Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.


Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

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,

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

An abbot and a monk holding books | Egerton MS 2019 f.231r | Source: The British Library


Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!


Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!


During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.


A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!


Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.


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 

Medieval Oblates: Who Were They?

Not all medieval monks had vocations. A good chunk of them had no choice about their monastic careers at all. Instead, they were donated to a monastery as children and raised to be the perfect monks. These boys are called oblates.

Parents Giving Their Child to a Monastery as an Oblate

In my research, I’ve found oblates to be a group that is often mentioned but hardly ever elaborated upon. To make things more difficult, there isn’t really a lot of information online about them. And if there is, it’s often not easily accessible or free. Most of the books I’ve seen on oblates are either no longer in print or incredibly expensive. Or if the information is not in book form, it is a thesis/paper/article that you need special access to get to. However, because I’ve been researching oblates for over a year now (I’m writing a novel about one!) I have managed to collect a number of sources. Due to my own frustrations about the lack of easily accessible information, I have decided to write a little series of articles about oblates on this blog (with sources down below of course!). Today my first article will answer the question, who were oblates?

As previously stated, oblates were boys donated to monasteries by their parents. Typically they were about five to seven years old, but they could be older. For example, the monk Orderic Vitalis was given to his monastery when he was around ten or eleven. Eventually the boy would grow up and take monastic vows to become an official monk. He could take vows as old as seventeen or as young as fourteen. The monk/Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc suggested that an oblate could take vows whenever his monastic community he was deemed emotionally mature enough to do so.

Why all the variation? Well, oblation occurred for quite a few centuries across different monastic orders. Because of this, certain aspects of the practice would change over time depending on where the oblate was and what order the oblate was given to. Some orders frowned upon oblates while others welcomed them with open arms. In fact, in the early Middle Ages oblation was the primary recruiting technique for Benedictine monasteries!




Cerling, Rebecca King. “Taking Their Place: Benedictine Child Oblates at Eleventh-Century Canterbury Cathedral Priory.” University of Southern California, 2014.

Hodgson, S. G. (2019). Climbing Ladders: Childhood and Monastic Formation in England, c.950-1200. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. (Can be found here.)

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009. (This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

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-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!


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 Sources:

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

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

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

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles: The Thief Who Became a Monk Just So He Could Steal Stuff

Today I want to jump right into Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles. Book One of the text is dedicated to stories regarding conversion—but not in the way you might think. In the context of Dialogue on Miracles, the word conversion isn’t referring to people becoming Christians. Instead, it refers to Christians becoming monks/nuns. Some of the chapters in Book One are more interesting than others, so I will be analyzing and summarizing the stories I find particularly fascinating. (That’s why I am starting with Chapter Three.)



Monk giving a chalice and host to Mary of Egypt | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 286 | Source:


Unlike my series on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I’ll only be directly quoting the text when the wording is amusing, sassy, or I feel like the reader needs more context. If you wish to read the chapter I’m discussing (and I recommend you do so because of the stuff in here is WILD), I’ve provided a link to that part of the text at the bottom of this post.

Chapter Three starts off with the Monk explaining who told him this tale: Brother Godfrey, the ex-canon of Saint Andrews in Cologne, presently living in the same monastery the Monk and the Novice reside at, who heard it from a monk at Clairvaux. By telling the Novice this, the Monk is providing what seems to be a reliable source. Sure he didn’t witness this event himself but someone he knows heard it from someone he knows who did. Basically, there this story has made it through several rounds of telephone before making its way to the text, implying some of the information may be wrong.

Wrong or not, the story continues.

A wandering clerk ends up at Clairvaux and decides to become a novice. But not because he actually has a holy calling or because he wants to be closer to God. He wants to be closer to something in that monastery and it’s the chalices. Yes, this clerk decided to become a novice just so he could steal some treasure. However, stealing chalices is much harder to do when you’re just a novice and aren’t actually allowed access to the treasury. (Probably because the monastery keeps having ‘novices’ attempt to steal their gold!)

The clerk keeps planning on his theft the entire time he’s a novice (a whole year!) but again, the treasury is guarded extremely well. Does he give up? Nope! Instead, he decides that he’ll just become a monk and then steal the chalices! After all, when he’s a monk he’ll have easy access to them at mass. So he waits out the entire year of his novitiate and is tonsured.

However, things aren’t as easy as that. God is keeping tabs on him.

Once the clerk puts on his new habit God strikes. Though not violently. When he’s officially a monk (“for no sooner had he put on his monk’s dress” (pg. 9)) the clerk realizes the error of his ways. Thanks to God’s mercy he converts for real, leading to him actually being a good monk. In fact, he’s so good at it he’s eventually made Prior of Clairvaux!

Now, you would think he would just confess his crimes to a priest and keep quiet about the whole I’m–Gonna–Become–A–Monk–So–I–Can–Steal–Stuff plot. If so, you would be wrong. (I sure was!) Instead of being quiet about the whole thing, it ends up being his go-to story with the novices. Apparently, the novices found it to be a good teaching tool.

* * *

Personally, I find this story to be a bit unbelievable. I know the whole point is to teach others about God’s mercy and grace, but I think it’s a whole lot of effort just to steal a few chalices. It’s certainly a long con. However, I’ve never gotten the urge to steal some cups, so what do I know? At first, I also found it unusual that the other brethren trusted the would-be thief enough to make him prior but upon further reflection, I realized that more powerful people have done much worse and that hasn’t stopped their careers.

In the end, an argument could be made that this was all part of God’s plan to convert the sinful clerk into an upstanding member of society. I do believe that’s the moral of the story.




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,

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!



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.




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,

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Six, Stopping Your Monks From Saying Dumb Stuff, or Silence in the Medieval Monastery

Whether it’s a monk only talking to complain or SNL’s skit about a monastery’s Super Bowl bets there quite a few jokes out there concerning silence in the monastery. But why should monks be quiet? Why is that even a thing? Well, according to chapter six of The Rule of Saint Benedict the answer is actually pretty simple:

‘”[I]n much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”‘ (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

I’m sure we’ve all said something really stupid because we weren’t thinking. (I know I have!) So what’s the easiest way to prevent your monks from constantly putting their feet in their mouths? By telling them to keep quiet of course! After all, idle talking can lead to sinful thoughts and sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions and sinful actions lead to an eternity in hell.

However, this doesn’t mean that most monks never spoke or talked to other members of the community. Later in The Rule Saint Benedict gives instructions on when monks can talk to each other and when they shouldn’t. Even in this chapter, Saint Benedict gives guidelines for conversations. For example, “if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and…reverence” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).



Annoyed looking monks singing | BL Harley 2888, f. 98v | Source:


Saint Benedict uses this chapter not only to warn his monks about sinful thoughts but about “bad speech” (Kardong) in general. Bad speech also includes “buffoonery [and] idle words” (Saint Benedict pg. 25). In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule, the Latin text is translated as “crude jokes and idle talk” (Kardong). Either way, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his monks saying things that “move [you] to laughter” (Saint Benedict pg. 25) or that are “aimed at arousing laughter” (Kardong). (I’ll note that these quotations are different translations of the same sentence.) Kardong speculates that Saint Benedict wasn’t crazy about laughter not because he was a killjoy, but because “much ancient comedy was obscene” (Kardong). Given that monks are supposed to be chaste, it is understandable that Saint Benedict wouldn’t want dirty (thus sinful) jokes told in his monasteries. 

The Rule’s chapter about silence isn’t just about avoiding saying sinful things or laughing at things holy monks shouldn’t. It’s also about learning when to talk and when to listen:

“For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

Like students listening to their teachers, monks should listen to their abbot. The abbot is supposed to be an “inextinguishable fount of wisdom” (Kardong). And the only way to truly listen and learn is to keep quiet.



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:

Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.

(You can find part of this book here.)

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

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

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

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

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


A Medieval Thief | Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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


Main Source:

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

Other Sources:

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

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

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



Augustine of Canterbury Source: Wikipedia


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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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


Main Source:

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

Germanus of Auxerre Defeats an Army Through Trickery and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I mentioned that I might want to write more about the text. As of today, I’m only on page 114 of the book, but I’ve already found quite a few interesting stories in An Ecclesiastical History. Consequently, I’ve decided to make this type of post a series. As I read An Ecclesiastical History and as I find more and more events I wish to talk about, I will write more blog posts. I’ll probably do this until I finish the book. There are a lot of events that I find fascinating and I really do want to talk about them all. As an added bonus, most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long so it’s easy to summarize and talk about each one.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not particularly concerned whether or not the stories Bede documents are true. I’m more interested in the culture that Bede is writing about. Histories like these capture the thought process of the time and culture, especially the thought process of a devoted monk. In short, I’m reading An Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. Because I’m reading his text for fun I will be documenting the events I find fascinating. I will share four excerpts from An Ecclesiastical History. Originally for this series, I planned to do five excerpts a post but today I want to focus exclusively on Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.



Stained Glass Portrait of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre | Source: Wikipedia


For reference, I’m using the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt comes from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. This is the same chapter that documents Bishop Germanus of Auxerre calming a storm caused by devils. Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes have finally reached Britain and must confront the Pelagians. Germanus and Lupus have been preaching the word of God and “the majority of the people readily accepted their teaching” (pg. 59).  The Pelagians are not particularly happy about this and basically challenge Germanus and Lupus to a preach off. (Or “a trial of strength” (pg. 59) as Bede calls it.) Germanus and Lupus accept.

It’s important to note that Bede describes the Pelagians as wearing “rich ornaments and magnificent robes, supported by crowds of flattering followers” (pg. 59). Basically, the Pelagians are not very Christ-like. Christ was a poor man who told the rich to give their money and possessions away to the needy. Instead of following Christ’s teachings, the Pelagians wear fancy clothes, have fancy stuff, and are surrounded by people who flatter and fawn over them. Not only does Bede code the Pelagians as not Christ-like, but they are also greatly contrasted with Germanus, who earlier in the chapter stopped a storm like Christ.

The thing I found most amusing about this section of the chapter isn’t the preach off or the comparison of the two groups to Christ. What actually made me put another sticky tab in this chapter was the fact that the judges of this preach off are the Pelagians’ wives and children. (In the early days of the church priests could have wives and children and it wasn’t a big deal. How and why this changed is extremely fascinating and contains a lot of wild stories, but that is a story for another blog post.) Germanus and Lupus let the Pelagians speak first, “which they did at great length, filling the time, and the ears of their audience with empty words” (pg. 60). Germanus and Lupus go next and they win. (Of course.) The Pelagians’ “lies [are] exposed, and [they are] unable to defend any of their arguments” (pg. 60). As a result, the Pelagians admit they are wrong, the judges (the Pelagians’ families remember) almost get violent, and Germanus and Lupus are proclaimed the winners/right about God.

So not only do the Pelagians lose, but they are also humiliated in front of their wives and children.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Eighteen. Bishop Germanus is once again compared to Christ here. In this chapter, Germanus cures a ten-year-old girl’s blindness. “Immediately after” (pg. 60) the preach off, a tribune and his wife ask the bishops to heal his child. However, it appears that Germanus and Lupus are feeling petty and they tell the tribune to take his daughter to “their opponents” (pg. 60). The Pelagians are “smitten by guilty consciences, joined their entreaties to those of the girl’s parents and begged the bishops to heal her” (pg. 60). It’s only after the bishops see the Pelagians begging for help does Germanus actually cure the girl’s blindness with a prayer and some relics. The pettiness here is tremendous. (Though I will add that Germanus’ miracle convinces everyone that the Pelagians are wrong and Germanus and Lupus’ teachings about God are right.)



Bishop Lupus of Troyes | Source: Wikipedia, User GO69


The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Nineteen. We are still following the adventures of Bishop Germanus. (From what I can tell from Bede’s work, Germanus is the more important bishop. He’s the one who actually performs the miracles while Lupus just kind of seems like his sidekick.) At the beginning of this chapter, the Devil makes Germanus fall and break his leg. This is before X-rays or anti-biotics, so breaking your leg is a pretty big deal. Also, the fact that the Devil made Germanus break his leg makes it an even bigger deal.

While Germanus is recovering, he is staying in a cottage. In a neighboring cottage, a fire breaks out. After the fire destroyed “the adjoining dwellings which…were thatched with reeds from the marshes, [the fire] was carried by the wind to the cottage where he lay”(pg. 61). Because these cottages are made with reeds (and probably wood) they are practically pre-made bonfires. Houses back then were super flammable. Because Germanus’ house is on fire, people try to get him out. Germanus is “full of trust in God” (pg. 61) so he tells them to leave him in there. He also refuses to leave.

It’s important to look at Bede’s wording here. In my translation, it is described as follows:

The people ran to pick up the bishop and carry him to a place of safety; but, full of trust in God, he reproved them and would not allow them to do so (pg. 61).

Other translations might word this differently, but based on my copy, the phrase “would not allow them to do so” (pg. 61) makes me think that they tried to pick him up and Germanus slapped their hands away or used some sort of physical violence. There is no concrete textual evidence for this, but that is certainly the image that came into my head as I read the chapter. One reason I think this might be the case is that who is going to willingly leave a holy man in a cottage to burn alive? And even if there was no physical force involved, there must have been some shouting.

Despite the people’s efforts, the end result is still the same: “In despair, the people ran off to fight the fire” (pg. 61-62). So they leave Germanus in the cottage and try to save other things. What those things are isn’t specified, but “whatever the crowd endeavoured to save was destroyed” (pg. 62). Bede makes sure that his reader knows that this destruction is all God’s will and is “clearer evidence of God’s power” (pg. 62).

By the way, the fire doesn’t reach Germanus and he’s fine.

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty. The Saxons and the Picts have “made war on the Britons” (pg. 62) and the Britons have asked Germanus and Lupus for help. The two bishops agree to assist them. However, instead of offering tactical advice or even suggestions on how to bring about peace, Germanus “promised to direct the battle in person” (pg. 63). I’m not sure if bishops leading armies were common in 429 A.D. (the date this story occurred), but Germanus ends up being a great leader.

That being said, Germanus doesn’t necessarily use direct violence against the enemy forces. Instead, Germanus tricks them into thinking there is a rock slide occurring in the valley they are passing through. How does he do this? Germanus shouts ‘Alleluia’ three times and the Briton army does the same. Their shouting (and the echoes of their shouting) is so loud that the enemy army panics, “thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough” (pg. 63). They throw down their weapons to run faster. Most of the enemy ends up drowning in a river they tried to cross. In the end, the Britons win the battle and peace is restored (well, for now). Germanus and Lupus go home.


It’s important for me to note that Germanus and Lupus do have to return to Britain because the Pelagian heresy is revived, but I have decided not to write about that chapter. Instead, my next blog post about An Ecclesiastical History will focus on Saint Augustine.


Main Source:

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