Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 1: Some Real Life Stories of Men of God Acting Poorly

Even though medieval monks were supposed to be humble, holy, and obedient, they were still human. Not every man who joined the monastic life was a saint and not every monk actually had a vocation. Some monks had no choice in their career at all! (See my post on oblates for more information about that.) As a result of their humanity, they didn’t always do the right thing.

While there are many recorded accounts of monks misbehaving, today I am going to take my stories from the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin of Brakelond. As of my time writing this article, I’m only on page twenty-three of the text, however, there are already a lot of incidents Jocelin of Brakelond recorded! Due to the quantity, I will be making Misbehaving Medieval Monks a series. In the future, I plan to use other primary sources as well. If you know of any accounts you want me to write about, please let me know!

Harley MS 1526 f.7r | Source: The British Library

***

Our first instance of a misbehaving monk occurred while Hugh was still abbot of Bury St Edmunds. Abbot Hugh was not very good at his job when it came to maintaining the abbey’s finances. (He was also not very good at his job in other regards, but that’s not relevant to this story.) As a result, the abbey was regularly borrowing money from both Christian and Jewish moneylenders so they could maintain the appearance of wealth. Part of maintaining appearances included fixing up the treasury building as it had fallen into disrepair.

The sacrist at the time, William, decided that he was going to get that building fixed no matter what. So William secretly made his way down to a Jewish moneylender named Benedict. William borrowed 40 marks with interest and apparently did not pay Benedict back because his debt rose to £100. It is important to note that during this time period, Jewish people were under the king’s protection. Any debts owed to that person became a debt to the king when they died. Needless to say, the king was very invested in knowing who wasn’t paying up. So when William didn’t pay his debt, Benedict went to the abbey with a letter from the king.

Up until now, William had managed to keep his borrowing a secret from everyone. But when royal letters arrive, secrets do not stay secrets for very long. Needless to say, Abbot Hugh was furious. He was so angry he basically threatened to fire William from being sacrist. However, one monk (Jocelin doesn’t name who) convinced Abbot Hugh not to fire William. In the end, the monastery borrowed another £400 from Benedict. It was supposed to be paid back in four years. (Spoiler alert: it was not and the debt increased.) £100 of it went to Abbot Hugh. Abbot Hugh also refused to use his seal on the paperwork for the bonds, so the monastery’s seal was used instead. It seems that he did this so he could pretend William’s increasingly growing debt wasn’t affiliated with him, despite the fact William was his monk and the money was going towards his monastery’s buildings!

***

While Abbot Hugh was in charge another incident happened. The king had gotten word that the abbey was being severely mismanaged and as a result, sent his almoner to see what was up. All the monks were called together and the prior flat out lied to the man about how everything was great, there were no problems, their only debts were small and don’t worry about it, everything is fine and dandy. The almoner was basically like, ‘okay.’ And left. Then later when the Archbishop came with a clerk, the monastery lied to them about how everything was fine and do not worry.

However, this didn’t sit right with Jocelin. He asked his novice master, Samson, why he wasn’t speaking the truth. After all, Jocelin was under the impression that Samson didn’t really care about getting a higher-up position in the monastery or afraid of any man. Well, it turns out that Samson was afraid of other men. In reply, he basically told Jocelin that snitches get stitches and unless he wanted to end up in exile like their last prior, two other monks, and himself, he should really keep his mouth shut. Samson knew from experience what happens to monks who speak out against their abbot for the greater good. And in his case, he was locked up in Castle Acre.

***

Once again, this story of misbehaving monks started because one monk wouldn’t pay back his debts. The cellarer’s debt had risen to £60. Consequently, he was fired and replaced by a monk named Master Denis who did pay the debt. However before the old cellarer was replaced, Abbot Hugh ordered him to entertain all the guests whether or not he (Abbot Hugh) was actually at the monastery. Now, this might not sound like a big deal, but entertaining guests was the abbot’s job. So Abbot Hugh was shirking his duties onto someone else when he could have very well done them himself! (I assume if the abbot were off on a trip, the cellarer would be the one entertaining.)

Two days after Master Denis had become cellarer a few knights arrived at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Despite the fact Abbot Hugh was home, the knights were taken to the guesthouse instead of the abbot’s quarters. The previous cellarer may have taken on this extra job, but Master Denis was having absolutely none of Abbot Hugh’s laziness. So he brought the knights to Abbot Hugh and basically told him off in front of the guests.

Master Denis told Abbot Hugh that they both knew he was deliberately avoiding his duties, he would not entertain the abbot’s guests, if he didn’t like that, then here were the cellarer’s keys because he was going to quit and Abbot Hugh could find another cellarer. Well, it seems like Abbot Hugh didn’t want to find another cellarer because from then on, he entertained all the guests whether he liked it or not!

***

While the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was poorly run while Abbot Hugh was alive, things got worse after he died. So from late 1180 to 1182 the prior, Robert, was in charge until a new abbot could be elected. Even though Robert seemed to have good intentions, he was not meant to be a leader. (Based on Jocelin’s description of him, Robert kind of reminds me of Michael Scott from The Office.) Robert’s main goals were to keep everyone happy, avoid upsetting or angering anyone, and to make sure Bury St Edmunds maintained its hospitable reputation. In theory, these are good goals, but not in practice. As a result, the monastery’s obedientiaries went wild.

Remember William from the first story? Well with Abbot Hugh dead and Prior Robert ignoring the obedientiaries’ misdeeds, William really started misbehaving! He continued to not pay back his debts, he didn’t have any new buildings put up, any sort of money from offerings or gifts was wasted, and he got into the habit of giving stuff away that he should not have. In short, William stopped caring about his job. Due to the fact Prior Robert did not stop William’s ill-advised generosity, people started to consider Prior Robert pretty neglectful. After all, he was in charge and not doing anything to stop the bad behavior.

Sources:

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

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

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

Content Warning: Animal Abuse

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

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

 

Royal MS 20 A II f.8v King John with his Dogs

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

 

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

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

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

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

No. They do none of those things.

Instead, they have the bright idea to do this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n43/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: One Instance of a Holy Man Trying to Become a Monk Despite His Brothers’ Attempts to Stop Him

In Chapter Thirteen of The Dialogue on Miracles, we begin to see Caesarius of Heisterbach’s strong dislike of knights. Based on the text, Caesarius seems to think that all knights want to do is bring monks back to the secular world. Sometimes the knights succeed. And sometimes they do not. Today’s story is about a few knights who fail in their mission to bring a monk back into the world.

 

Sloane 2435 f. 85 Cleric, knight and peasant

Cleric, knight, and peasant | BL Sloane 2435 f. 85 | Source: The British Library

 

The Monk begins his part of the dialogue by setting the scene. In the German city of Bonn, there is a canon named Henry. Henry is devout and has received a calling to be a monk. Instead of telling anyone about this calling, he decides to secretly join the Cistercian Order. (However, unlike a few others who secretly attempted to become monks, Henry is significantly more determined to take the cowl. It helps that he actually has a calling and isn’t joining because he lost a ton of money.)

So Henry mosies on over to Heisterbach Abbey. (For context, Bonn is about seven miles away from the abbey and it’s approximately a two-hour walk. At least according to Google Maps.) While he’s still staying in the guesthouse, his brothers, two knights, find him there. Turns out his secret journey to the monastery wasn’t as secret as he thought!

Now, the Monk does not like that two knights decided to bring Henry home. The language he uses when describing their character make his opinion on them pretty clear:

“…and being worldly men who set more value upon carnal and temporal pleasures than upon spiritual and eternal happiness, they were much troubled by what should have been a joy to them.” (pg. 20)

That being said, the Monk does not think highly of anyone attempting to bring their religiously inclined kin/friend back into the secular world. It seems that because Henry has an actual calling the Monk is much harsher describing his brothers than he is when the potential monk is joining for silly or sinful reasons.

On the trip to Heisterbach, Henry’s brothers had some time to think of a plan to get him back home. Their plan is rather effective. They send a boy to Henry with a message that is supposedly from their mother (it’s not). Henry follows the boy outside where his brothers quite literally kidnap him. They throw him onto a horse and despite Henry’s attempts to fight back, he is dragged away from the monastery, much to the monks’ distress. To make things worse, Henry wasn’t officially a monk so there was nothing the monastery could do. If he had been tonsured then things would be a much different story! Monks aren’t allowed to leave their communities without permission after all!

Henry ends up staying with his brothers for a while. However, unbeknownst to them, he still wants to take the cowl. He waits until they are sure he won’t run away. And then he books it back to Heisterbach. Once there Henry becomes a monk (or “put on the habit” (pg. 21) as the text describes it) as fast as he can. Now officially part of the community, he cannot leave. (Though I will note that there are cases of tonsured monks returning to the world. But that’s a different article for a different time!)

The remainder of the chapter is the Monk talking about why the tale of Henry’s conversion is different from the previous tales (Henry had a calling, the others were joining to flee from their troubles or to steal stuff), the Novice commenting on how sinful it is for a novice to leave, the Monk saying yes it is, setting up for some stories of novices doing just that and getting their divine punishments. (Which we will see in the next few chapters!)

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n43/mode/2up

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

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

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

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

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 13)

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

 

Harley MS 1527 f.4v

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 14)

(Emphasis mine.)

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

This is not satisfactory for the prior.

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

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

 

 

 

Source:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Three, What Will Happen if You (a Medieval Monk) Are Late

While Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty in The Rule of Saint Benedict gives instructions on how to handle a monk’s grave faults, Chapters Forty-Three through Forty-Six deal with minor faults. Due to the chapter’s length, today I am only going to be discussing Chapter Forty-Three. I will discuss the other chapters at a later time as they are much shorter. (Forty-Four through Forty-Six make up approximately the same length as Forty-Three.)

The title is “Of those who come Late to the Work of God, or to Table” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) and unlike the chapter on silence after Compline, this part of the text actually discusses what the chapter title says!

 

Harley MS 5431 f.70v chap. 43 of the rule of st benedict

The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Three in a Medieval Manuscript  | Harley MS 5431 f.70v | Source: The British Library

 

Saint Benedict starts off by instructing his monkish reader that “as soon as the signal is heard” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) everyone is to drop what they are doing and head over to the oratory. The monks are to “hasten…with all speed” however, they need to do so “with seriousness, so that no occasion be given for levity” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Meaning that while a monk should hurry to Divine Office, he absolutely should not literally run to church. In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary of The Rule of Saint Benedict he explains that “monks ought to be eager to do what the Lord…requires in the moment” (pg. 354). Going to Divine Offices when called further enforces Saint Benedict’s never-ending quest for obedient monks.

The text goes on to state that “nothing…be preferred to the Work of God” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). That being said, Kardong notes that there are some essential jobs that can’t be instantly dropped just so monks can go to church (pg. 353).

What happens if a monk puts something else before church? Especially for the Night Offices? What if a monk decides that a few more minutes of sleep won’t hurt? Then what? Luckily for him, Saint Benedict explicitly states that “the Gloria of the ninety-fourth Psalm…[is] to be said very slowly and protractedly” precisely “for this reason” (pg. 58).

But what if the monk sleeps for longer than he intended and by the time he reaches the oratory the Psalm is over? Well, late monks certainly are not allowed to “stand in his order in the choir” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Chapter Sixty-Three goes into this in more detail, but there is an important hierarchy in “traditional monasticism” (Kardong, pg. 355). Every monk has a place where he belongs. The fact that a late monk has to stand “last of all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) instead of his designated place in the hierarchy, is extremely significant punishment. However, Saint Benedict does give another option of where a late monk should go, and arguably it’s worse than just standing last in the order. If an abbot so wishes he can have a “place set apart…for the negligent” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58).

Whether he’s standing last in the choir or in the Late Monk Area of the church, the monk is there so “he may be seen…by all” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). The text goes on to stress that is so a monk can make “satisfaction by public penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58) Saint Benedict argues that a bit of “shame” is “fitting for them” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). After all, everyone else was able to make it to church on time. The late monk should “do what is necessary to regain a place in the good graces of God and the community” (Kardong, pg. 356).

It is vital that monks are allowed in the oratory during services no matter how late they are. Otherwise, they risk falling deep into sin:

“For, if they were to remain outside the Oratory, someone perchance would return to his place and go to sleep, or at all events would sit down outside, and give himself to idle talk, and thus an occasion would be given to the evil one.”

(Saint Benedict, pgs. 58-59)

To prevent this from happening, Saint Benedict insists on allowing latecomers to join the services. Even if a monk misses the first half, he doesn’t have to “lose the whole” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Besides, he can always make “amend for the future” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). This is a lovely little snippet that reminds modern readers that medieval monks aren’t so different from us today. Even in the past, people indulged in oversleeping, sitting down where you aren’t supposed to, and spreading some juicy gossip.

As for day Hours, the rules are pretty much the same. They still have to sit last in place/in the late monk seats and they have to do penance later. That being said, there is one key difference between treating latecomers to day and night services. If a monk is late in the day he should “not presume to join with the choir…until he hath made satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). The text does not mention this punishment for night Hours.

However, there is an exception. (And if you have been keeping up with my analysis of The Rule of Saint Benedict I’m sure you’ve already guessed what it is!) A late monk is allowed to join in with the singing if “the Abbot shall permit him so to do” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). (There are so many instances of the abbot being permitted to bend the rules that I’m going to start referring to this phenomenon as ‘The Abbot Exception.’) According to Kardong, this allowance would be communicated “by a nod of the head or some sign” (pg. 358). But just because the monk is given permission to sing, it doesn’t mean that he won’t “afterwards do penance” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

So we’ve gone over what will happen if a monk is late to church. What happens if he’s late for a meal? (Late here meaning missing the verse and prayers with everyone else.) At first, nothing will happen. He will “be once or twice corrected” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). If his tardiness becomes a reoccurring pattern that’s when things get serious. (But not as serious as it is in Chapter Twenty-Four when he had to wait three hours after everyone else ate!) A late monk is banned from the “common table,” has to eat alone, and doesn’t get his share of wine (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). Being banned from the common table might either mean not sitting in the refectory at all or in the refectory but separated from the other monks (Kardong, pg. 359). A monk who misses out on the ending prayers gets the same punishment. Sharing a meal together is supposed to be a community event (Kardong, pg. 359). And it can’t be a community event if no one shows up at the proper time. 

In the last couple of lines, Saint Benedict bans taking “food or drink before or after the appointed hour” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). There are designated mealtimes for a reason and monks have to stick to them. Unless of course the monk is given an Abbot Exception. If a monk is doing “hard work” or is in the “summer heat” (Kardong, pg. 360) he’s going to need a bit of nourishment to hold him over. What happens is he refuses the snack at first but changes his mind later? Well, “he shall receive nothing…until he hath made proper satisfaction” (Saint Benedict, pg. 59). 

Or in other words, tough luck monk.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Two, Medieval Monastic Bedtime Stories

While Chapter Forty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “That no one may Speak after Compline” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) the majority of the chapter focuses on what books a monastic community should (and should not) read before everyone goes to bed.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.69v beginning of chap42 rule of st. benedict

The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.69v | Source: The British Library

 

However, before Saint Benedict starts off his reading list, the first line of the text stresses that “monks should love silence at all times…especially during the hours of the night” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Silence was also discussed back in Chapter Six, but it seems like Saint Benedict is reminding his monkish readers of this “traditional monastic value” (Kardong pg. 345). (Similar to the way Saint Benedict constantly reminds his audience about obedience and humility. You know, just in case the monks forgot.) In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong notes that the language Saint Benedict uses implies that he knows the brethren won’t be quiet all the time. This idea is further proven at the end of the chapter with this quote:

“[In regards to talking] unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 58)

I would also like to note that there is a difference in translation between my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict and Kardong’s. The Latin word Saint Benedict uses when referring to a monk’s love of silence is studere. Studere is the present infinitive of the word studeo. Studeo has a few meanings, but one meaning is ‘to strive after.‘ Kardong’s translation is much more direct (“Monks ought to strive for silence at all times”) while my copy of The Rule, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, is a bit more poetic in its phrasing (“monks should love silence at all times”). 

After this reminder, Saint Benedict begins discussing what the after supper routine should be. No matter if it’s a fast day “or otherwise” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) all the brethren are to gather together and listen to “four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). And yes, every monk is supposed to gather together to do this, “even those who may have been occupied in some work” (Saint Benedict pg. 58). The after supper reading is a group activity and it’s important monastic communities treat it as such.

If it’s not a fast day, then Saint Benedict recommends reading ‘”Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57). He explicitly bans the “Heptateuch” or “the Books of Kings” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) from being read. It can “be read at other times” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) but not before bedtime. According to the footnote in D. Oswald Hunter Blair’s translation, these biblical texts were considered “too exciting to the imagination” (pg. 57) to listen to before going to sleep. In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong explains that these parts of the bible are filled with “erotic episodes” and “violence” (pg. 347). Neither of which are great things to listen about just before bed. After all, the night time reading is supposed to enrich the monks’ spirits, not excite them. 

If it is a fast day then Conferences are also to be the text of choice. However, during fast days the reading will happen at a different time. Instead of being after supper, it will occur “a short time after Vespers” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). This allows the brethren to take a short break between the services and to prevent exhaustion (Kardong, pg. 348).

After all these instructions, Saint Benedict finally discusses what the chapter is supposed to be about: Compline. And it’s only discussed within a few sentences. Because everyone is already conveniently together Compline is said after the reading. Once the service is finished, “let none be allowed to speak to anyone” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). If anyone does speak he is to be “subjected to severe punishment” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Unless, of course, the exceptions mentioned at the start of this post occurred.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

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

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?

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.