Imprisonment and Sexual Misconduct: Punishment, penance and abuse of power in late medieval English monasteries

What happened to monastic men and women who broke the rules? What does it mean to be imprisoned within a cloister?

I have been invited to give a paper at the Colloque international Enfermements et genre en milieu clos (VIe-XIXe siècle) from November 15-16, 2013 in Paris.


The Cloister as Prison.

Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, MMW, 10 F 1, 214v.

In the early fall of 1517, Bishop William Atwater made a routine visit to a small Benedictine nunnery on the outskirts of Oxford named Littlemore. What he discovered there was shocking. According to his report, the nuns were in open rebellion against the prioress who was accused (among other things) of having a long-term sexual relationship with a local chaplain, letting the convent buildings fall to ruin and enriching herself and her relatives from the goods of the monastery. The prioress had attempted to maintain control over the rebellious convent by threatening imprisonment to any nun who spoke ill of her to the bishop. After one of the nuns became pregnant, the prioress had her bound in chains and imprisoned. However, several of her sisters organized a “jailbreak” and went into apostasy with the pregnant nun for three weeks. What had begun as a somewhat mundane episcopal visitation quickly evolved into a full-scale investigation into the priory as Atwater wrestled with accusations of abuse of power, disobedience and widespread sexual misconduct.[endnote Lincolnshire Archives Office (LAO), MS V/j/7, fols. 83-83d, 87-87d.]

While the events of Littlemore represent an extreme case, the use of monastic imprisonment (the cloister within the cloister) as a tool of both control and penance within late medieval English monasteries was common – particularly for sexual misconduct. However, the severity of penance for sexual misconduct could vary widely. For example, a Benedictine nun of Gostow abbey, Alice Longspey, was sentenced to a year of strict confinement for her affair with a priest named Hugo Sadylere.[endnote LAO, MS V/j/1, fol.28.] Agnes Smyth of Crabhouse Nunnery, on the other hand, having confessed to giving birth, only lost her rank within the cloister hierarchy for a month and was required to perform the psalms of David seven times.[endnote Bodl. Tanner MS 210, fol.31b.] A Dorchester monk, John Shrewesbury, who allegedly raped a woman in the bell tower of the abbey church, was required to fast on bread and water and stay confined to the cloister for an undetermined time.[endnote LAO, MS V/j/1, fol.111.] What conventions within monastic life dictated the type and severity of penance for sexual misconduct?

My paper will explore how monastic imprisonment and attempts to control sexual misconduct worked in practice based on a series of episcopal visitation records and consuetudinary sources from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Lincoln and Norwich between 1420-1530.

Monastic Witchcraft and other tests of the Visitatorial Inquisition in Late Medieval England.

The Ruins of Leicester Abbey.

The ruins of the abbey of Leicester. The cloister is on the right, and the nave of the abbey church is on the left. The abbey was closed as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries in 1538.

My paper has been accepted for the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America which will be held April 10-12, 2014 at the University of California in Los Angeles.  

Think the medieval inquisition was all heretics and witches? The original inquisition was focused on clerical misconduct. Inquisition was a legal framework that bishops could use for investigation and persecution. My research has explored how this process was used during the bishop’s regular visitation of monasteries. If you’re interested — come see me at the MAA 2014 conference next April — See below.


On December 3, 1440, the bishop of Lincoln, William Alnwick, conducted a routine visitation of the Augustinian abbey of Leicester. During his visit, however, Alnwick heard damning allegations against Leicester’s abbot, William Sadyngtone, who was accused of sexual incontinence, financial misconduct and most alarming of all, of being an active practitioner of witchcraft who regularly cast incantations in front of the other canons. What had begun as a somewhat mundane visitation quickly evolved into a full-scale episcopal investigation into the abbot’s conduct.[endnote Lincolnshire Archives Office, V/j/1 fol. 104-6.]

While accusations of abbatial witchcraft were certainly unusual, the episcopal apparatus of visitation was well-equipped to deal with nearly any sort of misconduct. In the record, visitations are normally referred to as inquisitiones praeparatoriae and indeed, an episcopal visitation was a type of inquisition. While the medieval inquisition is more commonly associated with the criminal persecution of heresy (particularly Cathars), this was not its original focus. Indeed, as a number of scholars have recently demonstrated, the inquisitio actually arose as a means of maintaining clerical discipline rather than prosecuting heretics.[endnote See for example Lotte Kéry, “Inquisitio – Denunciatio – Exceptio: Möglichkeiten der Verfahrenseinleitung im Dekretalenrecht,” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte: Kanonistische Abteilung 87 (2001): 226–68.] The implication of these studies is that episcopal visitations of clergy influenced the later development of the more familiar judicial inquisition, not the other way around. In other words, the episcopal visitation was the original inquisition. However, while there is a wide range of scholarship concerning the use of inquisitio in criminal proceedings and the persecution of heresy, its association with episcopal visitation has attracted much less interest. Consequently, the exact process of inquisitio employed during episcopal visitations of monasteries is not well understood.

My paper will explore how visitatorial inquisition worked in practice based on a series of visitation records which detail numerous cases of monastic misconduct ranging from witchcraft to prostitution from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Lincoln and Norwich between 1420-1530.