in History, Medieval and Early Modern England, Medieval Monasticism

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.

Leave a Reply