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Naughty Nuns and Promiscuous Monks: Monastic Sexual Misconduct in Late Medieval England
By Christian Knudsen
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2012
Abstract: This dissertation examines monastic sexual misconduct in cloistered religious houses 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, historiographical discourse surrounding the Dissolution of Monasteries (1536 – 40) has emphasized its inevitability and presented late medieval monasticism as a lacklustre institution characterized by worsening standards, corruption and even sexual promiscuity. As a result, since the Dissolution, English monks and nuns have been constructed into naughty characters. My study, centred on the sources that led to this claim,episcopal visitation records, will demonstrate that it is an exaggeration due to the distortion in perspective allowed by the same sources, and a disregard for contextualisation and comparison between nuns and monks.
In Chapter one, I discuss the development of the monastic ‘decline narrative’ in English historiography and how the theme of monastic lasciviousness came to be so strongly associated with it. Chapter two presents an overview of the historical background of late medieval English monasticism and my methodological approach to the sources.
In Chapter three, I survey some of the broad characteristics of monastic sexual misconduct. In particular, I discuss the overall rate of sexual misconduct, the sexual partners of monks and nuns, same-sex relationships, and conventual pregnancies. Chapter four examines the episcopal response to sexual scandal and their use of visitatorial inquisition, compurgation, penance and written injunctions. Finally, in Chapter five, I discuss the connection between the Dissolution and sexual misconduct, and in particular, the sodomy accusations made by Suppression agents in the infamous Compendium Compertorum.
The overarching conclusion is that monastic sexual misconduct in the medieval monasteries of Lincoln and Norwich (at the level of individuals) occurred at very low and predictable rates. Nearly half of the monasteries experienced a case of sexual misconduct over the 100 years examined for this study, and certainly a bishop could expect to encounter numerous instances of it during his career. However, although sexual misconduct was clearly considered a sin and corrected by bishops and monastic leaders, in general, it was very much de-emphasized compared to other disciplinary issues. Time and time again, the bishops examined for this study emphasized economic and leadership issues over problems with chastity.
See also: Mischievous Monks and Naughty Nuns? Scholar re-examines the illicit sexual accusations against monasteries in England during the dissolution