IDEAL VS. REALITY TILE ROLE OF WOMEN IN EARLY MEDIEVAL MONASTICISM
Jennifer Linn Hamilton
Gulf Coast Community College
When Saint Augustine of Hippo concluded that the Church as a whole could not meet the call of perfection because of its constant dealings with the sinful world, he placed that burden of perfection on the monastic community. He did so with the understanding that monasteries, as the bastions for those holy persons called to be the representatives on earth of God's perfect family in heaven, would be separate from the carnal world. Although, to a certain extent, monastic communities in the early Middle Ages followed this ideal of separation, even the earliest rules written for monasteries provided for dealings with the outside world. For example, Benedict of Nursia reminded monks to perform the Opus Dei even when far from the confines of the monastery.(1) The lives of various female saints indicate that these women also spent time away from the cloister.(2) Apparently, the ideal, as espoused by early Church Fathers like Augustine, differed from the reality of the early Middle Ages, which found nuns and monks entangled in the workings of the world.
For the most part, the reality of the lives of nuns and monks rested in their emulation of Christ: feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, and performing miracles. The imitatio Christi, coupled with the notion that nuns and monks were God's representatives on earth, compelled monastics to take on the role of intercessor, and this was primarily how and why they interacted with the world. In these interactions, nuns and monks performed similar duties: they went into neighboring communities to heal the sick; they sought relief for their communities from kings; and they housed guests within their monastic communities and provided food for their visitors. Ties of kinship and secular endowments to monasteries also served to draw the cloistered into contact with the outside world.
And yet, monastic rules vividly reveal differing expectations between the ways nuns and monks were to relate to the world beyond the monastery's walls. Primarily it was the degree to which these rules expected holy persons to be separate from the world that created this difference; for the most part, they required nuns to stay inside the cloister, while monks, after taking a few necessary precautions, could leave their communities.
The strict cloistering of nuns grew out of women's struggles in the first Christian centuries to find their niche within an increasingly institutionalized Christianity, dominated by a male hierarchy that patterned itself after Roman social customs. Effectively cut off from positions of importance and authority in the newly formed Church because of their gender, many women chose a celibate life and claimed specialness through their virginity that, at once, fueled both admiration and fear in the male clergy. If women were going to set themselves apart through their virginity and the powers it entailed, Church Fathers reasoned that they should be separated from a society which could harm that virginity. Nuns were precious to the Church as conduits of salvation, because their virginity allowed them to function as mediators between sinful man and God. The Church Father turned heretic, Tertullian, was the first to propose that virgins were, indeed, the brides of Christ, a notion that would find great support from both women and men in the centuries to come.(3) In this relationship to Christ which guided her connection with the world, the nun found both confining and liberating: confining because she was bound by the monastic strictures of cloistering and liberating because she found a unique way to express her spirituality through a closeness with Christ.
The dichotomy between the sexes, illustrated in their respective monastic rules, was most fully depicted in the simple image of a room with a door. Caesarius of Arles expected his nuns to shun rooms with doors leading to the outside world. He wrote that a nun "must never, up to the time of her death, go out of the monastery, nor into the basilica, where there is a door."(4) He did not mince words. The door, whether opened or closed, presented a threat to the nun's sanctity. Although St. Augustine allowed his nuns to open the door to the world, he issued a warning:
When you go abroad, walk together; when you have arrived at the place to which you were going, stop together. In walking, in standing, in your costume, in all your movements, let there be nothing that could rouse passion in anyone, but let all accord with your sacred character. If your eyes glance at anyone, let them rest upon no one, for you are not forbidden to look at men when you go out, but to desire them or to wish to be desired by them . . . . Do not claim to have chaste minds if you have unchaste eyes, because the unchaste eye is the messenger of the unchaste heart . . . .(5)
For Augustine, the danger was present within the nun and also in the outside world. The Church Father expected his nuns to travel in groups, ostensibly to support each other from falling prey to the delights of the sinful world. Additionally, he expected them to avoid inflaming the passions of those they met.
Compare Augustine's command with Benedict's rule governing monks sent on a journey:
Let brethren who are to be sent on a journey commend themselves to the prayers of all the brethren and of the abbot; and always at the last prayer of the Work of God let there be a commemoration of all absent brethren. When brethren return from a journey, let them on the day they return, at the end of each canonical hour of the Work of God, lie prostrate on the floor of the oratory and ask the prayers of all on account of any faults that may have surprised them on the road . . . .(6)
Benedict's rule holds no mandate for monks to travel in groups or for monks to watch their movements to avoid arousing passion. The oblique reference to faults the monks might succumb to on their journey could refer to anything from eating meat to cursing a stubbed toe, or, perhaps, to feelings of lust. The point is that Benedict's role does not warn that chastity could be lost through the concupiscence of the eyes, nor that the monk's mere appearance might inflame a woman.
Most rules for women, not just Caesarius' and Augustine's, provide a stark contrast to Benedict's mild cautions. Donatus of Besancon, for example, expressed concern about the lusty stares of nuns who might come into contact with men.(7) Leander of Seville, too, advocated strict cloistering for nuns and warned of the concupiscence of the eyes.(8) Monastic rules indicate that the nun's power, her virginity, could be placed in danger through the weakness of her womanly, and therefore sensual, nature coming into contact with the outside world.
In essence, the differing expectations for nuns and monks were based on how the early Church viewed women. For the most part, churchmen either saw women as the Virgin Mary in need of protection, or as Eve, the temptress who lays in wait to seduce the unsuspecting man. For most churchmen, there was a greater concern with the latter; therefore, they wanted to press for tight cloistering of nuns because of the damage that women could do to the devout man. Gregory the Great’s "Life of St. Benedict" depicts how the author of the Benedictine rule barely escaped defeat by desire, when he recalled the vision of a woman he once had seen:
before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost overcome in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness when suddenly with the help of God's grace he came to himself. He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and slinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body.(9)
If the mere memory of a woman from long ago could nearly bring down a spiritual giant, a lesser holy man must have lived in dread of coming face-to-face with a living, breathing female.
The monastic warnings against nuns and monks meeting together usually contained the message that such meetings could lead to the spiritual downfall of either of the holy persons. The fault, of course, was the nun's, because, despite her attempts at perfection, she could not rid herself of Eve's taint. Fructuosus of Braga wrote:
It was through a woman that a serpent, that is, the devil, trapped our first parent . . . we must watch and constantly pray . . . to avoid allowing our senses to be captivated by such enticements.(10)
Fructuosus commanded his monks to avoid meetings with nuns. Such a meeting would cause the "arrow of death" to penetrate the heart, and paradise would be lost." The seriousness of this rule is revealed in the earthly punishment that Fructuosus meted out to transgressors: the first offense brought public flogging with one hundred blows; the second carried the added weight of prison; and the third offense meant dismissal from the community.(12)
Because the nun's nature as Eve always lurked inside, she presented a threat to herself and others; therefore, the nun must be contained within the convent's walls. On the one hand, then, women, even nuns, were lusty objects who could bring down the best of holy men. On the other hand, however, they were the Church's treasures, the brides of Christ.
Virginity was something a nun could possess, therefore it was something she could lose. Jerome, in the late fourth century wrote a letter to Eustochium detailing how carefully she must preserve her virginity from a number of different "thieves."(13) In the letter, he cautioned that,
although God can do all things, He cannot raise up a virgin after she has fallen. He has power, indeed, to free her from the penalty, but He has no power to crown one who has been corrupted.(14)
Jerome even warned that virginity might be lost merely by thinking unchaste thoughts. But the greatest threat, Jerome indicated, was the physical loss of virginity through contact with the world.(15) These sentiments were echoed in the monastic rules for nuns which followed in later centuries. Caesarius forbade his nuns from leaving the cloister; he wanted, in Jerome's words, no "foolish virgins." Cloistering was, in part then, an outgrowth of the perceived dangers of society. If a nun could lose her virginity, as Jerome indicated, through impure thoughts, then she must be kept from those things which could inspire such reflections.(16)
Clearly, thus, nuns were expected to lead a different life. Their status as conduits to Heaven made them prized possessions of the Church in need of safeguarding behind convent walls. But, the earthly nature of woman caused much concern for the Church Fathers, too. And so, these two seemingly incompatible natures merged into one cry: cloistering. Yet, despite the confining nature of their rules, nuns managed to work out a reality of service in the name of Christ that satisfied their need to be useful.
Medieval communities frequently called on the holy persons in their midst for aid or protection. Just as virgins in late Antiquity ostensibly had brought God's mercy to the communities in which they lived, nuns and monks of the early Middle Ages, through divine aid, protected crops and villages from disease and the ravages of war.(17) Gregory of Tours, in his Life of the Fathers, provided an example of an abbot who delved into the affairs of temporal powers as an intercessor for the people living in the village surrounding the monastic community. St. Portianus, an abbot in the Auvergne, went before the warrior-king Theuderic, who was "exterminating and laying waste everything," to plead for the safety of the people in the region.(18) Through a miracle performed at Theuderic's encampment, the abbot was able to persuade the king to cease his raids on the countryside and to free those captured in the fighting.(19) Gregory made clear that it was the spiritual power of the holy man that had caused the king to do his bidding. Needless to say, such powers of divine intercession often brought kings and villagers alike to monastics for aid.
The most popular form of succor that monastics performed was the laying on of hands to remove an illness and to restore health. Monegundis, who left her husband to take up the religious life, was much sought after by villagers for her healing powers.(20) The nuns who followed Monegundis recognized, even at her death, the great need that people had for her holy intercessory powers. They asked Monegundis to bless some oil and salt to give to the sick after she had died.(21) The nuns soon discovered that Monegundis' powers had not been diminished by her death.(22) Indeed, her relics generally magnified her powers. For example, oil, she had blessed before her death, was rubbed onto the swollen foot of a deacon; his foot was immediately healed. So, even in death, Monegundis carried on a relationship with the world.(23)
During the Merovingian period, nuns, like monks, as intercessors provided comfort and divine protection for the villages and villagers around their communities, as well as aid for travelers and the needy. At the same time, it was easy for them to become enmeshed in the political intrigues, partly because of the aristocratic bloodlines of monastics, but also because of the dependence of secular leaders upon their intercessory powers.
So, despite the desire to keep holy persons separate from the world, reality often came knocking on the monastery door. And in the reality of the Merovingian world, the ways in which nuns interacted with the world did not always meet expectations. Queen Radegund, founder of a convent, St. Croix, at Poitiers in 561 after a daring escape from her captor-husband, provides an example of the expectations placed on women monastics and the reality of how these expectations were met. Early on, Radegund had requested a copy of the Rule of St. Caesarius of Arles for her nuns to follow.(24) Caesarius' rule carried commands of such severe cloistering that it might be expected that Radegund, who had longed to establish a monastery and then sought out this strict rule to govern it, to retreat into the cloister, never to be heard from or seen again. Radegund, however, proved not to be the retiring sort.(25) Instead, the former queen kept abreast of the activities of her earthly relatives and had dinners and visitors in her convent, despite the prohibition of banqueting in Caesarius' rule.(26) For example, Radegund and her foster daughter, Agnes, frequently entertained a romantic poet/priest, Venantius Fortunatus, with lavish dinners in the convent.
Where her nuns were concerned, however, Radegund seemed to support the spirit of Caesarius' rule. Gregory of Tours recounts that at one point the nun Basina refused to leave the monastery even though her father, King Chilperic, had ordered her to do so in order to marry.(27) Radegund supported Basina's decision: "It is not seemly," she said, "for a nun dedicated to Christ to turn back once more to the sensuous pleasures of this world.(28) For Basina's part, it is unclear whether she refused her father because of the conventual vow of cloistering, or, perhaps, she just did not want to marry.(29)
Radegund's personal decision to ignore aspects of Caesarius' rule may have stemmed from her reasons for accepting it in the first place. As foundress of her newly established monastery, Radegund did not get along with the local bishop, Maroveus, who was trying to bring St. Croix under his sway. In an attempt to break away from this acrimonious relationship, Radegund chose to place her convent under the rule of Caesarius of Arles, which, in turn, placed the convent under the protection of the king, her kinsman, rather than under the bishop.(30)
Overall, it seems that Radegund adopted Caesarius' rule more as a convenience to avoid having to deal with the bellicose Maroveus than with any desire to retreat permanently behind the walls of a monastic community. And Radegund's decision to turn to her family rather than the Church represents how family connections often were used to obtain whatever the monastery needed.(31) Because it was the abbess or abbot who provided for the material and spiritual welfare of the monastery, she or he needed to maintain lies with the outside world through the resources of kin.
Radegund's relationship with the world, particularly with its rulers, demonstrates the intercessory role that kings and other nobles often desired of holy persons. Because monasteries were nearly the only places of learning during this period, those inhabiting these communities were often the most educated and, thus, best able to give advice. Secular leaders assumed that these nuns and monks had available to them all of God's wisdom, and as His earth-bound representatives of the heavenly family, they surely could bring His divine aid to earth. Hilda of Whitby, according to Bede, counseled kings of Anglo-Saxon England: "So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it."(32) Gregory of Tours provides the example of Nicetius, bishop of Trier, who, as a monk, earned the favor of a Frankish king and was then promoted to his bishopric by the king.(33)
In addition to advice, monastics were sought after for their intercession. In return for prayers from the holy community, the wealthy bestowed gifts upon the monastery. This is why Radegund, who fled from her husband, Lothar, later received his aid to establish the convent at Poitiers.(34) No doubt, the Frankish king hoped for spiritual rewards in return.(35)
For her own part, Radegund involved herself and the convent in the temporal affairs of the kingdom, praying for peace in the land. Baudonivia, who wrote a vita of Radegund, presents the clearest picture of the former queen's connection with the outside world:
She was always solicitous for peace and worked diligently for the welfare of the fatherland. Whenever the different kingdoms made war on one another, she prayed for the lives of all the kings, for she loved them all. And she taught us also to pray incessantly for their stability. Whenever she heard of bitterness arising among them, trembling, she sent such letters to one and then to the other pleading that they should not make war among themselves nor take up arms lest they should perish. And, likewise, she sent to their noble followers to give the high kings salutary counsel so that their power might work to the welfare of the people of the land. She imposed assiduous vigils on her flock tearfully teaching them to pray incessantly for the kings. And who can tell what agonies she inflicted on herself? So, through her intercession, there was peace among the kings.(36)
Baudonivia's words reveal the intercessory role played by Radegund and her flock. The convent was financially tied to the aristocratic families of Francia and attempted to embrace that obligation through their prayers to Heaven.
Throughout this period, nuns and monks both responded to the earthly cry for intercessors in a confusing world of demons and feuding families. The realities of their respective lives proved to be marked by few differences; nuns and monks interacted with the world as healers, hostelers, advisors, and conduits to heavenly reward. Both could suffer hardship through these earthly ties. Where favor and disfavor were concerned, villagers and kings, alike, seemed to make no distinction in the holy person's gender. But Church Fathers, with a penchant for calling devout females "little women," created those distinctions of gender which were manifested only in the ideal of monastic rules and Patristic writings."
A former journalist, Jennifer Linn Hamilton holds a MA degree from the University of West Florida. She is particularly interested in early church history and emphasizes female spirituality and issues of authority. At present, she is an adjunct instructor at Gulf Coast Community College.
1. Benedict of Nursia, the Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Justin McCann (London: Bums and Oates, 1952), Chain. 50.
2. Venantius Fortunatus, "The Life of the Holy Radegund," in Jo Ann McNamara and John Halborg, with Gordon Whatley, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 70-86. See Gregory of Tours' vita of Monegundis in Life of the Fathers, trans. Edward James (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1985), 124-30.
3.Jo Ann McNamara, A New Song.: Celibate Women in the first Three Christian Centuries (New York: Institute for Research in History and Haworth Press, 1983), 121.
4. Caesarius of Arles, The Rule for Nuns of Saint Caesarius of Arles, trans. Maria Caritas McCarthy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1960), Chapt. 2.
3.Jo Ann McNamara, A New Song: Celibate Women in the first Three Christian Centuries (New York: Institute for Research in History and Haworth Press, 1983), 121.
4. Caesarius of Arles, The Rule for Nuns of Saint Caesarius of Arles, trans. Maria Caritas McCarthy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1960), Chapt. 2.
5. Augustine of Hippo, "Rule for Nuns," in Letters of Saint Augustine, trans. Wilfrid Parsons, in The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1981), 13: 44.
6. Benedict, Rule, Chapt. 67.
7. Donatus of Besancon's "Rule for Nuns" was composed by piecing together existing rules, such as those of Benedict, Caesarius, and Augustine. His rule, therefore, has many familiar commandments, including one dealing with lusty stares. In Chapter Fifty he wrote: "Let none of that concupiscence of the eyes arise in you by the devil's instigation of men test you be said to have a shameful mind since you have shameless eyes. For shameless eyes are the messengers of a shameless mind." See McNamara and Halborg, Ordeal of Community: The Rule of Donatus of Besancon (unpublished manuscript (used with permission of Halborg).
8. Leander of Seville, "On the Training of Nuns and the Contempt of the World," trans. Charles W. Barlow, in The Fathers of the Church: Iberian Fathers (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1969), Chaps 3.
9. Gregory the Great, "Life end Miracles of St. Benedict Founder and Abbot of the Monastery Which Is Known as the Citadel of Campania," trans. Odo John Zimmerman in Patrick Geary, The Medieval Reader (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1989), 216-217.
10. Fructuosus of Braga, "General Rule for Monasteries," trans. C. W. Barlow in Fathers of the Church: Iberian Fathers (1969), Chapt. 15.
13. Jerome, The Letters of St. Jerome, trans. Charles Christopher Mierow (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1963), 1: 134-179.
14. Ibid., 138.
15. Ibid., 158-159.
16. Leander of Seville, "Training of Nuns," Chapt. 1.
17. Peter Brown, The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 264.
18. Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers, trans. Edward James (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1985), Chapt. 5.2.
19. Ibid. While visiting the encampment, Portianus was urged to share a cup of wine with s soldier. Based on a number of monastic injunctions, the abbot refused but was pressed by the soldier to bless the cup. When Portianus "lifted his right hand to make the sign of the cross . . . immediately the cup split down the middle, and the wine which was inside spilt onto the ground, together with a huge serpent.
20. Ibid., Chapt. 19.
21. Ibid., Chapt. 19.4.
22. As the age of the martyrs passed, the faithful looked Loa new person to provide that link between Heaven and earth: the saint, who was often found among the nuns and monks in the too monasteries dotting the early medieval countryside. See Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin, Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
23. Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers, Chapt. 19.
24. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), Chapt. 9.40.
25. Lina Eckenstein, Woman Under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life Between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (New York: Russell and Russell Inc., reprint, 1963), 57; Eckenstein notes; "Radegund's adoption of the religious profession in no way diminished her intercourse with the outside world or the influence she had had as queen."
26. Caesarius, The Rule for Nuns, Chapt. 39. "You shall never provide meals either in the monastery or out of it for these persons, that is: bishops, abbots, monks, clerics, laymen, women in lay attire, nor the relatives of the abbess or of any of the nuns."
27. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Chapt. 6.34. Basina's father was attempting to use her to solidify an alliance. That she was a nun meant little to him but did give her s way out.
29. Part and parcel of the writings on the blessedness of the virginal state were graphic descriptions of the pain and sorrow which accompanied the marital state: pain of childbirth and death of husband or children. See Leander of Seville, "The Training of Nuns and the Contempt of the World," 191-93. See also "The Life of Eustadiola, Widow of Bourges," trans. Jo Ann McNamara, and John Halborg, with Gordon Whately, in their Sainted Women, 108. The anonymous author of Eustadiola's life states that after the death of her first husband, Eustadiola refused to bind herself to another earthly husband. "But she preferred to join with God in spiritual marriage, which begins with grief and leads to eternal joy, rather than subject herself to a carnal marriage which always begins with gaiety and leads to a tearful end. Ibid." Also, the vita of Monegundis by Gregory of Tours in his Life of the Fathers states:
She had been married according to her parents' wishes, and had two daughters, which brought her a profound joy so that she used to say God has made me fertile so that not daughters might be born to me [my emphasis]. But the bitterness of this world soon dissipated this earthly joy, for both were brought to their death by a light fever. From that time the mother was desolate; mourning and lamenting for the death of her children she did not stop weeping, day end night, and neither her husband nor her friends nor any of her relations could console her. Chapt. 19.1.
Monegundis eventually found the consolation she was looking for in the conventual life.
30. Caesarius of Arles, Rule for Nuns, 159. The translator of this work, Maria Caritas McCarthy notes that Radegund and Agnes saw in Caesarius’ rule the "answer to pressing problems created by the consistently inimical attitude of their bishop, Maroveus of Poitiers. They sought the rule as a substitute for the spiritual direction usually given . . . by a bishop to a monastery, especially a monastery of women." Ibid. Both McCarthy and Eckenstein in Woman Under Monasticism, 50, make the sense point that Radegund hoped to secure independence from episcopal authority just as Caesarius had done through a papal proclamation. Raymond Van Dam, in Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Confessors, trans. Raymond Van Dam (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988), 106, also notes that Radegund was concerned that Maroveus would interfere with her convent.
31. Jennifer Hamilton, "Little Women: An Exploration of Female Monasticism Front Late Antiquity Through the Early Middle Ages," (Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of West Florida, 1992). 57-54.
32. Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), Chapt. 4.23. See also C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religions Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (London: Longman, 1989), 52. Of Hilda, Lawrence wrote: "She had renounced the world but had not been forgotten by it."
33. Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers, 17.1.
34. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Chapt. 9.42. Gregory quoted in full a letter from Radegund to the bishops of Francia. In it Radegund states: "Here in the town of Poitiers I founded a convent far nuns. Lothar, my lord and King of glorious memory, instituted this and was its benefactor."
35. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 61. Lawrence slates: "As with all monastic benefaction, the primary motive was that of safeguarding the soul of the benefactor and the souls of his relatives . . . . To found and endow a community of monks [or nuns] was to ensure for the donor an unceasing fund of intercession and sacrifice which would avail him and his relatives both in life and after death."
36. Baudonivia, 'Book IL, Life of St. Radegund," in McNamara and Halborg, Sainted Women, 93.
37. Robert A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 40, notes that Jerome labeled as 'little women'" the Roman circles of devout "aristocratic women, ascetics, virgins and widows."
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