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,.

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: The Noble Man Who Decided to Convert After Watching Some Monks Get Whipped

It’s been a hectic week for me, so I’ve decided to skip ahead in The Dialogue on Miracles and write about one of the shorter chapters. Usually, I try to be academic on this blog, however today we will be a bit more relaxed as this is one of the stranger parts of the text. (At least it is strange to my 21st century way of thinking!) I am focusing on Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two, “Of the conversion of Dom Adolphus, bishop of Osnaburg” (pg. 31).

In this story our main character is a young man named Dom Adolphus. He was from a noble family, but in his youth he was a canon of Cologne. One day he went to Kloster Camp. (AKA Kamp Abbey, Altenkamp Abbey, Alt(en)feld Abbey, or Camp Abbey. The place sure does have a lot of names!) While there, Dom Adolphus went to mass. However, that’s not the interesting part of this chapter. The interesting part is what Dom Adolphus saw while he was praying after the service.

Once mass was over, the monks in the monastery rushed to the different altars for confession. As part of their penance the monks had to remove their habits (at least the part covering their backs!) and be whipped. And Caesarius of Heisterbach’s narrator is careful to note that monks of all ages were doing this. So the young and the elderly were whipped while “humbly confessing his sins” (pg. 31). They must have had amazing self-control to be humble and calm while they were being beaten!

Now you would think that this sight would alarm Dom Adolphus. Or if it didn’t alarm him, you would think he would be glad that he wasn’t in the monks’ position. Well, if you thought that (which is a valid way of thinking, by the way) you are very wrong. Instead of being freaked out, the sight of a bunch of monks being beaten made Dom Adolphus want to become a monk himself! It’s definitely interesting that the prospect of physical punishment made this man decide to change careers. This may be blasphemous, but it makes me wonder if Dom Adolphus was thrilled about being whipped for reasons that were not entirely holy. If that’s the case, becoming a monk is not a great way of going about to achieve those desires.

As you can probably guess from the chapter title, Dom Adolphus didn’t stay a monk for long. Soon after becoming a monk he was made bishop of Osnaburg. (Or as the area is called now, Osnabrück.) Interestingly, the text explicitly states that Dom Adolphus was “recommended both by his noble birth and his sanctity” (pg. 3) for the bishopric. However, if I had to guess, I think his noble birth probably had more to do with his new position than his sanctity!

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Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n53/mode/2up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Main Sources:

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

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

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

Other Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Main Sources:

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

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

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

Other Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Main Sources:

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

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

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

Other Source:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Wrong or not, the story continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n31/mode/2up

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Two, Medieval Monastic Bedtime Stories

While Chapter Forty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “That no one may Speak after Compline” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) the majority of the chapter focuses on what books a monastic community should (and should not) read before everyone goes to bed.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.69v beginning of chap42 rule of st. benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.69v | Source: The British Library

 

However, before Saint Benedict starts off his reading list, the first line of the text stresses that “monks should love silence at all times…especially during the hours of the night” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Silence was also discussed back in Chapter Six, but it seems like Saint Benedict is reminding his monkish readers of this “traditional monastic value” (Kardong pg. 345). (Similar to the way Saint Benedict constantly reminds his audience about obedience and humility. You know, just in case the monks forgot.) In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong notes that the language Saint Benedict uses implies that he knows the brethren won’t be quiet all the time. This idea is further proven at the end of the chapter with this quote:

“[In regards to talking] unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 58)

I would also like to note that there is a difference in translation between my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict and Kardong’s. The Latin word Saint Benedict uses when referring to a monk’s love of silence is studere. Studere is the present infinitive of the word studeo. Studeo has a few meanings, but one meaning is ‘to strive after.‘ Kardong’s translation is much more direct (“Monks ought to strive for silence at all times”) while my copy of The Rule, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, is a bit more poetic in its phrasing (“monks should love silence at all times”). 

After this reminder, Saint Benedict begins discussing what the after supper routine should be. No matter if it’s a fast day “or otherwise” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) all the brethren are to gather together and listen to “four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). And yes, every monk is supposed to gather together to do this, “even those who may have been occupied in some work” (Saint Benedict pg. 58). The after supper reading is a group activity and it’s important monastic communities treat it as such.

If it’s not a fast day, then Saint Benedict recommends reading ‘”Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57). He explicitly bans the “Heptateuch” or “the Books of Kings” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) from being read. It can “be read at other times” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) but not before bedtime. According to the footnote in D. Oswald Hunter Blair’s translation, these biblical texts were considered “too exciting to the imagination” (pg. 57) to listen to before going to sleep. In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong explains that these parts of the bible are filled with “erotic episodes” and “violence” (pg. 347). Neither of which are great things to listen about just before bed. After all, the night time reading is supposed to enrich the monks’ spirits, not excite them. 

If it is a fast day then Conferences are also to be the text of choice. However, during fast days the reading will happen at a different time. Instead of being after supper, it will occur “a short time after Vespers” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). This allows the brethren to take a short break between the services and to prevent exhaustion (Kardong, pg. 348).

After all these instructions, Saint Benedict finally discusses what the chapter is supposed to be about: Compline. And it’s only discussed within a few sentences. Because everyone is already conveniently together Compline is said after the reading. Once the service is finished, “let none be allowed to speak to anyone” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). If anyone does speak he is to be “subjected to severe punishment” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Unless, of course, the exceptions mentioned at the start of this post occurred.

 

 

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.)

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

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

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

Eating Meat: How Medieval Monks Found Loopholes Concerning Their Diets

Despite The Rule of Saint Benedict’s strict guidelines on a monastic diet, over time people started tweaking the rules. Or if they weren’t outright changing them, then they were finding loopholes. Similar to other religious rules, laxity developed over time. Of course, there were some monks, nuns, and religious orders who were strict about what a person can and cannot do, but much like people today, a good majority were deliberately creating ways to get around the rules.

 

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

 

The Rule specifically says only the sick and infirm are allowed to consume the meat of four-legged animals. (And I will note that birds only have two legs, so I assume poultry was fair game.) So instead of eating in the refectory with everyone else, they would eat the meat in a separate room. As mentioned in my last post, the Carthusian order banned even the sick from meat-eating. This was due to concerns about monks faking illnesses just to get some bacon (or beef, lamb, mutton, etc.). If an entire order forbade meat because they were worried about monks pretending to be sick, that implies it was an ongoing problem in other orders.

Also in my last post, I mentioned how a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk wrote a treatise defending these practices. However, I didn’t mention his claim that Carthusians recovered quicker than Benedictines. According to him, if monks weren’t outright faking illnesses then they would delay their recovery time just so they could keep getting treats. Whether or not this is actually true is certainly up for debate. Again, it implies that this was an ongoing issue. And even if it wasn’t, it means people were worried enough to write this all down!

Despite their reputation, there is a case where a Carthusian ate meat while sick. Hugh of Lincoln was documented to have done this. However, he didn’t do it because his doctor insisted. Hugh had to be talked into it by the archbishop of Canterbury and other important, respected men before he agreed. That being said, when Hugh finally tried some pig’s feet (because that’s what the Holy Fathers recommended), he could barely swallow it thanks to his years of abstinence. Hugh was given some small birds to try instead and had similar problems. The main point here is that even some Carthusians were willing to adjust their diets if it came to that.

The Rule of Saint Benedict is clear regarding what a monk’s diet should be, but eating meat when monks weren’t sick slowly became a common practice. (That’s one reason why the Carthusians were so strict about it!) In 1336, Pope Benedict XII’s papal sanction allowed Benedictines to eat meat four days of the week as long as it wasn’t fasting season and they weren’t doing it in the refectory. Monks were to eat meat in the misericord. Additionally, at least half the community had to have their meals in the refectory so no one took advantage of the new rules. Allowing such laxity implies that the pope knew he was fighting a losing battle. Similar Saint Benedict and wine, sometimes it’s best to try to limit things instead of outright banning them.

They also had a tendency to bend The Rule. One way monks did this regarded what part of the animal you were eating. So a monk could eat the offal and entrails, but not actual muscle tissue. Benedictine and Cluniac monks decided that twice-cooked meat didn’t count as actual meat either. So you could eat stuff like meatballs or rissoles in the refectory but not a steak. Apparently, during the late twelfth century the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury decided that soup made from meat was fine too.

But that wasn’t the only mental gymnastics the religious were doing. Saint Thomas Aquinas decided that chickens were originally aquatic, thus they were fish. And because chickens were fish, they were okay to consume on fast days. There’s also a story that rabbit embryos weren’t meat either, but this just seems to be a myth.

If monks weren’t bending the rules, then they were ignoring them altogether. Walter Map claimed that while Cistercian monasteries sold bacon, they didn’t sell or throw out the rest of the pig. He cheekily wrote, “What becomes of them [the rest of the pig], God knows.” That being said, there is documentation of Cistercian monks being officially reprimanded for eating meat in the 1220s, so Walter Map wasn’t just speculating. And as mentioned in the last post, Peter the Venerable had much to say about how often monks ignored the rules and how they did so with luxury game.

All in all, monks (at least in larger monasteries) had a pretty rich diet. It was better than the majority of the medieval population, so it’s no wonder imagery of the fat, gluttonous monk became such a common theme in medieval satire!

 

 

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.)

 

  • 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.)

 

  • Snowden, David. Flans and Wine: A Benedictine Recipe Book from Evesham Abbey. Lulu.com, 2015.

(This book can be purchased here.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

  • 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.)