Finding Primary Sources of Medieval Texts Online

If you’re anything like me, when doing historical research you want to be able to read primary sources. Primary sources allow you to access what the author is thinking without the information being muddled in a centuries-long game of telephone. Of course, an author of a text may not write exactly what they are thinking, but through primary sources, we get a glimpse of what life was like through the eyes of a person who was actually there. We must always take into account context and bias when analyzing a source. (For example, if Lord A is trying to sabotage Lord B’s reputation, Lord A won’t tell the king how Lord B rescued all those orphans from a bear. Instead, Lord A will mention that Lord B has a tendency to poach bears in the king’s forest.)

When I write articles for the Mediaeval Monk I try to find as many primary sources as I can. However, I’m no longer a college student so accessing academic sources can be extremely difficult without buying full books. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t available texts out there! Because I study the medieval period most texts are in the public domain. The key is knowing where to look.

One good place to start is Wikipedia. (When I was in school we were always told that the site was unreliable. Luckily for us living in 2020, the editors are much more vigilant!) It’s a good jumping-off point. At the bottom of whatever article you read, there is an entire section dedicated to the references used. This will give you all the sources used for the article and often times it will include links to the sources. I will note that sometimes the only sources are secondary ones, but occasionally you can get lucky.

Another great place to look is Google Books. Depending on the book, you may not have access to the entire text. But it’s still a good place for free ebooks.

I will also use archive.org/the Wayback Machine/the Internet Archive. (It’s the same website just with different names.) Here you can find free ebooks (and download them too!) as well as old websites that are no longer on the web. Some books aren’t available for free downloads but you can borrow them for a certain number of days. (I don’t know too much about this feature as I haven’t used it before.) I’ve found a lot of interesting primary sources here.

What if you want to start learning but you aren’t quite sure what you want to learn about? There are two websites that I know of that allow for a little bit of exploration! (There are definitely others out there, but these are the ones I know about and use.)

The first one is Internet History Sourcebooks provided by Fordham University. (And here is a link to the same website but on archive.org.) This website either has actual medieval texts or links to texts on it. The texts available are organized according to culture and topic. Overall, it’s a great place to explore.

The second website is Medieval Death Trip. This website is for the podcast of the same name. (It’s a fantastic podcast by the way. I recommend listening to it!) The creator, Patrick Lane, provides the sources he used for each episode. Often times these sources can be found on Google Books or archive.org, but Medieval Death Trip is a great place to find and access topics that interest you without having to spend hours on Google Books and archive.org trying to find a very specific text.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 1: Baptism, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding

In Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he documents the letter Augustine of Canterbury sent to Pope Gregory after he was consecrated as a bishop in Britain. As mentioned in my last post, Augustine’s letter is filled with many questions about how to run the English church. These questions are separated into nine different categories. Last time I wrote about Augustine’s third, fourth, and fifth questions. Today I want to discuss the first half of Augustine’s eighth one.

Brussels_Koninklijke_Bibliotheek_van_Belgie,_Bibliothèque_royale_de_Belgique_ms._3701-15_57

A Page From a Manuscript on Midwifery | Source: Wikipedia

Usually, Augustine asks two or three questions for each category. This is not the case for the eighth category. Here he asks eight different questions all relating to pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and/or the sacraments of baptism and communion. You can feel Augustine’s panic as he asks Pope Gregory what he should do and how he should act. After all, Augustine was a monk and most likely had very little experience when it came to sex, pregnancy, and childbearing bodies. (That’s not to say that other clergy didn’t, but that’s another post for another day!) 

I want to share the exact quote so you can see what I mean when I say Augustine is panicking:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (pg. 76-77)

The last statement in this block quote has several amusing implications. Personally, I’ve interpreted Augustine’s comment about the “uncouth” English in two ways.

My first interpretation is that people keep asking Augustine questions about topics he’s incredibly shy about and he doesn’t know how to answer them properly. But they keep asking him and he’s panicking because he doesn’t want to talk about sinful things, but he has to because he’s the bishop. Another way we can interpret the last sentence is that Augustine has gotten himself all worked up about these matters to the point he’s freaking out, but he doesn’t want to admit to the pope that he’s curious about these very sinful things, so he blames his curiosity on other people.

Either way, these aren’t the questions of someone who knows what to do. These are the questions of someone who is very embarrassed and panicking.

Naissance_de_Philippe_Auguste

After The Birth of Philip II of France | Source: Wikipedia

As always, Gregory replies to Augustine. However, when I was reading Gregory’s reply, I could sense some annoyance in the pope:

“I have no doubt, my brother, that questions such as these have arisen, and I think I have already answered you; but doubtless you desire my support for your statements and rulings.” (pg. 77)

This is the medieval equivalent of ‘per my last email.’ (If you are unaware, ‘per my last email’ is an extremely passive-aggressive way to ask your coworker ‘can you read? I already told you this.’) Luckily for Augustine (and for us!), Gregory doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he tells Augustine what to do.

For Augustine’s first question (“May an expectant mother be baptized?”), Gregory basically asks Augustine, why shouldn’t she be? After all, “the fruitfulness of the flesh is no offence [sic] in the sight of Almighty God” (pg. 77). Gregory goes on to argue that even though Adam and Eve sinned and God took away their “gift of immortality” (pg. 77), He still gave humans the ability to reproduce and have children. Not allowing a pregnant person to be baptized would be “foolish” (pg. 77) and that baptism is an act “by which all guilt is washed away” (pg. 77). Here, Gregory is reminding Augustine that it wouldn’t be right to deny a person salvation just because they are pregnant. God gave people the ability to have children and they shouldn’t be punished for something God made them destined to do.

Because God made people able to have children, people don’t have to wait to go church after childbirth, even though it says a person should in the Old Testament. Gregory argues that he understands the waiting period to be “an allegory” (pg. 77) and if a person were “to enter [a] church and return thanks in the very hour of her delivery, she would do nothing wrong” (pg. 77). He also argues that it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that makes a person unfit to enter a church, it’s sexual intercourse. (Or as Gregory delicately phrases it, “bodily pleasure” (pg. 77).) The pain of childbirth is the “penalty” (pg. 77) for having intercourse, so there’s no need to punish a person and their child by denying them baptism.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Woman Breastfeeding While on Stilts | BL Royal 10 E IV. f., 29v | Source: Picryl.com

Gregory’s answer to the question “how soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife?” (pg. 78) is pretty simple. He says that a husband should wait until the baby is no longer nursing. However, Gregory is aware that not all parents personally breastfeed their children and he does not like the concept of wet nurses. He claims that “when women are unwilling to be continent, they refuse to suckle their children” (pg. 78). In Gregory’s mind wet nurses encourage people to have sex sooner after childbirth. If I had to make an educated guess, I don’t think Gregory knew that sometimes people have a hard time nursing. Baby formula doesn’t exist at this point in time so a wet nurse is the next best option. (Unless you feed your baby animal milk but that’s not a good way to get important nutrients.) Of course, there are other reasons a parent might hire a wet nurse, but Gregory does not realize this. Finally, Gregory is sure to add that “those who observe this bad custom…must not approach their husbands until the time of their purification has elapsed” (pg. 78).

 

While the phrasing of this practice is unfortunate, purification after childbirth isn’t strictly a Christian thing. Many cultures have some sort of period where a parent is considered “unclean” after giving birth. That being said, you can interpret this as the time that allows a parent to rest after childbirth. A lot of things can go wrong during the birthing process and it’s important to allow a person to heal. Think of this as an early version of maternity leave.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

medieval-theft

A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire

Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

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Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.