (Earthly matters such as the famine, sickness, armies fighting back, and perhaps even a ton of money from the government to get them to go away. All of which are fantastic incentives for any invader to think to themselves, ‘Huh. Maybe trying to take over this country is more hassle than its worth.’)

Personally, I don’t think Attila was actually threatened by a knight only he could see. It’s entirely possible he had a vision, but I don’t think it’s plausible. However, whether or not Attila actually had a vision isn’t really the point of the story. The point of the text is to show that Leo is holy, Heaven says he’s holy, and Leo is saving Christians from heathen invaders.

 

 

Main Sources:

https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/leo.htm

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Leo

The Golden Legend: Readings on Saints–Google Books

 

Other Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Attila-king-of-the-Huns

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns#In_Christian_hagiography

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Leo_I#Leo_and_Attila

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Deacon

Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend

The other day I was browsing the manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV looking for images to feature on my Instagram account. While doing so I came across this bit of marginalia:

Pope Leo getting his hand chopped off | Royal MS 10 E IV f.194v | Source: The British Library

Naturally, I was a bit curious. What was going on here? Why had that man just chopped off both of the other man’s hands? Why was he wearing that hat? And why is everyone so nonchalant about this? My questions only grew when I went to the next page and saw this:

Pope Leo with no hands and missing a foot with the Virgin Mary and an angel | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195r | Source: The British Library

Now things were becoming stranger! Why no foot? Why was this happening in front of a church? What was that angel doing there? Was the woman the Virgin Mary or a queen? What was going on? Finally I went to the next page and was greeted with another picture:

Pope Leo and The Virgin Mary | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195v | Source: The British Library

At this point, my curiosity was overwhelming. I knew it was time to do a bit of research. Luckily for me, Royal MS 10 E IV’s content caption on the British Library’s website is pretty detailed. (Sometimes it’s not.) I quickly discovered that these are illustrations from The Golden Legend.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies (or in other words, biographies of saints). The stories were collected by a Dominican friar (then archbishop) named Jacobus de Voragine. He wrote this text around the year 1260. For a while, The Golden Legend was one of the most popular printed book in Europe. Once the printing press was invented of course! That being said, it was also a pretty popular book before the printing press. At least 900 (perhaps more!) manuscripts survive. Some of these manuscripts are abridged versions of the full text. In 1900 Temple Classics published a seven-volume version of The Golden Legend, so it’s no wonder some scribes decided to make a few cuts!

Despite The Golden Legend’s popularity, during the sixteenth century, it became significantly less relevant. The text wasn’t printed as much and people were starting to question the sources Jacobus de Voragine had used. Eventually, The Golden Legend stopped being seen as a reliable source of information. Which is fair. Sometimes the lives of saints can be a bit unrealistic if you don’t believe in miracles. (And I say this as a person who considers himself culturally Catholic.) It probably also didn’t help that Jacobus de Voragine’s etymologies of the saints’ names are not the most accurate.

That all being said, The Golden Legend was still an important text for hagiographies. Even if you don’t believe everything in it, it can still be fun to read stories about the marvelous.

 

Sources:

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/

https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691154077/the-golden-legend  (The book description, not the book itself)

The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History By Sherry L. Reames

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: What Happens When Novices Return to the World

Today we have another cautionary tale of what happens when a novice attempts to return to the world after taking vows. It is also another example of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s dislike of knights.

Chapter Fifteen focuses on an old ex-knight named Benneco. Our narrator, The Monk, knew Benneco personally and they happened to be novices at the same time. Despite Benneco’s age, he wasn’t particularly religious. He was also pretty flip-floppy about whether or not he actually wanted to be a monk. As a result, he had a tendency to saunter back to the secular world and then come sauntering back to the monastery. The Monk uses a lovely metaphor when describing this:

“[Benneco] would not listen to the advice of his brethren, and as a dog to his vomit, so did the wretched man return to the world.” (pg. 22)

(I will note that this is not the first time Caesarius of Heisterbach uses the ‘dog to vomit’ metaphor in The Dialogue on Miracles. He seems to love this metaphor.)

Royal 11 D IX f. 213v Novice returning to the world

Novice returning to the world | Royal 11 D IX f. 213v | Source: The British Library

Even though Benneco leaves once, he does come back again. The Rule of Saint Benedict (the guide monastic orders follow) tolerates a monk running away and returning three times. After the third time, the hesitancy is deemed ridiculous and the monk isn’t allowed back at all. In Benneco’s case, he leaves a second time to return to his secular home. There he falls extremely ill. Unfortunately for Benneco, he isn’t given a third chance. Instead, he dies an unrepentant secular man.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Why is this considered a miracle? It’s just some old guy dying.’ And that’s a good question! See, while Benneco is dying there’s a storm going on outside. But it’s not just any storm. This storm is specifically happening outside Benneco’s house and from the wording, it appears to only be happening around his house. To make things spookier, a ton of crows are flying over the roof. The omens freak everyone in the house out and they book it out of there. Well, except for an old woman. She stays.

The Monk ends the tale with this extremely forboding one-liner:

“See then how they die, who depart from God.” (pg. 22)

The Novice lightly comments how all the omens must be the result of demons and The Monk agrees. The Monk then goes on to warn his young student that anyone who unrepentantly looks back from the monastic life is doomed to Hell. He adds in a bible verse to further emphasize his point. After all, you can’t doubt what Jesus says!

But The Novice does. Not fully convinced, he points out that in The Rule of Saint Benedict things are much more lenient for people who want to leave:

“If it is so mortal a sin for a novice to return to the world, what then is the meaning of S. Benedict’s instruction that when the rule has been read over to the novice, it should be said to him: ‘” This is the law under which thou desirest to enlist; if thou canst: keep it, go forward; if not, go in peace.”‘ (pg. 23)

Once called out, the Monk quickly comes up with an excuse. Being that Saint Benedict thinks leaving is a horrible thing to do but if you are going to do so, you should do it as a novice, not as a full-blown monk. Furthermore, once you’re a novice you can leave your monastery but you can’t leave the monastic life. (It’s all very contradictory, however, this could be due to a translation error.) And if you want to leave the monastery or Order you have to get special permission from the Pope. To stress just how serious monastic vows are, The Monk explains that even secular people who have made vows to the abbot must follow them. They are no longer allowed to have a secular career or get married.

Clearly, this story is an attempt at making sure no novices leave the monastery. It’s easier to make a reluctant person stay through fear then sheer faith. It’s definitely a sketchy practice, though, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way monks made sure their brethren couldn’t leave if they wanted to. (But that’s another article for another day!)

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n45/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Time an Angel Shamed a Prior for Not Listening to a Monk’s Confession

Today’s post will be on the latter half of Book One, Chapter Six of Dialogue on Miracles. I’ve decided to focus on the second half as it’s a fascinating story filled with angels, confessions, and some good old fashioned Catholic guilt. The first half discusses what is better for the soul, going on a crusade, pilgrimages, or becoming a monk. While it does give us this zinger:

“Novice.—You think then that the Order is a higher vocation than a pilgrimage?

Monk.—It is judged higher, not by my authority, but by that of the Church.”

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 13)

I’m more interested in a story about an angel than that debate. (And I have strong feelings about people forcing others to convert to their religion, so I’m not going to touch that, lest this becomes an angry rant. If you’re interested in reading exactly what Caesarius has to say on the matter, there is a link to this chapter at the end of the post.)

 

Harley MS 1527 f.4v

Pretty Sure This is Zechariah Being Struck by an Angel, But I’m Not 100% Sure. Either Way, That Angel is Really Letting Him Have It And an Angry Angel is Relevant to Today’s Article | Harley MS 1527 f.4v | Source: The British Library

 

Starting at the top of page 14, the Monk sets the scene by giving the Novice a bit of context regarding the setting of the tale. A man and his buddy Walter have become monks after listening to Saint Bernard preach. Oddly enough, Walter is given a name despite barely being mentioned again, while the man the story is actually about is never named. After living at Clairvaux Abbey for a bit, a group of monks is going to Aulne. The man wants to join them, however, he doesn’t want to ask permission to go because he thinks his abbot will think he only wants to leave for a change of scenery. But he really wants to go, so he prays on it.

Luckily for the man, God happens to be listening. “A voice came to him” (pg. 14), basically tells him to just ask, and he’ll get what he wants if he actually makes the request. So the man does. His abbot says yes and gives him his blessing. So off the man goes to Aulne with Walter. And it’s a good thing he went too as he’s made the convent’s prior soon after his arrival.

One day the new prior is saying sext. (One of the Divine Offices, not the other definition!) As he’s doing so, a monk signs to him requesting the prior listen to his confession. Because the prior is, you know, busy saying the service, he signs back telling him to wait until he’s done.

Eventually, sext is over. They go into the choir (the part of the church where monks sit/stand to pray, not a choir that sings) so the prior can listen to the monk’s confession.

However, not is all as it seems. The monk isn’t the monk. Instead, it’s his guardian angel in disguise. And it’s a good disguise too. He looks exactly like the man, from his physical appearance to the clothes he’s wearing. But the prior does not know this. Well, not at first. It’s only when the prior goes to help the angel up after he “prostrated himself” (pg. 14) at his feet does he realize it’s an angel. But only because the angel disappeared before he could do so!

It occurs to the prior that this God’s way of scolding him for making the monk wait a bit for confession. After all, confession is good for the soul. Denying people salvation isn’t a great look. To drive the point home, the narrator Monk offers this nugget of wisdom to the Novice:

“When our superiors refuse us that which they are bound to use for our soul’s health, and especially that which is suggested to us by our guardian angel for our help, it is as if the refusal were made to the angels themselves.

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 14)

(Emphasis mine.)

After the disappearing angel incident, the prior immediately calls the monk who wanted confession over so he can perform the sacrament. The monk, feeling guilty about asking while the prior is busy, basically tells him that it’s alright and he can wait until tomorrow.

This is not satisfactory for the prior.

Still feeling his own guilt thanks to the angel, the prior threatens not to eat until he hears the monk’s confession. It just happens to be dinner time, so if he misses that meal he can’t eat for a while. Sufficiently guilty (and probably quite alarmed!) the monk obeys.

Then the prior makes a vow to God that no matter the time, how busy he is, or even if he’s in an Extremely Important Divine Office, he will always hear confession whenever he is asked to do so.

 

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n35/mode/2up