Monks vs. Demons! Part 1: The Devil and Dying Monks

If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.

A demon and a sleeping monk | Royal MS 10 E IV f.221r | Source: The British Library

A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination.  Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.

***

Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.

While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.

Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.

Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.

***

Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”

His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)

Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.

Main Source:

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Other Sources:

“Baron (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/baron. 

de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp. 

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 4: Night Clothes/Pajamas

If you’ve read the previous installments of my medieval monastic clothing series, you know what a monk wore in the daytime as well as the underwear they wore. But what did medieval monks wear to bed? Because the medieval era is a period of about one thousand years or so, it depended on what century he lived in.

A green monk reading | Ms. 107 (2011.23), fol. 352v | Source: The Getty Museum

In Chapter Twenty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict, the text is clear that a monk has to sleep clothed. He is also not allowed to wear a belt to bed or sleep with his knife for safety reasons. (The fact that Saint Benedict went out of his way to include this implies that this was an ongoing issue!) But what exactly did he mean by clothed? Well, in Chapter Fifty-Five it’s implied that a monk needed to wear his tunic and cowl to bed. After all, he is supposed to have two sets in case one is in the wash (or if he’s sleeping in it). But this is all in theory. What about in practice?

The answer varies depending on the century.

In the earlier middle ages, clothes specifically designated for nighttime were not really a thing. Night clothes/pajamas were a later medieval phenomenon. So, when Saint Benedict was writing The Rule in the early sixth century it made sense for monks to sleep in their day clothes. However, for hygiene reasons, a monk would wear his extra set of day clothes, not the clothes he wore that day. Ideally, of course. If his second set of clothes were in the laundry, he would have no choice but to sleep in the clothes he wore that day. Also, by sleeping fully clothed it took less time for a monk to get to the church for night offices.

It should be noted that Saint Benedict wasn’t the only monk writing guidelines for the monastic life. In other monastic Rules, what should be worn to bed was also specified. In these texts, monks were allowed a second tunic for sleep. Depending on the author, the tunic might be made of a heavier cloth or one specifically for night use.

Like other guidelines in The Rule of Saint Benedict, over time monks began to get rather flexible with their sleep attire. This is partially due to the fact monks were starting to sleep in separate cubicles instead of open dorms. Or if they didn’t get their own cell, monks would put curtains around their beds for privacy reasons. With more opportunities for privacy, it wasn’t necessary to protect your modesty by sleeping fully clothed. Eventually, a shirt, drawers, and stockings were considered acceptable. This was not without controversy. For example, King Henry V of England attempted to make monks sleep in their outerwear, but he gave up on trying to enforce these reforms. By the early fifteenth century, it wasn’t considered necessary to wear outer clothes to bed at all.

Then by the late fifteenth century, nightclothes was a thing. A monastic night coat was a circular garment that was (probably) thigh length. Monks were expected to wear it with drawers and hose. At Westminster in the 1490s, there is documented evidence of novices wearing night coats as well. This particular night coat was made of black cotton.

Nightcaps were worn too. They were made of linen. However, in the thirteenth century, they were considered an exceptional item. They were only given to monks who got sweaty at night. The nightcap was used so the monk’s sweat wouldn’t ruin their pillow.

Monks had slippers too. During the thirteenth century, Westminster monks were given a new pair two times a year: October 31st and the day before Palm Sunday. Depending on the date, the slippers would either be for winter or summer.

Sources:

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.)

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

Hildemar’s Expositio Regulae http://hildemar.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8&Itemid=106

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

“The Monks’ Clothing Page of the Cistercians in Yorkshire Project.” DHI, www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/monastic_life/clothing/index.php. 

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

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 2: The Habit’s Symbolism

This is the second part of my series on medieval monastic clothing. You can find the first part here.

Now, monks didn’t wear a habit to look fancy. Far from it in fact! A monk’s habit was to show others his place in the world. It was meant to display that he had given up material things and dedicated his life to God. The habit itself was a symbol of the angelic, while the cowl (the hood) was a symbol of perfection. It was meant to protect a monk from evil whenever he went outside the monastery as well as when he slept. (Well, if he remembered to put it on before he fell asleep!)

Bas-de-page scene of two monks walking towards the right and looking surprised | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.174r | Source: The British Library

The Rule of Saint Benedict specifically says that the habit’s cloth should be bought locally and as cheaply as possible. This way a monk showed just how poor he was. However, there were debates over what was considered the cheapest option. Should the chamberlain buy the cheapest material that will wear out faster, meaning that he would have to spend more money in the long run? Or should he splurge a little on nicer fabric, causing clothes to last longer and thus spending less money? It’s certainly a difficult decision to make when you are trying to follow The Rule to the letter!

The symbolism of a monk’s habit wasn’t reserved just for the type of cloth. The color also had a deeper meaning. Black symbolized repentance as well as humility while white symbolized glory. (It should be noted that different orders wore different colors. Cistercians wore undyed wool, so they were nicknamed the White Monks or the Grey Monks. Benedictines were known as the Black Monks for their dyed black habits.)

Finally, because monks all wore the same thing, it showed that in theory thy were a community of brothers who loved and respected each other. (I say “in theory” because in reality, there could be a lot of petty drama in monasteries. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series if you’re interested in reading about some juicy monastic gossip!)

Sources:

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 Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

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.)

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 1: What Did Medieval Monks Wear?

If you look up “medieval monk” on Google images you will find a lot of pictures of men dressed in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces. But how accurate is that? Well, if you are a Franciscan then it’s accurate enough. If you’re part of another order, then not so much. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be discussing monastic clothing. Today’s topic will be some of the items of clothing a European medieval monk may wear. I say “some” due to the span of medieval monasticism. The middle ages was a period of around a thousand years and Europe is a large place, so it would be very difficult for me to list every single item of clothing a monk may have worn during that time. So instead I will be listing the basics.

Abbot Maurus with a Staff and a Book | Ms. Ludwig IX 6 (83.ML.102), fol. 222v | Source: The Getty Museum

(It should also be noted that if a monk lived in a colder climate (like England) he would have a winter and a summer version of certain items of clothing. After all, it would not be a good idea to run around in the snow without something warm to wear!)

Outer Wear

  • A cowl
    • This garment was about ankle length. It would either be sleeveless or have short sleeves. Earlier cowls had open sides that could be tied shut. It had a hood and was worn as working/everyday wear. Depending on the time period, a cowl might just refer to a separate hood instead of the whole garment. A cowl can also be called a habit.
  • A frock
    • This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock had long sleeves. Frocks were considered to be a monk’s “good” clothes and would only be worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock might also be referred to as a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
  • A scapular
    • This garment is a rectangular piece of cloth that reaches the ankles both in the front and the back. In the middle, there is a hole for the head. A monk’s hood would be pulled through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It’s basically an apron. However, when a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular could be used as a handy pouch to hold stuff in.
  • A belt
    • Belts were allowed according to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Franciscans wore rope belts/cintures.
  • A riding cloak
    • This garment was worn when a monk was out riding on his horse. Depending on the fabric, it could be black, brown, or grey. Monks were only supposed to wear somber colors after all! However, that didn’t stop some monks from owning riding cloaks with striped linings, which was a big no-no.
  • Shoes
    • Monks would get several different types of shoes depending on the season. If they lived in a colder climate, they would be given a pair of lined shoes for the winter. In the summer they would get unlined shoes. They were also given slippers for nighttime wear.

Under Clothes

  • Drawers/Braies/Underwear
    • As long as you weren’t a Cistercian monk you would wear underwear. The discourse about monastic underwear is very involved (as well as absolutely hilarious) so I will be writing a completely separate article on it later in the month.
  • Hose/Socks/Stockings
    • These were made out of linen.
  • A tunic
    • For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length, and had tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.

Finally, I want to note how monks (at least the ones at Cluny Abbey) were able to tell what belonged to whom. Most of the clothes had the monk’s name written in ink somewhere on it. For a pair of underwear, a monk would embroider his name on them. This was due to the amount of washing they went through. However, if a monk was significantly taller/shorter/fatter than the others I’m sure he could find his habit just fine!

Sources:

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 Book. 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 Nuns http://wychwood.wikidot.com/kit-religious

Regia Anglorum Members Handbook: CHURCH https://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/

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 6: Jocelin of Brakelond is Kind of a Jerk

Even though the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds focuses mostly on Abbot Samson than anyone else, occasionally the author, Jocelin of Brakelond slips in several anecdotes about his own behavior. Despite Jocelin’s efforts to portray himself in a mostly positive light, he does admit to his past wrongdoings. This includes talking trash about one of his best friends. (Well, now ex-best friend at the time of him writing the chronicle!) While reading the text it’s important to keep in mind how Jocelin wants to portray himself. So I am more than sure that some of these incidents were worse than what he would have you believe. However, sometimes Jocelin does something so bratty that even he struggles to justify his behavior.

***

In this part of the chronicle, Jocelin took the time to describe Samson’s overall character. This includes how Samson looked, what his favorite foods were (Samson had a sweet tooth!), and even how hoarse his voice got whenever he caught a cold. Samson’s eating habits in particular were an interest to Jocelin. For example, Samson never ate meat but would ask for extra helpings of it so they could give it away to the poor. (It was a common practice for medieval monasteries would give their leftover food away to the poor. Samson wasn’t being a jerk or anything.) Another interesting tidbit Jocelin notes is that Samson was known for eating whatever is put in front of him. And one day, while Jocelin was a novice, he decided to put this to the test.

When it was Jocelin’s turn for kitchen duty, he made Samson a dish of extremely disgusting food and he put it on an extremely dirty and broken dish. Then he gave it to Samson and waited. And Samson ate it. To be more specific, Samson pretended he didn’t notice how disgusting it was and ate it. Despite the fact Jocelin was being a jerk, he did feel bad for doing this. So he grabbed the plate of food and tried to replace it with food Samson could actually eat. This was not acceptable to Samson. He became extremely angry that Jocelin dared to switch out his gross plate with a nice one.

By doing so, I believe Samson was making his point about what Jocelin had done. He was given something gross and he believed in eating whatever he was given. Samson was also known for detesting people who complained about the food they were given, especially if they were monks. If he let Jocelin replace his meal, it would look like he had complained, thus appearing to be a hypocrite to the rest of the monastic community. In addition to this, I think he wanted Jocelin to stew in his own guilt over the stunt he had just pulled. That way Jocelin would learn his lesson about messing with people’s food and not do it again.

Sources:

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

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

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 5: The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ Finances

For part five of my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series, we are once again returning to The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds written by Jocelin of Brakelond. This particular text is chock-full of stories about tonsured men acting in ways that are rather unbecoming for men of God. Whether it’s being petty, actively malicious, or simply just being careless, this late 12th century and early 13th century has just about everything. Our first story features a monk being extremely careless.

***

In April 1182, Samson traveled to each of the manors he owned personally as the abbot of Bury St Edmunds as well as the manors the abbey/monks owned. While visiting, Samson made sure that everything was in working order. He also collected recognition from his tenants. (Recognition is a form of payment tenants give to their lord.) Samson had just been elected abbot, so this was a standard thing to do.

While Samson stayed at Warkton he was awoken by a voice telling him to get up and get up now. He did. To his horror, Samson found a lit candle in the lavatory that was just about to fall on some straw. Apparently, a monk named Reiner had left it there and forgotten about it. To add to the scariness of the situation, Samson quickly discovered that the house’s only door was locked and could only be opened with a key. And it gets worse. All the windows were impossible to open. Depending on the translation, they were either barred or just tightly shut. Either way, if there had been a fire everyone in the house would have been burnt alive.

Jocelin doesn’t comment on the incident any further, but it definitely makes me wonder whether the house was simply a fire hazard (like a lot of medieval dwellings) or if something more sinister was going on.

***

As time went on Samson’s financial skills increased. However, like all leaders, Samson wasn’t perfect (though Jocelin tries to get us to believe otherwise). Rumors spread that Samson was embezzling from the abbey’s sacristy, which was not the first time he was accused of doing so. Not only that, he was accused of saving his own money (as the abbot and the abbey’s finances were separate) instead of sharing the financial burden of running Bury St Edmunds, hoarding grain until he could sell it for a massive profit, spending more time at his manors than at the abbey itself and he let the cellarer do all the entertaining when guests arrived. Not only was Samson accused of being greedy but lazy when it came to hospitality. (Abbots shirking their entertainment duties off on the cellarer was a common problem at Bury St Edmunds.) By doing all this, Samson looked financially capable while the monks looked careless. After all, even if the abbot is the one taking the money, the convent will still appear to be inept if their accounts are low.

When Jocelin heard the criticisms he defended Samson. According to him, all the money from the sacristy was used to improve the church. Not only that, more good had been done with the abbey’s money in the fifteen years after Samson’s election than it had been in the previous forty years. Jocelin claims that even Samson’s worst enemy couldn’t deny that. Whether or not this is the truth is up to the reader. Jocelin justified Samson’s frequent absences from the abbey with the claim that Samson was happier at his manors than at home. Apparently, at the abbey, Samson was constantly bombarded by people who wanted stuff from him. Even so, I don’t think that gave him the right to avoid his monks as much as he did in the first few years of his abbacy.

As a brief side note, Jocelin recorded several incidents where Samson complained about how much he hated his job. When Samson wasn’t lamenting about wishing he never became a monk, he wished he was never made abbot. Apparently, he wanted to be a librarian.

***

At the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds monks going into debt was a common problem. In my last few posts, I wrote about previous incidents. Well, it was still a problem. At one chapter meeting, Samson collected all the monks’ seals that were used for taking on debts. There were thirty-three. Samson forbade any official from taking on debt over £1 without permission from the prior and the abbey. Jocelin notes that this was actually a pretty common thing to do. (Taking on debts of over £1.)

Besides going into debt, the monks also had a tendency to own stuff. This is a big no-no. Chapter thirty-three of The Rule of Saint Benedict explicitly forbids any monk from having personal possessions. (Unless of course, the abbot says it’s okay.) Samson did not say it was okay. He collected the keys to all the chests, cupboards, and hanapers in the monastery and forbid the monks from owning possessions without his permission. That being said, Samson did give every monk a small allowance to spend on good causes. One such good cause was the monk’s biological family (but only if they were poor).

Sources:

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

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

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict. https://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0547,_Benedictus_Nursinus,_Regola,_EN.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

The Three Living and Three Dead | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.123r | The British Library

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

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 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.

Sources:

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 31 Oct. 2020.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n87/mode/2up

Rating 10 Weird Drawings I’ve Found in Medieval Manuscripts

I’m not really a list making sort of guy, but today I wanted to do something a little different. Since late June, I’ve been running an Instagram where I share images I’ve found in medieval manuscripts. During my searches, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of weird and strange things drawn in the margins. Today I want to share with you some of these images so you too can have some of the delight I’ve had while finding these. (After all, it’s a lot of fun to sift through manuscripts and find a weird thing you absolutely were NOT expecting!) I will also be rating these images on a scale of 1 to 10 on how weird I personally find them.

1.

Add MS 42130 f.13v | Source: The British Library

This little guy I found in the Luttrell Psalter. (A great source for weirdness!) I find him extremely endearing. Medieval manuscripts are filled with little monsters that are combinations of animals and humans. The technical term for them is “grotesque.” Grotesques are often found in the margins. Personally, I like to try to figure out what kind of animals the artist took inspiration from when drawing their grotesques. My educated guess is that this creature is made up of an owl for the face/head and some kind of hoofed animal for the feet and tail. (Though the artist definitely took some creative liberties by making those party’s green!) I’m not sure what kind of animal the red and white spotted body is from (if it’s from any animal at all!). The grotesque’s hood is definitely a very human element. While this image is certainly strange, it’s not the weirdest I’ve found.

Weirdness Rating: 4/10

2.

Add MS 18852 f.87r | Source: The British Library

Here we have another grotesque from a later manuscript. This is another manuscript that’s absolutely filled with delightfully weird creatures. The longer you look at this little guy the more and more you find. First off, he’s completely naked except for his rather fashionable hat. (Look at that feather!) He has the body of a baby but has the head of a grown man. That’s definitely an interesting and amusing style choice. He’s got bird wings and bird feet. (At least they somewhat resemble bird feet!) Then of course, he’s holding a flower but his hands don’t seem to have fingers. Over all, he’s definitely one of the weirder images I’ve found so far.

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

3.

Stowe MS 17 f.8r | Source: The British Library

Medieval people sure did love their snails! Here we have a snail with a human head. Or he could also been interpreted as a tiny human living in a snail shell. He’s a strange little thing, but certainly not the strangest. Either way, he certainly seems to be happy with his shell!

Weirdness Rating: 1/10

4.

Add MS 29433 f.47v | Source: The British Library

This grotesque is unlike anything I’ve seen before. They seem to have the body of some kind of dog (a greyhound perhaps?), the torso of a human, and their head is maybe some kind of nut? I believe the lower part of the body is so orange to match with the general color scheme of the manuscript. (Other grotesques in this manuscript have the green and orange color scheme.) However, what I personally find the weirdest is their head. So far this is the only grotesque I’ve seen where the head is a nut! (At least I think it’s a nut.) As a side note, I love how the grotesque’s body language suggests that they are all turned around. They certainly look as though they have something stuck on their head and are trying to make sure they don’t walk into anything.

Weirdness Rating: 7/10

5.

Yates Thompson MS 14 f.7r | Source: The British Library

If this creepy looking man wasn’t here, then this detail wouldn’t classify as weird. But he is here, so it’s made the list. Everything about this guy is extremely unsettling. He’s mostly naked except for his braies (at least I think they count as braies). His hood is barely covering his shoulders. He’s hunched over. And of course, he’s got a pretty scary look on his face. If I saw this man in real life, I’d probably avoid him!

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

6.

Add MS 62925 f.12v | Source: The British Library

There’s certainly a lot going on in this illustration. We have a bald head with a beard that has been impaled at the top of his skull and through his mouth by a golden spike. This golden spike is sticking out of the bottom of a luxurious sort of column. (The column goes up the entirety of the page and the first letters of each sentence are drawn as fancy initials in it.) Then to add to the overall strangeness of the decapitated head, he seems to be alive and reacting positively to the wyverns nibbling at his ears. While this is strange in itself (the wyverns nibbling), it becomes stranger with a bit more context. This is not the only image in this manuscript that features wyverns eating/licking a person’s body. On other folios I’ve found two images of people getting their feet licked/eaten. (If I had to guess, I think the artist may have liked the idea of wyverns licking people. But that is pure speculation on my part!)

Weirdness Rating: 9/10

7.

Add MS 24686 f.13r | Source: The British Library

This illumination answers the age old question of how merfolk would feed their merbabies. By breastfeeding of course! But in all seriousness, let’s analyze the weird. Besides the breastfeeding imagery (which implies that merfolk are more mammal than fish, also implying merfolk give birth to their young rather than lay eggs), there’s the creature doing a handstand on the mermaid’s tail. I’m not a parent, but I would assume it would be difficult to breastfeed while you had a person doing gymnastics on your lower half (whether you have a tail or legs). The creature seems to have hands for feet, so I don’t believe that they are intended to be a human being. Also, to add to the strangeness, even though the merbaby is, well, a baby, she has breasts too. That’s definitely an interesting stylistic choice and personally not one I would have chosen myself if I was told to draw a mermaid breastfeeding. So while breastfeeding imagery isn’t strange in itself, the other details about this drawing definitely amps up the strangeness.

Weirdness Rating: 5/10

8.

Add MS 62925 f.58v | Source: The British Library

This is definitely another image that has a lot going on in it! First we have the larger figure. It’s not quite human but not quite animal either. It has a long kind of s-shaped neck. (Think the front of a Viking longboat.) to continue with the boat comparison, the lower half of its body is shaped kind of like a boat. Though it also reminds me of a leaf, especially the orange part. The tail of this figure is also kind of weird looking. It’s long and a little curly but it doesn’t look like an animal tail. It makes me think of the geometric decorations that can usually be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Then of course you have its very human head. This poor fellow looks quite concerned! By the larger figure’s head is a little orange arrow that resembles a fishhook. Finally, we have a person in the larger figure. I’m not quite sure if the person is a child or an adult, but it’s certainly an interesting choice to have a person there!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10

9.

Add MS 37049 f.74r | Source: The British Library

Here we have a bunch of demons entering the jaws of Hell. While normally I wouldn’t consider this subject matter strange, I do find the artwork itself a bit weird. If I had to guess, I think the artist was either trolling or simply trying their best to draw something outside of their comfort zone. While I won’t describe each demon in detail, I will say that each demon has an extremely goofy looking face, including some silly bug eyes. Other interesting details include guts coming out of one demon’s stomach (who also has a skeleton face for some reason), another demon who seems to be pregnant, backwards thighs, duck feet, a spider (?) on one demon’s crotch, and the lamb (?) ears on the disemboweled demon. Medieval demons were often drawn having a combination of different animal and human traits, so these aren’t necessarily strange in itself. I just find how awful these demons look to be weird.

Weirdness Rating: 6/10

10.

Add MS 10294/1 f.1dr | Source: The British Library

Our final image! This one is weird! Of course, there’s the king pooping. But he’s pooping on two grotesques heads while also standing on their necks. The grotesques are kissing and don’t seem to be noticing what the king is doing. (Though to be fair, the excrement has not landed on them yet.) Nor do they seem to mind that the king is standing on them. Is it possible this image is a metaphor for oppressive rulers? Or is it just some artist finding poop funny? Who knows!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

An abbot and a monk holding books | Egerton MS 2019 f.231r | Source: The British Library

***

Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!

***

Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!

***

During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.

***

A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!

***

Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.

Sources:

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

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