Corporal Punishment In Medieval Monasteries, Part 1: Oblates

A common search term that leads a lot of my readers to my website is “was there corporal punishment in medieval monasteries?” I’ve discussed corporal punishment in the context of The Rule of Saint Benedict (you can find those articles under this tag). However, I want to go into detail about physical punishment in European medieval monastic culture. Today I will discuss corporal punishment and the youngest members of the monastic community affected by it: the oblates. 

Adults were not the only people who lived and thus could be punished, in medieval monasteries. Until the later Middle Ages, it was a common practice for parents to donate children to monasteries. Parents did this with the intention that the children would grow up to become monastics. These children were called oblates. (I’ve written more about oblates here.)

A novice master about to hit his students with a rod | Burney MS 275 f.94r | Source: The British Library

Like modern-day children, oblates could be quite mischievous and misbehave. Medieval monastic leaders and teachers were well aware of the possibility of bad behavior. Corporal punishment was one way adults disciplined oblates.

However, corporal punishment had other purposes besides discipline for bad behavior.  The first purpose was to keep the oblate as pure and innocent as possible. The second purpose was to get them used to their place in the monastic hierarchy. Medieval European monasteries were extremely hierarchical. Because oblates were children, they were the lowest in that hierarchy. To have a well-run monastery, it was important for every member to know his place and obey his superiors. 

In this article, I will discuss how monastic rules instructed abbots and novice masters to use corporal punishment on oblates, how educational texts written for monastic children by monastic adults portrayed beatings, and the different attitudes monastic leaders had towards the use of corporal punishment. 

Corporal Punishment in The Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict was one of the primary guidelines for medieval monastic life. In Chapter Thirty, Saint Benedict discusses the proper punishment for children. While excommunication was the most severe punishment in a monastic community, some oblates were too young to fully understand the gravity of it.

If a child was too young to understand why excommunication was so bad, Saint Benedict recommends corporal punishment instead:

“…let them be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes, in order that they may be cured.” (Saint Benedict, pg. 47).

Corporal Punishment in The Constitutions of Lanfranc

Another guideline for monastic life was The Constitutions of Lanfranc. Lanfranc was the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. He wrote his constitutions specifically for monastic life at Canterbury. Like Saint Benedict, Lanfranc discusses corporal punishment for children.

Lanfranc specifies that when the abbot is present in the monastery, no one is allowed to “strike a child or cause him to strip for flogging” (Lanfranc, pg. 116). However, that does not mean Lanfranc banned corporal punishment for oblates! Lanfranc specifies only abbots should physically punish oblates when the abbot is present. That being said, abbots can grant permission to other members of the monastic community allowing them to beat oblates.

Furthermore, if the abbot is away, the cantor is allowed to physically discipline any oblates that have made a mistake during religious performances. The prior can use corporal punishment on oblates as well. (But only if the abbot is away!)

Corporal Punishment in Ælfric’s Colloquies

Besides guidelines for monastic life, another source of information about corporal punishment for oblates can be found in educational texts written for said oblates. One such text was written by an abbot named Ælfric.

Ælfric lived in England at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century.  One of his many written works was a colloquy for students learning Latin. A colloquy is a written conversation between two or more people. Oblates would enrich their Latin vocabulary and grammar by memorizing and performing colloquies.

While Ælfric’s colloquy focuses on common jobs in medieval society, corporal punishment is mentioned several times.

The first discussion of corporal punishment is at the beginning of the text. A few pupils approach a teacher and request to be taught how to speak properly. The pupils claim they would rather be the lesson be beaten into them than to continue to live a life where they speak poorly. They also mention the teacher is a kind man who would not hit them unless they asked for it.

The second mention of corporal punishment is about a page before the end. The teacher asks one of the boys if he was beaten that day. The boy says no he was not because he behaved himself. The teacher asks if his friends were beaten. The boy asks why would he ask such a thing and that he’s not going to snitch on his friends.

The third mention of corporal punishment is at the very end. One of the boys tells the teacher that occasionally his novice master hits him with a rod to wake him up.

In each instance, the attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly different. At first, the pupils crave being beaten. However, this could be hyperbole and simply just Ælfric’s way of emphasizing how important it is to learn to speak properly. In the second example, the boy is extremely suspicious of why the teacher wants to know if his friends are behaving. It’s possible that this indicates that some novice masters were pretty happy to have any excuse to physically hurt their students. The third example confirms this to be the case. Instead of gently poking his student awake, the novice master uses unnecessary force.

Corporal Punishment in The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata

Another medieval schoolbook was written by Ælfric Bata. Ælfric Bata was a student of the Ælfric discussed above. Like his teacher, he also wrote Latin colloquies for oblates. However, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata are much longer. His colloquies depict everyday life in an eleventh-century European monastery.

Medieval monastic corporal punishment is one of many scenarios Ælfric Bata wrote about. By mentioning corporal punishment so frequently and so casually in some colloquies, this implies monks regularly beat oblates. Or at the very least, threatened to do so.  The threat of corporal punishment must have been a common enough occurrence that it was necessary for oblates to learn Latin vocabulary about the subject.

Like his own teacher, Ælfric Bata portrays corporal punishment in different ways. Sometimes it is serious while other depictions have a strong comedic slapstick tone.

In Colloquy 24, the novice master waits in the cloister for his oblates to approach him. Instead of immediately greeting him, the oblates try to figure out what kind of mood he is in. They are afraid that if he is in a bad mood he will beat them. One boy describes the novice master as having “a whip in his right hand and a lot of rods in his left” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 133).

This indicates that whips and rods were regularly used to dole out physical punishments. It also implies that some novice masters abused their power by taking out their anger on boys who did not deserve it.

In Colloquy 25 the novice master laments over the fact that no matter how many times he beats a certain bad student, the oblate still misbehaves. The novice master claims to properly love students, you have to beat them as “a master’s sympathy often harms a boy” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 143). He also uses bible quotes to back up his claim. The oblate is less than amused and tells him he’s sick of his threats. The novice master proceeds to quote probably every single proverb in the bible. In the end, he does not hit the misbehaving oblate.

In Colloquy 26 an oblate complains that he doesn’t have a clean pair of trousers. His only pair is bloody from the beating he got. In this case, the oblate was beaten with rods.

In Colloquy 28 Ælfric Bata depicts an actual beating. An oblate has been caught stealing and lying about it yet again. While stealing and lying are both serious crimes in themselves, doing wrong repeatedly and hiding your wrongdoings was considered particularly heinous in medieval monastic society.

The thieving oblate’s classmates list a ridiculous amount of things he was caught stealing. The thief admits it is all true, promises to stop, and wants to do penance again. However, all the previous penances his novice master gave him have done absolutely nothing to deter his thievery. Consequently, the novice master decides to use corporal punishment instead.

In an interesting turn of events, the novice master has the victims find the rods and hit the thief first. (He will go after them.) By allowing the victims to administer corporal punishment, the novice master lets the victims punish the thief as they see fit. In fact, the novice master even encourages the victims to hit the thief harder!

As a result, there is no risk of the victims thinking the novice master was too soft on him.

(I will note earlier in the scene the victims express confidence the novice master will administer a fair punishment.) They are allowed to get their revenge. This prevents any further resentment from the victims from turning into deadly violence.

Monastic communities could be quite small. Any anger bubbling under the surface could and often did result in great acts of violence. (It was not uncommon for monks to attempt to murder each other!) It is much safer to control that anger before it explodes into an uncontrollable situation. 

As for the actual beating, the thief’s pants are dropped and the boys stand on either side of him. They proceed to hit different sides of his bare bottom. 

While he’s beaten, the thief melodramatically laments about how much pain he’s in, how sad his life is, he never did anything wrong, everyone is against him for absolutely no reason, and he is most certainly dying from this beating, no one cares he’ll be dead soon, and he’s the victim. The oblate has absolutely no self-awareness his own actions caused no one to like him. Instead, he is convinced there is a grand conspiracy against him.

The novice master tells him to stop being sad and to live a good life he has to take accountability for his actions. The oblate must take on the mindset of “I have sinned and have not received what I deserved” (Ælfric Bata, pg. 171). The oblate promises to do so and never to steal again. That is when the novice master stops the victims from hitting him anymore. In the end, the novice master never hits the thief.

Interestingly enough, Ælfric Bata does not depict this incident of child abuse as particularly tragic or devastating. Instead, it would not be out of place in a modern-day slapstick comedy.

In conclusion, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata taught oblates the necessary Latin words an oblate might hear before, during, and after a physical punishment as well as the consequences for disrupting their monastic community with bad behavior.

(As a side note, The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata also teaches oblates how to cuss someone out in Latin. Do what you want with that information.)

Attitudes Towards Using Corporal Punishment on Oblates

Religious figures such as Saint Benedict and Hildemar thought children were unable to understand the true gravity of excommunication. Instead, they thought corporal punishment was the only way to make children understand certain behaviors were bad.

The monks, Hildemar and Smaragdus, believed children needed physical discipline to control their behavior. In John of Salerno’s biography of Odo of Cluny, he describes how Odo used the “fear of his rod [so that] he might lead us like a shepherd to the joys of heaven” (Quinn, pg. 112). 

Monastic leaders wanted oblates to grow up to be the perfect monks. Perfect monks were obedient, pious, and chaste. Oblates were raised in monasteries since childhood, so there was a possibility that childhood innocence could be preserved into adulthood. To ensure oblates retained their innocence, they were supposed to be monitored by several adults at all times. Novice masters watched out for any sinful, disruptive, and disobedient behaviors.

The threat of a beating could be enough to make children behave. One way novice masters did this was by simply carrying a whip on his person at all times.  

That being said, monks recognized that sometimes beatings were not a one type fits all solution. If oblates continued to misbehave after beatings, novice masters should find a more punishment that the child responded better to.

While beating oblates was a common enough practice, that doesn’t mean it was always an accepted one.  Just like modern day opinions about physically disciplining children, medieval opinions varied too. As you can see from the colloquies, some monks and abbots condoned using corporal punishment on oblates. However, this was not the case for every single medieval monastic who ever lived!

In the tenth and eleventh-century Europe, the ideal student-teacher relationship was a warm one. After all, oblates’ parents essentially abandoned them at the monasteries.  Instead of being raised by their biological parents, oblates were raised by their new spiritual parents—the novice master. 

A good novice master nurtured and cared about his boys. Ideally, this would create a warm, caring father/son dynamic between oblates and their teachers. Furthermore, this relationship would result in monastic boys respecting their teachers. Generally speaking, children are more likely to obey authority figures if they respect and love them. (Again, this is generally speaking. No child is perfect and no child does everything they are told all the time. However, the overall amount of times a child disobeys authority figures goes down if they respect them.) When children listen, beatings and other forms of corporal punishment are not necessary.

If a beating was the only way a novice master could get his oblates to behave, then he was considered bad at his job. Even in the Middle Ages people recognized the negative effect physical violence had on children. Saint Anselm argued that corporal punishment could do much more harm than good. 

One day an unnamed abbot and Saint Anselm spoke about monastic discipline. The abbot complained that no matter how many times he beat his oblates, they only behaved worse instead of better. Saint Anselm, shocked at the abbot’s actions, asked what kind of men the oblates grew up to be. The abbot’s answered, “stupid brutes” (Quinn 113).

Saint Anselm explained that if you beat children like animals, they are going to grow up to act like animals. Children cannot be tamed like animals. Instead, children should be nurtured like a gardener would a tree. Furthermore, by continuously terrifying children with threats of harm and actually hitting them, children stop seeing any good in the world and become hateful. They only grow more hateful as adults. 

Saint Anselm argued that oblates stop trusting the adults who repeatedly hurt them. Even if an abbot or a novice master is nice to them, the oblates are still suspicious of their intentions. Suspicious oblates grow up to be suspicious adults who cannot recognize genuine charity. They trust no one.

In short, by repeatedly beating oblates, monks are not raising people fit for heaven. Instead, they raise hateful men. 

Saint Anselm asks the abbot why he hates the children so much that he treats them this way. After all, children are human too. Does the abbot want to be treated like his oblates?

Finally, Saint Anselm argued that to properly raise children to be good adults, they have to be nurtured. Abbots and novice masters needed to encourage oblates and treat them with kindness. They needed to take on the role of father and mother to the children. Children needed to be encouraged to self-discipline.

While hitting children was a popular discipline method in the secular world around Saint Anselm’s time, monastics were not raising children for the secular world. They were raising them to be monks.

Medieval monasticism valued self-discipline, patience, and humility. Teaching misbehaving children with gentleness and encouragement is difficult. By not constantly striking children in anger, novice masters learned patience and self-discipline. Thus, they also became better monks.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Ælfric. “Aelfric’s Colloquy: Translated from the Latin.” Translated by Ann E. Watkins, Kent Archaeological Society, www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf. 

Bata, Ælfric. Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata. Edited by Scott Gwara. Translated by David W. Porter, The Boydell Press, 1997. 

Lanfranc. The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. Translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951. 

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

Secondary Sources:

“Ælfric’s Colloquy.” British Library, www.bl.uk/collection-items/aelfrics-colloquy

Boswell, John. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 

McComb, Maximilian Peter. “STRATEGIES OF CORRECTION: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN THE CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE 742-900.” Cornell University, 2018.  https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/59342/McComb_cornellgrad_0058F_10761.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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,.

Ristuccia, Nathan J. “Ideology and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education.” American Benedictine Review 61:4 (2010).  https://www.academia.edu/4129411/Ideology_and_Corporal_Punishment_in_Anglo_Saxon_Monastic_Education

Do Demons Regret Falling? Stories From The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 5

Here is the YouTube link for episode 5 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk Podcast! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk Podcast’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Anchor

Demons, demons, demons! These terrifying creatures are ready to grab unsuspecting souls at any moment. But are all of them as evil as they seem? Or could some possibly regret leaving Heaven in the first place?

Source:

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n357/mode/2up

The Rule Of Saint Benedict, The Prologue and Chapters 1-5 | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 4

Here is the YouTube link for episode 4 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk Podcast! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk Podcast’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk Podcast on Anchor

Today at The Mediaeval Monk Podcast we are taking a look at The Rule of Saint Benedict! This text was widely used as a guideline to monastic life. I am reading the prologue as well as chapters 1 through 5.

Source:

https://archive.org/details/TheRuleOfStBenedict/mode/2up

What Did Medieval Monks Wear? | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 3

Here is the YouTube link for episode 3 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Below the video are links to The Mediaeval Monk’s Spotify and Anchor pages.

The Mediaeval Monk on Spotify

The Mediaeval Monk on Anchor

In today’s episode, I discuss the medieval monastic wardrobe. I wrote several blog posts about this topic, so I wanted to discuss it again for everyone who likes listening to podcasts. Links to my articles are below. Each article cites the sources I used.

Sources: 

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 4

It’s still October, so it’s time for some more spooky medieval ghost stories! Today I will cover stories four and five of the Byland Abbey ghost stories. Each story is pretty short. Story four is only a paragraph long and story five consists of two sentences. Unlike the previous ghost stories, stories four and five do not include anyone conjuring a ghost.

Bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead, of three skeletal cadavers, two partially wrapped in shrouds, with a caption reading, ‘Y was wel fair. Scuch ssaltou be. For godes love be war be me’. | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.180r | Source: The British Library

Story Four

A long time ago, a man named James Tankerlay died. Despite being the rector at Kirby, James Tankerlay was buried in front of Byland Abbey’s chapter house. He must have missed his old parish because James had a tendency to make frequent nightly visits. During one of these visits, James visited his old mistress…and blinded her by blowing out one of her eyes!

After this incident, Byland Abbey’s abbot and monastic community decided that something had to be done. Their solution was to dig up James Tankerlay’s body and coffin and hire a man named Roger Wayneman to chuck it into the nearby Lake Gormyre. (Or Gormire depending on the translation.) As Roger did this, his cart’s oxen became so frightened they almost drowned.

Story four ends with the monkish author claiming he’s only writing down what he was told and he hopes that God isn’t mad at him for telling the story. He also asks for God’s mercy and salvation.

Analysis

Unlike some of the previous ghost stories, this tale seems to be rather old. Or at the very least, it was a story that has been passed down through several generations. The anonymous author claims to have heard this story from some old men.  It’s possible the Byland Abbey monk’s sources either heard this story in their youth from someone older or it happened when they were young.

Another notable difference is the destruction of James Tankerlay’s body. Instead of the Christian solution of conjuration and prayers, the abbot’s choice to destroy the body is quite pagan. In early medieval ghost stories and Icelandic sagas, revenants’ bodies are often destroyed so they can no longer terrorize the local population. This solution supports the theory the story’s origin is much older than the previous ones.

Similar to the previous stories, this one both explicitly gives names and hides them. The ghost and the person who threw the coffin into the lake are named, but the abbot who ordered it to be done is not. This would imply that even if the author does not approve of the abbot’s decision to destroy James Tankerlay’s body, he still wants to protect the reputation of the clergyman who ordered it to be done.

Finally, I find the author’s anxiety around even repeating this story particularly interesting. He clearly did not approve of the less than Christian solution of digging up and throwing a body into a lake to get rid of it! However, while his anxiety made him ask for God’s mercy for writing the text, he clearly did not consider it too blasphemous to include. I can’t help but wonder if the author included the story as a morality lesson, especially one for priestly concubines. Learning that your lover will blind you as a ghost would certainly be one way to deter women (and some men!) from hooking up with clergymen.

Story Five

As this ghost story is only two sentences long, I will quote A.J. Grant’s translation in its entirety:

“What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.” (Grant, pg. 371)

Analysis

This story is rather vague. There are no named characters and where exactly it takes place is not stated. There isn’t really even an ending. The author doesn’t tell us what happened after the woman carried the ghost into the house or why she did so. We also aren’t told if the ghost wanted to be absolved of their sins.

The way this medieval ghost story is written reminds me of how events were documented for certain chronicles. In that, the author wrote down the most basic information so the audience gets a general idea of what happened.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: The Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, 2016, pp. 13–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5.

Medieval Demon Vision Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 2

Here is the YouTube link and audio file for episode 2 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Figuring out Spotify and iTunes has been slightly difficult, so I am posting things here until I get all that sorted out. Enjoy!

Today we return to the Dialogue on Miracles. This time I share some stories about clergymen seeing demons.

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/mode/2up

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 3

Once again we return to the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories! Today’s medieval ghost story is much shorter than our previous one. Medieval ghost story number three is only three paragraphs long. This ghost story also features a spirit looking for absolution before they can go to Heaven.

Two skull headed grotesques | Add MS 36684 f.87v | Source: The British Library

Story Three

Our ghost is known as Robert the son of Robert of Boltby of Kilburn. Now, the vast majority of corpses and dead folk stay nice and tight in their graves and do not bother anyone. However, Robert Jr. was not like most dead people!

Instead Robert Jr. had a tendency to get out of his grave, wander around, and scare people. The local dogs did not appreciate a ghost in their midst. They would follow him around on his nightly adventures and bark up a storm. The local young men did not appreciate a ghost in their village either. They decided they were going to capture Robert Jr. and put him to rest permanently.

However, the youths talked a big talk with absolutely no substance behind it. Once they saw Robert Jr.’s face they ran away!

Well, except two.

Robert Foxton and another (unnamed) youth stayed behind to handle Robert Jr. Robert Foxton grabbed Robert Jr. before he could leave the cemetery and forced him onto the steps of the nearby church. The unnamed youth told Robert Foxton to hold Robert Jr. until he could help him. (The anonymous Byland Abbey monk assures us that the youth said this is a manly way, not in a cowardly way. He was being brave and not running for his life!)

Robert Foxton had other plans. He told the youth to get the priest as fast as he could while he held Robert Jr. down. The youth did as he was told. The priest, of course, rushed to Robert Foxton and the ghost once he heard the news.

The priest conjured Robert Jr. in the name of Jesus Christ and the Trinity until the extremely restless spirit could tell them what he needed. Like the ghosts in the previous stories, Robert Jr. needed to be absolved of his sins. (He also spoke from his guts instead of his tongue like the other ghosts.) The priest gladly listened to Robert Jr. and did just that. Finally, Robert Jr. was able to rest in peace.

However, before our monkish author ends this tale, he throws in a bit of gossip. Apparently before Robert Jr. was absolved, he would stand at the villagers’ doors and windows. It seemed like he eavesdropped on the houses’ inhabitants. The author speculates that Robert Jr. was just trying to find someone who would conjure him so he could go to Heaven. The locals on the other hand theorized Robert Jr. helped murder someone as well do other evil deeds (the author does not specify exactly what they were). Clearly not everyone had a positive opinion of Robert Jr.

Analysis

In this story, our ghost is a physical being instead of a spiritual one. This is evidenced by the fact Robert Foxton tackled Robert Jr. and held him down. While there were transparent, spiritual ghosts in medieval folklore, another common type of medieval ghost was the draugr/revenant.

Draugr was the term used for revenants in Scandinavian folklore. They are similar to zombies, in that they looked like rotting corpses and are physical beings. The Norse settled in Northern England in the early Middle Ages, so it’s entirely possible this tale was influenced by Old Norse stories passed down over several generations.

Like the ghosts in stories one and two, Robert Jr. is looking for absolution for his past sins and will go out of his way to get it. However, unlike the other two ghosts, Robert Jr. seems to have had a bad enough reputation if the locals speculated his still living corpse was capable of planning murder and other evil deeds. The deeds must also have been pretty bad if the author did not want to name them!

In contrast to the previous stories, it is interesting that the author felt comfortable enough to actually distinguish the characters by name. The author must not have thought he would get in trouble for naming names. Assuming that this story features actual people who lived in the community, this implies one of several things:

  • The story took place sometime in the distant past and the ghost’s family is also dead. (And won’t be angry to hear some random monk is writing about their kin!)
  • The family was okay with people talking about their ghostly kin.
  • Or if the family was not okay with it, they might not have been powerful, thus the author was not particularly afraid of the consequences of telling the majority of the story.

Finally, I find it particularly interesting that Robert Jr. spoke from his belly instead of his mouth. A previous Byland Ghost did this too. Bowels and excrement were commonly associated with sin and demons. While I am not sure if this has any connection, it does remind me of later medieval depictions of Satan and his demons. Demons in their demonic forms (verses human forms they sometimes took to lure hapless humans into sin) were often drawn with faces on their bellies, groins, and knees.

Personally, makes sense to me if the author intentionally connected the two ideas. Ghosts who are too sinful to go to Heaven are also too sinful to speak from their mouths, so they had no choice but to use their bowels to communicate.

Works Cited

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits : Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies : Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 13 Oct. 2021.

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 1

It’s October! To celebrate spooky season, I am sharing some medieval ghost stories. There are a lot of medieval ghost stories out there, so today’s source comes from Byland Abbey. Byland Abbey was a medieval monastery in Yorkshire England. Today all that remains of it are ruins.  

Luckily for people who like historical ghost stories, there was a fifteenth century monk who was just as interested in the genre as we are today. The anonymous monk wrote the ghostly tales down in the back pages of a twelfth century manuscript. The manuscript can now be found at the British Library under the number Royal 15 A XX.

Each of the ghost stories is relatively short. However because there are twelve stories in all, I will cover them either individually or I will combine them. Some of the stories are longer than others. (Story two is several pages long!) My goal is to cover all of them before the end of October.

A living man and a skeleton | Add MS 37049 f.83r | Source: The British Library

The ghost stories were originally written in Latin. The Byland Abbey ghost stories take place in Yorkshire. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these stories offer a good insight into how the average person went about their day in the early fifteenth century, including their thoughts, concerns, jobs, and even their names. Some characters are named and others are not. It’s possible the author left out the names because he either didn’t know them or he wanted to keep the people involved anonymous. Either way, his stories are fantastic glimpses into the medieval period!

Story One

In this tale a living man is transporting a peck of beans. The story does not specify where exactly he’s carrying them, but I assume the man is taking them home or maybe to the market. Unfortunately for the man, his horse breaks its leg (or shin bone depending on the translation) so the man has to carry the beans himself.

As the man walked along he suddenly came across another horse in the middle of the road. However, this horse was not an ordinary horse. It stood on its hind legs with its front hooves extended out in front of it. I don’t know much about horses, but I don’t think they normally hang out in the middle of roads standing like humans! The man must have thought so too because in his terror he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and commanded the horse not to hurt him.

The horse transformed into a hay bale. However, it was no ordinary hay bale because there was a light in the middle of it. The man became even MORE terrified and invoked God to keep him from harm.

Finally the specter transformed once more. On the third time it transformed into a man. The ghost told the man his name, the reason he was wandering the roads (which the author does not specify), the remedy (again, the author does not specify, but I assume he wanted prayers for his soul), and offered to carry the man’s peck of beans.

The living man said yes to the help. The ghost carried the beans until they reached a river. However, the ghost did not want to cross the river, so he gave the man the beans back and disappeared. The author adds that the living man did not see how exactly the ghost returned the beans. One moment the ghost was carrying them and the next the man was!

Afterwards, the man arranged for masses to be said for the ghost’s soul. He also made sure the ghost was absolved of his sins. Apparently this helped the ghost.

Analysis

Our first story is a good example of how medieval authors occasionally mixed contemporary ghost beliefs in a single tale. Medieval ghost stories often fell under two categories: religious and revenants. To summarize, religious ghosts warned the living about the dangers of Purgatory and begged for prayers to help their souls get to heaven. Revenants caused chaos. The anonymous Byland monk documented both elements in this story. (The ghost scared the living man but he also wanted the man to help his soul.)

I also find it interesting that the ghost was unwilling (or unable!) to cross the river. Ghosts are figures that are stuck between the living world and the dead. Ghosts that are in Purgatory are stuck between Heaven and Hell. It makes sense that a figure stuck in an in between place can’t cross a definite barrier like a river. The accompanying essay to the English translation by the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project suggests that the river symbolizes purity. Because the ghost’s soul is in Purgatory (and thus not pure) he cannot cross it.

The fact that the man was carrying beans is significant too. In Ancient Greece, Pythagoreans believed beans carried the dead’s souls. Beans were also eaten on All Saint’s Day, which is the day after Halloween. Autumn was a time where people believed the living world and the afterlife were the closest, relating back to the ghost being in an in between space.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/byland-abbey/

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

Medieval Medicine: The Four Humors Part 1, The Basics

While certain aspects of medieval medicine are surprisingly scientifically accurate, one of the main medical theories of the European middle ages most certainly is not. This medical theory is called humorism or humoral theory. Humoral theory is the theory that the human body is made up of and controlled by the four bodily fluids known as the humors. The four humors were believed to control a person’s health, the way their body looked, and even their personality/temperament. The four humors are:

  • Blood
  • Phlegm
  • Black Bile
  • Yellow Bile

Humorism originated in Ancient Greece. Classical figures such as Hippocrates and Galen wrote down their own humoral theories and their texts were the foundation for medieval humorism. Galen’s theory not only consisted of the four humors making up the human body but that each of the humors had a corresponding element that made up the humor:

  • Blood/Air
  • Phlegm/Water
  • Black Bile/Earth
  • Yellow Bile/Fire

Each of the four humors was also associated with a certain degree of wetness and heat:

  • Blood was hot and wet.
  • Phlegm was cold and wet.
  • Black bile was cold and dry.
  • Yellow bile was hot and dry.

Fire is hot and dry so yellow bile is hot and dry, water is cold and wet so phlegm is cold and wet, etc. Because dryness was considered the absence of moisture and coldness was considered the absence of heat, dryness and coldness were considered to be negative qualities because they lacked the positive traits heat and moisture. Medieval people even went as far as to consider these negative qualities as harmful or even outright evil. Black bile, whose traits are cold and dry, was considered to be deadly if humans had too much of it. 

The four humors were not only important in medieval European medicine. The 9th century Middle Persian text, Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, documented a medieval Iranian medical theory about the four humors. In the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram the humors have the same wet and dry properties found in ancient Greek and medieval European texts. However, there are two main differences in this text. One difference is that yellow bile is called red bile and each humor has properties associated with taste and color:

  • Blood is red and sweet.
  • Phlegm is white and salty.
  • Black bile is black and sour. 
  • Red bile is red and bitter.

In medieval Europe, the four humors also corresponded to a body organ:

  • Blood was associated with the head or liver (depending on the source). 
  • Phlegm was associated with the brain and lungs.
  • Black bile was associated with the gall bladder.
  • Yellow bile was associated with the spleen. 

Medieval humoral theory believed that all four humors were combined to make semen. I understand where the logic for this came from. Because humors made up the human body, it’s no wonder people thought the source of new humans came from all the other humors!

Print Sources:

Green, Monica Helen. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. PENN, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 

Mount, Toni. Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science. Amberley, 2016. 

Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008. 

Pouchelle, Marie-Christine. The Body and Surgery in the Middle Ages. Rutgers University Press, 1990. 

Web Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zyscng8/revision/1

https://www.britannica.com/science/humor-ancient-physiology

https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/health-in-persia-i

https://www.medicinenet.com/humorism/definition.htm

https://public.wsu.edu/~hanly/chaucer/coursematerials/humours.html

http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/misconceptions-about-medieval-medicine-humors-leeches-charms-and-prayers/

Google Books Sources:

Lewis-Anthony, Justin (2008). Circles of Thorns: Hieronymus Bosch and Being Human. Bloomsbury. p. 70. ISBN 9781906286217.https://books.google.com/books?id=7WD45AoYO0EC&q=adulthood#v=snippet&q=adulthood&f=false

Interesting Penances in the Canons Attributed to Saint Patrick

Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why.  Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick. 

It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.) 

For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer. 

A woman confessing to a priest. Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v.
A woman confessing to a priest | Yates Thompson MS 27 f.51v | Source: The British Library

While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod. 

Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus

Section 6

This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77). 

Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!

Section 8

At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77). 

The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other. 

Section 9

This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other. 

While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow. 

Section 14

If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.  

The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!

Section 16

If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance. 

While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!

Section 19

If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.

The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband. 

Section 22

Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment. 

Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft. 

Section 31

If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80). 

Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening. 

Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick

Section 9

If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.

It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general. 

Section 11

After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).

There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium. 

Section 25

If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister. 

Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever. 

Section 27

When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85). 

Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place! 

Section 28

When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery. 

In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid. 

Sources:

McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990. 

Örsy, Ladislas M. , Huizing, Peter J. and Orsy, Ladislas M.. “canon law”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/canon-law. Accessed 2 September 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage