Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Chastity, celibacy and virginity

A woman joining the religious community at Harrold in the middle ages would have had to have made vows of celibacy and chastity.  While the first meant that she would renounce marriage (a nun was considered to be 'the bride of Christ' and wore a ring to mark this fact), the second meant in practice a life of sexual abstinence.

Virginity was a more complex virtue, as many women joining the community would not have been virgins in the strict sense.   There were many widows, as well as younger women who were unmarried mothers.  Indeed in the history of the medieval church, some of the most successful and well known nuns have been figures such as Petronille de Chemillé and Héloïse d'Argenteuil who were in this category, and yet went on to become abbesses of important communities.  As Martyn Whittock has noted, though, in this period virginity was seen as something which could be 'recovered', in a sense, through a life of repentance, prayer, celibacy and chastity.

Bishop Grosseteste: Harrold Priory was
governed by the bishops of Lincoln
Given the varied motivations of women joining a community like Harrold, it is perhaps unsurprising that here and elsewhere there would be occasional transgressions.  In 1298, for example, one of Harrold's nuns was found to have breached her vows of chastity (Power 1010).  Her lover was sentenced by a church court, to be beaten in the market place, but refused to submit to the punishment and so was excommunicated (excluded from the rites of the church).  In 1311 the bishop of Lincoln, who had oversight over the Harrold community, appointed a commission to investigate and correct wrongdoing here and at other unspecified communities.  It is not know what these alleged misdeeds were as no record of the 'visitation' remains.

However, this was by no means unusual.  In a celebrated case a century before, in about 1166, it was reported that a nun from the Gilbertine house at Watton in East Yorkshire had become pregnant by one of the lay brothers of the house: in this case he was apprehended and was said to have been castrated by the nuns.  This and other alleged scandals led to the whole order coming under the scrutiny of the church under the direction of Pope Alexander III.  While the problem was said to be sexual licence within the order, the investigation focused more on dissatisfaction among the lay brothers about working conditions.

Similarly, in 1177 Henry II of England expelled the Anglo-Saxon nuns of Amesbury and replaced them with 24 nuns from Fontevraud.  He cited instances of moral laxity on the part of the English sisters, whom he claimed were debauched (the abbess was said to have been the mother of three children).    And some time in the 1190s Gerald of Wales wrote of the lust of a Gilbertine for her aged master.  These reported happenings were commonplace in fiction at the time: Giovanni Bocaccio's Decameron (1353) contains tales of sexual licence set in nunneries.

Elstow Abbey, less than a day away from Harrold on foot, was frequently the subject of the Bishops' scrutiny, Lincoln's Bishop Gravesend referring in 1260 to "disgraceful acts" which he said were "'from that house more frequently than from any other".  In 1369 the bishop complained that the nuns of Elstow were "wandering" out of the community far too much.  Moreover, many of Elstow's nuns were from artistocratic families and had regular visitors of family and friends (noble ladies and even queens) from their previous lives.  By 1379 Bishop Buckingham was having to instruct the nuns of Elstow not to talk to men at all, not to leave the house without permission and to be back before sunset.  The fact that he had to remind them that they should not be wearing fur or jewelry suggests that the nuns were interpreting the rules of dress rather too liberally for the church's liking.  

In 14th century Harrold, though, the problems did not seem to want to go away, and in 1369 Bishop Glynwell of Lincoln appointed Dame Katherine of Tutbury to reform the excesses of the Priory during a period when there was no prioress. As the County History notes, from the cartularly records little more is said until the priory was visited in 1535 by Thomas Cromwell's agent Dr Layton.  He reported that there were just four or five nuns and a prioress, two of whom had children.  Once again, though, this kind of allegation was commonly being made at the time, and as with Henry II they may have been motivated by a desire to discredit the community for other purposes.


  • Elkins, Sharon (1988), Holy women of 12th century England, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
  • Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Brewer, J.S. (ed), (1862), Gerald of Wales Gemma Ecclesiastica
  • Whittock, Martyn (2009), A brief history of life in the middle ages, London: Constable & Robinson
  • 'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The abbey of Elstow', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1 (1904), pp. 353-358. 
  • Power, Eileen (2010), Medieval English Nunneries: C1275 to 1535, Cambridge University Press

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