Naughty Nuns and Promiscuous Monks: Monastic Sexual Misconduct in Late Medieval England

Note: I successfully defended my dissertation in late 2012. I am currently in the process of revising it for publication as a monograph. But if you’re interested, the original thesis abstract is below:

Nun leads monk by his penis.

Jeanne de Montbaston : A nun leads a monk by his penis, he climbs a tower from Le Roman de la Rose. ca. 1345.
Bibliothèque Nationale MS fr. 2446, fol 106r.

Monacha: Deponam velum, deponam cetera quaeque,
ibit et ad lectum nuda puella tuum.
Clericus: Si uelo careas, tamen altera non potes esse.
Vestibus ablatis non mea culpa minor.[endnote “Nun: I will take off my veil, I will take off everything else, and a naked girl will come to your bed. Clerk: Even if you take off your veil, you would not be any different and my sin would be no less with your clothes gone.” Hermann Hagen, Carmina Medii Aevi maximam partem inedita: Ex bibliothecis Helveticis collecta (Bern: G. Frobenium, 1877), 206. English translation is mine.]

My dissertation examined sexual misconduct in monasteries in the dioceses of Lincoln and Norwich between 1430 and 1530. Traditionally, any study of English monasticism during the late Middle Ages entailed the chronicling of a slow decline and decay. Indeed, for nearly 500 years, scholarship surrounding Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries (1536-40) emphasized its inevitability and presented late medieval monasticism as a lacklustre institution characterized by worsening standards, especially sexual promiscuity. Consequently, since the Dissolution, English monks and nuns have been constructed into naughty characters and according to this narrative, essentially, got what they deserved.

Despite this widespread assumption that sexual misconduct was endemic to late medieval English monasteries, there has been no serious attempt to test this hypothesis.  Did late medieval English monks and nuns deserve their naughty reputation? This dissertation, centred on the sources that led to this claim, episcopal visitation records, will demonstrate that it is an exaggeration made possible by the nature of the sources, and a disregard for contextualisation and comparison between nuns and monks.

Chapter one discusses the development of the monastic ‘decline narrative’ and how lasciviousness came to be strongly associated with it. Chapter two presents the historical background and my methodology. Chapter three surveys the characteristics of monastic sexual misconduct such incidence rates, sexual partners and pregnancies. Chapter four examines the response of Church authorities to sexual scandals. Finally, Chapter five investigates the connection between the Dissolution and sexual misconduct, and in particular, the sodomy accusations made by Henry VIII’s agents.

The overarching conclusion is that sexual misconduct in English monasteries occurred at very low rates. Although sexual misconduct was considered a sin by Church authorities, in general, bishops de-emphasized it compared to other disciplinary issues such as financial mismanagement. In contrast, Henry VIII’s agents strove to amass evidence of widespread monastic sexual misconduct, and even re-classified masturbation under the more serious crime of sodomy to bolster the number of accused monastic ‘sodomites’. Consequently, their salacious reports played a key role in justifying the Dissolution and constructing the image of naughty nuns and promiscuous monks that we have inherited to this day.