Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Noble Man Who Decided to Convert After Watching Some Monks Get Whipped

It’s been a hectic week for me, so I’ve decided to skip ahead in The Dialogue on Miracles and write about one of the shorter chapters. Usually, I try to be academic on this blog, however today we will be a bit more relaxed as this is one of the stranger parts of the text. (At least it is strange to my 21st century way of thinking!) I am focusing on Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two, “Of the conversion of Dom Adolphus, bishop of Osnaburg” (pg. 31).

In this story our main character is a young man named Dom Adolphus. He was from a noble family, but in his youth he was a canon of Cologne. One day he went to Kloster Camp. (AKA Kamp Abbey, Altenkamp Abbey, Alt(en)feld Abbey, or Camp Abbey. The place sure does have a lot of names!) While there, Dom Adolphus went to mass. However, that’s not the interesting part of this chapter. The interesting part is what Dom Adolphus saw while he was praying after the service.

Once mass was over, the monks in the monastery rushed to the different altars for confession. As part of their penance the monks had to remove their habits (at least the part covering their backs!) and be whipped. And Caesarius of Heisterbach’s narrator is careful to note that monks of all ages were doing this. So the young and the elderly were whipped while “humbly confessing his sins” (pg. 31). They must have had amazing self-control to be humble and calm while they were being beaten!

Now you would think that this sight would alarm Dom Adolphus. Or if it didn’t alarm him, you would think he would be glad that he wasn’t in the monks’ position. Well, if you thought that (which is a valid way of thinking, by the way) you are very wrong. Instead of being freaked out, the sight of a bunch of monks being beaten made Dom Adolphus want to become a monk himself! It’s definitely interesting that the prospect of physical punishment made this man decide to change careers. This may be blasphemous, but it makes me wonder if Dom Adolphus was thrilled about being whipped for reasons that were not entirely holy. If that’s the case, becoming a monk is not a great way of going about to achieve those desires.

As you can probably guess from the chapter title, Dom Adolphus didn’t stay a monk for long. Soon after becoming a monk he was made bishop of Osnaburg. (Or as the area is called now, Osnabrück.) Interestingly, the text explicitly states that Dom Adolphus was “recommended both by his noble birth and his sanctity” (pg. 3) for the bishopric. However, if I had to guess, I think his noble birth probably had more to do with his new position than his sanctity!

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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/n53/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Puppy Thing

Content Warning: Animal Abuse

Today we have a rather grisly chapter. It is so grisly and the logic behind this is so incredibly stupid, that this article will mostly be a rant. So just a heads up in case you are expecting my usual semi-academic content. There is really no other way to go about this other than a rant.

To start off, Chapter Fourteen is a cautionary tale about what will happen to you if you (a novice) decide to run away from your monastery. Long story short (which you can read in full in the source down below) this novice named Leo is convinced to return to the world by his brothers. (Who are, of course, knights.) They convince him to return because of his debts and once Leo has paid them off he can go back to being a monk.

 

Royal MS 20 A II f.8v King John with his Dogs
Unrelated to the story, but here’s a drawing of King John of England and some of his dogs. | Royal MS 20 A II f.8v | Source: The British Library

 

Leo goes and does not return. In fact, his sinning is even worse now that he has returned to the world!

So Leo goes back to his old job as a canon. He ends up spending most of his money on prostitutes than on actually paying his debts.

After a few years of being lustful, he eventually gets really, really sick. The side effect of this illness (blamed on “the just judgment of God” (pg. 22) by our narrator Monk) is madness. When his friends try to convince him to say confession and take communion, Leo is so unwell and so mentally out of it that he just keeps yelling out the names of all the women he’s slept with. Not exactly a great thing to say when someone is trying to talk to you about God!

Obviously, Leo’s friends want to comfort him. He’s dying and scared and wants people to be there that are not there. So what do they do? What bright idea do these idiots have? Do they go fetch Leo’s favorite prostitute to comfort him? Do they get Leo’s second favorite prostitute to hold his hand? Do they get any of the women he so desperately wants by his side as he dies? (They know their names after all! Theoretically, they could find them!)

No. They do none of those things.

Instead, they have the bright idea to do this:

“Then they cut up puppies and placed their warm flesh upon his head as if for a remedy…” (pg. 22)

Yup. You read that right. Leo’s friends CUT UP PUPPIES AND PUT THE BODIES ON HIM. Like WTF. Why would anyone think that was a good idea?! And it raises so many questions too! Where did they get the puppies? Were they just strays? If not, did they buy them? Where did they buy them from? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to find the women Leo wanted then chase down a bunch of dogs? Where did they cut the puppies? How bloody was it? AND WHY ON EARTH DID THEY THINK THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE?!

And the Monk just says this all like it’s a super normal thing to do! Like puppy dismemberment is a common practice to cure a dying person’s madness! He doesn’t even comment on it! All the Monk says is this:

“…for no flesh could heal his madness, which was sent him as the penalty of apostasy.” (pg. 22)

That’s it! That is the most commentary we get on the whole scenario! Just how madness was his punishment for running away! No comment on the puppy thing!

And no. No, it does not work. And if I had to guess, I’m sure the dead puppies made his madness worse.

 

 

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/n43/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: Men Attempting to Become Monks for All the Wrong Reasons

Just because someone wants to become a monk, doesn’t mean that they should. Sometimes they try to become monks because the devil is making them do it, sometimes they just want to steal stuff, and other times they have a really bad gambling addiction and see no other way out of their debts. Today’s article will be discussing Chapters Nine through Twelve of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Each chapter is pretty short, so if you’re interested in reading them in full, I’ve provided a link to page 17 at the end of this article.

Our first story is from Book One, Chapter Nine. A doctor named Stephen de Vitry has decided that he wants to be a monk at Clairvaux Abbey. He’s educated, important, and everyone knows who he is. At least it’s implied that everyone knows who he is as “the whole valley was rejoicing at his coming” and they are positively thrilled that the monastery will receive “so important a convert” (pg. 18). However, things are not as they seem.

 

Picture from Harley MS 1527 f.50r Monks are talking to Christ while a demon talks to the monk. Writing in Latin is on the left side of the picture.
Monks talking to Christ (?) and a demon talking to the monks.  | Harley MS 1527 f.50r | Source: The British Library

 

Everyone else may be excited Stephen wants to be a monk, but our good friend St. Bernard is suspicious. He has a bad feeling that Stephen isn’t there for the right reasons. And he’s not. Turns out that the devil convinced him to be a novice so Stephen can lure more committed novices back into the secular world. Specifically, novices that Stephen taught through letters.

Despite St. Bernard’s concerns regarding Stephen’s predatory nature, he lets the man be a novice. Though he only does this so “he might not cause pain to the weaker brethren” (pg. 18). I believe this means that St. Bernard doesn’t want to upset the more delicate monks by telling them that the famous Stephen de Vitry is a jerk. Or maybe St. Bernard just didn’t want to listen to people pester him about letting Stephen in. Either way, he lets the man in despite the fact Stephen will never become a monk.

And Stephen de Vitry doesn’t. He spends the year of his novitiate trying to lure other novices back to the secular world (or at least the “evil spirit” (pg. 18) in Stephen does) but to no avail. None of the novices are tempted and Stephen leaves the monastery, humiliated.

Chapter Ten begins with two priests coming to Heisterbach Abbey to become monks. As is custom, they are turned away. After all, how do you know someone really wants to be a monk unless they spend a few days begging to be let in? One of the priests skedaddles, but the other, Goswin, begs so much and so hard that eventually he’s let in.

He’s there for less than six weeks before he takes a bunch of stuff and flees. (It is not specified what exactly that stuff is.) Turns out Goswin didn’t actually want to join the monastery. Literally, the only reason he was there was to steal “in obedience to the orders of him who had brought him there” (pg. 18).

 

 

A medieval drawing of a boy in a cherry tree eating/stealing the cherries. Under the tree is a man with a club.
A boy stealing cherries from a tree. (Not exactly related to chapter ten, but theft is still occurring!) | Add MS 42130 f.196v | Source: The British Library

 

 

After the Monk tells this story (there’s a reason this text is called Dialogue on Miracles!), the Novice suggests that maybe, just maybe, Goswin came to the monastery with a genuine desire to be a monk. His hopeful suggestion is answered with an extremely blunt “Assuredly not” (pg. 18).

The Monk goes on to explain that theft was Goswin’s intention the entire time. He knows this because a lay brother overheard Goswin and his friend plotting to lie to the monks. It makes you wonder why the lay brother neglected to tell any superior about what he heard. Though in the lay brother’s defense he didn’t actually overhear them mention any sort of specific scheme for thievery. But still. Blatantly discussing lying is something you mention to the people in charge. Especially when there is a heavy vetting process for new monastic recruits!

However, our good Monk does not go into this further. Instead, he begins the story of the next chapter.

Chapter Eleven is about a young canon with a severe gambling addiction. The canon is from Cologne. According to Google Maps, it is about an eight-hour walk from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey or twenty-three miles. So it’s long-distance but not undoable. (The trip can definitely be done on an impulse, is what I’m saying.)

 

Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey
Google Maps Screenshot of Path from Cologne to Heisterbach Abbey

 

When the canon arrives, the younger monks are thrilled that he wants to join their community. They are so excited that they beg and beg and beg the abbot, Gevard. Despite their extremely annoying pleas, Gevard says no. See, Gevard has more than two brain cells. It’s pretty obvious to him that the canon is only there because he has a severe gambling addiction. Gevard knows this because by the time the canon arrived he had already gambled away the majority of his clothes and is only wearing a tunic. After being told to leave, the canon goes back to Cologne and he never mentions wanting to be a monk again.

While this reaction by the abbot may seem harsh, it’s pretty obvious the canon was just coming to the monastery to run away from all his problems. As stated before, it was common practice to refuse entry to any new recruit a few times before letting them become a novice. (Chapter Fifty-Eight of The Rule of Saint Benedict goes into this practice in detail!) Again, you want to make sure the newest member of the community is there for the right reasons. And speaking of reasons a person may try to be a monk, Chapter Eleven isn’t the only story of a man attempting to join a monastic community to escape his gambling debts.

Chapter Twelve tells the story of a youth deep in debt. Or to be more specific, a youth from a noble and wealthy family (so someone relatively important). The youth came to the monastery without telling his parents. The Monk comments on how it was relatively easy for him to become a novice (in stark contrast to the others who struggled to get in!). The Monk also comments on how he’s not going to name who the youth is as he really hopes that the young man will come back and he doesn’t want to embarrass the kid. (Though I suspect the fact that the youth’s family is rich and powerful is another reason the Monk is keeping quiet!)

A few days after the youth becomes a novice, his friends show up to bring him home.  Apparently, the only reason he wanted to be a monk in the first place was because he lost a good amount of money at a game, and in his humiliation, he panicked. To quote the text:

“They knew that he had lost a sum of money at some game and had taken the vows more from chagrin than from devotion.” (pg. 19)

His friends spend an unspecified amount of time trying to convince him to come back home. Eventually, they tell the youth that he really should pay off his debt, and once he does that he can come back ASAP. (Monks can’t own anything thus he can’t pay people back while at the monastery.) The youth deems this a good argument and goes with them.

It seems that the youth came to his senses about his devotion because the last few sentences of Chapter Twelve is dedicated to how he had to go through a bunch of legal processes to prove he made his vows “thoughtlessly and in distress and confusion of mind” (pg. 20). And to add the cherry on top, the youth assures them all if he had made his vows while in a state of mental clarity, he totally would have stayed.

In my opinion, I think the youth’s friends were doing him a solid by taking him home, but the Monk certainly doesn’t see it like that! He refers to the friends as “cunning” and in general his phrasing has a lot of negative connotations.

 

 

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/n39/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Prologue

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles starts out in a way I’ve found quite a few older texts documenting extreme events do. It begins with the author saying how they were forced to write this, they didn’t want to do it, how they aren’t fit to do so, and to please excuse any mistakes the reader finds throughout the work. By doing so, Caesarius pushes the blame on others in case he misremembered anything as well as remaining humble about the effort he put into the text. The man is a monk after all!

 

838px-Caesarius_of_Heisterbach,_Dialogus_miraculorum
A Page From a Medieval Copy of Dialogue on Miracles | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The prologue also begins by saying how he was requested to write this so the stories wouldn’t be lost to history. Which, in my opinion, is a valid reason to write anything down. (Even the littlest of fragments can help future historians piece together a bigger picture.) Caesarius goes on to explain the format of the text. In that, it is written as a dialogue and divided into twelve separate books. (For a list of the book topics, I wrote that here.)

Then he gives a brief summary of what the reader can expect to find in the text. The stories include events occurring within and outside of the Cistercian Order. His reason for doing so is relatively simple. Whether or not the stories are about monks, they still provide moral instruction for the reader. Plus the stories were told to him by religious men so there is a kind of validity in that. And if there isn’t, Caesarius is quick to point out that he made absolutely nothing up, everything he’s written down is how it was told to him, and if anything he wrote down was wrong it’s the person telling him the story’s fault, not him.

There is quite a bit of deflection in the prologue.

After this, Caesarius explains his reasons for writing each topic of the book. That paragraph gives us this gem:

“Temptation holds the fourth place, because there are four who tempt us : God, the devil, the world and the flesh. The fifth place is suitable for the devil, because five is the apostate number. The sixth for simplicity, for six is the number of perfection, and simplicity is that which makes ‘the whole body full of light’ (Matt. vi. 22).”

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 2)

I find it particularly interesting that God is included in the list regarding humanity’s temptation. I also find it interesting that five is considered a good number for Satan instead of six. Nowadays, it’s six that has demonic connotations. (Or at least the number 666.) It makes me wonder what has changed and why Caesarius did not like the number five!

Finally, the prologue ends with a few biblical bread references.

 

 

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/n21/mode/2up