Medieval Oblates: Who Were They?

Not all medieval monks had vocations. A good chunk of them had no choice about their monastic careers at all. Instead, they were donated to a monastery as children and raised to be the perfect monks. These boys are called oblates.

Parents Giving Their Child to a Monastery as an Oblate

In my research, I’ve found oblates to be a group that is often mentioned but hardly ever elaborated upon. To make things more difficult, there isn’t really a lot of information online about them. And if there is, it’s often not easily accessible or free. Most of the books I’ve seen on oblates are either no longer in print or incredibly expensive. Or if the information is not in book form, it is a thesis/paper/article that you need special access to get to. However, because I’ve been researching oblates for over a year now (I’m writing a novel about one!) I have managed to collect a number of sources. Due to my own frustrations about the lack of easily accessible information, I have decided to write a little series of articles about oblates on this blog (with sources down below of course!). Today my first article will answer the question, who were oblates?

As previously stated, oblates were boys donated to monasteries by their parents. Typically they were about five to seven years old, but they could be older. For example, the monk Orderic Vitalis was given to his monastery when he was around ten or eleven. Eventually the boy would grow up and take monastic vows to become an official monk. He could take vows as old as seventeen or as young as fourteen. The monk/Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc suggested that an oblate could take vows whenever his monastic community he was deemed emotionally mature enough to do so.

Why all the variation? Well, oblation occurred for quite a few centuries across different monastic orders. Because of this, certain aspects of the practice would change over time depending on where the oblate was and what order the oblate was given to. Some orders frowned upon oblates while others welcomed them with open arms. In fact, in the early Middle Ages oblation was the primary recruiting technique for Benedictine monasteries!

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Sources:

Cerling, Rebecca King. “Taking Their Place: Benedictine Child Oblates at Eleventh-Century Canterbury Cathedral Priory.” University of Southern California, 2014. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll3/id/423486

Hodgson, S. G. (2019). Climbing Ladders: Childhood and Monastic Formation in England, c.950-1200. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. (Can be found here.)

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009. (This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

So what does Saint Benedict recommend as penance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Main Sources:

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

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

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

Other Sources:

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

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

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty, Food and Drink in a Monastery

If there is absolutely something all living beings need, it’s sustenance. And monks are no exception! Chapters Thirty-Nine and Forty of The Rule of Saint Benedict are dedicated to what types of food and drink a monastery should serve to the brethren. I say ‘should’ because in the years following the distribution of The Rule monks got extremely good at finding loopholes concerning their diets. But that is a post for tomorrow! (And I quite literally mean for tomorrow. However, once that post is published, I’ll link it here.)

Chapter Thirty-Nine is titled “Of the Measure of Food” (pg. 55). Saint Benedict starts off this part of the text by saying the daily meal can be eaten at either “the sixth or the ninth hour” (pg. 55). Or in other words, noon or 3pm. However, the length of a medieval hour fluctuates depending on the time of year, so summer hours will be longer than winter ones. Thus what may have been considered the ninth hour/3pm back then may be completely different now.

There should be “two dishes of cooked food” (pg. 55) served to the monks, no matter the time of year. Saint Benedict recommends this due to “the weakness of different people” (pg. 55). He goes on to explain that if a monk can’t eat one of the dishes, then at the very least he can eat the other. This prevents the monks with food intolerances/allergies from getting sick. Two different dishes of food should be enough to give everyone enough options. A third type of food can be added “if there be any fruit or young vegetables” (pg. 55) for the two original dishes.

In addition to this, monks should be given “one pound weight of bread…for the day” (pg. 55). They should get this amount of bread “whether there be but one meal, or both dinner and supper” (pg. 55). (Saint Benedict goes into more detail concerning how many daily meals brethren should have in Chapter Forty-One.) If monks are eating two meals the Cellarer will split up the bread. So “a third part of the pound” (pg. 55) is given to them at supper.

Now only eating one meal a day may seem a bit extreme to our modern three meals a day culture. (At least if you are a well off enough American. I’m not sure how often others eat in other countries.) And I’m sure those who do intense workouts/sports/athletics/etc. may be concerned for our medieval monks. So what happens if it’s harvest time or if the monks are doing a lot of physical labor? Then what? Never fear, for Saint Benedict has taken that into consideration:

“If, however, their work chance to have been hard, it shall be in the Abbot’s power, if he think fit, to make some addition, avoiding above everything, all surfeiting, that the monks be not overtaken by indigestion.” (pg. 55)

Once again Saint Benedict gives his abbots the ability to change and alter The Rule. As long as the monks don’t get too gluttonous, they are allowed to have extra food if their bodies require it. That being said, it seems Saint Benedict was concerned this may be taken too far as he spends the next few sentences warning his monkish readers about the dangers of gluttony. Like many of his other warnings, it includes a bible quote.

Finally, this chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying that different ages should get different amounts of food (after all, you wouldn’t give a five-year-old the same portion you would give a thirty-year-old) and that no one should eat “the flesh of four-footed animals” (pg. 55). Unless you are “very weak” or “sick” (pg. 55). The weak and the sick are allowed to have meat from four-footed animals. (More on how monks got around this rule in tomorrow’s post!) 

 

Monk_sneaking_a_drink
A Monk Sneaking a Drink | BL Sloane 2435, f. 44v | Source: Wikipedia

 

Chapter Forty is titled “Of the Measure of Drink” (pg. 56). In this chapter, Saint Benedict discusses how much wine a monk is allowed. He gets rather sassy about it too.

This part of the text begins with Saint Benedict admitting that he has some doubt when it comes to saying how much nourishment each individual should consume. While this is wise, it’s also a bit ironic seeing as the whole purpose of The Rule of Saint Benedict is to tell others how they should live. But I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere and for Saint Benedict, that line is at booze.

Despite his hesitations, Saint Benedict still decides “one pint of wine a day” (pg. 56) is enough for each monk. Like with meat, exceptions will be given to the sick. Exceptions will also be given depending on other external factors such as where the monastery is located, what type of work the monks are doing, and how hot it is during the summer (pg. 56). The “Superior” (pg. 56) of the monastery can give monks extra wine as long as no one drinks too much or gets drunk. The text goes on to remind the monkish reader that “God gives the endurance of abstinence” and those who can abstain “shall have their proper reward” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict may have spent a lot of time listening to his monks complain about not having enough wine. Saint Benedict also did not seem that fond of monks drinking wine because in the last third of the chapter he gets very sassy about it:

“And although we read that wine ought by no means to be the drink of monks, yet since in our times monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree not to drink to satiety, but sparingly: because ‘wine maketh even the wise to fall away.'” (pg. 56).

If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict realized he was fighting a losing battle when it came to getting his monks to stop drinking wine. This quote has the same energy as an exhausted parent saying ‘well if you’re going to drink I would prefer that you do it in the house.’ Like that exhausted parent, Saint Benedict knows forbidding wine is never going to actually work. And if monks won’t listen to an outright ban, there is a possibility they will listen to a request for moderation instead.

Finally, the chapter ends with Saint Benedict saying if a monastery is too poor for the amount of wine he recommends, or can’t afford wine at all, “let those who dwell there bless God and not murmur” (pg. 56). So basically, don’t complain about not having enough wine. For the love of God, stop complaining about the wine.

 

 

Main Source:

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

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

Other Sources:

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

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Four, Getting Your Fair Share

My last post was about private ownership in a monastery. There I discussed how monks were not allowed to own things (unless they had their abbot’s permission of course) as everything was to belong to the community. The chapter I will be analyzing today goes into a bit more detail regarding that.

 

sick-clerk-proposing-to-become-a-monk-from-bl-royal-11-d-ix-f-207v-b595ec
Sick clerk proposing to become a monk | BL Royal 11 D IX, f. 207v | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Thirty-Four of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Whether all ought alike to Receive what is Needful” (pg. 50). It begins with the bible quote ‘”Distribution was made to every man, according as he had need”‘ (pg. 50). This is the thesis/summary of chapter thirty-four. Saint Benedict goes onto elaborate saying:

“Herein we do not say that there should be respecting of personsGod forbid—but consideration for infirmities.” (pg. 50)

Basically, a monastery is supposed to make accommodations for monks who need them. An elderly sick monk will need more food or blankets than a healthy young one, so it’s important to take a monk’s disabilities into account when items are being distributed in the monastery. This isn’t just a medieval concept. Even in modern times, workplaces are expected to make reasonable accommodations for people.

Saint Benedict is aware that sometimes people get grumbly when they see someone else getting ‘more’ (for lack of a better term) than them. He reminds his monkish reader “that hath need of less [should] give thanks to God, and not be grieved” (pg. 50). In other words, a monk should be thankful he is healthy. The text also tells monks with disabilities that they should “be humbled for his infirmity” (pg. 50). He should “not [be] made proud by the kindness shown to him” (pg. 50). If everyone can do this, then “all the members of the family shall be at peace” (pg. 50).

In case these words don’t convince monks, the text warns the reader about “the evil of murmuring” (pg. 50). If a monk complains even with “the slightest word or sign on any account whatsoever” then he is to “be subjected to very severe punishment” (pg. 50).

 

 

Main Source:

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

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

Other Sources:

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

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

The Rule of St. Benedict: The Preface and Why You (the Monk Reading this Text) Should Actually Follow The Rule

I want to take a little bit of a break from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For the next few weeks, I want to concentrate on The Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is a fascinating primary source, documenting not only how monks (Benedictine monks at least) were supposed to live, but also documenting common problems within monasteries. Saint Benedict was obviously concerned with the way his monks were conducting themselves (why would he write a book about it otherwise?) and The Rule lets readers see his concerns. The text lets us travel back in time to a different culture and observe that culture’s worries about proper behavior. Or at the very least, it allows us to see a powerful man’s worries about proper behavior.

 

St._Benedict_delivering_his_rule_to_the_monks_of_his_order
St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order | Source: Wikipedia

 

When reading The Rule, it’s important to keep in mind not every monk followed every rule all the time. I think popular culture has two ways of seeing monks: as perfect, holy men or as lecherous drunkards. The lecherous drunk monk was certainly a popular stereotype in the Middle Ages! There are many stories (both historical and fictional) about monks misbehaving. (Chaucer’s monk in The Canterbury Tales is a good example.) However, life isn’t black and white. Saint Benedict is aware that good monks may stray and bad monks have the ability to better themselves. This is the reason he wrote The Rule. (At least, this is the reason he explicitly tells his reader.)

The Rule is an extremely short text, but not counting the preface, it has seventy-three chapters.  Each chapter covers a different topic. All of these topics cover just about every aspect of monastic life. Today I want to talk about the preface in particular.

I believe Saint Benedict is aware that suddenly springing a bunch of new rules on people who haven’t had to follow them before is a bad idea because he spends the preface telling his reader (presumably a monk) why he should follow these new rules. Throughout the preface, Saint Benedict uses textual evidence in the form of biblical quotes. The preface is written similarly to a persuasive essay one learns how to write in high school. That’s not to say that it’s badly written. I simply find it fascinating that even fifteen hundred years later the formula for writing persuasive essays has not changed.

Our first paragraph is a literal introductory paragraph. Saint Benedict literally introduces himself to his monkish reader, referring to himself as “thy Master” and “thy loving Father” (pg. xi). By using these terms, Saint Benedict is reminding the reader that he is both in charge but he also wants to be kind. Saint Benedict acknowledges that his intended audience hasn’t been behaving properly, but the monk isn’t doomed (yet). There is still time for him to change and “thou mayest return by the labor of obedience to Him from whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience” (pg. xi). Saint Benedict gently reminds his reader that God isn’t “an angry father” who will “disinherit His children” (pg. xi). As long as the monks behave themselves, they can and will be saved from “everlasting punishment” (pg. xi). Essentially the first paragraph includes quite a bit of fear-mongering.

 

MS._Hatton_48_fol._6v-7r
Part of an 8th-century copy of The Rule of St. Benedict | MS. Hatton 48 fol. 6v-7r | Source: Wikipedia

 

Despite this fear-mongering, Saint Benedict does offer his monkish reader a chance to save himself in the second paragraph. Here, Saint Benedict talks about how people can be saved by reading and following the bible:

“Let us then at length arise, since the Scripture stirreth us up, saying ‘It is time now for us to rise from sleep'” (pg. xi).

By talking about the “deifying light” (pg. xi) of the bible, Saint Benedict is indirectly making a reference to his own work. The Rule was intended to make the reader aware of how they should behave. Thus, they are coming out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. Even though Saint Benedict does not directly say that The Rule is like the bible (blasphemy!), the implication is clear. Saint Benedict wants his monks to ‘”harden not [their] hearts”‘(pg. xi) but listen to what he has to say.

In the third paragraph of the preface, Saint Benedict continues his argument on why the monks should follow The Rule. Here the saint quotes God again, saying that “God saith to thee: ‘…Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it”‘ (pg. xii). It’s only after the monks follow God’s instructions of being good will God’s ‘”eyes…be upon you, and [God’s] ears will be open to your prayers”‘ (pg. xii). Saint Benedict goes on to argue that nothing “can be sweeter to us” than God “inviting” (pg. xii) his followers. Because The Rule is Saint Benedict showing his monks how to behave properly, he is once again implying that his work is the word of God.

The fourth paragraph is very similar to the previous ones in the sense that God wants his followers to be good. However, Saint Benedict does lightly return to fear-mongering. He reminds his monks that the only way to reach Heaven is by doing “good deeds” (pg. xii). That being said, it is important for the reader to remember not to get “puffed up with their own good works” (pg. xii). Basically, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his followers to become self-righteous because they are doing good.

After all, you should be good for the sake of being good (and to get into Heaven). You shouldn’t be good just so you can brag about it. (A good modern-day example of this are the people who film themselves giving things to homeless people or those who post about it on social media.) To prevent his readers from getting too big for their britches, Saint Benedict tells them that “good which is in them cometh not from themselves but from the LORD” (pg. xii). While I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, (I think people can be good on their own) I understand why Saint Benedict would tell people this.  People who are good just for the clout (for lack of a better term) aren’t really being good at all. Also, original sin.

 

61293032-45AE-4FB9-B4F2-AA58C20855D7
My own copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

The fifth paragraph can be summed up with this quote:

“And the LORD in fulfillment of these His words is waiting daily for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. Therefore are the days of our life lengthened for the amendment of our evil ways” (pg. xiii).

The sixth paragraph continues to remind the readers that they must be obedient to God.   They must ask God “to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us” (pg. xiii). This is another reference to original sin. Despite Saint Benedict’s belief that humans cannot be good on their own and that his monks have been very disobedient, “there is still yet time” (pg. xiii) for them to change their ways. As long as you “are still in the flesh”  you can still save your soul from “the pains of hell” (pg. xiii). This can be done by being good and obedient to God. 

In the seventh and final paragraph, Saint Benedict ends the preface like he began it: being self-aware that a bunch of new rules isn’t going to go over well at first. He tells his monkish reader that he hopes “to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous” and to follow The Rule “according to the dictates of sound reason” (pg. xiii). But he also reminds them that changing ingrained behaviors “cannot but be strait and difficult” (pg. xiii), especially at first. His readers should not “fly in dismay from the way of salvation” (pg. xiii). Instead, the readers should “share in the sufferings of Christ” (pg. xiii). After all, the best way to get into Heaven is by acting as Christ did. 

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)