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.

***

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. 

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 The Dialogue on Miracles: What Happens When Novices Return to the World

Today we have another cautionary tale of what happens when a novice attempts to return to the world after taking vows. It is also another example of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s dislike of knights.

Chapter Fifteen focuses on an old ex-knight named Benneco. Our narrator, The Monk, knew Benneco personally and they happened to be novices at the same time. Despite Benneco’s age, he wasn’t particularly religious. He was also pretty flip-floppy about whether or not he actually wanted to be a monk. As a result, he had a tendency to saunter back to the secular world and then come sauntering back to the monastery. The Monk uses a lovely metaphor when describing this:

“[Benneco] would not listen to the advice of his brethren, and as a dog to his vomit, so did the wretched man return to the world.” (pg. 22)

(I will note that this is not the first time Caesarius of Heisterbach uses the ‘dog to vomit’ metaphor in The Dialogue on Miracles. He seems to love this metaphor.)

Royal 11 D IX f. 213v Novice returning to the world
Novice returning to the world | Royal 11 D IX f. 213v | Source: The British Library

Even though Benneco leaves once, he does come back again. The Rule of Saint Benedict (the guide monastic orders follow) tolerates a monk running away and returning three times. After the third time, the hesitancy is deemed ridiculous and the monk isn’t allowed back at all. In Benneco’s case, he leaves a second time to return to his secular home. There he falls extremely ill. Unfortunately for Benneco, he isn’t given a third chance. Instead, he dies an unrepentant secular man.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Why is this considered a miracle? It’s just some old guy dying.’ And that’s a good question! See, while Benneco is dying there’s a storm going on outside. But it’s not just any storm. This storm is specifically happening outside Benneco’s house and from the wording, it appears to only be happening around his house. To make things spookier, a ton of crows are flying over the roof. The omens freak everyone in the house out and they book it out of there. Well, except for an old woman. She stays.

The Monk ends the tale with this extremely forboding one-liner:

“See then how they die, who depart from God.” (pg. 22)

The Novice lightly comments how all the omens must be the result of demons and The Monk agrees. The Monk then goes on to warn his young student that anyone who unrepentantly looks back from the monastic life is doomed to Hell. He adds in a bible verse to further emphasize his point. After all, you can’t doubt what Jesus says!

But The Novice does. Not fully convinced, he points out that in The Rule of Saint Benedict things are much more lenient for people who want to leave:

“If it is so mortal a sin for a novice to return to the world, what then is the meaning of S. Benedict’s instruction that when the rule has been read over to the novice, it should be said to him: ‘” This is the law under which thou desirest to enlist; if thou canst: keep it, go forward; if not, go in peace.”‘ (pg. 23)

Once called out, the Monk quickly comes up with an excuse. Being that Saint Benedict thinks leaving is a horrible thing to do but if you are going to do so, you should do it as a novice, not as a full-blown monk. Furthermore, once you’re a novice you can leave your monastery but you can’t leave the monastic life. (It’s all very contradictory, however, this could be due to a translation error.) And if you want to leave the monastery or Order you have to get special permission from the Pope. To stress just how serious monastic vows are, The Monk explains that even secular people who have made vows to the abbot must follow them. They are no longer allowed to have a secular career or get married.

Clearly, this story is an attempt at making sure no novices leave the monastery. It’s easier to make a reluctant person stay through fear then sheer faith. It’s definitely a sketchy practice, though, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way monks made sure their brethren couldn’t leave if they wanted to. (But that’s another article for another day!)

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/n45/mode/2up

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: A Quick Overview

So far I’ve analyzed two primary medieval texts on this blog (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and The Rule of Saint Benedict). Very soon I will be writing about a third. As you may have guessed from the title, our next text will be Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles. It is written as a dialogue (hence the name) between a curious novice and a wise monk.

 

Caesarius_von_Heisterbach_als_Novizenmeister
Caesarius of Heisterbach and a Novice | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Dialogue on Miracles is a collection of short stories dedicated to, well, miracles. Or at the very least occurrences that may or may not be miracles. I hesitate to call all the stories miracles as some of them are extremely mundane. In my analysis, I will be ignoring the boring stories and focus primarily on the more interesting ones.  It’s a long text divided into two volumes. These two volumes are further divided into twelve separate books. Each book is dedicated to a specific topic. The topics are as follows:

  1. Of Conversion

  2. Of Contrition

  3. Of Confession

  4. Of Temptation

  5. Of Demons

  6. Of Singleness of Heart

  7. Of the Blessed Virgin Mary

  8. Of Divers Visions

  9. Of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ

  10. Of Miracles

  11. Concerning the Dying

  12. Of the Punishment and the Glory of the Dead

 

While I may not get through the entire text, there are certainly a lot of different things to cover! And because I might not be able to cover everything I’ve included a link to volume one down below. That way you can read the entire text as well. As of the time I’m writing this, you can access and download the book for free on Archive.org. (Which is where the link will send you.)

 

 

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/n4/mode/2up.

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Two, Who Gets to Keep Track of a Monastery’s Tools

Chapter Thirty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is another shorter chapter. It’s only one paragraph long and it’s titled “Of the Iron Tools, and Property of the Monastery” (pg. 49). As you can probably guess, this chapter is about the monastery’s property. To be more specific, it is about how monks are to treat the tools they use.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.59v
The Beginning of Chapter Thirty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | BL Harley MS 5431 f.59v | Source: The British Library

 

It starts off with Saint Benedict instructing the abbot how to choose the monks “to the charge of the iron tools, clothes, and other property of the Monastery” (pg. 49). These monks are to be men “on whose manner of life and character he [the abbot] can rely” (pg. 49). They must be dependable. Not only are these monks to make sure the tools are kept in good working order, but they also have to keep track of where the tools are as they are being used. Saint Benedict explicitly says that “the things [are] to be kept and collected after use” (pg. 49).

Furthermore, it’s an abbot’s duty to “keep a list” (pg. 49) of the property. Monks are given different chores to do at different times. A monk working in the kitchen and a monk working in the fields aren’t going to use the same tools. A list will help the abbot “know what he giveth and receiveth back” (pg. 49).

Finally, the chapter ends with what should be done with the monks who “treat the property…in a slovenly or negligent manner” (pg. 49). At first, they are to “be corrected” but “if he do not amend” then the monk should “be subjected to the discipline of the Rule” (pg. 49). (And if you are curious about what exactly this discipline is, I’ve gone into detail about that here.)

This chapter has the same theme as other chapters concerning running a monastery. That theme being important jobs should only go to those responsible enough to handle them. If you’ve ever done yardwork or what have you, you know that high-quality tools can be expensive. And even if you only own a $15 rake, it’s still very annoying to have to go out and buy a new one if it accidentally breaks. It’s even more annoying when something breaks because you left it outside or the person using it wasn’t careful or you misplaced it.

Now imagine that instead of driving down to the hardware store (or buying a tool online and waiting a few days for it to be delivered) you have to make it all from scratch. It’s no wonder that Saint Benedict wants only responsible monks to keep track of everything!

 

Main Source:

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.)

EDIT: In case you can’t access the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the PDF I used. That PDF can be accessed here.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Twenty, Reverence at Prayer and Some Historical Examples of Clergy Not being Particularly Reverent

For this blog post, I’ve jumped a bit ahead in The Rule of Saint Benedict. In my last post, I covered chapter seven. I’ve decided to skip chapters eight through nineteen as they mostly detail how Divine Offices were said. While there are a lot of good insights into the praying aspect of monastic life, I’m not super interested in dissecting the offices. I may come back to those chapters in the future, but for now, I want to talk about what was and was not considered the proper way to pray.

Add. 39636  f.10 (full page and detail)
Benedictine monks chanting | BL Add 39636, ff. 10, 13, 28, 29, f. 10 | Source: PICRYL.com

Chapter Twenty is titled ‘Of Reverence at Prayer.’ As you might be able to tell from the title, this chapter is about praying respectfully. Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader that praying to God should be similar to making “any request to men in power” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). Meaning that you should only “do so…with humility and reverence” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God isn’t your friend so you must pray to Him “with all lowliness and purity of devotion” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). God also doesn’t have all day to listen to you so your “prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,” except of course you are lucky enough to have it “prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41). That being said, when praying as a community prayer should be kept short and the “all [should] rise together” at “the signal given by the Superior” (Saint Benedict, pg. 41).

If Saint Benedict was telling his monks to pray respectfully and to keep it short, was long, disrespectful prayer a problem? Admittedly I haven’t done much research into prayer during Saint Benedict’s life (he lived between the years 480 AD and 547 AD) but I have done some research into monasticism during the later medieval period. And the answer is yes. Yes, disrespectful (for lack of a better term) prayer was an issue at some monasteries. Three of my four examples weren’t exactly bothersome to God but to the people around the worshipper.

(I’ll note that the people I’ve listed as examples were Cistercians and not Benedictines. However, the monastic Order of Cistercians also follow The Rule of Saint Benedict. Ironically, it can be argued that the Cistercians are more strict about The Rule than the Benedictines!)

660px-São_Bento_e_São_Bernardo_(1542)_-_Diogo_de_Contreiras
Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard (1542), by Diogo de Contreiras | Note: St. Benedict is in black and St. Bernard is in white | Source: Wikipedia

 

 

Caesarius of Heisterbach documents an incident where “one nun genuflected overenthusiastically…and injured her knee” (Kerr, pg. 98). As a result of this injury, the nun had to go to the infirmary. While recovering, the Virgin Mary visited her. The Virgin Mary wasn’t exactly pleased with the nun showing off and she was “reprimanded” (Kerr, pg. 98). The nun was also “warned that in the future she should be modest and discreet in her prayers” (Kerr, pg. 98).

A minor knee injury isn’t the only documented example of overenthusiastic worship. A twelfth-century nun called Ida the Gentle had a tendency to “fall into ecstatic trances after receiving the Eucharist” where she would lose “all physical control” (Kerr, pg. 153). These trances would involve Ida crying out during services, falling down, “unable to speak or move,” her face would change color, “and her eyes flashed” (Kerr, pg. 153). Despite Ida’s spiritual journey, her worshipping style was considered to be a bit too much by the nuns and priests she lived with:

“The community acknowledged that Ida’s turns were a mark of her spirituality and considered her privy to Divine Knowledge, but her behavior was nonetheless regarded as disruptive and irreverent and Ida was consequently barred from attending the Eucharist.” (Kerr, pg. 153)

Of course, not only nuns had issues with reverence at prayer. In Villers in Belgium, there was a lay brother named Arnulf who “was periodically overcome with jubilant laughter” as a result of “an inward flow of Heavenly Grace” (Kerr, pg. 153). Whenever this happened Arnulf would leave wherever he was and “run into the church to be alone” (Kerr, pg. 153). There he would ‘”dance until the wine of his drunkenness was gradually digested”‘ (Kerr, pg. 153-154). Like Ida the Gentle’s trances, Arnulf’s laughing and dancing did get him into a bit of trouble. Sometimes he found this laughing to be embarrassing, especially when people didn’t understand that it was very much “involuntary” (Kerr, pg. 154). To make matters worse for Arnulf, “some considered it evil” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206
Bernard of Clairvaux | Source: Wikipedia

 

Bernard of Clairvaux also had some problems when it came to reverence at prayer. However, his problems weren’t necessarily because of the way he worshipped. Instead, his problems were a consequence of “years of austerity” and by “his later years” (Kerr, pg. 154) he had completely destroyed his digestive system. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that disrespectful worship, at least not in regards to God. What was an issue was how Bernard of Clairvaux tried to get around his tendency to vomit up his latest meal.

Instead of accepting that he was too sick to “participate fully in the liturgical day” (Kerr, pg. 154) Bernard decided the best solution was to install a basin in the choir for him to throw up into. Julie Kerr wonderfully describes the monks’ reaction to the vomiting during services as such:

“This was not, however, a satisfactory arrangement.” (Kerr, pg. 154)

Needless to say, the monks found his constant throwing up extremely gross. In the end, Bernard of Clairvaux was “compelled to withdraw from communal activities” (Kerr, pg. 154).

 

 

Main Sources:

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.)

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.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 15, 2020.)

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Seven, How to be Humble Like a Medieval Monk in 12 Easy (and Certainly Not at All Creepy) Steps

Chapter seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is completely dedicated to humility and how a monk should be humble. According to Saint Benedict, there are twelve degrees of humility. The degrees of humility are of varying levels of easiness, practicality, and to be honest, creepiness. While I admit this is an ethnocentric worldview, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the way Saint Benedict phrases things as well as with his desire for his monks to have blind, unquestioning obedience no matter what they are told.

My feelings of uneasiness are emphasized when I think about abuse in the Catholic Church. I can easily see how a superior in a monastery could take advantage of this particular text and use it for nefarious purposes. That being said, not all of the text in this chapter is problematic. Some of it is quite mundane and other parts consist of wise advice.

Saint Benedict doesn’t jump into the degrees right away. Instead, there is a long introductory paragraph instructing monks how to worship humbly and the importance of doing so. It can be summed up with this quote:

‘”Every one[sic] that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.”‘ (pg. 25)

Basically, don’t pray or act for the sake of glory. Neither should you pray to show off your self proclaimed holiness. You aren’t being holy when you do so. You are being self-righteous. If you do pray just to show off, beware. Bad things will come your way. In contrast, if you are humble with your prayers and good deeds, God knows and you will be praised.

After the preface, Saint Benedict explains the first degree of humility. Compared to the other degrees, this one is pretty lengthy. In my translation, there are four paragraphs discussing it. (This is a lot of text for a book that is only eighty-six pages long and has seventy-three chapters.) In the first paragraph, Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader to “always [keep] the fear of God before his eyes” (pg. 26). In doing so, Heaven will be “prepared for them” (pg. 26). Saint Benedict is aware that constant fear often leads to hate. To get around this unfortunate consequence, the text threatens “that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins” (pg. 26).

The second paragraph consists of more fear-mongering. We are reminded that God is always watching over everything we do. So how exactly does God watch every single human being on Earth at every second of the day? Surely He has better things to do. Saint Benedict explains that instead of God personally watching over us, our actions (good and bad) “are every hour reported to Him by His angels” (pg. 26). This is a good answer to (almost) every Catholic child’s ponderings over the practical logistics of God’s surveillance of humanity. Because God or His angels are keeping an eye on you, it is best to “be on…guard against evil thoughts” (pg. 26). God’s surveillance reminds a monk to be humble so he can be “unspotted before Him” (pg. 26).

 

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The Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Six Angels (watching you) | Source: Photo taken by Viktor Athelstan at The Louvre Museum

 

Even with God always watching, in the third paragraph the reader is told that “[w]e are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture” (pg. 27). However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will. Instead, ‘”[t]here are ways which to men seem right, but the ends…lead to the depths of hell”‘ (pg. 27). What Saint Benedict is saying is that while you may think what you are doing is good and holy, in reality, you very well be sinning. To avoid sin (and thus be humble) it’s important that you do what God wants. This is especially the case when it comes to “desires of the flesh” (pg. 27).

The fourth paragraph goes in-depth about the dangers of “evil desires” (pg. 27). Saint Benedict warns his reader ‘”[g]o not after thy concupiscences“‘ (pg. 27) and repeats that God’s angels are always watching. In short, a monk should always fear God. You can’t be properly humble if you don’t.

The second degree of humility basically says to always do God’s will. A monk should not “delight in gratifying his own desires” (pg. 27). Instead, he needs to be subordinate to what God wants. In doing so, his “reward…will be a crown of glory hereafter” (footnote on pg. 27).

The third degree of humility is once again about subordination. However, instead of subordination to God, a monk should “submit himself to his superior in all obedience” (pg. 28). In doing so, he will be “imitating the LORD” (pg. 28).

 

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Virgin and kneeling monk | BL Sloane 278, f. 7 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

The fourth degree of humility wants monks to endure all hardships patiently. While this sentiment might be a good way to tell your monks to stop complaining, my translation’s phrasing gives this part of the text some creepy undertones. The connotations of many of the words are extremely violent. These words and phrases include (but are not limited to!) “injuries,” “afflicted,” “death,” “slaughter,” “tried by fire,” “snare,” “tribulation,” and “adversities” (pg. 28). I was curious if these violent connotations were just a result of my translator’s word choice. I looked at another translation and the connotations are extremely similar. (You can find the link to that PDF under ‘Other Sources’ at the end of this article.) The sentence at the beginning of this section particularly alarmed me:

“…that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in…” (pg. 28).

Telling your monks to suck up their pain may be good if all of their complaints relate to little things (e.g. bad tasting food, uncomfortable beds, tonsure makes their head look weird) but it can get dangerous if it is used to ignore bigger concerns. Like in any other living space, problems will inevitably arise from clashing personalities. Telling a monk who is being severely bullied or even abused to “bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them” as it will “secure…their hope of the divine reward” (pg. 28) isn’t productive. It is the same as sweeping everything under the rug because that is easier to do than deal with the actual problem. And eventually, that problem will boil over into a bigger issue.

The fifth degree of humility is to always confess your sins. A humble monk wouldn’t “hide from one’s Abbot any…evil thoughts” nor would he hide “the sins committed in secret” (pg. 28). Instead, he would “humbly confess them” (pg. 28). Admitting your wrongdoings keeps you from getting too big for your britches. You aren’t perfect and God knows if you’ve done bad things. What’s the point of trying to hide them from Him?

The sixth degree of humility reminds monks “to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything” and to “esteem himself a bad and worthless laborer” (pg. 29). While the latter certainly won’t be great for anyone’s self-esteem, the former can be quite helpful. After all, if you’ve willingly become a monk you shouldn’t expect to be living large. Instead, you should be content to live with little like Christ.

The seventh degree of humility also is not fantastic for anyone’s self-esteem:

“…he should not only call himself with his tongue lower and viler than all, but also believe himself in his inmost heart to be so…” (pg. 29)

Even though hating and thinking badly of yourself isn’t a healthy way to think, this mindset certainly will keep you humble. You can’t be proud if you consider yourself worthless. That being said, this is another degree that can be dangerous if taken to the extreme. Especially when Saint Benedict encourages his monkish readers to think, “‘I am a worm and no man”‘ (pg. 29). I can easily see how a monk may spiral into depression (or melancholy) if he isn’t careful with thoughts like this.

The next few degrees are extremely short.

The eighth degree of humility is just to follow the rules. A monk needs to “do nothing except what is authorized” (pg. 29).

The ninth degree of humility is to only speak until spoken to. A monk should keep “silent until a question [is] asked him” (pg. 29). It’s also a short summary of chapter six which I’ve written more about here.

The tenth degree of humility is don’t laugh. A monk shouldn’t laugh because ‘”The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter”‘ (pg. 29).

 

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A Fool | BL Royal 19 D III, f. 266 | Source: PICRYL.com

 

The eleventh degree of humility is to speak “gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech” (pg. 29). Basically, a humble monk doesn’t talk a lot and when he does, he gets to the point right away.

The twelfth degree of humility is to not only act humble but to look humble too. A monk “in his very exterior, [should] always show his humility to all who see him” (pg. 30). So how does one do this? Well…

“…that is, in the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the field, or wherever he may be, whether sitting, walking or standing, with head always bent down, and eyes fixed on the earth, that he ever think of the guilt of his sins…” (pg. 30)

By looking humble as well as acting humble a monk can be a good example to others.

Saint Benedict ends this chapter with a closing paragraph. Here he says that if a monk can achieve all of these degrees of humility and not stray from them he no longer has to “dread…hell” and through “the love of Christ” he will be “cleansed from vice and sin” (pg. 30).

 

 

Main Source:

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. (Accessed on February 14, 2020.)

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

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Six, Stopping Your Monks From Saying Dumb Stuff, or Silence in the Medieval Monastery

Whether it’s a monk only talking to complain or SNL’s skit about a monastery’s Super Bowl bets there quite a few jokes out there concerning silence in the monastery. But why should monks be quiet? Why is that even a thing? Well, according to chapter six of The Rule of Saint Benedict the answer is actually pretty simple:

‘”[I]n much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”‘ (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

I’m sure we’ve all said something really stupid because we weren’t thinking. (I know I have!) So what’s the easiest way to prevent your monks from constantly putting their feet in their mouths? By telling them to keep quiet of course! After all, idle talking can lead to sinful thoughts and sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions and sinful actions lead to an eternity in hell.

However, this doesn’t mean that most monks never spoke or talked to other members of the community. Later in The Rule Saint Benedict gives instructions on when monks can talk to each other and when they shouldn’t. Even in this chapter, Saint Benedict gives guidelines for conversations. For example, “if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and…reverence” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

 

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Annoyed looking monks singing | BL Harley 2888, f. 98v | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Saint Benedict uses this chapter not only to warn his monks about sinful thoughts but about “bad speech” (Kardong) in general. Bad speech also includes “buffoonery [and] idle words” (Saint Benedict pg. 25). In Terrence G. Kardong’s commentary on The Rule, the Latin text is translated as “crude jokes and idle talk” (Kardong). Either way, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his monks saying things that “move [you] to laughter” (Saint Benedict pg. 25) or that are “aimed at arousing laughter” (Kardong). (I’ll note that these quotations are different translations of the same sentence.) Kardong speculates that Saint Benedict wasn’t crazy about laughter not because he was a killjoy, but because “much ancient comedy was obscene” (Kardong). Given that monks are supposed to be chaste, it is understandable that Saint Benedict wouldn’t want dirty (thus sinful) jokes told in his monasteries. 

The Rule’s chapter about silence isn’t just about avoiding saying sinful things or laughing at things holy monks shouldn’t. It’s also about learning when to talk and when to listen:

“For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen” (Saint Benedict pg. 25).

Like students listening to their teachers, monks should listen to their abbot. The abbot is supposed to be an “inextinguishable fount of wisdom” (Kardong). And the only way to truly listen and learn is to keep quiet.

 

 

Main Source:

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:

Benedictus, and Terrence G. Kardong. Benedicts Rule: a Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996.

(You can find part of this book here.)