The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)

The Lord listening to confession | Add MS 42130 f.185v | The British Library

In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.

The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.

Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.

There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)

  1. Old English Introduction
  2. Excarpsus Cummeani
  3. Penitential of Finnian
  4. Scriftboc
  5. Canons of Theodore 
  6. Old English Penitential 
  7. Egbert’s Penitential
  8. Old English Handbook 

Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.

Sources:

Frantzen, A. (n.d.). Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/?p=index

Frantzen, Allen J. “The Tradition of Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 11, 1983, pp. 23–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44510760. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Oakley, Thomas P. “The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History.” Speculum, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, pp. 210–223. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050.

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Seven, The Details Regarding Divine Office

Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of Signifying the Hour for the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 62). This short chapter is split into two sections, each about a sentence long. The first section instructs the abbot on how he should call his monks for Divine Office (or the Work of God as Saint Benedict calls it in the chapter title). The second section explains other little practicalities that must be taken into account when singing the Divine Office.

The beginning of Chapter Forty-Seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.75r | Source: The British Library

The first section of the text begins by saying how it’s the abbot’s responsibility to call the monks for services, whether it’s day or night. Or if the abbot isn’t able to do this himself, he is to find a “careful brother” (SB, pg. 62) to do it for him. Saint Benedict stresses how important it is “that all things may be done at the appointed times” (SB, pg. 62). As The Rule of Saint Benedict was written long before the invention of alarm clocks, this may have been easier said than done!

However, Terrence G. Kardong argues that Saint Benedict isn’t really talking “about punctuality as he is about prompt response” (pg. 379). This wouldn’t be the first time Saint Benedict expects his monks to respond immediately when called. (In Chapter Forty-Three he stresses how important Divine Offices are and what happens to monks who are late.) In a time before reliable clocks, one really can’t argue whether or not they still have a few minutes before they truly need to be in a certain place. Now days you can look at your watch/phone/laptop/microwave/whatever and think, ‘Eh…I’ve got another minute before I need to go.’ But that isn’t the case for Saint Benedict’s monks. (At least not until they all got watches!) Instead, when the bells were rung (or a gong/wooden clapper was struck depending on what a monastery had) (Kardong, pg. 379) for Divine Office the monks were expected to show up when called.

The second section explains that the abbot should be the first one to begin singing the psalms and antiphons. Afterwards, the other monks can join in. But they can’t just start singing whenever they want! Instead, they are to sing “each in his order” (SB, pg. 62). Monastic communities were based on a hierarchical system. It wouldn’t be proper if someone lower in rank tried to sing before someone higher.

That isn’t the only case of Saint Benedict warning his monks to know their place in this particular chapter. He warns his monkish reader that “no one [should] presume to sing or to read” (SB, pg. 62) during Divine Office. This doesn’t refer to singing or reading in general. It refers to whoever is leading the service. However, it’s not as if an abbot would say ‘Who wants to lead today’s worship?’ as soon as everyone was at their place in the pews and monks would race to the pulpit. Monks were appointed to do so (K, pg. 380).

That being said, I find it within the realm of possibility that a monk may approach his abbot in private and request to lead the service. I can also imagine the abbot gently turning the monk down because he vastly overestimates his ability to do so in a way “that the hearers may be edified” (SB, pg. 62). After all, reading ancient manuscripts is not the easiest thing to do. Combined with the facts that the monk may not be completely literate, the prayers are in Latin—a language he may not totally understand—and the manuscripts have no punctuation (K, pg. 380), conducting services would be difficult to do without making more than a few mistakes. Again, I find it easy to imagine an over confident monk thinking he could do it successfully because he’s just started to become good at memorizing psalms. (And I’m sure we’ve all vastly overestimated our abilities to do something right, only to fail miserably. I know I have!)

Finally, this part of the text ends with this line:

“And let it be done with humility, gravity, and awe, and by those whom the Abbot hath appointed.” (SB, pg. 62).

By ending the chapter like this, Saint Benedict reminds his monks not only on how they should conduct services, but how they should act as monks in general. By being humble, serious, aware of their place before God, and by always obeying their abbot.

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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.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty, So You (a Medieval Monk) Have Been Really Bad. Now What?

Despite being men of God, monks didn’t always act holy. Saint Benedict knew that his monks were only human and that humans slip up and make mistakes. This post will be discussing chapters twenty-three through thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. While there are other chapters focusing on disciplining bad monks, they focus on minor faults. Today’s post concentrates on what a superior should do if a monk commits a grave fault.

 

ms. Roy.10.E.IV f.187r

A Monk and Nun in the Stocks | BL Royal MS 10 E IV f.187r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Three is titled “Of Excommunication for Offenses” (pg. 43). Here Saint Benedict lists out what actions are punishable by excommunication:

“If any brother shall be found contumacious, or disobedient, or proud, or a murmurer, or in any way transgressing the Holy Rule, and contemning the orders of his seniors…” (pg. 43)

However, just because a monk does any of these things, it doesn’t mean he should be immediately excommunicated. (Which I will note isn’t necessarily kicking the monk out of the monastery, never to return. I’ll go into more detail about that later on in this post.) Instead, Saint Benedict allows the Abbot to give the monk a little bit of leniency. For the first offense, a monk should “be once or twice privately admonished by his elders” (pg. 43). When you speak to someone privately about their wrongdoings, you can avoid the anger and defensiveness that usually comes out when someone is called out publicly. It also allows the monk some time to reflect and correct himself.

If a monk keeps acting out despite being privately spoken to, “let him be rebuked in public before all” (pg. 43). Unfortunately, some people only change their ways after a bit of public humiliation. That being said, sometimes neither of these tactics work. If the monk is still misbehaving, then “let him be subjected to excommunication, provided that he understand the nature of the punishment” (pg. 43). What happens if a monk doesn’t get why excommunication is so bad? Well, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk “undergo corporal chastisement” (pg. 43).

Chapter Twenty-Four is titled “What the Measure of Excommunication should be” (pg. 43). Here excommunication is a way to isolate the misbehaving monk from the community at large. (Verses permanently throwing the man out on the street.) Saint Benedict reminds his reader that the punishment should fit the crime. Depending on “the gravity of the offence [sic]” how severe the punishment is “left to the judgment of the Abbot” (pg. 43). This is a wise way of going about things. Needless to say, if one monk murders another monk in cold blood, privately talking to him isn’t exactly an effective punishment. Letting an Abbot make his own judgments allows him to look at the surrounding circumstances of the original crime.

The text goes on to describe the proper punishment for “any brother…found guilty of lighter faults” (pg. 43). Saint Benedict recommends that the bad monk “be excluded from the common table” (pg. 43). Not only does he have to “take his meals alone” but a bad monk has to eat “after those of the brethren” (pg. 43). However, the monk can’t eat immediately after his fellow monks are done. He has to wait and be hungry for a good amount of time before he can eat too. So if the community usually eats “at the sixth hour” the bad monk will “eat at the ninth” (pg. 43). And if they usually “eat at the ninth” the monk has to wait to “eat in the evening” (pg. 43). This goes on “until by proper satisfaction he obtain pardon” (pg. 43).

Being excluded doesn’t just mean being left out at mealtimes. It also means being left out of other group activities. This includes worshipping as well:

“And this shall be the rule for one so deprived: he shall intone neither Psalm nor antiphon in the Oratory, nor shall he read a lesson, until he have made satisfaction.” (pg. 43)

 

monks-singing-2635cc

Monks Worshipping | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Twenty-Five is titled “Of Graver Faults” (pg. 44). Here Saint Benedict goes into detail for the punishments suitable for monks who really mess up. Not only is the monk “excluded both from the table and from the Oratory” (pg. 44) like he would be if he just committed a lesser fault, he is also excluded from the monastic community at large. Meaning that “none of the brethren [are allowed to] consort with him or speak to him” (pg. 44). The monk is isolated in all things. He is to “be alone at the work enjoined him” as well as “take his portion of food alone” (pg. 44).

Because he has committed a grave fault, the monk doesn’t just eat a few hours after everyone else. Instead, his food will be “in the measure and at the time that the Abbot shall think best for him” (pg. 44). This means that the abbot may limit the bad monk’s food portions and make him wait all day until he is allowed to eat. This type of control could either be an effective enough punishment or something that a power-hungry (pun unintended) Abbot would take advantage of to the extreme.

The bad monk’s complete isolation is added to with the last sentence of this chapter:

“Let none of those who pass by bless him, nor the food that is given him.” (pg. 44)

If the bad monk isn’t even allowed to be blessed, then that means he really screwed up. But what happens if another monk talks to him anyway? Well, Saint Benedict covers that in the next chapter!

Chapter Twenty-Six is titled “Of those who, without Leave of the Abbot, Consort with the Excommunicate” (pg. 44). This particular chapter is insanely short. It’s only one sentence. That being said, Saint Benedict really only needs to make his point in one sentence:

“If any brother presume without the Abbot’s leave to hold any intercourse whatever with an excommunicated brother, or to speak with him, or to send him a message, let him incur the same punishment of excommunication.” (pg. 44)

One thing I find particularly notable about this passage is how Saint Benedict closes up any potential loopholes. I can imagine a monk saying to his abbot, ‘I only sent him a letter, I didn’t actually talk to him’ in an attempt to avoid getting in trouble himself. It’s also interesting that Saint Benedict is sure to specify that monks are only allowed to talk to their punished brethren with the permission of their abbot. Even if a monk is shunned from the community, eventually there will need to be communication between the two parties. By giving the other monks permission through the abbot, Saint Benedict is relieving the anxiety a monk might have about being punished themselves.

Chapter Twenty-Seven is titled “How Careful the Abbot should be of the Excommunicate” (pg. 45). Here Saint Benedict argues that while an excommunicated monk is still in trouble, an abbot shouldn’t treat him so harshly that the monk gives up on being good forever. Instead, an abbot should “show all care and solicitude towards the offending brethren” (pg. 45). One tactic includes “sending some brethren of mature years and wisdom” to “secretly, console the wavering brother” (pg. 45). The older monks are to “comfort him, that he be not overwhelmed by excess of sorrow” (pg. 45). This section of the text certainly gives a lot more context to the loophole about receiving an abbot’s permission to talk to the fallen monk!

While no one is allowed to bless the bad monk or his food, Saint Benedict encourages “all pray for him” (pg. 45). An abbot needs to “use the greatest care…not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him” (pg. 45). After all, an abbot “hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls” (pg. 45). It’s his job to make sure those who stray come back to the righteous path. If he doesn’t, he’ll face the consequences on Judgment Day.

 

Royal MS 6 E VI:1 f.57r

Judgment Day | Royal MS 6 E VI/1 f.57r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight is titled “Of those Who, being Often Corrected, do not Amend” (pg. 46). Here the text details what an abbot should do if the bad monk refuses to behave himself. These punishments should be given to a monk who “has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated” (pg. 46). If a monk has been told not to do something and he keeps doing it, then it’s time for “the punishment of stripes” (pg. 46), or corporal punishment. And of course, during this time it is vital for the monk to say “his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him” (pg. 46).

But what happens if a monk is still bad even if you hit him? What if he keeps doing the things he’s not supposed to despite the community’s prayers? What if he “even wish to defend his deeds” (pg. 46)? Well, it’s important to note that excommunication and hitting the monk is supposed to be “the last remedy” (pg. 46). So, if you’ve done absolutely everything that Saint Benedict has recommended these last few chapters and the monk is still misbehaving then it’s time for “the Abbot [to] use the sword of separation” (pg. 46).  If an abbot doesn’t remove the problem monk then he runs the risk of “one diseased sheep…taint[ing] the whole flock” (pg. 46). However, kicking out a monk is only supposed to be the last resort.

Chapter Twenty-Nine is titled “Whether the Brethren who Leave the Monastery are to be Received Again” (pg. 46). This is another relatively short chapter. This part of the text explains how a community should handle a monk returning after he has either “through his own fault departeth or is cast out of the Monastery” (pg. 46). Not all monks/nuns who left their monasteries did so because they were kicked out. Some simply ran away! (The monastic life isn’t for everyone.) So what happens if a monk regrets leaving and wants to come back? He most certainly can, but there will be consequences for leaving in the first place.

The returning monk must “first to amend entirely the fault for which he went away” (pg. 47). After doing so, he will be welcomed back, but he will “be received back into the lowest place” (pg. 47) in the order of seniority. This is so “his humility may be tried” (pg. 47). This is to test the monk’s dedication to the monastic life. It’s important that the monk is returning for the right reasons and not just because he has nowhere else to go/is hungry/what have you. Monks leaving then coming back several times is implied to be an issue by the text. Saint Benedict specifically says:

“Should he again depart, let him be taken back until the third time: knowing that after this all return will be denied to him.” (pg. 47)

I think coming back three times is a reasonable amount. After three times, it starts to get a little ridiculous. Clearly, the monk isn’t returning for the right reasons.

 

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A Child Being Given to a Monastery as an Oblate |BL Royal 10 D VIII, f. 82v | Source: blogs.brown.edu

 

Our last chapter, Chapter Thirty is titled “How the Younger Boys are to be Corrected” (pg. 47). Once again, it is one of the shorter chapters in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Monasteries weren’t just full of men. Often times they had young children, called oblates, living there as well. Oblates were given to the monastery by their parents for various reasons. Here, it is explained how these boys should be punished.

The first sentence says that “every age and understanding should have its proper measure of discipline” (pg. 47). This is some good common sense. A five-year-old and a fifty-five-year-old should not be punished the same. Saint Benedict recognizes that if a child is “unable to understand the greatness of the penalty of excommunication” (pg. 47) he shouldn’t be excommunicated. However, Saint Benedict is also a product of his time and recommends that a naughty child “be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes” so “they may be cured” (pg. 47).

 

 

Main Source:

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.)

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 16, 2020.)

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

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

EDIT: In case you can’t access the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the PDF I used. That PDF can be accessed here.

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.

Brussels_Koninklijke_Bibliotheek_van_Belgie,_Bibliothèque_royale_de_Belgique_ms._3701-15_57

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.

Naissance_de_Philippe_Auguste

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.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

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.

The Time Bishop Germanus Stopped a Demon Storm and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In August I purchased a copy of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (or A History of the English Church and People as my copy is titled). It was only recently that I’ve finally gotten the chance to start reading it. Like a lot of medieval texts, especially ones documenting historical events, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History includes many wild stories. These wild stories include events that today’s science-based culture may write off as exaggerations or flat out false.

However, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter how “true” the stories are if you are reading a text for fun. They were written during a different time and in a different culture than our own. Thus, these stories offer a lot of insight into how people thought. (I’m also of the opinion that it’s fun to try to figure out the science behind miracle stories, but that isn’t what I’m doing today.)

Today, I want to talk about some of the chapters/events that I find particularly interesting or amusing. I have yet to finish An Ecclesiastical History (I’m only on page 70!), so I’m more than positive that I’ll be writing another blog post about the text. For reference, I’m reading the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt I’ve selected isn’t a complete story, but part of one. It comes from Book One, Chapter One of An Ecclesiastical History. Early Britain was filled with many different groups of people. In the beginning, only Britons lived in Britain (hence the name). Eventually, the Scots (who were actually from Ireland) and the Picts migrated into Britain. Apparently, after the Picts settled in the north, they had to ask the Scots for wives because they didn’t bring any women with them. The Scots agreed under the condition that if any dispute occurred, the Picts would choose a king from the female royal line, instead of the male royal line. The Picts agreed to this and the practice was still going on when Bede wrote An Ecclesiastical History.

The second excerpt I’ve chosen comes from Book One, Chapter Seven. This particular chapter tells the story of how Saint Alban was martyred. Saint Alban is the first person to be martyred in Britain (at least he’s the first recorded one). While the account is super interesting and full of miracles, I’ll save the full story for another post. What I want to focus on is Saint Alban’s first executioner.

 

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The martyrdom of St Alban | MS E. I. 40, folio 38r | Source: Wikipedia

 

After the first executioner saw Saint Alban perform some miracles, he refused to kill him. As a result, he was executed alongside the saint. Bede notes that even though the first executioner wasn’t baptized, it was decided that he could still go to Heaven. Now, if you aren’t familiar with early Catholicism, this is a Big Deal. One belief was that if you weren’t baptized, you couldn’t go to Heaven. This included babies. That’s why emergency baptisms were a thing. Even if you weren’t a priest you could baptize infants. Heck, even if you were pagan or Jewish you could perform an emergency baptism! (I’ll add that in modern-day Catholicism the belief has changed. Now babies can get into Heaven even if they aren’t baptized.) The fact that people thought the first executioner was qualified to get into Heaven for converting and refusing to kill Saint Alban is definitely something that jumped out at me.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fourteen. This is another small event that I found notable. During most of the early chapters, the Britons are repeatedly getting slaughtered by invaders. However, in this story, the Britons finally are able to defend themselves. After the Britons “drive the Barbarians out of their land” (Bede’s words, not mine on page 54), they are finally able to cut a break. They’re able to grow a lot of corn. With this surplus, the Britons are able to live lives of luxury. But with luxury comes corruption. According to Bede, the “increase in luxury, [was] followed by every kind of crime, especially cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood” (pg. 55). Things don’t really change much, do they?

(I will also add that Bede tells us that because the Britons fell into debauchery, God sends a plague to kill a lot of people. This plague results in more invasions from the north.)

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. As previously stated, things go bad for the Britons again. It’s the year 449 A.D. and the Picts and Scots are attacking again. The Briton king Vortigern decides to ask for help from “the Angles or Saxons”(pg. 55). They were two pagan tribes who lived in what is now modern-day Germany. They come to Britain and they do help. However, Britain is a really nice place and the Britons are “cowardly” (pg. 56) and it would be insanely easy to defeat them and settle down. Needless to say, there is another migration and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes make themselves at home. To add insult to injury, the Angles make an alliance with the Picts – the very people they were hired to conquer!

 

Vortigern_and_Rowena

Vortigern and Rowena by William Harvey | Source: Wikipedia

 

This alliance results in the Britons being slaughtered once again. Buildings are destroyed,  priests are murdered on their altars, people no matter their rank in society are also killed, “and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death” (pg. 57). Like other medieval writers, Bede exaggerates a little. There are still some Briton survivors. These survivors have either escaped overseas or run into the hills. The Britons who escape to the hills suffer many different fates. Some are captured and killed, others are also captured after surrendering due to hunger and are sold into slavery, and the remainder of those who escaped live “a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger” (pg. 57).

Bede makes this very clear that this horror is God punishing the Britons for getting too sinful during the events recorded in Book One, Chapter Fourteen. Personally, I think genocide is a harsh punishment for a few years of rampant corruption but apparently, Bede doesn’t share my view.

The fifth (and the final excerpt for today’s post) is from Book One, Chapter Seventeen.  Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tends to jump around a lot, so this event takes place twenty years before the fourth excerpt. The Pelagians are spreading around heretical views and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes are asked to stop them. They are both from Gaul (part of modern-day France) so they must cross the sea to get to Britain. At first, the wind is “favourable” (pg. 58), but halfway through their journey a storm picks up. According to Bede, this storm is caused by devils trying to stop Germanus and Lupus from “recall[ing] the Britons to the way of salvation” (pg. 58).

While the storm is happening (and the ship is essentially being destroyed) Germanus is sleeping. It’s only when almost all hope is lost do Lupus and their companions wake Germanus up “to oppose the fury of the elements” (pg. 59). Germanus is good in a crisis and he knows exactly what to do. Instead of panicking, Germanus “called upon Christ and cast a few drops of holy water on the waves in the Name of the Sacred Trinity” (pg. 59). As he did this, Germanus had his companions pray with him. Luckily for Germanus and Co., God heard them and made the devils go away.

Now, whether or not Germanus actually stopped a storm, isn’t really important to me. What is important is that Christ does the same thing in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course, Christ is able to calm the storm using only his words instead of holy water and prayers, but both figures are able to save their boats from capsizing. I also find it interesting that both Christ and Germanus are asleep before they stop the storm. Another early medieval account of Germanus’ life, Constantius of Lyon’s Vita Germani includes the story as well (however, here Germanus uses oil instead of holy water). Germanus’ similarities to Christ means that he was a respected figure to early medieval people. (This is further emphasized by his sainthood.)

 

Main Source:

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