Interesting Penances in the Canons Attributed to Saint Patrick

Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why.  Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick. 

It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.) 

For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. 

A woman confessing to a priest. Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v.
A woman confessing to a priest | Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v | Source: The British Library

While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod. 

Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus

Section 6

This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77). 

Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!

Section 8

At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77). 

The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other. 

Section 9

This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other. 

While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow. 

Section 14

If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.  

The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!

Section 16

If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance. 

While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!

Section 19

If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.

The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband. 

Section 22

Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment. 

Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft. 

Section 31

If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80). 

Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening. 

Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick

Section 9

If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.

It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general. 

Section 11

After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).

There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium. 

Section 25

If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister. 

Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever. 

Section 27

When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85). 

Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place! 

Section 28

When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery. 

In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid. 

Sources:

McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990. 

Örsy, Ladislas M. , Huizing, Peter J. and Orsy, Ladislas M.. “canon law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/canon-law. Accessed 2 September 2021.

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

Historia Calamitatum, The Story Of My Misfortunes, Including Comments Whenever I Think Abélard Is Insufferable

In June, I began reading and writing a commentary on Abelard’s “Historia Calamitatum.” Once I am done with my commentary, I plan on self publishing the book on Amazon. However, due to working on other projects, such as editing and querying my novel and applying for new jobs, I took a break from working on this particular project. That being said, I have gone back to it. I’ve decided to post a little of the beginning as a preview of my commentary.

Enjoy!

Note:

I wanted to read Abélard’s Historia Calamitatum: The Story Of My Misfortunes but when I did I could not stop rolling my eyes at how goddamn insufferable and annoying and whiny he is. I still wanted to read it, however, there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to get through the text without making A LOT of notes in the margins. I tried reading it online so I wouldn’t completely destroy a good book. That was not going to work for me. 

Ultimately I decided to make this book instead. (I got the idea from all those My Immortal Commentary fics I read in high school.) My comments are in bold directly under the lines I am reacting to. When I make a comment in the middle of a sentence I will put […] to indicate I have done so at the end and beginning of the sentence I separated. For the majority of the book, my reactions were made during my first read of the text. Due to this, my opinions may change as I make more comments.

As of the time I am creating this (2021) I am not a professional medievalist. However, I have done a lot of research on the medieval period (mainly Early English history/the Anglo-Saxon period) so while I am not completely uneducated, some of my interpretations may be historically inaccurate. 

Because this is for entertainment purposes only, my language will be extremely casual. My comments will include pop culture references, memes, and occasionally text speak (such as “lol”) to indicate when I am joking. 

Foreword

Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows, more by example than by words. 

All right, I find this to be true. I can agree with this.

And therefore, because I too have known some consolation from speech had with one who was a witness thereof, am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out of my misfortunes, for the eyes of one who, though absent, is of himself ever a consoler. 

Gonna assume he’s talking about Jesus. Or God.

This I do so that, in comparing your sorrows with mine, you may discover that yours are in truth nought, or at the most but of small account, and so shall you come to bear them more easily.

Peter. Pierre. Petrus. Buddy. Friendo. Besides the fact that comparing yourself to Christ is SUPER arrogant, I do not think being brutally crucified for suggesting people be nice to each other is comparable to whatever nonsense you’ve been through. 

Also comparing yourself to God is NEVER a good look.

(Or are you talking to your readers and NOT Christ? Sometimes medieval writers talk directly to God in their works. Eh. I think he’s talking to Christ here.)

Chapter 1 Of The Birthplace Of Pierre Abélard And Of His Parents

Know, then, that I am come from a certain town which was built on the way into lesser Brittany, distant some eight miles, as I think, eastward from the city of Nantes, and in its own tongue called Palets. Such is the nature of that country, or, it may be, of them who dwell there—for in truth they are quick in fancy—that my mind bent itself easily to the study of letters. 

I have no idea what “quick in fancy” is supposed to mean (and Google is not helping), but is he calling the people in his hometown stupid/prone to imaginings while claiming to be so much smarter?

If so, I am rolling my eyes at Abélard’s Pick MeTM attitude.  

If not, ignore this comment and laugh at my ignorance.

Yet more, I had a father who had won some smattering of letters before he had girded on the soldier’s belt. And so it came about that long afterwards his love thereof was so strong that he saw to it that each son of his should be taught in letters even earlier than in the management of arms. 

I respect that Papa Abélard wants his sons to be educated academically before they are educated in the art of war.

Thus indeed did it come to pass. And because I was his first born, and for that reason the more dear to him,[…]

Of course you claim to be the favorite. (Maybe Abélard was. I don’t know. However, based on him maybe, possibly, probably comparing himself to Jesus in the Foreword I would not put it past him to think he was the favorite!)

[…]he sought with double diligence to have me wisely taught. For my part, the more I went forward in the study of letters, and ever more easily, the greater became the ardour of my devotion to them, until in truth I was so enthralled by my passion for learning that, gladly leaving to my brothers the pomp of glory in arms, the right of heritage and all the honours that should have been mine as the eldest born, I fled utterly from the court of Mars that I might win learning in the bosom of Minerva. 

All right, all right, we get it! You’re better than your brothers (and everyone else too I guess) because you like reading. Get over yourself. 

And is giving up your inheritance supposed to be a brag? Oh wow, look at you Abélard. You’re so amazing because you like to read so much you gave up money. Whoop-dee-do. 

Your Mars and Minerva comparison is also worthy of an eye roll. (Seeing that Mars is the Dumb War GodTM and Minerva is the Smart War GodTM.)

And since I found the armory of logical reasoning more to my liking than the other forms of philosophy, I exchanged all other weapons for these, and to the prizes of victory in war I preferred the battle of minds in disputation. 

Pretentious. Thanks, I hate it.

Thenceforth, journeying through many provinces, and debating as I went, going whithersoever I heard that the study of my chosen art most flourished, I became such an one as the Peripatetics.

I’m sure everyone loved listening to you debate them./s

What Happened When a Medieval Monk Was Deathly Sick?

Thanks to the pandemic, illness and death are prominent thoughts in most people’s minds. For medieval monks, death and the possibility of Heaven were supposed to be constant thoughts throughout their lives as monastics. The thought of their own mortality must have been especially potent whenever one of their fellow brethren fell deathly ill. 

If a monk seemed to be close to death, it was more important to focus on the state of his soul, rather than his earthly body. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc offers an extremely detailed set of step-by-step instructions for what a monastic community was to do to help their ill brethren’s spiritual wellbeing. 

An architectural frame with Moses holding the tablets in a curtained Tabernacle (left), a dying monk under an arch (centre) and an angel speaking to men at an altar (right) | Add MS 42555 f.56r | Source: The British Library

When the sick monk felt as though he may be dying, he was to let the infirmarer know he wanted to be anointed. The infirmarer took his request to the abbot (or if the abbot was away, whoever was in charge at the present moment) at the next chapter meeting. Once the request was approved and chapter finished, the priest of the week, the sacrist, and four converses went to the church and collected the materials needed for a proper anointment. (Converses were monks who joined the monastery as adults.)

The priest and the converses went by the chapterhouse in a procession with the materials. The procession order and items are as follows:

  • The first converse carried holy water.
  • The second converse carried a cross. 
  • The third and fourth converses carried candlesticks.
  • The sacrist carried holy oil.
  • The priest, wearing his alb, stole, and maniple, carried a book.

Lanfranc’s Latin does not specify what book the priest carried. It only says “portans librum.” David Knowles translates this phrase to “carrying the book.” However, we can make an educated guess that the book is probably a bible, psalter, or religious text of some kind. 

As the procession passed the chapter house, all the monks there stood up. Because someone was dying, a wooden board was struck. This was standard practice to announce that someone was dying. After this happened, the rest of the community followed the procession while chanting the seven penitential psalms:

  • Psalm 6 
  • Psalm 31
  • Psalm 37
  • Psalm 50/51
  • Psalm 101/102
  • Psalm 129/130
  • Psalm 142/143

Depending on your bible/psalter’s translation, the psalms might follow either the Greek or Hebrew numbering system. To make sure you have the right translation, psalm 50/51 should be the “Miserere” psalm. 

They chanted the seven penitential psalms until the entire community had gathered around the dying monk’s bedside. The monks stood in their hierarchal order. Or if the space around the dying monk’s beside were too small, his brethren would do it as practically as possible. 

Once everyone was there, they sprinkled the dying monk with holy water. When the community finished chanting the seven penitential psalms they sang several more prayers including the Kyrie eleison and the Confiteor. 

When this was over, the entire community absolved the dying monk and vice versa. By forgiving each other of their sins, everyone could have a clear conscience. To cement feelings of goodwill, everyone kissed the dying monk. 

The priest anointed the dying monk. After doing so, he washed his hands and disposed of the water. Lanfranc suggested the dirty water either be thrown into the fire or down the sacrarium. (The sacrarium was a drain in the church.) The priest and the converses left the dying monk to fetch the Eucharist. 

Once they returned with the Eucharist, everyone knelt as a sign of respect. The dying monk had his mouth washed before receiving Communion. However, if he already received Communion that day, he did not receive it again. After having Communion, the dying monk was not allowed to eat any more meat. However, if he happened to miraculously get better instead of actually dying he could eat meat again. 

The rest of the monastic community continued to pray every day for their dying brother:

  • At the Morrow Mass during the Secret and post communion:
    • “Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”
  • The Morrow Mass itself
  • During the High Mass after the Sanctus:
    • Psalm 6 (sung in silence)
    • Kyrie eleison
    • Pater noster/ the Lord’s Prayer
    • Psalm 85/86
    • Mitte ei Domine auxilium de sancto 
    • “Almighty everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe in Thee”

These prayers were dedicated to the monk until he either got better or took a turn for the worse. 

Sources:

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, Medieval Classics. 

Praying The Seven Penitential Psalms

Interesting Early Medieval English Nicknames

In England, last names did not really exist in the early Middle Ages. At least, surnames did not exist in the same capacity as they do today. It was only after the Norman Conquest in 1066 did people start to use last names. 

Because last names were uncommon, people had to use other ways to distinguish them from others in their area that shared their name. For example, the Domesday Book referred to people by the place they lived, their profession, who their parents were, their relation to the king, their title, or a nickname of some kind.

Shepherd returning with a lost sheep while a lady greets him | Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 109 | Source: The Getty Museum

When I looked through the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England to create my lists of early medieval names, I stumbled upon quite a few nicknames. A good portion of early medieval nicknames are quite funny, unusual, or have some sort of story behind them. 

Unfortunately, the origins of many of the nicknames are lost to time. However, if I could not find any concrete information about the person, I researched the nickname. This gave me some context of their potential backstory.  

Because so much has been lost to time, any comments of mine about how each individual earned their nickname is purely speculation. 

Due to the size of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England’s database, I will gradually add more names to this list. 

My list includes early medieval nicknames I found interesting, funny, unusual, or hilariously specific. Some are tamer than others, but hopefully, you find this list just as interesting as I do.

Eadmær Ator

Apparently “ator” is Old English for poison or venom. It definitely makes me wonder what Eadmær did to get that nickname!

Almær Ator

Eadric the wild

Clearly Eadric behaved in absurd ways to get this nickname.

Alweald the bald

Siward the fat

Ælfric the small

Wulfric Cave

“Cave” could potentially come from the Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald.

Wulfwig the wild

Godwine Frambolt

“Fram” means “bold, active, strong” in Old English. “Bolt” means “bolt, bar.” Frambolt may indicate that Godwine was very strong or perhaps he made very strong bolts/bars. 

Hereweard the Wake

The Old English word for “wake” means the same thing in modern English. Hereweard was probably known for being a vigilant person or perhaps even an excellent guard. 

Ælfric the black

Alwine Devil

Siward Sot

“Sot” either comes from the Middle English word for a foolish or a dishonest person. In Old English, “sot” means soot. 

Azur Rot

Even in Old English and Middle English “rot” meant “decay/putrefy.” I wonder what Azur did to earn this last name!

Beorhtmær the Englishman

I find it interesting that the people around Beorhtmær wanted to specify that he was English.

Oswine the wild, canon of Dover

Ælfric the whelp

Godwine Fot

“Fot” means foot in Old English. 

Leofnoth Sterre

“Sterre” means star in Middle English.

Eadric Grim

“Grim” in Old English meant “fierce, severe, terrible, savage, cruel, angry.” I couldn’t find any detailed information about Eadric Grim as a person, but based on his last name I don’t think he was a person you wanted to be around!

Albert the Lotharingian

Ælfgar the tall

Almær Holdfæst

Holdfæst appears to be another way to spell “holdfast.” 

Beorhtric the black, free man

Eskil Barn

“Barn” could have several possible meanings. The first comes from the Old Norse word for child. Upper-class men used the name Barn, possibly meaning “a young man of a prominent family.” Or it simply could indicate that Eskil worked or lived near a barn. 

Almær the man of Bondi the staller

Alweard the stumpy

Alwine Frost

“Frost” had the same definition as today. It’s possible Alwine either had a cold personality or simply had white hair, giving him a frosty appearance. 

Alwig the harper

Alfred, the man of Esgar the staller

Alric Bigga

“Bigga” meant large, strong, or stout. It is possible Alric was a very large person. (Or perhaps extremely small depending on his peers’ sense of humor!)

Ealdred Bot

“Bot” in Old English has several meanings, including (but not limited to!) help, rescue, repair, improvement, and penance. Perhaps Ealdred Bot was a very helpful person or a handyman of some kind. 

Ælfgar Thræc

I had some trouble with this one. I believe “thræc” starts with a “þ” (a thorn) in Old English. If I’m correct, that means Ælfgar’s nickname is “þræc,” which means violence, force, or pressure. Probably not a person you want to be around!

Sælgifu the almswoman

I included Sælgifu on this list because she is one of the few women I’ve found so far who is known by their profession. (Besides nuns.) “Almswoman” is an archaic word for a female beggar. 

Alweard Gleawbeorht

Gleawbeorht is made out of the words “gleaw” meaning wise/prudent and “beorht” meaning bright/clear. Perhaps Alweard was known for being wise and a clear speaker?

Godric Wisce

“Wisce” means “a meadow liable to floods.” 

Eadgifu the girl

Eadric Lang

“Lang” meant tall in Old English. Presumably, Eadric was tall. (Or he could have been very short if the people who gave him his name wanted to be funny!) 

Alweard Bellrope

I am going to guess that Alweard was in charge of ringing bells. 

Wulfmær the chubby

Heoruwulf the man of Eadgifu the fair

Eadlufu Thief

My educated guess here is that Eadlufu may have been a thief. 

Eadric Spuda

Oslac the white

Ælfric the pig

I am going to make another educated guess and say that Ælfric was not a literal pig. I wonder what he did to earn that name!

Esbern Croc

“Croc” means “pot” in Old English.

Wulfwine the meadmaker

Ælfhild the abbot’s mother

Tovi the man of Ælfric son of Goding

Godric ‘Fifteen Acres’

I’m guessing Godric either owned fifteen acres or he was involved in an incident regarding fifteen acres. 

Alwine the white

Thorkil the steersman

Godwine Wombstring

It seems like there may have been some type of incident with Godwine’s umbilical cord. 

Alwine Bucstan

Depending on whether or not “buc” is spelled with a “ú” (and the PASE doesn’t specify), “buc” could mean either buck like a deer, belly, or a pitcher of some sort. “Stan” means stone. So Bucstan could mean buck stone, belly stone, or pitcher stone. 

Godwine Haldein

“Haldein” means half Dane. 

Leomær the beadle

Thorsten the red

Ælfgar Cida

“Cida” possibly comes from the Old English word “cídan” which means complain or blame. If this is right, then I have a feeling Ælfgar may have been known as a whiner. 

Edwin Grut

“Grut” is Old English for “groats, course meal” and comes from Old Norse for “porridge.” Perhaps Edwin made a very good porridge or there was some embarrassing incident he was part of that involved porridge. 

Wulfric the wild

Sources:

Bosworth, Joseph. “LANG.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/21145

Bosworth, Joseph. “croc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/42165

Bosworth, Joseph. “BÚC.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/5364

Bosworth, Joseph. “buc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/41078

Bosworth, Joseph. “stán.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/28714

Bosworth, Joseph. “CÍDAN.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller et al., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014, https://bosworthtoller.com/6118

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, http://www.pase.ac.uk.

Reaney, Percy H., and Richard Middlewood Wilson. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Routledge, 1991. 

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Surnames/

https://old-engli.sh/dictionary.php

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/almswoman

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ator

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/beorht

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bot#Old_English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fot#Middle_English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gleaw

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rot#English

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sot

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sterre

What Did Medieval Monks Wear?

NOTE: This article is a rewrite. You can find the original here.

If you image search “medieval monk” many photos of men in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces will appear. How accurate is that? If the monk was a Franciscan, it is accurate enough. If he was part of another order, then not so much. 

A medieval monk’s basic wardrobe included a habit, shoes, and underwear. Depending on the century, area of Europe he lived in, and his religious order, other items of clothing are added or subtracted from this list. For example, Cistercian monks did not wear underwear. If a monk lived in a colder climate, such as Scandinavia or the British Isles, he owned summer and winter clothes. 

Due to the span of time and the land area the European Middle Ages refers to, it is very difficult to list every single item of clothing any given medieval monk may have worn. The basic list of a habit, shoes, and drawers is expanded upon down below.

A medieval manuscript illumination of monks singing in front of a book.
Initial C-Monks singing | Ms. 24, leaf 3v (86.ML.674.3.verso) | Source: The Getty Museum

Outerwear 

A medieval monk’s clothing consisted of outerwear and underclothes. Outerwear is clothing the general public and a monk’s peers saw. Outerwear symbolized a medieval monk’s vocation to God and the Church. 

By wearing such distinct clothes, everyone around him knew he was a monk. Knowing if a person was a monk was helpful if a secular person wanted a blessing or needed a religious figure of some kind in an emergency. If a medieval monk caused trouble, his outerwear announced to the world his hypocrisy. There is a reason medieval literature often stereotypes monks as lecherous gluttons!

Cowl

The cowl or habit was an ankle-length garment. It was worn while a monk worked and for general everyday wear. In the early Middle Ages, cowls had open sides that tied shut if the monk so wished. The sleeves on the cowl varied in length:

  • Sleeveless
  • Short sleeves
  • Long sleeves

Cowls had a hood attached as well. When reading primary sources, it is important to keep in mind the meaning of the word “cowl” shifted over the centuries. At one point it referred to the entire garment. Later on, cowl was synonymous with a separate hood. 

Frock

This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock only had long sleeves. Frocks were only worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock is also called a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together. 

Scapular

The scapular was a rectangular piece of cloth. There was a hole in the middle for the monk’s head. Once a monk put his head into the scapular, the fabric would go down to his ankles both in the back and front. 

A monk’s hood went through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It was similar to an apron. When a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular was used as a handy pouch to hold tools and other daily items a medieval monk might need during the day. 

Belt

The Rule of Saint Benedict allowed belts. Franciscans wore rope belts called cinctures.

Riding Cloak

A medieval monk wore a riding cloak when traveling long distances. Depending on the fabric, the riding cloak could be black, brown, or grey. In theory, a monk only wore somber colors. In practice, medieval monks owned riding cloaks with colorful striped linings. This was frowned upon. 

Shoes

Medieval monks owned different kinds of shoes for different seasons and time of day. If a monk lived in a colder climate, they owned a pair of lined shoes for the winter and unlined shoes for the summer. Medieval monks owned slippers to wear at night.

Underclothes

A medieval monk wore clothes under his outerwear for modesty and practical reasons. While The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade monks from wearing underclothes in their monastery, the text made it clear that monks had to wear underwear while out in public. This was to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions that might come about thanks to a gust of wind or a freak accident. There was a lot of discourse over wearing underwear.

Medieval monks wore other types of underclothes as well. What he wore under his habit depended on the year he lived, the climate of the area he lived in, and what order he was a part of. 

Underwear

In the Middle Ages, underwear was also referred to as drawers and braies. Typically they were made out of linen. A medieval monk’s underwear had different cuts depending on the monastery. As long as the medieval monk was not a Cistercian, he wore underwear. If he was, he did not. Cistercians were mocked for this fashion choice. 

Socks

Socks were also called hose and stockings. They were made out of linen. 

Tunic

For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length garments with tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.

How Did Medieval Monks Tell Which Habit Belonged to Which Monk?

Because medieval monks wore similar clothes, steps were taken to avoid confusion over which habit belonged to who. Unless a monk was particularly tall, short, fat, or thin the habits looked very similar. 

To avoid confusion, the monks marked their clothes with their names. For most clothes they wrote their names in ink somewhere on it. For underwear, a monk embroidered his name on them. They did this because underwear was washed much more often than the woolen habit. 

Conclusion

What a medieval monk wore depended on a variety of factors. The monk’s clothing had a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning. It is similar to modern day clothing. In the 21st century we wear clothes to cover our bodies and keep us warm, but we also wear clothes to announce our status to the world. 

Sources:

Athelstan, Viktor. “Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 3: A Medieval Monk’s Underwear (and Lack of It!).” The Mediaeval Monk, 19 Dec. 2020, themediaevalmonk.com/2020/12/13/medieval-monastic-clothing-part-3-a-medieval-monks-underwear-and-lack-of-it/

Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Fortescue, Adrian. “Cowl.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 5 Dec. 2020<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04463a.htm>.

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005. 

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.)

Kit Overview: Clergy, Monks and Nunshttp://wychwood.wikidot.com/kit-religious

Regia Anglorum Members Handbook: CHURCHhttps://web.archive.org/web/20150910174625/https://regia.org/members/handbook/church.pdf

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

WHY DO FRANCISCANS WEAR BROWN? https://franciscanmissionaries.com/franciscans-wear-brown/

Early Medieval Male Names From England’s Domesday Book

If you are a fiction writer, you probably spend a good amount of time researching names for your characters. This is especially true if you write historical fiction. It is important to find historically accurate names. I write fiction that takes place in early medieval England, so I am always searching for early medieval names. 

It can be difficult to find early medieval names that are historically accurate. I have started to compile a list of male names from primary sources. By using primary sources, I can be sure that these names were actually used by early medieval men. If you are looking for early medieval female names, I’ve already posted a list here.

There are thousands of early medieval male names out there so this list is not exhaustive. I plan to add to it over time. Hopefully, this list will help you find the perfect name for your character!

An illumination from a medieval manuscript of a blonde man in an orange and green tunic and golden yellow hose bending over with a ball in his hand.
A man bending over with something in his hand | Add MS 62925 f.30r | Source: The British Library

Note: To ensure that the names are as historically accurate as possible, I intend to document them as they were originally spelled to the best of my ability. Some names may include letters that are no longer in the English language such as “æ.”

Male Names

Azur

Ælfgar

Ælfstan

Ælfwig

Ælfwine

Æthelmær

Æthelnoth

Æthelric

Æthelsige

Æthelwig

Baldwin

Beorhtric

Beorhtsige 

Bondi 

Carl

Eadmær

Eadric

Ealdred 

Ecgfrith

Edward

Edwin

Esgar 

Giso

Godwine

Harold

Herman

Leofric

Leofnoth

Leofwine

Mærleswein

Morcar

Ordric

RalphRobert

Siward

Stigand

Toki

Tosti

Ulf

Walter

Waltheof 

William

Wihtgar

Wulfric

Wulfstan

Wulfweald

Wulfweard

Wulfwig

Wulfwine

Source:

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, https://domesday.pase.ac.uk, accessed 22 June 2021 and 25 June 2021.

Early Medieval Female Names

I am currently in the process of writing a novel about a young boy growing up in an early 10th century English monastery. As a result, I’m constantly looking for early medieval names. To help other writers, I am compiling a list of names I’ve found so far. For this post in particular I am listing female names/names associated with women. I will make a separate post for male names later. (I am separating the two because there are not as many female names in primary sources.)

Hopefully this will help you find the perfect name for your character!

An illumination from a medieval manuscript of an alarmed woman with blonde hair in a floor length dark blue dress holding a decoration.
An alarmed woman holding a decoration | Add MS 62925 f.46r | Source: The British Library

Note: This list will be added to as time goes by, as it is most certainly NOT an exhaustive list! Also I intend to spell the names as they were written down originally to the best of my ability, so I will use letters that are no longer used in modern English such as “æ.”

Female Names

Alflæd 

Althryth

Alwynn 

Anna

Ælfgifu

Ælfgyth

Ælfhild

Ælfrun

Ælfthryth

Æthelgifu

Æthelgyth

Beorhtflæd

Beorhtgifu 

Dufe

Eadgifu

Eadgyth

Ealdgifu

Ealdgyth

Goda

Gode

Godeza

Godgifu

Godgyth

Gunnhild

Gytha

Hungifu

Leofflæd

Leofgifu

Leofrun

Leofwaru 

Mahthild 

Mærwynn

Mereswith

Modgifu

Sægyth

Sælgifu

Thorild

Wigflæd 

Wulfflæd

Wulfgifu

Wulfrun

Wulfwynn

Source:

‘Domesday’, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, https://domesday.pase.ac.uk, accessed 22 June 2021 and 25 June 2021.

After An 11th Century Sick Monk Ate Meat

The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:

Penance.

Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)

When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community: 

  • Step 1: The monk was shaved. 
  • Step 2:  He entered the choir an hour before chapter. 
  • Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
  • Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
  • Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness. 
  • Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
  • Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”) 
  • Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”) 
  • Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.) 
  • Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier. 
  • Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick. 
  • Step 12: He made three genuflections. 
  • Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.) 

And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously. 

If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future. 

Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119-120. Medieval Classics.

What Happened When An 11th Century Monk Needed To Go To The Infirmary

In my last post, I discussed what happened if a monk felt a little under the weather. Today’s post will describe what happened if a monk was sick enough to go to the infirmary. My main source is The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. It was written in the 11th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, so these instructions are specifically what an 11th century Canterbury monk was to do when ill. However, in his Constitutions, Lanfranc does say that other monasteries are more than welcome to use this text as a guideline for themselves.

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

If the monk’s illness was deemed too severe for him to be in the vicinity of the rest of the community, the abbot would tell the infirmarian to take him to the infirmary for treatment. Once there the sick monk was allowed to rest and given whatever he needed (if it were possible). If he were super sick he was allowed to eat meat. (The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade meat for healthy monks.) Part of his treatment included religious rituals. Lanfranc instructs the infirmarian to sprinkle holy water over the beds of the sick after Compline.

The infirmarian’s duties included making sure that the sick monks were actually sick and not just faking it. Based on Lanfranc’s wording, if you weren’t bedridden, you weren’t sick enough to stay in the infirmary! And if you weren’t sick enough for the infirmary you were well enough to participate in services. The infirmarian checked his patients by the light of a lantern. He did this before the Trina Oratio was said. (The Trina Oratio were three prayers said before Nocturns. Nocturns are part of the nightly divine hours, so the infirmarian did his rounds sometime before 2 am.) If the infirmarian thought you were faking, he was to publically accuse you in chapter the next morning!

Main Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119–120. Medieval Classics. 

Lanfranc. “The Infirmarian.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 89-90. Medieval Classics. 

What Happened When An 11th Century Monk Was Only A Little Sick

Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?

A monk sitting on the ground near a cliff and a tree | Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 15, f. 2r – Liturgical Psalter | (https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/bge/cl0015)

Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.

The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.

Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.

After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!

Main Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics. 

Secondary Sources:

“Fateor.” Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fateor#Latin. 

I also used the app Latin Words to double-check translations of words.