Monastic power and Cloister politics in Late Medieval England

I very excited to be presenting a paper at the 21st International Medieval Congress in Leeds England – July 7-10, 2014. Abstract is below. Let me know if you’ll be there!


Miniature from 15th century Calderini Pontifical.

Miniature from 15th century Calderini Pontifical.

While the sixth century, Regula Benedicti, required unquestioning obedience of monks  to their leaders, the reality of everyday monastic life during the late Middle Ages presents a more complex view. Evidence from late medieval England abounds with examples of internal monastic power struggles, organized revolts, and smear campaigns directed at abbots and abbesses to discredit them before the only people could order their removal – bishops. This paper analyses patterns of monastic promotion and demotion as recorded in a corpus of episcopal visitation records from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Lincoln and Norwich between 1420-1530.

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.

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.