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  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Holy and Unholy Goings-On

Haven't We All?

Penance time: ‘Hast thou made knots and incantations, and those various enchantments which evil men, swineherds, ploughmen, and sometimes hunters make, while they say diabolical formulae over bread or grass and over certain nefarious bandages, and either hide these in a tree or throw them where two roads, or three roads, meet, that they may set free their animals or dogs from pestilence or destruction and destroy those of another? If thou hast, thou shalt do penance for two years on the appointed days.’ (From The Corrector of Burchard of Worms).

You Wouldn't Want to Get Your Doors Mixed Up Here!

Monastic prisons (for punishing monks who had gone astray) were often built right next to the monastery’s infirmary, so that those who were sick of spirit could be treated alongside those who were sick in body. However the remedies were usually very different, consisting of punishments and penances for the one and medicinal herbs and practices for the other.

Scary Organs

Church organs existed from as early as the tenth century, but they were crude affairs with numerous large bellows and keys that had to be thumped with a fist rather than delicately played with fingers. As can be expected, the noise was very, very loud, and probably not that pleasant! Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx Abbey certainly didn’t approve: ‘... what about the horrible snorting of the bellows, sounding more like a crack of thunder than the sweetness of a musical tone? And what about the drawing in and the breaking-off of the singing? … There are times, I am ashamed to say, when it sounds like horses whinnying … you will see a man with his mouth open as if he were ready not to sing, but to emit a breath he has been holding back … the whole body is shaken about in actors’ gestures, lips are distorted, shoulders roll round … In the meantime, the poor people in the congregation, trembling and astounded, marvel at the din of the bellows.’

Nice Gesture!

In 1277, Gloucester castle didn’t have room for a pleasure garden, so the prior of Llanthony Secunda Priory, had a bridge constructed which led from the castle, over the Severn to his garden, so that Eleanor of Provence and her ladies could take a stroll in the air there.

Wait... What?

Penance time: ‘If any woman puts her daughter upon a roof or in an oven for the cure of a fever, she shall do penance for seven years.’ In which case it would probably be better for the father to do it!

Probably Better Not to Sacrifice to Demons at All Then!

Penance time: ‘He who sacrifices to demons in trivial matters shall do penance for one year; but he who [does so] in serious matters shall do penance for ten years.’

Never Mind Me - Just Going For a Trimble!

Monasteries (and nunneries) always had an infirmary for the old and sick, and the infirmary had its own garden. As well as providing medicinal plants, it would also have been a pleasant place to take some fresh air, for those who were able to do so. The Augustinian priory of St Edburg in Bicester called its infirmary garden ‘The Trimles’, a name derived from the Old English ‘trimble’, which means to stumble or walk unsteadily, probably describing the steps of the few patients who managed to get up for a little walk among its pleasant borders.

Wait... What? (For the Second Time!)

Penance time! From the ‘So-Called Roman Penitential’: “ If anyone sins with animals after he is thirty-five years of age, he shall undergo [a penance of] fifteen years and shall [then] deserve the communion. But let the nature of his life be inquired into, whether it deserves somewhat more lenient treatment.” The mind here boggles slightly. Why was it forbidden after the age of thirty-five? And does this mean it was OK before then? And personally I can’t think of any circumstances where leniency should apply - but I suppose the church did move in mysterious ways back then!

I Think I Rather Like Euphemia!

Euphemia, the abbess of Wherwell Benedictine nunnery from 1212-1257, created a beautiful pleasure garden within the grounds. It was described as, ‘a place set apart for the refreshment of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which she adorned on the north side with pleasant vines and trees. On the other side, by the river bank, she built offices for various uses, a space being left in the centre where the nuns were able from time to time to enjoy the pure air … She surrounded the court with a wall and the necessary buildings, and round it she made gardens and vineyards and shrubberies in places that were formerly useless and barren…’

The Origins of Covent Garden

Apart from the abbot, the most important office within a religious community of monks was the cellarer. He was the joint administrative head and was responsible for providing the community with all of its food, drink, and fuel for heating. As such, he kept a garden, which was usually quite large, where he could grow such staples as barley, oats, peas and beans, and onions, among other necessities. At Westminster abbey, then called St. Peter’s, the large garden of the cellarer was referred to as ‘Le Couvent’ in the accounts. This site today is known by the anglicised version, Covent Garden.

Nothing Tawdry Here!

I do love a bit of etymology, so here’s an interesting one. The word ‘tawdry’ comes from ‘St. Audrey’s Lace’, a thin, silk necklace sold at St. Audrey’s Fair in Oxford. St Audrey, known much earlier as Etheldreda, kept her promise of perpetual virginity despite being married twice. She was granted Ely as her dowery and founded a monastery there, becoming its first abbess. When she died in 679, reputedly by a tumour on the neck, she was commemorated by a fair being held there every year. The necklaces probably refer to the tumour, which was thought to have been caused by her ‘vanity’ for wearing necklaces. It is not known when they were first sold at the fair, but soon they were a byword for cheap and shoddy goods.

Did No-One Check His References Before Employment?

Unscrupulous priests were pretty common, but surely this one, mentioned in the Chronicle of Lanercost, surely takes the biscuit for perverse behaviour. A priest of the parish of Inverkiethling in Scotland named John, had already gained notoriety during Easter 1282 by ‘reviving the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from villages and compelling them to dance in circles to [the honour of] Father Bacchus … carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime … and stirring them to lust by filthy language.’ This same priest, during the same year, also insisted ‘that certain persons should prick with goads [others] stripped for penance. However, it seems that his activities were not looked upon very happily by the burgesses of the village. They confronted him and, according to the chronicler, while the priest ‘was defending his nefarious work, fell the same night pierced by a knife.’ Hmm, now that was a coincidence, no?

Nothing to See Here, M'Lord

Matilda (also called Edith), later to become the wife of Henry I, spent her younger days at the abbeys of Romsey and Wilton. One story relates that, when she was newly come to Wilton (some say Romsey) in 1093, the king, William Rufus, arranged a visit. To protect her from his possible unwanted attentions, the abbess dressed her in a nun’s habit. Which was just as well as William insisted on going to the cloisters, although he insisted he ‘only wanted to admire the roses and other flowering plants.’

Paradise Found

Many medieval churches and monasteries had a special garden area, known as a 'paradise'. These were nearly always at the east end, behind the high altar, and were enclosed and planted with flowers. The purpose of a paradise was that it was a place for prayer and meditation.

Pure Monty Python Material

A little-known saint of the Middle Ages was St. Uncumber (also known as St Wilgefort). She was portrayed as a bearded lady on a cross, often with only one shoe on and with a fiddler at her feet. She was venerated mostly by women who wanted to rid (unencumber) themselves of an unwanted husband.

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