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!

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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!

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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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Main Sources:

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

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

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Main Sources:

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

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

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

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

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

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Five, What to do When a Monk Makes a Mistake During Services

I am going to be furthering my analysis of Saint Benedict’s guidelines on monastic discipline. I’ve talked about it previously here and here. Today I will be discussing Chapters Forty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict. This chapter is pretty short (only two sentences!) but there is a lot of interesting language use in the original Latin that I want to go into.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.73v Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict
Beginning of Chapter 45 of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.73v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Five is titled “Of those who make Mistakes in the Oratory” (Saint Benedict, pg. 60). It focuses on careless mistakes made during services. If a monk messes up when reciting “psalm, responsory, antiphon, or lesson” he is supposed to make “satisfaction there before all” (SB, pg. 60-61). Saint Benedict doesn’t go into detail how a monk should punish himself, but Terrence G. Kardong guesses that he means prostration. (Or in other words, laying face down on the floor.) Needless to say, throwing yourself down on the floor after you mess up a word or two is going to be rather distracting to the other monks. (Apparently nowadays, if a monk makes a mistake he just makes some kind of hand sign like touching the bench and then his lips with his fingers (Kardong. pg. 366).)

If the monk doesn’t admit his mistake, he is to be punished severely. However, he’s not necessarily being punished for saying a word wrong or minorly disrupting services. Instead, the monk is really being punished for digging his heels in, refusing to admit he did something wrong, and refusing to reform (K. pg. 366). If you are running a monastery and you’ve got a bunch of stubborn monks who are acting horribly on purpose and won’t do any sort of self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before things escalate to a major disaster. It’s best to stop the bad behavior before things go too far.

So now we know how adults are supposed to be treated, but what about the children? What happens when an oblate messes up during services? Well, according to Saint Benedict the only solution is to whip them! Personally, I think beating a child for a minor mistake is a bit much. However, it was likely that the child was only beaten when he refused to admit he made a mistake and wouldn’t accept his punishment (K, pg. 366). It’s important to recall Chapter Thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict when analyzing this part of the text. Saint Benedict is of the firm belief that anyone who is “unable to understand the greatness” (SB, pg. 47) of his wrongdoing is to be beaten. There’s no point in doling out punishments if you aren’t going to learn from it. (Though I will note during the medieval period many different religious figures had different opinions about the morality of corporal punishment. But that is a different article for another day.)

Now I want to focus on the language in this passage.

The Latin text uses different words when talking about the mistakes monks can potentially make. Each word has a different connotation. In the title, Saint Benedict uses the word “falluntur” when referring to a mistake. Here the text talks as though the mistakes are made “as the result of bad will.” Then the term “neglegentia deliquit” is used. This term refers to negligence. So we go from doing this on purpose out of hate to an accident due to carelessness. Finally, the text uses the word “culpa” when referring to the children’s actions. This word is extreme in its definition. It can mean fault, defect, blame, guilt, and even crime. It can even go as far as to refer to “morally reprehensible faults.” The fact that the children are the ones Saint Benedict uses the harshest language with is interesting to me. Especially when one takes into consideration that a child’s mistake is most likely to be due to forgetfulness or ignorance. (Depending on their personality and how long they’ve been at the monastery of course!) (Kardong, pgs. 365 and 375.)

 

 

Main Sources:

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

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

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Source:

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Four, What Bad Monks Have to Do to be Welcomed Back into the Community

Even though monks and nuns are supposed to be holy, they are still human. As a result, they aren’t perfect. Saint Benedict is well aware of this as he writes The Rule. In a previous article, I discussed how punishments should be dealt out if a person did something really bad. (See the Chapter Twenty-Five segment of that article for details.) Today’s article will focus on how a monk can get back into the good graces of the community after doing those bad things.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.72v start of chapter 44 rule of saint benedict
The beginning of chapter forty-four of The Rule of Saint Benedict |Harley MS 5431 f.72v | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Forty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Those who are Excommunicated, how they are to Make Satisfaction” (pg. 60). (I will note that here “excommunicated” doesn’t mean being thrown out of the monastery or the Church forever. Instead, it refers to being isolated from the other members of the community.) If a monk commits a grave fault, coming back into the community isn’t going to be an easy or instantaneous thing. It’s important that the wrongdoer is punished, is actually sorry for their actions, and that the rest of the community thinks the punishment is sufficient. If these things are not done and people are still resentful, there runs the risk of discord being sewn into the monastery again.

So what does Saint Benedict recommend as penance?

The text starts off by clarifying that this is supposed to be for “graver offences [sic]” (pg. 60). (Saint Benedict gets into penance for minor offenses later in the chapter.) Then it goes on to explain that the bad monk is not allowed to go into the church or join the other monks during meal times at the table. But that doesn’t mean the bad monk is allowed to wander while everyone else is at Divine Office! Instead, he has to silently “prostrate himself at the door of the Oratory” (pg. 60) during services. He has to lay there on the floor face first until everyone exits the building. This assures that the bad monk is attending services with the rest of the community, but he’s still isolated from the group in a humiliating way. He has to do this until the abbot thinks he is truly penitent for his sins.

However, the bad monk isn’t immediately accepted back into the community. There are still further penances to go through. Before the penitent monk is allowed to come into the church again, he has to throw himself at the abbot’s feet as well as the feet of everyone in the community. Everyone is to pray for him. Once again, this happens until the abbot thinks the point has gotten across. And once again, this is not the end of the penitent monk’s discipline!

After all this, the penitent monk is finally allowed back into the church with the other choir monks. However, the monk may or may not be allowed to sit in the same place as before. Monasteries followed a hierarchical system based on how long a person had been a monk, so losing your place in the hierarchy was a Big Deal. And just because the penitent monk was able to go to services again, it didn’t mean he was allowed to lead the community in reading or song. That was a privilege that needed to be earned back when the abbot thought it appropriate.

Despite being allowed back at Divine Offices, the penitent monk still had one more penance to undergo. When the service was over he was to lay prostrate on the ground. However, he wasn’t allowed to find a good place to do so. The penitent monk was to do this “in the place where he standeth” (pg. 60). I’m sure you can guess how long he had to do this for! (Until the abbot said otherwise!)

Now, these were the penances for monks who committed grave faults. What about minor faults? Let’s let Saint Benedict explain himself:

“But let those, who for lighter faults are excommunicated only from the table, make satisfaction in the Oratory so long as the Abbot shall command, and continue so doing until he bless them and say it is enough.” (pg. 60)

As you can see, a lot of what happened in the monastery happened at an abbot’s discretion. This chapter emphasizes the abbot’s power in a monastic community. (Well, an abbot who has control over his brethren at least.) In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he compares Saint Benedict’s treatment of penitent monks to another rule written a few decades before, The Rule of the Master. (A lot of people wrote their own guides on how to live a proper monastic life.) Interestingly enough, in The Rule of the Master penances are slightly different.

One such difference is the use of verbal apologies. The Master required the abbot and the penitent monk to recite prewritten speeches during the penances. Kardong argues that the use of these would just make things worse. It’s not really a true apology if it doesn’t come from the heart. He also argues that The Master wants to rush the healing processes while Saint Benedict takes things extremely slow. By taking things slow, it allows the community to genuinely heal from the collective distress the actions of the bad monk inflicted upon them.

 

 

Main Sources:

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

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

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

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.)

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n39/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 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

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

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

 

monk-giving-a-chalice-and-host-to-mary-of-egypt-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-286-dc7c38
Monk giving a chalice and host to Mary of Egypt | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 286 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

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

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

Wrong or not, the story continues.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

 

 

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/n31/mode/2up

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

There is quite a bit of deflection in the prologue.

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

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

(Caesarius of Heisterbach, pg. 2)

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

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

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n21/mode/2up