The Sisterhood of the Traveling Relics: The Escapades of Four Medieval Relics

This was originally posted on an old blog of mine in June 2019. I have moved it to The Mediaeval Monk as it fits here better.

 

What exactly is a relic? According to Wikipedia (as they have the clearest explanation) a relic “usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.”

 

Royal MS 18 D II f.148r pilgrims on road to canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes

Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes | Royal MS 18 D II f.148r | Source: The British Library

 

During the Middle Ages, having a relic of a saint was a pretty big deal. It would bring your abbey/monastery prestige, holiness, and of course, lots of money. Pilgrims would come so they could get favors from the saint and see some miracles. Offerings were left and the place they relic was at collected that money. So naturally, when you have a culture surrounding relics, shenanigans ensue. And some of these shenanigans are WILD.

*   *   *

One such shenanigan happened in Bonneval Abbey in France. Bonneval Abbey was home to Saint Florentius’ relics. Then in the 11th century, there was a big famine. Thanks to that famine, the monks had to start selling stuff for food. Gradually, they sold all of their stuff off. Well, almost all of it. The monks eventually had to sell Saint Florentius. But they didn’t sell all of Saint Florentius. They sold everything except his head. So the guy who bought it, Aelfsige, brought a headless corpse back to Peterborough Abbey.

Honestly, I would have loved to see how they decided how much of poor old Saint Florentius they were going to sell. How do you barter for the majority of a body? It wasn’t until I learned about this, did I realize how silly the concept of buying everything but the head is. People will want skulls of things, but what happens to the rest of the body?

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Another funny thing concerning people buying parts of saints’ bodies happened to Saint Bartholomew. During a famine in Italy, the Bishop of Benevento kept Saint Bartholomew’s arm precisely to make money. The bishop traveled around Italy and France with the arm, getting gifts. The bishop eventually went to England because the country was pretty wealthy at the time and the queen, Queen Emma, had no problem giving money to the church. But then the bishop realized that he hadn’t gotten enough money on his travels.

So he asked Queen Emma if she wanted to buy Saint Bartholomew’s arm. Queen Emma was like, sure, but is it real? Then the bishop was like, yeah, of course, it’s real and swore an oath. Queen Emma bought the arm.

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We can’t talk about relic shenanigans without mentioning the duplicates. Because of Viking raids, people were naturally a bit on edge concerning their monastery’s relics getting destroyed or stolen or something equally unfortunate. So people started lying about where the relics were and who had them and replacing what people thought were relics with random bodies. For example, a Danish king (or just a bunch of Vikings, the book wasn’t clear) stole Saint Albans and took him back to Odense. But a sacrist allegedly stole him back. That’s why three different places claim to have the body of Saint Albans.

Saint Albans’ relics aren’t special in this matter. Two different places claim to have Saint Benedict. There are more stories like these, but these are the two I read about in the book I have.

*   *   *

Our last story for today is that of Saint Faith. She died in the 3rd century but in the 5th century, a basilica was built for her at Agen. Then in the 9th century, her body was stolen and taken to Conques, which according to Google maps is about 111 miles away from Agen. And because Saint Faith was now at Conques, people started visiting the town. Also, apparently, if you asked the monks at Conques who lived there, they would mention Saint Faith, as if she were still alive. Also, when people who admired her or her relics traveled, people would set aside land to make a new home for her. The little places were as far away as London as there was a parish built there for her.

 

 

Source:

Brook, Rosalind, and Christopher Brook. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

  • 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.)

 

Magic, The Christian Church, and The Illusion of Control

Content Warning: Discussions of Anti-Semitism, Anti-Paganism, and Anti-Catholicism

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Christianity’s stance on magic, and later on witchcraft, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What was once thought of as benign slowly became evil and a crime worthy of the death penalty.  However, it is important to note that these opinions fluctuated depending on the sect of Christianity, what type of magic was being performed, where the magical power came from and who was doing the magic itself, as well as what time period the magic was done and what country or region the magical acts took place in. All of these factors influenced the Christian Church’s opinions and influences on magic and witchcraft as a whole. However, magic was what gave people and the Church comfort and control over their lives.

Before the fifteenth century, there were only two types of magic that a person could use. These types of magic could either be beneficial (white magic) or harmful (black magic/maleficium) (Levack). Generally speaking, the Christian Church frowned upon both types of magic during the Middle Ages. Harmful magic, or maleficium, was seen as the worst of the two. After all, maleficium was what caused “bodily injury, disease, death, poverty, or some other misfortune” (Levack 5). The beneficial type of magic was referred to as white magic. White magic was “productive…[it helped] crops to grow or women to bear children” (Levack 5). White magic was also used to heal the sick or it protected people from evil spirits or witches (Levack 5). However, both types of magic allowed people to have some sense of control. Maleficium allowed people to control the people around them through harm while white magic allowed people to control their situations through productive means, as well as to counteract any black magic that was either done to them or about to be done to them.

Harley MS 1526 f.4v demons monks key reading

Demons with a Key and Monks Reading | Harley MS 1526 f.4v | Source: The British Library

However, starting in the fifteenth century and going into the early eighteenth century, there was a third type of magic: demonic witchcraft (Larner 3). Demonic witchcraft is what changed the religious and secular perception of magic forever. Demonic witchcraft tarnished the reputation of white magic and it associated magic, in general, with Satan and his demons. At first, the concept of demonic witchcraft was primarily an elite idea. In fact, “it was developed by the ruling class” (Larner 4). Before demonic witchcraft came into play, the average medieval European peasant did not give much thought to the morality of magic. At least, medieval European peasants did not think of magic as so morally corrupt that using it was a crime. And they certainly did not believe anyone who practiced magic should be executed for demonic witchcraft. During the Middle Ages, European peasants did not think white magic was necessarily bad until the idea was forced upon them. It was only when “the logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic” (Larner 4) did the witch-hunts and the executions of these so-called witches start.

Even though demonic witchcraft created an association of magic with evil, during the Middle Ages, before the fifteenth century, magic and religion were very much intertwined with each other. The connection between the two did not end abruptly once the Early Modern period started. The connection lasted through the Reformation and the rest of the Early Modern period. For example, Catholic rituals and prayers were often thought of in terms of magic. One way Catholic rituals were used by the general public was in magical healing. Magical healing used Catholic prayers because of “the old belief in the curative power of the medieval Church” (Thomas 178). Prayers such as “five Paternosters, five Aves, and a Creed, to be said in honour of the Holy Ghost and Our Lady” (Thomas 179) were used as part of healing charms. Even though church leaders during and after the Reformation attempted to forbid the Catholic elements, they failed. Protestant clergy did not realize that because Catholicism had the “power to give supernatural agency to the believer” (Purkiss 154), the rituals and prayers would not go away any time soon. This is significant because it means the average layperson could call upon the power of God to help heal a sick loved one, thus giving the laity the illusion of having more control over their lives. After all, without access to modern medicine, or any sort of health care besides folk medicine, and the Internet to research what could possibly be wrong with either themselves or their loved ones, magic and prayers were all some peasants had.

Now, it was believed by the general population that the only way to fight harmful magic was with more magic. However, in the sixteenth century, some elite Protestant clergymen did not believe in the existence of magic at all. It did not help the Protestant cause that one sixteenth-century writer, Reginald Scot claimed “only the Catholic Church took the subject of witchcraft seriously” (Clark 526). This meant that the average European population thought only Catholicism offered helpful solutions to healing and bewitchment. While Catholicism offered magical solutions such as “holy water, the sign of the cross, and all the paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic exorcists” the Protestant solution was “prayer and repentance” (Thomas 265). In fact, due to the Reformation, there was a “reduction in the power attributed to holy words and objects” and “the more extreme Protestants virtually denied the existence of any Church magic at all” (Thomas 256).

Needless to say, Protestant laity did not find this particularly helpful. Because of this new belief, Protestant laity began to go to cunning folk for help because they believed their church would not. It did not help the Protestant Church’s argument that some of the cunning folk’s customers thought the cunning folk were taught their magic by God. It also did not help that some cunning folk went along with that idea (Thomas 266). In fact, because the Protestant clergy did not believe magic was “theologically neutral” (Thomas 266), they essentially forced some cunning folk to claim they were demigods to avoid being accused of being devil worshippers. As a result of all this, Protestant churches began to see cunning folk as competition. The Catholic Church, however, did not have the same problem. Catholic laity could pray to a saint for the same problem and the saint was supposed to help answer their prayers (Thomas 273).

The Christian faith did not just consider cunning folk as competition. Christian clergy also saw other faiths as competition to their own. This thought process caused “Church fathers [to] consign the religions…both Jewish and pagan, to the kingdom of Satan” (Levack 30). For the Jewish faith in particular, “many contemporaries believed that Jews were a magical people who…practiced secret cabbalistic rituals” (Roper 40). Because Christian clergy considered other faiths evil, this resulted in them demonizing the other faiths’ God/gods (Levack 30). The Christian Church’s anti-Semitic views also contributed to associating Judaism with witchcraft (Roper 40). Brian P. Levack goes on to state that many traits associated with the Christian Devil are also traits associated with pagan gods. Early Modern witches were known to confess that they were worshipping at “a horned beast as a god” (Levack 30). He says that this theory is why some scholars believe that Early Modern witches were practicing “an ancient fertility religion” (Levack 30). But Levack argues, “these confessions cannot…be taken at face value” (30). It is also important to note that in the Church’s attempts to convert European pagan peasants, they forbid “everyday practices such as folk healing, using love potions, or searching for stolen goods with the aid of a sieve” and referred to these practices as “un-Christian superstitions” (Ankarloo 60). I should note that demonizing other religions happened within Christianity as well. Protestants “believed that Catholics were emissaries of the Devil and the Pope was…the Anti-Christ” (Roper 16).

Despite Protestants thinking Catholics were literally from Hell, both Catholic and Protestant churches had strong stances against witchcraft. Ironically, while the official Christian stance on magic was that it was sinful and you should never use it or consult someone who uses it. Some clergy did not get the message. This could in part be due to the fact “Protestants’ views about witchcraft ‘rested on narrower foundations’ than did those of Catholics” (Clark 528). Clergy on the lower rungs of the church hierarchy were actually known for using magic themselves. In fact, “the roles of priest and magician were by no means clearly distinguished in the popular mind” (Thomas 274). This is in part to do with the fact that medieval clergymen were most likely to be the most educated person in the community and would know how to read and understand spell books “and formulae of conjuration which were employed in the invocation of spirits” (Thomas 274). Keith Thomas goes on to point out that medieval clergymen were expected to know divination, invocation, as well as healing. His parishioners would ask him for help accordingly. And of course, a clergyman was expected to know the art of exorcism.

After the Reformation, the expectations of the clergy changed. In France, quite a few clerics were accused of using “witchcraft and black magic” (Monter 43). Some of the clerics were arrested, two were “tried…and both were liberated”, one “had his paraphernalia burned” and others were executed (Monter 43). While it does seem extremely contradictory that the Christian Church would speak out against magic, but clergy would still use it, Keith Thomas makes an excellent point regarding this hypocrisy: “it was precisely because the Church had its own magic that it frowned on others” (273-274). This means that when someone used magic, including the clergy, it was extremely important to know what the source of that magic was. Magic could come from a natural source, from God himself, or from Satan and his demons.

In the sixteenth century, the official view of popular magic by both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were not positive ones. In fact, their views towards popular magic have been described as “hostile” (Thomas 258). Not only did the Church continue to punish the use of maleficium, they also started to punish the use of popular magic (Ankarloo 60). This is important because it reflects the Church’s evolving anxieties in the early part of the Early Modern period concerning all types of magic, not just kinds that had sinister results. It also reflects the Church’s changing attitudes towards using magic in general. As previously stated, the medieval Church gave laity the agency to harness God’s power through magic to help themselves and others. Now that agency and control had been taken away. Bengt Ankarloo also makes a point to say, “the vigilance of the Church in these matters was bolstered by the Reformation and Counter-Reformations of the sixteenth century” (60). This reflects the Church’s determination to convert people to their sect of Christianity as well to keep the people converted. With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church was given the opportunity to fix issues the elite clergy found problematic, but it also gave them a chance to find an excuse to further their influence in the lives of the lower class.

In conclusion, before the rise of the idea of demonic witchcraft, magic was widely tolerated, if not outright accepted by European society. It was only when the Christian faith started to associate magic with Satan and evil in the fifteenth century did witchcraft become a crime worthy of death. If magic had never been linked to demons, would there still have been the witch trials? Or would have European society thought up another way to dispose of those who were inconvenient to them? Either way, the use of magic was extremely important in Europe, especially in terms of religion. For peasants all across Europe, magic gave them a way to feel like they had some sort of control over their lives. When Catholic clergy used magic it legitimized their job position much more than if they had not used magic at all. 

 

 

Sources:

Ankarloo, Bengt. “Witch Trials in Northern Europe: 1450-1700.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 53-95.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Clarendon Press, 1997.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984.

Levack, Brian P.. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Monter, William. “Witch Trials in Continental Europe: 1560-1660.” The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials. edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, The Athlone Press, 2002, pp. 1-52.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. Routledge. 1996.

Roper, Lyndal. Witch Craze. Yale University Press. 2004.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1971.

 

How Sex and Religion Shaped Medieval Gender Roles

Content Warning: Discussions of Misogyny, Sex, and Menstruation, Mentions of Miscarriage

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

 

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the roles of men and women in medieval society were greatly shaped by the scientific and philosophical understanding of bodies, sex, and reproduction. The basis of these understandings primarily came from religious texts that eventually transferred over into law and scientific studies. However, due to the length of the Middle Ages as well as the different religions, and cultures, such understandings of gender roles varied. However, this is not to say that there were not several overarching themes, especially ones concerning women and their bodies, in the different cultures and religions during the medieval period. For example, both Christianity and Judaism understood a woman’s role in society in similar ways.

 

Hunterian_Psalter_-_H229_f7v

Adam, Eve, and the Snake | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

In Jewish communities, religious texts shaped their understandings of gender roles. The biblical story of Adam and Eve “justified…women’s secondary place in human creation” (Baskin 39). Eve was made after Adam, thus women were considered second to men in the social hierarchy. The concept that God had made men physically more powerful (Park 92) furthered the idea that a woman needed to be subordinate to her husband and to men in general. However, rabbis also used “Eve’s responsibility…in all human mortality” as well as “women’s essential otherness from men” as an explanation for why women must be kept “separate” (Baskin 38). These separations included why women were not allowed to participate in their faith in the same way men were. Women were even expected to support their husbands’ and sons’ religious studies instead of being able to gain spiritual knowledge for themselves (Baskin 39).

In Christian society, clergymen also used religion as evidence of women’s inferiority. Like in Judaism, the Christian understanding was that if “God made women physically weaker than men” (Park 84) then women must be the inferior gender. One medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, went even so far as to argue that if God had not made women subordinate, then men would have no choice but to direct their lustful actions elsewhere, including towards other men (Park 84). Same-sex attraction was unacceptable in medieval society, as the church considered any non-potentially reproductive intercourse between any genders as sodomy. For context, the Christian church considered “bestiality…only marginally less serious than homosexual sodomy” (Brundage 43). Thus if a woman was not subordinate to a man’s wants and desires his eternal reward was at stake.

This is not to say that men were considered more lustful than women, as is the thought in modern times. The opposite is true. In medieval society, women were thought to be the lustful gender, not men. The idea that “women [were considered] temptresses [was] one of the defining elements of female sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Salisbury 87) and it was a prominent one. Women may have been thought of as subordinate, but being lustful was simply another way for men to scapegoat women. The scientific understanding at the time was a man’s masculinity was dependent on his semen. If he had too much sex, he would be losing the very essence of what made him a man as well as his “masculine control” (Salisbury 86).

Christian clergymen also used the story of Adam and Eve to explain the different roles men and women had in medieval society. Their explanation focused mainly on sex and sexuality instead of the social status of women. However, it is important to note these religious understandings gradually seeped over into other aspects of medieval life. Due to the first humans’ disobedience against God, sex was regarded as “a consequence of sin” (Brundage 35). This understanding led church leaders to set up a hierarchy of eternal reward based on a person’s past sexual experiences. A virgin would be rewarded the most, “chaste widows” (Elliott 25) came second, and married people came third. For most secular people, this statement was neither threatening nor particularly motivating. In fact, secular society expected people to get married (Karras 75).

The clergy were painfully aware they were fighting a losing battle when it came to controlling their followers’ sexual desires. In an act of reluctant compromise, the clergy told the “less heroic Christians” (Brundage 35) that if they absolutely had to have sexual intercourse, they must be married, the act must be for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and under no circumstances should sex strictly be for pleasure or for fun (Brundage 35). Eventually, in the seventh century, these conditions were fleshed out to include “specific guidelines for acceptable sexual behavior” (Brundage 36). The rules were so specific it was nearly impossible for a married couple to have sex and not sin.

 

flowchart

A Flowchart Regarding When Medieval Couples Were Allowed to Engage in Sexual Behavior | Source: thehistoryblog.com

 

It should be noted that the majority of ecclesiastical court cases were because of these sins, thus “greatly increase[ing]…the church’s income” (Brundage 39). This observation makes one wonder if the church’s main reason for creating such specific guidelines was simply an excuse to make money by exploiting the sexual desires of both men and women. However, Christian ecclesiastical courts considered “extramarital sex…as sinful for a man as for a woman” (Brundage 42). When compared to fornication, the crime of adultery was viewed “primarily as a female offense and [the courts] only occasionally punished men” (Brundage 42).

Adultery was not the only guideline that focused on women. Marital intercourse was forbidden if a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding (Brundage 36). Jewish communities put a tremendous amount of pressure on women and their bodies as well. Female menstruation was considered “regular” while male “discharges and states of ritual impurity” (Baskin 43) were not. Menstruation was thought of as impure. Thus, it was a Jewish woman’s responsibility to know her cycle extremely well, so she would know when to take her “ritual bath (mikveh) before sexual relations could resume” (Baskin 44) between her and her husband.

The scientific understanding of the human body was what led these faiths to believe menstrual blood was toxic, thus further shaping the roles women were expected to keep in society. Because women were considered cold and men were considered hot, menstruation was what burned off the impurities in a woman’s body (Salisbury 89). This lead to the belief menstruation was good for the health of a woman but toxic for a man who came into contact with a woman’s menstrual blood (Salisbury 89). It was considered dangerous not only to men but to anything that came into contact with it. Isidore of Seville wrote menstrual blood would kill crops, make wine turn sour, damage metal, and give dogs rabies (Park 87).

In Judaism, laws were made specifying that men were not only not allowed to touch a menstruating woman; he was also to avoid making “eye contact and [staying out of her] physical proximity” (Park 92). In the central Middle Ages, this law eventually escalated into something even stricter than before (Baskin 44). Menstruating women were “forbidden to enter a synagogue…to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin 44). The following of this law was isolating for women and it further emphasized the role of women as lesser than in the social hierarchy.

 

Hildegard_von_Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Not everyone agreed with this. One woman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, argued that it was men who produced toxic discharges and not women (Salisbury 93). According to John M. Riddle, Saint Hildegard “is a good indication of popular culture during the Middle Ages”. While other writers received their information from classical texts, she received her knowledge “from her culture” (Riddle 269). Such information concerned reproductive health, including what plants a woman should consume should she wish to have an abortion. Riddle explains that understanding what plants could induce a miscarriage was commonly shared information amongst medieval women. Knowing how to make “contraception and early-term abortifacients” (Riddle 269) was vital information for medieval women, especially when it is taken into consideration how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth was. After all, “women at all social levels [died] in childbirth” (Green 357).

Regardless of the dangers of reproduction, men and women had sexual intercourse anyway. Not every Jewish man followed the guidelines set forth by his religious leaders. There must have been many cases of men touching or going near menstruating women because in the thirteenth century, the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote down the typical punishment for a man who disobeyed the law (Baskin 44). These punishments “included extensive fasting, lashing, immersion in icy water” and they were “applied only to men” (Baskin 44). Unlike in Christian society, Jewish women were not considered “self-conscious entities” (Baskin 44). Christian clergymen also wrote down acceptable punishments for those who disobeyed religious rules. Confessors were given “pastoral manuals and handbooks…[that went into] such great length and in such detail with sexual sins that…the conclusion [is] these behaviors must have flourished…among medieval people” (Brundage 41).

According to James A. Brundage, the majority of the laity did not believe that having sex, particularly sex outside of marriage, was a sin. This idea is emphasized by the fact the previously mentioned handbooks actually warned priests that when they questioned their parishioners about their sexual digressions, they needed to be careful lest they give their parishioners any ideas (Brundage 42). However, priests were not so innocent themselves. Starting in the fourth century, celibacy was encouraged amongst priests, but not required. It was only when the church reformed in the second half of the eleventh-century celibacy became required for priests (Brundage 36). The priests did not take this new requirement well. Many priests already had wives and children. It did not help the reformers that the requirement was a blatant “attack on women” (Elliott 27). One argument for required celibacy was “priestly hands…must not be sullied by…the genitals of whores (i.e., the wives of priests)” (Elliott 27). Priests’ reactions to the announcement included attacking and running a bishop out of town as well as burning “a supporter of clerical celibacy” alive (Brundage 36-37).

Obviously, this hypocrisy was not unknown to the laity. Several tropes in medieval literature called out the church concerning their opinions on sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras writes that stories would include “lusty priests [who would] seduce the women who confess to them [as well as] monks and nuns [who would] engage in secret liaisons”. There was even an entire genre of literature, the French fabliaux, dedicated to stories where “both men and women [found] joy in sexual intercourse” (Karras 2). Some of the characters in these works were members of the clergy.

Overall, the roles for men and women in medieval society were heavily dependent on religious understandings of the body, sex, and reproduction. These religious understandings in all faiths were used as a way to control people, women especially. Religion not only shaped people’s ideas about themselves, but it was also used as a tool to shape the scientific and legal understanding of gender roles. By shaping these aspects of society, the clergy could to some extent have control over people’s lives in almost every manner.

 

 

Sources:

Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49. SOLO.

Brundage, James A. “Sex and Canon Law.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 33–47.

Elliott, Dyan. “Gender and The Christian Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 21–35. SOLO.

Green, Monica. “Caring for Gendered Bodies.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 345–358. SOLO.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:” Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others:2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

Park, Katharine. “Medicine and Natural Philosophy: Naturalistic Traditions.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 84–98. SOLO.

Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 261–275.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

The Tyranny of Richard III and Henry VII

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018.

From ancient times to the modern-day, populations of countries have all had their fair share of tyrants. However, what is one person’s tyrant is another person’s fair and good leader. So what exactly makes a leader a tyrant? The not so easy answer is that it depends. In medieval England, the country had two obvious tyrants rule back to back: Richard III and Henry VII. Their blatant disregard for the law as well as social norms was what caused the two men to be considered tyrants during their respective kingships. After all, there is nothing more frustrating for the people than to be ruled by a lawmaker who does not think the very laws that they created do not apply to them.

 

854px-King_Richard_III

Late 16th Century Portrait of Richard III | Anonymous Artist | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Richard III gained the throne through disregard for what was considered the status quo as well as breaking the law. While nearly all of the kings of the fifteenth century were either usurped, a usurper, or both, it was still frowned upon to depose a reigning king. In fact, the medieval idea of tyranny relied on the idea that “if it were believed that [the king] came to the throne by force and without right, then he would be judged a tyrant” (Pollard 152). This was certainly true for Richard III. He did not seem to particularly care about the status quo and usurped his young nephew, Edward V. While usurping a bad king has many risks associated with it, usurping the heir of a beloved king before the new king gives you a reason to, is always a bad idea. Combined with the fact Richard III used deception to gain access to Edward V by suggesting the two travel to London together “and the prince’s route was modified accordingly” (Horrox 97). This shows just how much Richard III did not think the rules applied to him.

Furthermore, by gaining access to the new king, it gave Richard III the chance to arrest Edward V’s “stepbrother Richard Grey and his chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan” (Horrox 97) as well as earl Rivers and “other Woodville kinsmen and connections [to] Edward V” (Ross 63). The people arrested were imprisoned and eventually executed (Ross 63). Like his father before him, Richard III manipulated the system and was named protector of the realm. Richard III, still ignoring social norms, had Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York, declared bastards, thus disqualifying them for the throne, and put into the Tower of London (Mancini 97). Richard III then crowned himself king. This was all within weeks of Edward IV’s death.

Now, according to the contemporary source, the Vitellius AXVI Chronicle, after Richard III “had vnto the crowne, excityng the people to take hym for their kyng” (190-191). Confirming this is another contemporary source, Dominic Mancini’s Usurpation of Richard the Third where it is written that on the day of Richard III’s coronation he went “passing through the midst of the city attended by the entire nobility and a display of royal honours…he greeted all onlookers, who stood along the streets, and [Richard III] received their acclamations” (Mancini 101). So what changed? What was the event that changed the public perception of Richard III? Well, when people slowly realized that no one had seen Edward V and Richard of York for a while Richard III’s popularity began to free fall, especially when rumors flourished about Richard III murdering the princes (Ross 99). While usurpers are known to kill the king who came before them because “to keep alive a politically dangerous person, and especially a deposed king, was an act of folly” (Ross 98), murdering children, heir to the throne or not, is generally not looked upon in a good light. The rumors that Richard III had murdered Edward V and Richard of York would poison the rest of Richard III’s reign and cause several rebellions. He was especially unpopular in the south of England where they considered Richard III to have “rode roughshod over the sentiments and interests of a substantial part of the English political nation” for usurping the throne as well as trying to rule over the south of England (Pollard 162).

However, this did not mean everyone hated Richard III. He was still quite popular “with the city of York and with the north as a whole” (Pollard 153). Anne Crawford argues that the only reason Richard III was popular in the north was because of his marriage to Anne Neville, the daughter of the earl of Warwick (138). However, even after Anne died of what was probably tuberculosis—though there was a rumor Richard III poisoned her (Crawford 138), thus furthering the idea of being a tyrant—Richard III still had loyal northern followers. This is important because even after his death at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard III had Yorkist supporters who would rather another Yorkist be on the throne than Henry Tudor. This, of course, caused problems for Henry VII when he was crowned king of England.

 

870px-Enrique_VII_de_Inglaterra,_por_un_artista_anónimo

1505 Portrait of Henry VII | Anonymous Artist | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Like Richard III, Henry VII also did not start his kingship out on a good note. He had usurped Richard III and as a usurper, he would have more difficulty keeping the throne than a king who did not usurp the throne. And he most certainly did. Richard III had not killed every Yorkist heir to the throne. There were several people who could be considered a more proper ruler due to their lineage. These people were “Edward, earl of Warwick, Margaret Beaufort, and even John II of Portugal” (Cunningham 47). Luckily for Henry VII, his “right to the throne was…not addressed by parliament” (Cunningham 47). Unluckily for Henry VII, Yorkist supporters did not agree. To them, he was still a tyrant due to the fact there were other more superior heirs. Besides the fact there were other people first in line for the throne, Henry VII was also a tyrant in the sense that while “the king had absolute power…[he] was not above the law” (Pollard 150). Henry VII did not exactly get the memo and often switched between disregarding the law completely and just doing what he wanted to following the law in a maliciously compliant way.

One way Henry VII disregarded the law, or at the very least the status quo, was how he treated the nobility and the gentry. He did not trust anyone that was not close to him. While he certainly had good reasons for this, the mistrust worked against him in regards to keeping the nobility and gentry happy. For example, when there was trouble in the north of England, Henry VII had the option of either selecting one northern noble “which could have brought the region under control” (Carpenter 23) or he could give the land to a few noblemen close to him. Henry VII chose the latter option. By ignoring the northern nobility, Henry VII furthered the problems he was trying to prevent. His decision “produced disorder, violence, murder, misuse of, and disrespect for, the king’s authority and considerable local disaffection” (Carpenter 23) in the north.

Henry VII also seemed to have forgotten that a northern noble would be much better equipped for the job. Due to living in the area, a northern noble would be much more aware of the problems facing the region then a person chosen merely because they were close to the king. It certainly would have solved Henry VII’s problem that he was “ruling a medieval polity whose needs he had largely failed to understand” (Carpenter 16). Still, the fact that Henry VII obviously chose people close to him instead of a person most qualified for the job was one reason the people, especially the unfavored nobility and gentry, considered Henry VII a tyrant. Though we still must take into account that the northerners were still loyal to the Yorkist dynasty. It did not help that Henry VII eventually gave the northern lands to his mother, Margaret Beaufort. After all, “kings could not guarantee to have an able and loyal mother around all the time.” (Carpenter 23-24). Kings “could, however, count on the services of the nobility if they knew how to get the best out of them” (Carpenter 24).

Henry VII’s relationship with his mother also caused a few issues during his kingship. Due to their separation since Henry VII’s childhood, once Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII were able to reunite in Henry VII’s adulthood, they immediately started to spend a lot of time with each other (Crawford 145). The letters sent between Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII display a “passionate devotion” (Crawford 148) between the two and apparently both mother and son rarely disagreed about anything (Crawford 148). As a result of this lost time and the way they got along so well, Margaret Beaufort was able to gain a lot of influence over her son. She used this influence to take lands that had either previously belonged to her or she thought she had a right to (Crawford 145, 148). While some of the land had previously been hers, both Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII claimed that much more land belonged to them then in actuality. Their “avarice and determination to pursue their rights” (Crawford 148) did not make Henry VII and his mother particularly popular, especially amongst those whom they took the land from.

Both Richard III and Henry VII were tyrants in their own right. Both men fell under the medieval ideas of tyrants, being kings who really had no right to the throne, as well as the modern-day idea of a tyrant: a ruthless leader who will do whatever it takes to stay in power. Now, while Richard was certainly more of a tyrant then Henry VII, especially in regards to eliminating his enemies, Henry VII was not so innocent himself. He too executed his competitors, but at least Henry VII waited until his political enemies were done with puberty (this being somewhat literally in the case of the earl of Warwick). Both Richard III and Henry VII had favorites as well, but what is really telling is the fact Richard III was overthrown within two years of taking the throne, while Henry VII was able to pass the throne down to his son. Perhaps that makes Henry VII more of a tyrant than Richard III or perhaps it means that Henry VII’s opponents were not willing to go as far as Henry VII did when he usurped the throne. 

 

 

Sources:

Carpenter, Christine. “Henry VII and the English Polity.” The Reign of Henry VII. edited by B. J. Thompson. 1995, pp. 11-30.

Crawford, Anne, editor. Letters of the Queens of England. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002.

Cunningham, Sean. Henry VII. Routledge. 2007.

Horrox, Rosemary. Richard III: A Study in Service. Cambridge University Press. 1989.

Mancini, Dominic. The Usurpation of Richard the Third. translated by C. A. J. Armstrong. Clarendon Press. 1969.

Pollard, A. J.. “The Tyranny of Richard III.” Journal of Medieval History, 3. 1977, pp. 147-165.

Ross, Charles. Richard III. Methuen. 1981.

Kingsford, C. L., editor. “Vitellius AXVI Chronicle.” Chronicles of London. 1905, pp. 189-232.

Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.

 

Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison

A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog

 

As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).

 

Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading

Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library

 

Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning

A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library

 

Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.

 

 

Sources:

Barry, Jonathan. “Introduction: Keith Thomas and the Problem of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, edited by Jonathan Barry et al., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1–45.

Broedel, Hans Peter. “Fifteenth-Century Witch Beliefs.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 32–49.

Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, 2003.

Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 13–31.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rider, Catherine. “Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages.” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2006, pp. 31–52.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology , vol. 36, no. 2, Apr. 1995, pp. 333–337.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. “The Devil in the Convent.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, Dec. 2002, pp. 1379–1411., doi:10.1086/532851.

Smallwood, T.M. “The Transmission of Charms in English, Medieval and Modern.” Charms and Charming in Europe, edited by Jonathan Roper, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Williams, Gerhild Scholz. “Demonologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 69–82.

 

Déjà vu: How The Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses Were Similar Yet Slightly Different

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018.

 

The English conflicts occurring in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 had several differences between the two. The main way these conflicts were different were the personalities of the two kings who ruled during this time. Henry VI and Edward IV could not be any more different from each other in personality, appearance, how they became king, and how they acted as king. Despite this, the conflicts in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 during the Wars of the Roses have more similarities than differences.

 

Plucking_the_Red_and_White_Roses,_by_Henry_Payne

Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens (based on a scene in William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI) | Painting by Henry Payne | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

One way the conflicts were similar was the state of the economy before each rebellion happened. Throughout Henry VI’s reign, the economy of England gradually fell into increasingly terrible shape (Carpenter 32). England had been fighting a war with France since 1337, which England eventually lost during Henry VI’s reign. Needless to say, “the financial burden imposed by the Hundred Years War had had an effect upon the economic framework surrounding the position of the Crown” (Sadler 18). Due to the losses of English territories in France, taxpayers understandably did not want to give money to a war they knew they would no longer win (Carpenter 105). It also did not help that “despite [Henry VI’s] financial difficulties” and the setbacks the queen had when collecting her own income, “Margaret of Anjou’s household was larger and more lavish than that of any other medieval queen, save only Isabella of France” (Crawford 120). It should be noted that the state of the economy was not the primary cause of the Wars of the Roses. However, the economy was “one of the causes of [Henry VI’s] political weaknesses” (Britnell 56).

Before the second conflict occurred, Edward IV was tasked with trying to improve the economic disaster Henry VI left behind. This included paying off Henry VI’s massive debts. Unfortunately for Edward IV, he “had no solution to the economic crisis, which was still largely shaped by external factors” (Hicks 173). And like Henry VI’s government, anger with Edward IV’s government “coincided with a crisis in the export economy and involved clothmaking [sic] centres [sic] in the West of England” (Britnell 57). Also like Henry VI, Edward IV lived outside of his means. Michael Hicks reports that “Edward was urged…to reserve enough lands to cover his ordinary charges without recourse to his ‘…commons and subjects’” (175). Edward IV did not do this. Instead, he claimed that England would go back to war with France to regain their lost territories, collected his people’s taxes, and never actually went to war (Grummitt 221).

Another way the conflicts were similar was the way Henry VI and Edward IV punished those who tried to/eventually did overthrow them, especially those who were the leaders of the rebellion against their kingship. During the 1450s, Henry VI pardoned Richard, Duke of York several times after York attempted to overthrow the government while claiming he was doing so to protect the king from “the corrupt government of…traitors” (Grummitt 197). But York’s so-called protests looked very much like “treasonable rebellion” (Hicks 102). York was aware of this so “he formally swore allegiance to the king on the sacraments before witnesses…had his oath publicly certified, and dispatched the record to the king” (Hicks 102). While Henry VI did summon York to talk about his concerns, York refused to meet with the king (Hicks 102). Instead, York kept insisting “their lives were endangered by traitors about the king, they were marching for justice, both for themselves and for the commonwealth” (Grummitt 196).

 

A_Chronicle_of_England_-_Page_400_-_Henry_VI_and_the_Dukes_of_York_and_Somerset

Henry VI sits while Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, have an argument. | Caption from Wikipedia | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Apparently, this explanation was enough for Henry VI and the nobility to think York was not a traitor the first few times he led rebellions. Or at the very least, he was not legally considered a traitor. Even so, York was obviously a threat that Henry VI and the nobility repeatedly chose to ignore. And not only did they ignore the threat York posed, in March of 1454, “it was agreed in parliament that [York] should assume the title and duties of ‘protector and governor of the realm’ during the king’s incapacity” (Grummitt 173)! It should have been clear to everyone that York wanted the throne, or at the very least, York wanted a new king after he tried to rebel the second time. Even though “Lords were unwilling to convict noblemen like themselves” (Hicks 101), it makes one wonder exactly why Henry VI did not execute York after he went back on his word to the king, if not the second time, then the times after that.

Edward IV also forgave those who betrayed him. The major two traitors were Edward IV’s kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick and his brother, George Duke of Clarence. However we must keep in mind, unlike Henry VI who did not really do anything to actively frustrate his supporters—it was mostly his inaction—Edward IV’s actions did. Edward IV made the severe mistake of alienating his kingmaker and his brother. Hicks makes the observation that before Warwick’s coup in 1469, “Edward had to negotiate with Warwick like a separate potentate, just as had Henry VI with the Duke of York a decade earlier” (189). Warwick also used York’s arguments to say why his 1469 coup was not really a coup (Hicks 191). Despite all this, in February 1470 Edward IV pardoned the Earl of Warwick and his brother, Duke of Clarence for their coup. Unfortunately for Edward IV, Warwick still was not happy and rebelled again, this time overthrowing Edward IV and reinstating Henry VI as king. However, Edward IV managed to take back his throne and apparently before the Battle of Barnet, “the duke of Clarence, King Edward’s brother, was quietly reconciled with the king” (Crowland Chronicles125). Warwick was killed during this battle.

Another similarity between the conflicts is how each king got captured by the enemy. In the 1459-1461 conflict, Henry VI was captured and held in the Tower of London “where he was kept as a prisoner” (Grummitt 209). While in the 1469-1471 conflict, “King Edward…had been captured at a village near Coventry…and then he was sent to Warwick castle where he was held prisoner (Crowland Chronicles 117). However, one main difference between the two scenarios is that Henry VI was kept in the Tower of London for nearly half a decade after he was overthrown in 1461 (Grummitt 209) while Edward IV does not seem to have been held prisoner for that long. It is also important to note that Edward IV “managed not simply to escape but to get himself released with the specific approval of the earl of Warwick himself” (Crowland Chronicles 117).

 

MS_Ghent_-_Battle_of_Tewkesbury-3

The Battle of Tewkesbury | MS Ghent | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Now, while the conflicts were mostly similar in nature, they had a few other minor differences that resulted in major consequences. One such difference would be how long it took for each conflict to come to fruition. The rebellions in 1459-1461 took years for the tensions to boil over into an all-out civil war. This could because of the fact York’s rebellions kept failing and if he wanted to stay alive, he had to claim he was rebelling for the sake of the king, not against the king. However, once York’s true intentions were known, he could no longer pretend he was not committing treason. After all, once York acknowledged he committed treason, if he did not win the throne, then he would be killed. At that point, there was no going back for York. In contrast, the earl of Warwick and the duke of Clarence organized the rebellion against Edward IV in “only six months in 1469-1470—and perhaps much less, in 1469 itself” (Hicks 168). The urgency of this conflict could be because unlike Henry VI, Edward IV would know what was about to happen.

Now, the length of the two conflicts’ buildups could also have to do with the kings’ lineages. Even though Henry VI was not considered a good king, he came from an already established dynasty of kings. While Edward IV was also descended from Edward III, Henry VI’s father and grandfather had both been kings before him. However, both Henry IV, Henry VI’s grandfather, and Henry V, Henry VI’s father were usurpers (Carpenter 67-68). But what gave Henry VI the advantage in his own kingship, was the fact his father, Henry V, was considered an excellent king and was well respected (Carpenter 79). This was not the same for Edward IV. At least, it was not the same before the conflict of 1469-1471. Edward IV was a usurper. Unlike Henry VI, Edward IV could not rely on his pedigree alone to gain the respect of the nobility. Edward IV has to actually work for it. However, due to the conflict during 1469-1471, it is clear that during the first part of his reign Edward IV was not particularly worried about keeping the people who helped him get the throne happy.

The amounts of similarities between the two conflicts outweigh the differences. Both kings had to face the same struggles of being king, however, each king reacted in completely different ways to the problems. Henry VI essentially let England’s economy crumble while Edward IV made an attempt to fix it during his first reign. Granted, it was a very weak attempt and only during his second reign would the economy improve, but it was an attempt nonetheless. The ways Henry VI and Edward IV treated those who committed treason against them is also reflective of what kind of king they were. Henry VI acted very weakly under the guise of mercy, while Edward IV seemed to have a ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ mindset. It is also interesting how each side treated the enemy king. The Yorks were not merciful while the Lancasters (or at least the Warwicks) were.

 

 

 

Sources:

Britnell, R.H. “The Economic Context”. The Wars of the Roses. edited by A.J. Pollard. MacMillan Press, 1995. pp. 41-64

Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, C.1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Crawford, Anne, editor. Letters of the Queens of England. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002.

Pronay, Nicholas, and John Cox, editors. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459-1486. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1986.

Grummitt, David. Henry VI. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses. Yale University Press. 2010.

Sadler, John. The Red Rose and the White. Pearson Educated Limited. 2010.

Gender, Crime, and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Content Warning: Mentions of Sexual Assault

This is something I wrote while studying abroad at Oxford. It’s an older essay, written in May 2018.

 

Studying medieval crime allows us to see into the world of the average person living during this time period. It also allows us to study people who otherwise would have been lost to history if it had not been for the records detailing the wrongs people had either done or had done to them. These records give us a deeper insight into the gendered world of the Middle Ages. Because exactly like in modern times, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered. Certain crimes were more likely to be committed by men than women and vise versa. The gender of the person committing the crime could affect the punishment the criminal would receive. Reactions to crimes, including slander, were gendered as well.

 

Common_Pleas

An illuminated manuscript of the Court of Common Pleas in session | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Defamation lawsuits were common occurrences in the Middle Ages. While “men and women tended to take different slanders to court” (Neal 186), these types of lawsuits were socially acceptable and legal ways for people to react against insults that might have had or did have an effect on the person’s everyday life. Now, while the majority of men’s lawsuits regarded “accusations or insinuations of dishonesty, especially of theft” (Neal 186), a defamation lawsuit was also an excellent way to react to an insult concerning a man’s masculinity without punching someone or resorting to other acts of physical violence. Another advantage of the defamation lawsuit was if the man won, not only did he have a court legally prove the insult was wrong and the insulter was lying, he would also get monetary compensation. However, not all of these lawsuits were brought forth by men. Some men were sued by the woman they sexually slandered and her witnesses included men the defendant had also slandered.

One such lawsuit took place in Sturrey in 1415. A woman named Alice Yarewell sued a man named John Maldon who had “declared…she was a common whore” (Neal 193) after both of her marriage prospects believed the rumor. In the process of telling men Alice Yarewell was a whore, John Maldon also claimed that another man who slept with Alice, Richard Bokeland, was not good at sex. While “John Maldon scored a few points by bragging about a sexual conquest” and “using the same story to belittle Richard Bokeland, he scored a few more” (Neal 193), things ended up backfiring for John when Alice sued him with Richard testifying as her witness.

This entire court case is extremely gendered. It involves a man ruining a woman’s reputation and her future solely based on her sexuality, while “at first…[there was] no shame or perceived danger…for these mature men in frankly discussing illicit sexual conduct” (Neal 194). It was only when Alice Yarewell could not get married and John Maldon spent the entire summer telling the story of his sexual conquest over and over again (Neal 194) did he face some consequences of his actions. Another aspect of the lawsuit being gendered is the fact Richard Bokeland probably did not testify to help Alice out of the goodness of his heart. The fact that we only know that Richard Bokeland exists, a man who would have otherwise been lost to history, is because he wanted to make sure his entire community knew he was not bad in bed as John Maldon claimed. This is significant because it implies that medieval men could freely talk about their sex lives without being considered less than. In contrast, women in medieval society could not testify that they were good at having sex, particularly unmarried sex, without being considered dirty and defiled.

 

IMG_1368

The Stocks at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

Women who were commonly known to have what was considered deviant sex (fornication) and like it were considered whores. This was emphasized by the medieval view of prostitutes. According to Ruth Mazo Karras “in the Middle Ages…a woman was a prostitute (meretrix) because she was a lustful woman, not because of the specific behavior of accepting money for sex” (Karras 162). The fear and disgust of prostitutes, thus unmarried but sexually active women, led to laws being created to physically distinguish these women through marked items of clothing (Karras 164). However, by making prostitutes wear clothes distinguishing them as prostitutes it not only shamed them but had an unintended effect: now potential customers knew who to go to when they wanted to buy sex.

Now, female prostitutes were not the only ones who were considered deviant. Men who had sex with other men were also thought to be practicing deviant sexual behavior (Karras 161). However, unlike prostitutes, the behavior of men who had sex with other men was considered just that: behavior. The idea “that sexual acts between men were the markers of a certain type of person” (Karras 162) did not exist. Compare that concept to the idea it was a prostitute’s “sinfulness [that] made her behave badly, her behavior did not classify her as a sinner” (Karras 162). The medieval belief was that being lustful and sinful was inherently part of a woman’s nature verses for men the same lustfulness was merely behavior one could control. This certainly relates to the idea that to be masculine meant that a man had lots of “self-restraint” (Neal 198).

But not all men had the self-restraint needed to be masculine. In late medieval Bologna, theft was mostly a crime committed by men. Trevor Dean found that “in the period 1450-69, 261 named individuals were tried, and mostly convicted, of theft [and] of these, 251 were male, and 10 (4 per cent) were female” (403). This implies that thefts were an extremely masculine crime, or at the very least, male thieves in Bologna were terrible at thieving without getting caught. And contrary to popular belief, when women in Bologna stole, they did not just steal items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) such as food and other “household goods” (Dean 404). In fact, “it is the men, not the women who steal food for immediate consumption” (Dean 405). When you disregard the cases of men stealing food, both Bologna men and women stole the same sorts of items. These items include “coins, jewels, cloth and clothing” (Dean 405-406).

Medieval English women were documented to have stolen similar items as their Italian counterparts as well. Court documents from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show that women stole coins, cloth, and wool pelts (Goldberg 243-246). However, quite a few English women were caught stealing items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) as well as “household goods” (Dean 404). Fourteenth-century peace rolls from Lincoln recorded that a woman named Margaret de Staynrop stole a brass pot and that she will be hanged for doing so (Goldberg 243). English documents from other towns recorded women being tried for stealing malt, “18 geese,” “spoons…a platter, a pewter salt” (Goldberg 244), “a bushel of beans,” another “brass pot and a plate…a cloak,” “one blanket…and other necessaries,” chickens (Goldberg 245) and other types of livestock (Goldberg 246) as well as “a brazen pan, three pecks of wheat, and a loaf of bread” (Goldberg 246). It appears that English medieval women were more likely to steal things related to the domestic sphere than Italian women in Bologna. The implication is that these women did not have access to goods that they needed.

 

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r woman being abducted by wild man

A Woman Being Abducted by a Wild Man | Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r | Source: The British Library

 

Physical items were not the only things that could be stolen in the Middle Ages. The gendered crime of ravishment included the theft of people. Ravishment did not just happen to wives. Heirs of both genders who were still in their minority could be ravished too. Now, the definition of ravishment in the medieval period did not mean rape, however, on occasion rape happened while a woman was being ravished (Walker 237). However, sometimes ravishment, especially in the case of women who were of age, was consensual. In fact, “women allowed themselves to be abducted in order to affirm their own choice of a husband and force their families to accept the relationship” (Walker 237). Women also “allowed themselves to be abducted in order to leave their husbands” (Walker 237-238). Due to the fact married women were considered property of their husbands, these records show that the only way for a medieval woman to chose who to marry or to leave an abusive situation was to plan and commit what society and the law considered a crime. It is interesting to note that whenever one of these “consensual abductions” (Walker 239) occurred, the woman trying to leave her husband was not forced to go back to him. Instead the woman’s husband “had to be satisfied with damages that were usually close in the amount to the value of the chattels” (Walker 246). In contrast, underage heirs who had been ravished “could be recovered as well as damages” (Walker 246).

In conclusion, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered in different ways depending on the century and the location of the crime. Who committed crimes, what kinds of crimes they committed and the punishment of such crimes depended on what the negative effect of a person’s actions was (perceived or otherwise). Defamation lawsuits were an excellent way to remind people, men in particular, that their speech had consequences, even if they did not feel those consequences themselves. Persecution of sexual deviancy kept people in check, even if sexuality was thought of as mere behavior for men or something that was part of your morality for women. Which sex committed crimes further enforced the idea of medieval masculinity and femininity, even if these ideas seemed to be reversed in certain European locations. Finally, the fact that women were considered property was further emphasized by the punishment of ravishment: paying the man the property damage of the woman you “stole”.

 

 

Sources:

Dean, Trevor. “Theft and Gender in Late Medieval Bologna.” Gender & History, vol.20, No.2 August 2008, pp. 399–415.

Goldberg, P. J. P., editor. “Law and Custom”. Women in England, c. 1275-1525: Documentary Sources. Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 223-260.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Prostitution and the Question of Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe”. Journal of Women’s History 11. 1999, pp. 159-171.

Neal, Derek. “Husbands and Priests: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Defamation in Late Medieval England”. The Hands of the Tongue: Essays on Deviant Speech. edited by E. Craun. Kalamazoo. 2007, pp. 185-208.

Walker, Sue Sheridan. “Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practices in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England”. Journal of Medieval History. 13. 1987, pp. 237-250.

 

Further Reading:

Cannon, Christopher. “The Rights of Medieval English Women: Crime and the Issue of Representation”. Medieval Crime and Social Control. edited by B.A. Hanawalt and D. Wallace. University of Minnesota Press. 1998. pp. 156-185.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England. Oxford University Press. 1998.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. “Violence in the Domestic Milieu of Late Medieval England”. Violence in Medieval Society. edited by Richard W. Kaeuper. Boydell Press. 2000, pp. 197-214.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Four, Getting Your Fair Share

My last post was about private ownership in a monastery. There I discussed how monks were not allowed to own things (unless they had their abbot’s permission of course) as everything was to belong to the community. The chapter I will be analyzing today goes into a bit more detail regarding that.

 

sick-clerk-proposing-to-become-a-monk-from-bl-royal-11-d-ix-f-207v-b595ec

Sick clerk proposing to become a monk | BL Royal 11 D IX, f. 207v | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Thirty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Whether all ought alike to Receive what is Needful” (pg. 50). It begins with the bible quote ‘”Distribution was made to every man, according as he had need”‘ (pg. 50). This is the thesis/summary of chapter thirty-four. Saint Benedict goes onto elaborate saying:

“Herein we do not say that there should be respecting of personsGod forbid—but consideration for infirmities.” (pg. 50)

Basically, a monastery is supposed to make accommodations for monks who need them. An elderly sick monk will need more food or blankets than a healthy young one, so it’s important to take a monk’s disabilities into account when items are being distributed in the monastery. This isn’t just a medieval concept. Even in modern times, workplaces are expected to make reasonable accommodations for people.

Saint Benedict is aware that sometimes people get grumbly when they see someone else getting ‘more’ (for lack of a better term) than them. He reminds his monkish reader “that hath need of less [should] give thanks to God, and not be grieved” (pg. 50). In other words, a monk should be thankful he is healthy. The text also tells monks with disabilities that they should “be humbled for his infirmity” (pg. 50). He should “not [be] made proud by the kindness shown to him” (pg. 50). If everyone can do this, then “all the members of the family shall be at peace” (pg. 50).

In case these words don’t convince monks, the text warns the reader about “the evil of murmuring” (pg. 50). If a monk complains even with “the slightest word or sign on any account whatsoever” then he is to “be subjected to very severe punishment” (pg. 50).

 

 

Main Source:

  • 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.)

Other Sources:

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

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.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Three, Can You (a Medieval Monk) Own Stuff?

Once again, I am discussing another short chapter in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Like the last chapter (and various other ones) this one is only a paragraph long. Chapter Thirty-Three is titled “Whether Monks ought to have anything of their Own” (pg. 49). The short answer to this is No. The long answer to this is Still No But Sometimes Maybe.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.60r

The Beginning of Chapter Thirty-Three in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.60r | Source: The British Library

 

The text begins with “the vice of private ownership is above all to be cut off from the Monastery by the roots” (pg. 49). Saint Benedict definitely had something here. When you own your own things, it is very easy to become greedy and want more and more. Or if you don’t become greedy, you might hesitate to share what you do have. To avoid monks spiraling into absolute corruption, the simplest solution is to have everything belong to the community. (I will note that this sentiment is still extremely relevant in 2020. However, it is much easier to share when your community is twelve or more other monks and not a country of other people.)

Everything was to “be common to all” (pg.49). Or in other words, all things were to be shared by the brethren. A monk was not “to keep anything as their own” (pg. 49). They weren’t even allowed to own little things that might not seem very valuable, such as a “writing-tablet or [a] pen” (pg. 49)! While this does seem a bit extreme, Saint Benedict justifies these regulations by reminding his monkish reader that “they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power” (pg. 49). If a monk isn’t even allowed to have his own will, why would he be allowed to have his own pen?

If a monk doesn’t even have his own will, who in the monastery does? The answer is the abbot. One of the abbot’s many duties was to permit his monks to own items if he so chose. Saint Benedict says, “let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot” (pg. 49). However, an abbot was not to deprive his monks of things they needed to survive:

“But all that is necessary they [the monks] may hope to receive from the father of the Monastery…” (pg. 49)

However, expecting a person to share absolutely everything can be a bit impractical at times. I imagine that monks were allowed to keep their own habits even if the clothes technically belonged to the monastery. (After all, someone very short and thin won’t fit into the same clothes as someone very tall and fat.) Like in previous chapters, Saint Benedict throws in a loophole. Monks can have some things as long as the Abbot has given it to them “or at least permitted them to have” (pg. 49) it.

What happens if a monk doesn’t follow the rules and sneaks something into the monastery for himself? Well, if any monk is “found to indulge in this most baneful vice” (pg. 50) there must be consequences. At first, the monk should be given “one or two admonitions” (pg. 50). But if he does “not amend” Saint Benedict says the monk must “be subjected to correction” (pg. 50).

 

 

Main Source:

  • 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.)

Other Sources:

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

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.

For some reason, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict wasn’t loading today. However, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the usual PDF that I reference. You can access that screenshot here. (You have to scroll down to see the text.) I used this to cross-check my translation.