Corporal Punishment In Medieval Monasteries, Part 1: Oblates

A common search term that leads a lot of my readers to my website is “was there corporal punishment in medieval monasteries?” I’ve discussed corporal punishment in the context of The Rule of Saint Benedict (you can find those articles under this tag). However, I want to go into detail about physical punishment in European medieval monastic culture. Today I will discuss corporal punishment and the youngest members of the monastic community affected by it: the oblates. 

Adults were not the only people who lived and thus could be punished, in medieval monasteries. Until the later Middle Ages, it was a common practice for parents to donate children to monasteries. Parents did this with the intention that the children would grow up to become monastics. These children were called oblates. (I’ve written more about oblates here.)

A novice master about to hit his students with a rod | Burney MS 275 f.94r | Source: The British Library

Like modern-day children, oblates could be quite mischievous and misbehave. Medieval monastic leaders and teachers were well aware of the possibility of bad behavior. Corporal punishment was one way adults disciplined oblates.

However, corporal punishment had other purposes besides discipline for bad behavior.  The first purpose was to keep the oblate as pure and innocent as possible. The second purpose was to get them used to their place in the monastic hierarchy. Medieval European monasteries were extremely hierarchical. Because oblates were children, they were the lowest in that hierarchy. To have a well-run monastery, it was important for every member to know his place and obey his superiors. 

In this article, I will discuss how monastic rules instructed abbots and novice masters to use corporal punishment on oblates, how educational texts written for monastic children by monastic adults portrayed beatings, and the different attitudes monastic leaders had towards the use of corporal punishment. 

Corporal Punishment in The Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict was one of the primary guidelines for medieval monastic life. In Chapter Thirty, Saint Benedict discusses the proper punishment for children. While excommunication was the most severe punishment in a monastic community, some oblates were too young to fully understand the gravity of it.

If a child was too young to understand why excommunication was so bad, Saint Benedict recommends corporal punishment instead:

“…let them be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes, in order that they may be cured.” (Saint Benedict, pg. 47).

Corporal Punishment in The Constitutions of Lanfranc

Another guideline for monastic life was The Constitutions of Lanfranc. Lanfranc was the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. He wrote his constitutions specifically for monastic life at Canterbury. Like Saint Benedict, Lanfranc discusses corporal punishment for children.

Lanfranc specifies that when the abbot is present in the monastery, no one is allowed to “strike a child or cause him to strip for flogging” (Lanfranc, pg. 116). However, that does not mean Lanfranc banned corporal punishment for oblates! Lanfranc specifies only abbots should physically punish oblates when the abbot is present. That being said, abbots can grant permission to other members of the monastic community allowing them to beat oblates.

Furthermore, if the abbot is away, the cantor is allowed to physically discipline any oblates that have made a mistake during religious performances. The prior can use corporal punishment on oblates as well. (But only if the abbot is away!)

Corporal Punishment in Ælfric’s Colloquies

Besides guidelines for monastic life, another source of information about corporal punishment for oblates can be found in educational texts written for said oblates. One such text was written by an abbot named Ælfric.

Ælfric lived in England at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century.  One of his many written works was a colloquy for students learning Latin. A colloquy is a written conversation between two or more people. Oblates would enrich their Latin vocabulary and grammar by memorizing and performing colloquies.

While Ælfric’s colloquy focuses on common jobs in medieval society, corporal punishment is mentioned several times.

The first discussion of corporal punishment is at the beginning of the text. A few pupils approach a teacher and request to be taught how to speak properly. The pupils claim they would rather be the lesson be beaten into them than to continue to live a life where they speak poorly. They also mention the teacher is a kind man who would not hit them unless they asked for it.

The second mention of corporal punishment is about a page before the end. The teacher asks one of the boys if he was beaten that day. The boy says no he was not because he behaved himself. The teacher asks if his friends were beaten. The boy asks why would he ask such a thing and that he’s not going to snitch on his friends.

The third mention of corporal punishment is at the very end. One of the boys tells the teacher that occasionally his novice master hits him with a rod to wake him up.

In each instance, the attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly different. At first, the pupils crave being beaten. However, this could be hyperbole and simply just Ælfric’s way of emphasizing how important it is to learn to speak properly. In the second example, the boy is extremely suspicious of why the teacher wants to know if his friends are behaving. It’s possible that this indicates that some novice masters were pretty happy to have any excuse to physically hurt their students. The third example confirms this to be the case. Instead of gently poking his student awake, the novice master uses unnecessary force.

Corporal Punishment in The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata

Another medieval schoolbook was written by Ælfric Bata. Ælfric Bata was a student of the Ælfric discussed above. Like his teacher, he also wrote Latin colloquies for oblates. However, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata are much longer. His colloquies depict everyday life in an eleventh-century European monastery.

Medieval monastic corporal punishment is one of many scenarios Ælfric Bata wrote about. By mentioning corporal punishment so frequently and so casually in some colloquies, this implies monks regularly beat oblates. Or at the very least, threatened to do so.  The threat of corporal punishment must have been a common enough occurrence that it was necessary for oblates to learn Latin vocabulary about the subject.

Like his own teacher, Ælfric Bata portrays corporal punishment in different ways. Sometimes it is serious while other depictions have a strong comedic slapstick tone.

In Colloquy 24, the novice master waits in the cloister for his oblates to approach him. Instead of immediately greeting him, the oblates try to figure out what kind of mood he is in. They are afraid that if he is in a bad mood he will beat them. One boy describes the novice master as having “a whip in his right hand and a lot of rods in his left” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 133).

This indicates that whips and rods were regularly used to dole out physical punishments. It also implies that some novice masters abused their power by taking out their anger on boys who did not deserve it.

In Colloquy 25 the novice master laments over the fact that no matter how many times he beats a certain bad student, the oblate still misbehaves. The novice master claims to properly love students, you have to beat them as “a master’s sympathy often harms a boy” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 143). He also uses bible quotes to back up his claim. The oblate is less than amused and tells him he’s sick of his threats. The novice master proceeds to quote probably every single proverb in the bible. In the end, he does not hit the misbehaving oblate.

In Colloquy 26 an oblate complains that he doesn’t have a clean pair of trousers. His only pair is bloody from the beating he got. In this case, the oblate was beaten with rods.

In Colloquy 28 Ælfric Bata depicts an actual beating. An oblate has been caught stealing and lying about it yet again. While stealing and lying are both serious crimes in themselves, doing wrong repeatedly and hiding your wrongdoings was considered particularly heinous in medieval monastic society.

The thieving oblate’s classmates list a ridiculous amount of things he was caught stealing. The thief admits it is all true, promises to stop, and wants to do penance again. However, all the previous penances his novice master gave him have done absolutely nothing to deter his thievery. Consequently, the novice master decides to use corporal punishment instead.

In an interesting turn of events, the novice master has the victims find the rods and hit the thief first. (He will go after them.) By allowing the victims to administer corporal punishment, the novice master lets the victims punish the thief as they see fit. In fact, the novice master even encourages the victims to hit the thief harder!

As a result, there is no risk of the victims thinking the novice master was too soft on him.

(I will note earlier in the scene the victims express confidence the novice master will administer a fair punishment.) They are allowed to get their revenge. This prevents any further resentment from the victims from turning into deadly violence.

Monastic communities could be quite small. Any anger bubbling under the surface could and often did result in great acts of violence. (It was not uncommon for monks to attempt to murder each other!) It is much safer to control that anger before it explodes into an uncontrollable situation. 

As for the actual beating, the thief’s pants are dropped and the boys stand on either side of him. They proceed to hit different sides of his bare bottom. 

While he’s beaten, the thief melodramatically laments about how much pain he’s in, how sad his life is, he never did anything wrong, everyone is against him for absolutely no reason, and he is most certainly dying from this beating, no one cares he’ll be dead soon, and he’s the victim. The oblate has absolutely no self-awareness his own actions caused no one to like him. Instead, he is convinced there is a grand conspiracy against him.

The novice master tells him to stop being sad and to live a good life he has to take accountability for his actions. The oblate must take on the mindset of “I have sinned and have not received what I deserved” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 171). The oblate promises to do so and never to steal again. That is when the novice master stops the victims from hitting him anymore. In the end, the novice master never hits the thief.

Interestingly enough, Ælfric Bata does not depict this incident of child abuse as particularly tragic or devastating. Instead, it would not be out of place in a modern-day slapstick comedy.

In conclusion, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata taught oblates the necessary Latin words an oblate might hear before, during, and after a physical punishment as well as the consequences for disrupting their monastic community with bad behavior.

(As a side note, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata also teaches oblates how to cuss someone out in Latin. Do what you want with that information.)

Attitudes Towards Using Corporal Punishment on Oblates

Religious figures such as Saint Benedict and Hildemar thought children were unable to understand the true gravity of excommunication. Instead, they thought corporal punishment was the only way to make children understand certain behaviors were bad.

The monks, Hildemar and Smaragdus, believed children needed physical discipline to control their behavior. In John of Salerno’s biography of Odo of Cluny, he describes how Odo used the “fear of his rod [so that] he might lead us like a shepherd to the joys of heaven” (Quinn, pg. 112). 

Monastic leaders wanted oblates to grow up to be the perfect monks. Perfect monks were obedient, pious, and chaste. Oblates were raised in monasteries since childhood, so there was a possibility that childhood innocence could be preserved into adulthood. To ensure oblates retained their innocence, they were supposed to be monitored by several adults at all times. Novice masters watched out for any sinful, disruptive, and disobedient behaviors.

The threat of a beating could be enough to make children behave. One way novice masters did this was by simply carrying a whip on his person at all times.  

That being said, monks recognized that sometimes beatings were not a one type fits all solution. If oblates continued to misbehave after beatings, novice masters should find a more punishment that the child responded better to.

While beating oblates was a common enough practice, that doesn’t mean it was always an accepted one.  Just like modern day opinions about physically disciplining children, medieval opinions varied too. As you can see from the colloquies, some monks and abbots condoned using corporal punishment on oblates. However, this was not the case for every single medieval monastic who ever lived!

In the tenth and eleventh-century Europe, the ideal student-teacher relationship was a warm one. After all, oblates’ parents essentially abandoned them at the monasteries.  Instead of being raised by their biological parents, oblates were raised by their new spiritual parents—the novice master. 

A good novice master nurtured and cared about his boys. Ideally, this would create a warm, caring father/son dynamic between oblates and their teachers. Furthermore, this relationship would result in monastic boys respecting their teachers. Generally speaking, children are more likely to obey authority figures if they respect and love them. (Again, this is generally speaking. No child is perfect and no child does everything they are told all the time. However, the overall amount of times a child disobeys authority figures goes down if they respect them.) When children listen, beatings and other forms of corporal punishment are not necessary.

If a beating was the only way a novice master could get his oblates to behave, then he was considered bad at his job. Even in the Middle Ages people recognized the negative effect physical violence had on children. Saint Anselm argued that corporal punishment could do much more harm than good. 

One day an unnamed abbot and Saint Anselm spoke about monastic discipline. The abbot complained that no matter how many times he beat his oblates, they only behaved worse instead of better. Saint Anselm, shocked at the abbot’s actions, asked what kind of men the oblates grew up to be. The abbot’s answered, “stupid brutes” (Quinn 113).

Saint Anselm explained that if you beat children like animals, they are going to grow up to act like animals. Children cannot be tamed like animals. Instead, children should be nurtured like a gardener would a tree. Furthermore, by continuously terrifying children with threats of harm and actually hitting them, children stop seeing any good in the world and become hateful. They only grow more hateful as adults. 

Saint Anselm argued that oblates stop trusting the adults who repeatedly hurt them. Even if an abbot or a novice master is nice to them, the oblates are still suspicious of their intentions. Suspicious oblates grow up to be suspicious adults who cannot recognize genuine charity. They trust no one.

In short, by repeatedly beating oblates, monks are not raising people fit for heaven. Instead, they raise hateful men. 

Saint Anselm asks the abbot why he hates the children so much that he treats them this way. After all, children are human too. Does the abbot want to be treated like his oblates?

Finally, Saint Anselm argued that to properly raise children to be good adults, they have to be nurtured. Abbots and novice masters needed to encourage oblates and treat them with kindness. They needed to take on the role of father and mother to the children. Children needed to be encouraged to self-discipline.

While hitting children was a popular discipline method in the secular world around Saint Anselm’s time, monastics were not raising children for the secular world. They were raising them to be monks.

Medieval monasticism valued self-discipline, patience, and humility. Teaching misbehaving children with gentleness and encouragement is difficult. By not constantly striking children in anger, novice masters learned patience and self-discipline. Thus, they also became better monks.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Ælfric. “Aelfric’s Colloquy: Translated from the Latin.” Translated by Ann E. Watkins, Kent Archaeological Society, www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf. 

Bata, Ælfric. Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata. Edited by Scott Gwara. Translated by David W. Porter, The Boydell Press, 1997. 

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. Translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951. 

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

Secondary Sources:

“Ælfric’s Colloquy.” British Library, www.bl.uk/collection-items/aelfrics-colloquy

Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 

McComb, Maximilian Peter. “STRATEGIES OF CORRECTION: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE 742-900.” Cornell University, 2018.  https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/59342/McComb_cornellgrad_0058F_10761.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

Ristuccia, Nathan J. “Ideology and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education.” American Benedictine Review 61:4 (2010).  https://www.academia.edu/4129411/Ideology_and_Corporal_Punishment_in_Anglo_Saxon_Monastic_Education

The Rule Of Saint Benedict, The Prologue and Chapters 1-5 | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 4

Here is the YouTube link for episode 4 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk Podcast! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk Podcast’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Anchor

Today at The Mediaeval Monk Podcast we are taking a look at The Rule of Saint Benedict! This text was widely used as a guideline to monastic life. I am reading the prologue as well as chapters 1 through 5.

Source:

https://archive.org/details/TheRuleOfStBenedict/mode/2up

What Did Medieval Monks Wear? | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 3

Here is the YouTube link for episode 3 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk on Anchor

In today’s episode, I discuss the medieval monastic wardrobe. I wrote several blog posts about this topic, so I wanted to discuss it again for everyone who likes listening to podcasts. Links to my articles are below. Each article cites the sources I used.

Sources: 

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 4

It’s still October, so it’s time for some more spooky medieval ghost stories! Today I will cover stories four and five of the Byland Abbey ghost stories. Each story is pretty short. Story four is only a paragraph long and story five consists of two sentences. Unlike the previous ghost stories, stories four and five do not include anyone conjuring a ghost.

Bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead, of three skeletal cadavers, two partially wrapped in shrouds, with a caption reading, ‘Y was wel fair. Scuch ssaltou be. For godes love be war be me’. | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.180r | Source: The British Library

Story Four

A long time ago, a man named James Tankerlay died. Despite being the rector at Kirby, James Tankerlay was buried in front of Byland Abbey’s chapter house. He must have missed his old parish because James had a tendency to make frequent nightly visits. During one of these visits, James visited his old mistress…and blinded her by blowing out one of her eyes!

After this incident, Byland Abbey’s abbot and monastic community decided that something had to be done. Their solution was to dig up James Tankerlay’s body and coffin and hire a man named Roger Wayneman to chuck it into the nearby Lake Gormyre. (Or Gormire depending on the translation.) As Roger did this, his cart’s oxen became so frightened they almost drowned.

Story four ends with the monkish author claiming he’s only writing down what he was told and he hopes that God isn’t mad at him for telling the story. He also asks for God’s mercy and salvation.

Analysis

Unlike some of the previous ghost stories, this tale seems to be rather old. Or at the very least, it was a story that has been passed down through several generations. The anonymous author claims to have heard this story from some old men.  It’s possible the Byland Abbey monk’s sources either heard this story in their youth from someone older or it happened when they were young.

Another notable difference is the destruction of James Tankerlay’s body. Instead of the Christian solution of conjuration and prayers, the abbot’s choice to destroy the body is quite pagan. In early medieval ghost stories and Icelandic sagas, revenants’ bodies are often destroyed so they can no longer terrorize the local population. This solution supports the theory the story’s origin is much older than the previous ones.

Similar to the previous stories, this one both explicitly gives names and hides them. The ghost and the person who threw the coffin into the lake are named, but the abbot who ordered it to be done is not. This would imply that even if the author does not approve of the abbot’s decision to destroy James Tankerlay’s body, he still wants to protect the reputation of the clergyman who ordered it to be done.

Finally, I find the author’s anxiety around even repeating this story particularly interesting. He clearly did not approve of the less than Christian solution of digging up and throwing a body into a lake to get rid of it! However, while his anxiety made him ask for God’s mercy for writing the text, he clearly did not consider it too blasphemous to include. I can’t help but wonder if the author included the story as a morality lesson, especially one for priestly concubines. Learning that your lover will blind you as a ghost would certainly be one way to deter women (and some men!) from hooking up with clergymen.

Story Five

As this ghost story is only two sentences long, I will quote A.J. Grant’s translation in its entirety:

“What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.” (Grant, pg. 371)

Analysis

This story is rather vague. There are no named characters and where exactly it takes place is not stated. There isn’t really even an ending. The author doesn’t tell us what happened after the woman carried the ghost into the house or why she did so. We also aren’t told if the ghost wanted to be absolved of their sins.

The way this medieval ghost story is written reminds me of how events were documented for certain chronicles. In that, the author wrote down the most basic information so the audience gets a general idea of what happened.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: The Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, 2016, pp. 13–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5.

Medieval Demon Vision Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 2

Here is the YouTube link and audio file for episode 2 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Figuring out Spotify and iTunes has been slightly difficult, so I am posting things here until I get all that sorted out. Enjoy!

Today we return to the Dialogue on Miracles. This time I share some stories about clergymen seeing demons.

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/mode/2up

Medieval Demon Summoning Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 1

Fun fact! I started a podcast. Here is a link to the YouTube video as well as the audio file itself.

Join me for the very first The Mediaeval Monk episode. Today I share some medieval demon summoning stories just in time for Halloween! Today’s stories focus on secular folk summoning demons and the consequences of stepping outside of a protective circle…

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles https://archive.org/details/caesarius…

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 3

Once again we return to the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories! Today’s medieval ghost story is much shorter than our previous one. Medieval ghost story number three is only three paragraphs long. This ghost story also features a spirit looking for absolution before they can go to Heaven.

Two skull headed grotesques | Add MS 36684 f.87v | Source: The British Library

Story Three

Our ghost is known as Robert the son of Robert of Boltby of Kilburn. Now, the vast majority of corpses and dead folk stay nice and tight in their graves and do not bother anyone. However, Robert Jr. was not like most dead people!

Instead Robert Jr. had a tendency to get out of his grave, wander around, and scare people. The local dogs did not appreciate a ghost in their midst. They would follow him around on his nightly adventures and bark up a storm. The local young men did not appreciate a ghost in their village either. They decided they were going to capture Robert Jr. and put him to rest permanently.

However, the youths talked a big talk with absolutely no substance behind it. Once they saw Robert Jr.’s face they ran away!

Well, except two.

Robert Foxton and another (unnamed) youth stayed behind to handle Robert Jr. Robert Foxton grabbed Robert Jr. before he could leave the cemetery and forced him onto the steps of the nearby church. The unnamed youth told Robert Foxton to hold Robert Jr. until he could help him. (The anonymous Byland Abbey monk assures us that the youth said this is a manly way, not in a cowardly way. He was being brave and not running for his life!)

Robert Foxton had other plans. He told the youth to get the priest as fast as he could while he held Robert Jr. down. The youth did as he was told. The priest, of course, rushed to Robert Foxton and the ghost once he heard the news.

The priest conjured Robert Jr. in the name of Jesus Christ and the Trinity until the extremely restless spirit could tell them what he needed. Like the ghosts in the previous stories, Robert Jr. needed to be absolved of his sins. (He also spoke from his guts instead of his tongue like the other ghosts.) The priest gladly listened to Robert Jr. and did just that. Finally, Robert Jr. was able to rest in peace.

However, before our monkish author ends this tale, he throws in a bit of gossip. Apparently before Robert Jr. was absolved, he would stand at the villagers’ doors and windows. It seemed like he eavesdropped on the houses’ inhabitants. The author speculates that Robert Jr. was just trying to find someone who would conjure him so he could go to Heaven. The locals on the other hand theorized Robert Jr. helped murder someone as well do other evil deeds (the author does not specify exactly what they were). Clearly not everyone had a positive opinion of Robert Jr.

Analysis

In this story, our ghost is a physical being instead of a spiritual one. This is evidenced by the fact Robert Foxton tackled Robert Jr. and held him down. While there were transparent, spiritual ghosts in medieval folklore, another common type of medieval ghost was the draugr/revenant.

Draugr was the term used for revenants in Scandinavian folklore. They are similar to zombies, in that they looked like rotting corpses and are physical beings. The Norse settled in Northern England in the early Middle Ages, so it’s entirely possible this tale was influenced by Old Norse stories passed down over several generations.

Like the ghosts in stories one and two, Robert Jr. is looking for absolution for his past sins and will go out of his way to get it. However, unlike the other two ghosts, Robert Jr. seems to have had a bad enough reputation if the locals speculated his still living corpse was capable of planning murder and other evil deeds. The deeds must also have been pretty bad if the author did not want to name them!

In contrast to the previous stories, it is interesting that the author felt comfortable enough to actually distinguish the characters by name. The author must not have thought he would get in trouble for naming names. Assuming that this story features actual people who lived in the community, this implies one of several things:

  • The story took place sometime in the distant past and the ghost’s family is also dead. (And won’t be angry to hear some random monk is writing about their kin!)
  • The family was okay with people talking about their ghostly kin.
  • Or if the family was not okay with it, they might not have been powerful, thus the author was not particularly afraid of the consequences of telling the majority of the story.

Finally, I find it particularly interesting that Robert Jr. spoke from his belly instead of his mouth. A previous Byland Ghost did this too. Bowels and excrement were commonly associated with sin and demons. While I am not sure if this has any connection, it does remind me of later medieval depictions of Satan and his demons. Demons in their demonic forms (verses human forms they sometimes took to lure hapless humans into sin) were often drawn with faces on their bellies, groins, and knees.

Personally, makes sense to me if the author intentionally connected the two ideas. Ghosts who are too sinful to go to Heaven are also too sinful to speak from their mouths, so they had no choice but to use their bowels to communicate.

Works Cited

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits : Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies : Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 13 Oct. 2021.

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 2

As of the time I’m writing this, it’s still October, so there is still time to celebrate spooky season! This month I am sharing some medieval ghost stories written by an anonymous Byland Abbey monk. In my last post I discussed the first Byland Abbey ghost story. It is a short tale about a ghost, a man, and some beans.

Today’s Byland Abbey ghost story is the longest out of the twelve tales. Despite being longer and having different characters from the first medieval ghost story, there are several tropes that reoccur in both stories:

  • A shape shifting ghost
  • The living character asking God for protection
  • The ghost requesting the living to help them get out of purgatory
  • A water hating/fearing ghost

These tropes are pretty common in medieval ghost stories.

A demon grabbing a soul coming out of a corpse as it tries to fly to several angels (not shown) | Yates Thompson MS 3 f.201v | Source: The British Library

This ghost story took place during the reign of King Richard II of England. The written text itself dates to around 1400 AD. Richard II died in February 1400, so it is safe to assume the events of the story occurred shortly before the author wrote it down. The recentness of the event is probably why the author went out of his way to not name the ghost. Excommunication from the church was a big deal, so this was probably still fresh in the ghost’s family’s minds. Stating that a person’s loved one suffered as a ghost is insensitive at best and flat out slanderous at worst. Defamation lawsuits were a common enough occurrence in the Middle Ages, so I understand why the author was extremely vague about who exactly the ghost was. 

Story Two

Our main character is a tailor named Snowball. One night Snowball traveled from Gilling East to his home in Ampleforth. It was a normal enough night until Snowball heard several ducks washing themselves in a stream. I don’t know too much about ducks, but I assume they usually leave washing themselves to the daytime!

To add to the weirdness, a raven suddenly flew around Snowball’s head before flying into the ground. The raven looked dead so Snowball got off his horse and went to pick it up. (Depending on the translation Snowball either picked the raven up or was about to.) Then sparks burst out of the raven’s sides!

Needless to say, the sparking raven frightened Snowball. He crossed himself and prayed to God that the raven wouldn’t hurt him. The raven did not seem to like this as it flew off cawing. Snowball mounted his horse to return home. He didn’t get far before the raven flew into him again. Unfortunately for Snowball, this time the raven knocked him clean off his horse!

Snowball lay on the ground for a bit in a terrified swoon. Eventually he regained some bravery and tried fighting the raven with his sword. This did not work. Snowball asked in God’s name that the raven wouldn’t hurt him and if it wanted to, God would make it leave. The raven flew away wailing…before returning in the shape of a chained dog. Snowball was so scared he used the hilt of his sword as a cross to ward off any evil.

Because the spirit kept coming back, Snowball decided it was time to conjure it through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to see exactly what it wanted. (In the Byland Abbey ghost stories helping the ghost is the best way to get rid of them.) Conjuring a ghost included asking it its name, why it was being punished in the afterlife, and what exactly Snowball needed to do to make the ghost go away. Luckily for Snowball, this worked.

The ghost told Snowball his name (which the author did not provide), he was excommunicated, a specific priest (once again nameless) needed to absolve him, and that one hundred and eighty masses had to be said for him. The ghost gave Snowball an ultimatum: get the desired answers from the priest or the ghost would make Snowball’s flesh quite literally rot off his still living body. (Also apparently the only reason the spirit could appear to him was because Snowball did not go to mass that day or receive the Eucharist.)

In case a sparking raven isn’t terrifying enough, the text describes the now conjured ghost as being on fire and he spoke through his guts instead of his mouth. Also Snowball could see the ghost’s insides through his mouth.

Snowball asked to bring a friend along when he returned. The ghost said no. However, Snowball was to bring the names of the four gospels and Jesus for protection because two other spirits lived in the area that were not as nice as him. These other ghosts took the form of a burning bush and a hunter so Snowball should avoid those things if he sees them. The ghost also requested that Snowball not tell anyone about this encounter besides the priests he has to ask about the absolution and masses.

Snowball promised he would and attempted to send the ghost to the stream, Hodge Beck. The ghost screamed at him not to do this so Snowball conjured the ghost to Brink Hill (or Byland Bank depending on the translation). The ghost found this agreeable and happily left.

Unfortunately for all involved, Snowball fell ill for a few days after this encounter. Once he recovered, Snowball went to York. In York, he visited the priest who excommunicated the ghost and asked about an absolution. The priest immediately said no. However, the priest promptly asked three other priests about what he should do. Snowball ended up having to bribe the original priest with five shillings to get the written absolution.

As a side note, five shillings was A LOT of money in the late fourteenth century, especially for a tailor like Snowball. The Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project estimates that Snowball would have had to work several weeks to earn five shillings.

As bribery is most certainly frowned upon, Snowball asked a clergyman named Richard of Pickering whether or not this absolution counted in the eyes of God and the law. Richard of Pickering gave Snowball the okay. Snowball proceeded to visit every monastic order in York to ask for the one hundred and eighty masses. The monks agreed to say them over the course of the next two to three days. Then Snowball buried the absolution at the ghost’s grave.

On his way to Brink Hill/Byland Bank to meet up with the ghost, Snowball’s neighbor confronted him about the rumor Snowball knew a ghost. The neighbor demanded Snowball tell him when and where he was supposed to meet the ghost. Snowball was afraid of displeasing God so he told him he was going right then and there and did the neighbor want to come along? The neighbor politely declined the invitation.

When Snowball arrived at the meeting place he drew a protective circle on the ground with a crucifix. Eventually the ghost appeared in the form of a she goat. The she-goat made some goat noises as it walked around the circle three times. It fell to the ground and then got up in the form of a tall thin man.

The author specifically says the ghost looks like one of the dead kings. This is presumably a reference to the popular medieval ghost story “The Three Living and The Three Dead.”

After the ghost made sure Snowball did everything he was supposed to, he explained after he was conjured to the time the absolution was buried three demons tormented him nonstop. However, now that he was absolved, the ghost and thirty other spirits would go to Heaven on Monday. (Or on the nearest moon depending on the translation.) The ghost told Snowball how to cure the wounds he gave him as a raven. (He had to wash himself with a piece of sandstone under a big rock in the river.)

Curious, Snowball asked about the two dangerous ghosts. The ghost refused to tell him their names, but he did elaborate on their backstory. The first ghost was a soldier who killed a heavily pregnant woman. This ghost was cursed to stay in the form of a calf with no eyes, ears, or mouth until Judgment Day. Even if Snowball conjured him, he would not be able to speak.

The second ghost was a religious man. He took the form of a hunter with a horn. Because he was devout while alive, he will be able to go to Heaven once a specific boy in the area grew up and conjured him.

Before leaving, Snowball asked there was anything he should do so he wouldn’t be cursed to become a ghost. There was. Snowball had to return the clothes he borrowed from his old war buddy. Snowball didn’t know where the man now lived, so the ghost told him he lived near Alnwick Castle. (According to Google maps Alnwick Castle is approximately one hundred miles away from Ampleforth, the town Snowball lived.)

Snowball then inquired about his greatest crime. The ghost told him it was the fact people were spreading rumors about which ghost Snowball met, thus accidentally slandering the good names of other dead people. Snowball asked if he should tell people the ghost’s name. The ghost said no.

Then the ghost told Snowball if he goes to live in one place he will be rich and in another he will be poor and have enemies. The text does not specify the place names. He also said not to look at any wood fires for the rest of the day before telling Snowball he couldn’t stand around chatting anymore and disappeared.

As Snowball walked back to Ampleforth, the ghost calf followed him. No matter how many times Snowball conjured him, the calf did not talk.

Finally, when Snowball returned home he was sick for several days.

Web Sources

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 13 Oct. 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_II_of_England

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 1

It’s October! To celebrate spooky season, I am sharing some medieval ghost stories. There are a lot of medieval ghost stories out there, so today’s source comes from Byland Abbey. Byland Abbey was a medieval monastery in Yorkshire England. Today all that remains of it are ruins.  

Luckily for people who like historical ghost stories, there was a fifteenth century monk who was just as interested in the genre as we are today. The anonymous monk wrote the ghostly tales down in the back pages of a twelfth century manuscript. The manuscript can now be found at the British Library under the number Royal 15 A XX.

Each of the ghost stories is relatively short. However because there are twelve stories in all, I will cover them either individually or I will combine them. Some of the stories are longer than others. (Story two is several pages long!) My goal is to cover all of them before the end of October.

A living man and a skeleton | Add MS 37049 f.83r | Source: The British Library

The ghost stories were originally written in Latin. The Byland Abbey ghost stories take place in Yorkshire. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these stories offer a good insight into how the average person went about their day in the early fifteenth century, including their thoughts, concerns, jobs, and even their names. Some characters are named and others are not. It’s possible the author left out the names because he either didn’t know them or he wanted to keep the people involved anonymous. Either way, his stories are fantastic glimpses into the medieval period!

Story One

In this tale a living man is transporting a peck of beans. The story does not specify where exactly he’s carrying them, but I assume the man is taking them home or maybe to the market. Unfortunately for the man, his horse breaks its leg (or shin bone depending on the translation) so the man has to carry the beans himself.

As the man walked along he suddenly came across another horse in the middle of the road. However, this horse was not an ordinary horse. It stood on its hind legs with its front hooves extended out in front of it. I don’t know much about horses, but I don’t think they normally hang out in the middle of roads standing like humans! The man must have thought so too because in his terror he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and commanded the horse not to hurt him.

The horse transformed into a hay bale. However, it was no ordinary hay bale because there was a light in the middle of it. The man became even MORE terrified and invoked God to keep him from harm.

Finally the specter transformed once more. On the third time it transformed into a man. The ghost told the man his name, the reason he was wandering the roads (which the author does not specify), the remedy (again, the author does not specify, but I assume he wanted prayers for his soul), and offered to carry the man’s peck of beans.

The living man said yes to the help. The ghost carried the beans until they reached a river. However, the ghost did not want to cross the river, so he gave the man the beans back and disappeared. The author adds that the living man did not see how exactly the ghost returned the beans. One moment the ghost was carrying them and the next the man was!

Afterwards, the man arranged for masses to be said for the ghost’s soul. He also made sure the ghost was absolved of his sins. Apparently this helped the ghost.

Analysis

Our first story is a good example of how medieval authors occasionally mixed contemporary ghost beliefs in a single tale. Medieval ghost stories often fell under two categories: religious and revenants. To summarize, religious ghosts warned the living about the dangers of Purgatory and begged for prayers to help their souls get to heaven. Revenants caused chaos. The anonymous Byland monk documented both elements in this story. (The ghost scared the living man but he also wanted the man to help his soul.)

I also find it interesting that the ghost was unwilling (or unable!) to cross the river. Ghosts are figures that are stuck between the living world and the dead. Ghosts that are in Purgatory are stuck between Heaven and Hell. It makes sense that a figure stuck in an in between place can’t cross a definite barrier like a river. The accompanying essay to the English translation by the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project suggests that the river symbolizes purity. Because the ghost’s soul is in Purgatory (and thus not pure) he cannot cross it.

The fact that the man was carrying beans is significant too. In Ancient Greece, Pythagoreans believed beans carried the dead’s souls. Beans were also eaten on All Saint’s Day, which is the day after Halloween. Autumn was a time where people believed the living world and the afterlife were the closest, relating back to the ghost being in an in between space.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/byland-abbey/

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

Medieval Medicine: The Four Humors Part 1, The Basics

While certain aspects of medieval medicine are surprisingly scientifically accurate, one of the main medical theories of the European middle ages most certainly is not. This medical theory is called humorism or humoral theory. Humoral theory is the theory that the human body is made up of and controlled by the four bodily fluids known as the humors. The four humors were believed to control a person’s health, the way their body looked, and even their personality/temperament. The four humors are:

  • Blood
  • Phlegm
  • Black Bile
  • Yellow Bile

Humorism originated in Ancient Greece. Classical figures such as Hippocrates and Galen wrote down their own humoral theories and their texts were the foundation for medieval humorism. Galen’s theory not only consisted of the four humors making up the human body but that each of the humors had a corresponding element that made up the humor:

  • Blood/Air
  • Phlegm/Water
  • Black Bile/Earth
  • Yellow Bile/Fire

Each of the four humors was also associated with a certain degree of wetness and heat:

  • Blood was hot and wet.
  • Phlegm was cold and wet.
  • Black bile was cold and dry.
  • Yellow bile was hot and dry.

Fire is hot and dry so yellow bile is hot and dry, water is cold and wet so phlegm is cold and wet, etc. Because dryness was considered the absence of moisture and coldness was considered the absence of heat, dryness and coldness were considered to be negative qualities because they lacked the positive traits heat and moisture. Medieval people even went as far as to consider these negative qualities as harmful or even outright evil. Black bile, whose traits are cold and dry, was considered to be deadly if humans had too much of it. 

The four humors were not only important in medieval European medicine. The 9th century Middle Persian text, Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, documented a medieval Iranian medical theory about the four humors. In the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram the humors have the same wet and dry properties found in ancient Greek and medieval European texts. However, there are two main differences in this text. One difference is that yellow bile is called red bile and each humor has properties associated with taste and color:

  • Blood is red and sweet.
  • Phlegm is white and salty.
  • Black bile is black and sour. 
  • Red bile is red and bitter.

In medieval Europe, the four humors also corresponded to a body organ:

  • Blood was associated with the head or liver (depending on the source). 
  • Phlegm was associated with the brain and lungs.
  • Black bile was associated with the gall bladder.
  • Yellow bile was associated with the spleen. 

Medieval humoral theory believed that all four humors were combined to make semen. I understand where the logic for this came from. Because humors made up the human body, it’s no wonder people thought the source of new humans came from all the other humors!

Print Sources:

Green, Monica Helen. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. PENN, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 

Mount, Toni. Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science. Amberley, 2016. 

Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008. 

Pouchelle, Marie-Christine. The Body and Surgery in the Middle Ages. Rutgers University Press, 1990. 

Web Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zyscng8/revision/1

https://www.britannica.com/science/humor-ancient-physiology

https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/health-in-persia-i

https://www.medicinenet.com/humorism/definition.htm

https://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/chaucer/coursematerials/humours.html

http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/misconceptions-about-medieval-medicine-humors-leeches-charms-and-prayers/

Google Books Sources:

Lewis-Anthony, Justin (2008). Circles of Thorns: Hieronymus Bosch and Being Human. Bloomsbury. p. 70. ISBN 9781906286217.https://books.google.com/books?id=7WD45AoYO0EC&q=adulthood#v=snippet&q=adulthood&f=false