Nasty Habits - Satire and the Medieval Monk
What made medieval monks laugh? Edward Coleman looks at humour, holy men and the sub-texts of comment in 12th-century England.
The great Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, whose impressive ruins survive today, was founded in 1151-32, and was largely complete by the death of Abbot Ailred (who had made a major contribution to its construction) in 1167. The monks of Bievaulx are fulsomely praised in Ailred's biography:
They venerate poverty... counting riches and honours as dung... spurning fleshly desires and vain glory in food, drink, act and affectation... they observe at all times a discreet uniformity, using only so much and such means of sustaining life as will just maintain the needs of the body and their fervour in the worship of God.
There is little doubt that the monastic ideal – particularly in its Cistercian form with emphasis on retreat to 'deserts' such as the Yorkshire Moors – exercised a powerful pull on the twelfth-century imagination. It has been estimated that there were around 340 religious houses and about 15,000 men and women in religious orders in the last quarter of the twelfth century in England and Wales. Rievaulx and the other surviving Yorkshire abbeys are testimony to the major building work then under way. Abbots such as Ailred became influential figures in the church.
Yet the approval of monastic life expressed in Ailred's biography was not shired by all. Nigel Wireker, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, for example, wrote a satirical poem entitled Speculum Stultorum (A Mirror for Fools, c. 1180) which follows the adventures of Burnellus or Brunellus, an ass who wanted a longer tail (a metaphor for a person who wished to better himself). Burnellus considers becoming a monk, but rejects the existing monastic orders as inadequate and in the end decides to found a new order and call it after himself.
Nigel Wireker's views were echoed by a number of other contemporary writers. Although often in the form of satire, they nevertheless expressed serious concerns, and certainly amounted to more than merely 'an inexhaustible source of coarse pleasantry' as the monastic historian, David Knowles, rather loftily dismissed them. The quarters from which criticism originated are particularly interesting. Monasteries had been criticised in the past for their excessive wealth, secular entanglements and moral slackness, but the critics had usually been 'insiders' – monks like Nigel Wireker. From the late twelfth century, however, many critics were not monks. On the contrary they tended to be masters in the cathedral schools, or members of episcopal or princely households.
Highly educated and upwardly mobile, members of this group have been dubbed curiales (courtiers) by historians, and their power and influence was clearly in the ascendancy. They included many notable writers, such as John of Salisbury (d.1180) and Peter of Blois (d.1204), who rose to prominent positions in the church or at court. The chief exponents of anti-monastic writing amongst the curiales, however, are generally acknowledged to have been Gerald of Wales (d.1223) and Walter Map (d.1208-10). What led them, and others like them, to criticise monks?
Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223), was a prodigious writer who has left a number of extant works. He is perhaps best known for his Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) which was written in 1186-87 after he had accompanied the future King John on an expedition to the island, and Descriptio Kambriae (Description of Wales). Whilst there are references to monasteries in these and other writings of his, most of his comments on the subject are contained in two lesser known works on the church, Gemma Ecclesiastica, (Jewel of the Church) of c. 1197, and Speculum Ecclesiae (Mirror of the Church) of c.1219, his last work.
Walter Map, (c.1130-35-c.1208-10), was much less prolific. His one surviving work (and as far as is known the only one he wrote) has the pleasing title, De Nugis Curialium, (Courtiers' Trifles), c.1181-83; this title is actually a later addition, borrowed from a work of John of Salisbury, but it aptly describes the contents of Map's book. De Nugis Curialium covers a wide variety of subjects from the tribulations of courtly life to arguments against marriages and contains, amongst other things, 'Incidentia de monachis' ('A digression on monkery').
Gerald and Map's criticism of the monastic life displays several common features. Unfavourable comment is directed mainly at the two largest orders, the Benedictines and Cistercians, whilst the smaller orders, such as the Carthusians, Gilbertines and Grandmontines, are praised, and the Augustine canons are considered particularly admirable. The style of these two critics is anecdotal, partly based on first-hand accounts, partly on hearsay. Unfortunately it is difficult to check their reliability, except against each other when they have the same story. However, they were probably drawing on a fund of oral stories then current in clerical circles. The themes of their anecdotes are the familiar ones of monastic wealth, luxurious living and sexual misdemeanours.
The dilemma of monastic property was a perennial one. But the point made by Gerald and Map is that, far from being embarrassed by their wealth, many monasteries sought to increase it by every means available. The sharpest accusations of over-zealous accumulation of property were directed against the Cistercians, precisely because that order had originally striven to avoid the wordly entanglements into which the Benedictines had been drawn.
However, Cistercian determination to work their own lands, and refusal to collect rents or tithe had frequently become compromised by the late twelfth century. Map was not slow to point out what he saw as their hypocrisy. They obtained land from a rich patron he claims, by 'much feigning of innocence... (and)... putting in God at every other word'. Once they had acquired land they wasted no time in putting it to use: 'the wood is cut down, stubbed up, and levelled into a plain; bushes give way to barley, willows to wheat, withies to vines'. In his view, the Cistercians not only made previously useless land profitable, they were unscrupulous about consolidating their estates: 'they raze villages, overthrow churches and turn out parishioners, not scrupling to cast down altars and level all before the ploughshare'.
Even the benefactors of the Cistercians were not safe according to Map: 'the man who has charitably invited them into part of his estate might seem to be their neighbour; but out he goes'. For the populations of the localities in which they settled, the arrival of the Cistercians was worse than the effects of war: 'those upon whom comes an invasion of Cistercians may be sure they are doomed to a lasting exile'. Modern research has shown that, in Yorkshire at least, Map's claims have some basis.
Both Map and Gerald also relate a number of stories of fraud and theft by Cistercians. The monks of Byland Abbey in Yorkshire, Map says, secretly moved a boundary marker between their property and one of their neighbours; the Cistercians of an un- named monastery manured the field of a neighbour at night – in order to claim the next day that they had cultivated it for years. However this was nothing compared with some of their more serious crimes. The monks of Byland, according to Map, coveted some land on the estate of a certain knight. The knight could not be persuaded to give it to them, and so one night they entered his house, 'muffled up and armed with swords and spears', and murdered him and his family. When a kinsman of the knight arrived three days later, after hearing news of his death, he found that all the buildings and enclosures had disappeared and in their place was a well-ploughed field.
Whilst most of the accusations about the mismanagement of estates were levelled at the Cistercians, the brunt of the criticism of monastic lifestyle was borne by the Benedictines. They had always been vulnerable to this charge, indeed leading Cistercians such as St Bernard of Clairvaux had attacked their comfortable, even luxurious, diet, dress and accommodation. Gerald recounts several anecdotes on this theme.
On one occasion returning to England from France he stayed overnight at the Benedictine house of Christ Church, Canterbury. He considered the evening meal served to the monks to be somewhat excessive:
And as to the dishes and the number thereof what shall I say, save that I have often heard Gerald himself say that sixteen very costly dishes or even more were placed on the table. Many kinds of fish, roast and boiled, stuffed and fried, many dishes contrived with eggs and pepper by skillful cooks (and so on)...
The meal was accompanied by 'wine... claret, must, mead... and all that can intoxicate'. Moreover, the observance of the rule of silence during the meal did not, according to Gerald, prevent the monks from expressing their approval of the fare in sign language which he considered more appropriate to jesters or players than monks: '(they were) all of them gesticulating with fingers, hands and arms, and whistling to one another in lieu of speaking'.
In similar vein Gerald recounts two stories about Henry II. The monks of St Swithuns, Winchester (Benedictine), he says, grovelled in the mud before the king, pleading that he restore three dishes of their meal of which their prior had deprived them. Henry enquired how many they had previously had, and, on receiving the answer ten, promptly ordered that their allowance be reduced to three. If, as Gerald claims, the monks' justification for their large meals was that they would have more leftovers to distribute as alms, one would have to agree that this seems a poor excuse!
On another occasion the king was travelling incognito and arrived at a Cistercian house where he was offered hospitality for the night. In the evening the abbot entertained him with a drinking bout, which involved the toasts 'pril! ' and 'wril! '. When the unfortunate abbot next attended court, Henry made him perform the entire ritual again for the amusement of the courtiers.
Gerald does not fail to point out a connection between excessive eating and drinking and sexual incontinence, as medieval writers commonly did. No less than twenty chapters of Gemma Ecclesiastica are taken up with exhortation to chastity. The temptations of sex were no doubt something with which all priests and monks struggled. But Gerald's descriptions of the sexual misdemeanours of monks are so vivid, and his denunciations of them so strong (and often violently misogynist), that one may suspect that his writing on the subject is coloured by a long personal struggle for self-control. The chapter headings in the Gemma are self-explanatory: 'That women who prevent our salvation and lead us to damnation should not be called our friends but rather our dread enemies'; 'On not staring at women'; 'That intoxication and gluttony are to be avoided because they lead to lust', etc.
Elsewhere Gerald more wryly acknowledges the problem of clerical celibacy in a chapter entitled 'That the temptation attacks priests and clerics more than other men'. Here he records the reply of the Carthusian St Hugh of Lincoln (1140-1200) to a woman who had sought his counsel over the impotence of her husband: 'let us make him a monk', St Hugh advised, 'and the power will be immediately restored to him'.
Map is less obsessively concerned with sexual incontinence amongst monks than Gerald, but he makes some observations on Cistercian dress regulations. The Cistercians, he notes, wear no underpants 'to preserve coolness in that part of the body less sudden heats provoke unchastity'. However, this could have disadvantages. A Cistercian monk was walking along the street when a royal cavalcade, led by Henry II in person, chanced to pass by. The monk tripped. attempting to avoid the horses, and as he fell his habit was blown clear over his head. The king, who had pulled up, said nothing, but a monk (presumably not a Cistercian) who was riding with him, was heard to say 'maledicta religio que develat anum' ('curse the religion – i.e. the religious order – which reveals the arse').
The aspects of monastic life which Gerald and Map singled out for criticism – avarice, luxury and sex – were not new, as was said earlier; the novel feature of their writing was the use of witty anecdote and satire. Their jokes almost certainly had a serious purpose, however. If the Benedictines and Cistercians were first made to look ridiculous, real criticism could then be driven home with increased effect. This technique is especially apparent in De Nugis Curialium, and is perhaps best illustrated by one of three stories told by Map about the 'failed miracles' of St Bernard of Clairvaux. As with the anecdotes about Cistercian underwear, it touches on the theme of monkish sexuality.
St Bernard was asked to heal a sick boy in a house on the borders of Burgundy. On arrival he discovered that the boy was already dead, and although he threw himself on the body in prayer it had no effect. Map writes that this was strange, for normally when monks threw themselves on top of boys the boys would get up right away! To criticise as revered a figure as St Bernard in this risqué way was daring indeed.
It would be wrong, nevertheless, to surmise from this, and from their other barbs against Benedictines and Cistercians, that Gerald and Map were a priori prejudiced against monasticism. They praised the smaller orders, as was noted earlier, and they were impressed by the piety of individuals such as St Hugh of Lincoln and Gilbert of Sempringham. They were even prepared to admit that the Cistercians had begun well and had on1y later become compromised.
Furthermore, their satire was not directed solely at monks. Their pens were equally sharp when they described the Angevin kings, their courts and the great secular and ecclesiastical figures of the day. So what really motivated them to write as they did about monks?
It has been suggested that, like earlier critics, they sought to bring about reform of monastic life. Gerald, in particular, was a dedicated cleric who returned from his studies in Paris thoroughly imbued with canon law and the ideas of ecclesiastical reform. He attempted to put them into practice whilst Archdeacon of Brecon (1175-1203) and caused uproar with his depositions and excommunications. Moreover, apart from Gemma Ecclesiastica and Speculum Ecclesiae, he wrote several other works on ecclesiastical topics, including saints’ lives and a treatise on the legal status of the episcopal see of St David’s (‘De Jure et Statu Menevensis Ecclesiae’, c.1218). He unquestionably held high ideals in matters of clerical conduct.
Map is altogether less consistent and more light-hearted, but his attacks on monks carry a conviction that is lacking in his satire on other subjects. 'I am an imbecile', he says, 'but I do not forge or flatter... I speak of.... what I know and the church laments'.
Despite a certain altruism it is likely that personal rancour may also have been a factor, for both Gerald and Map had good reason to dislike monks from their own experiences. Throughout his life Gerald hoped to become bishop of St David's but he was thwarted on the two occasions the seat became vacant in 1176 and 1198-1203. On both occasions the successful candidate was a monk: in 1176, Peter de Leia, formerly prior of the Benedictine house of Wenlock, and in 1203 Geoffrey de Henlaw, formerly prior of the Augustinian house of Llanthony. Moreover royal pressure was brought to bear against Gerald's selection by Henry II and John in these elections, and Gerald claimed that this was because a certain William Wibert, later abbot of the Cistercian house of Biddlesden in Buckinghamshire, had spread malicious rumours about him at court in 1176. To add insult to injury, when Gerald was trying to raise money to travel to Rome to plead his case for candidature to St David's at the papal court, he was forced to sell his beloved books on unfavourable terms to the Cistercian monastery of Strata Florida, near Aberysthwyth, an incident he recalls with considerable feeling in Speculum Ecclesiae.
Map, on the other hand, may have conceived his animus against the Cistercians as a result of the refusal of the Cistercians of Flaxley, Gloucestershire, to pay tithe to his church of Westbury-on-Severn. According to Gerald, the abbot of this monastery later bravely (or foolishly) tried to persuade Map to take the Cistercian habit on his deathbed, and was roundly abused for his pains.
But personal animosity cannot explain all either. As has been mentioned, Gerald and Map were curiales. Their polished satire, based on the classical models of Horace and Juvenal, reflects the intellectual atmosphere in which they were most at home – the cathedral schools. The training they received at Paris in dialectic, rhetoric and logic equipped them to deal with the practical administrative problems which they faced in secular or ecclesiastical service.
Monastic schools, on the other hand (which were in any case rare), existed to train monks, and their programme of study was firmly orientated towards a life of contemplation and reflection. Between the schools and the monasteries, then, there developed fundamentally divergent outlooks. Such divergence is manifest in the clashes between schoolmen and monks during the twelfth century, and these controversies were probably exacerbated by the fact that the schoolmen were encroaching on areas where monks had previously been influential.
Before 1100 bright young men such as Gerald and Map would most probably have become monks, for there was little viable alternative for ambitious intellectuals. But from the time of Peter Abelard (d.1142) and other great twelfth-century masters, the schools provided such an alternative. Moreover, kings and bishops began to recognise and appreciate the talents of men educated in the schools and began to employ them at their courts. The role of the monastery as a sounding-board for counsel and opinion, which had been considerable, was consequently diminished.
Finally, the criticism of monasteries by Gerald, Map and others at the end of the twelfth century may have reflected a widespread unease with certain aspects of Christian society, which had been previously much respected, but were then coming under scrutiny on account of defects or failures. The Crusade, for example, once held to be the ideal pursuit of the Christian knight, had suffered a severe setback in the loss of Jerusalem (118'7); some doubted if it could be retaken. The papacy suffered, like the monasteries, from the attentions of the satirists on account of corruption at the papal court. Was the late twelfth-century Europe which Gerald and Map knew (like late twentieth-century Europe?) a time when the future of traditional institutions was open to question? Certainly the kind of cloistered monasticism which they criticised was shortly to give precedence to a new concept of religious life – promoted by Franciscan and Dominican friars – which placed emphasis on poverty, chastity and an active pastoral role in the community.
It is difficult to assess the impact of criticism with certainty. Books were not published as such, but the number of surviving manuscripts of a work can give an indication of how widely it became diffused. In that case it would have to be concluded that very few people read Gemma Ecclestiastica, Speculum Ecclesiae or De Nugis Curialium, for only one manuscript of each survives. However, it must be remembered that they would not have been copied and preserved in monasteries, for obvious reasons and monasteries were still at this date the major repositories of manuscripts.
In fact it is likely that they were circulated only within a, restricted circle. They were stories to be enjoyed privately or, as Map says of one of his 'failed miracle' stories in De Nugis Curialium, told over a convivial dinner. Indeed it is not difficult to imagine them originating in just this way: nuggets of racy gossip told, re-told and no doubt elaborated for the amusement of curiales, the 'chattering classes' of the twelfth century.
Edward Coleman is a Lecturer in History at University College, Dublin.
- R. Bartlett, Gerald of Wales (1146-1223g (Clarendon, 1982)
- M.R. James (ed), C.N.L. Brooke, R.A.B. Mynors (revd), De Nugis Curialium / Courtiers' Trifles (Clarendon, 1983)
- C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (Longman, 198I)
- D. Knowles, The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge University Press, 1966)
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