Nuns' Priests' Tales

Nuns' Priests Tales explores the spiritual ideas that motivated priestly service to nuns across Europe and throughout the medieval period, revealing the central role that women played in male spiritual life, and thus moving beyond the reductionist assumption that celibacy defined male spirituality in the age of reform.

Nuns' Priests' Tales
Men and Salvation in Medieval Women's Monastic Life

Fiona J. Griffiths

2018 | 360 pages | Cloth $69.95
History | Religion | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. The Puzzle of the Nuns' Priest
Chapter 2. Biblical Models: Women and Men in the Apostolic Life
Chapter 3. Jerome and the Noble Women of Rome
Chapter 4. Brothers, Sons, and Uncles: Nuns' Priests and Family Ties
Chapter 5. Speaking to the Bridegroom: Women and the Power of Prayer

Appendix. Beati pauperes

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


It is a curious fact of medieval religious history that the nuns' priest best known to modern audiences is a fictional character: the Nun's Priest of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In the fourteenth century, when Chaucer wrote his Tales, nuns' priests would have been as familiar in England as the other figures he imagined as pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, no more remarkable than, for instance, a knight, a friar, a wife, a monk, or a merchant—characters who also feature in the Tales. As Chaucer knew, every female monastery had at least one priest (and often several) who saw to the nuns' spiritual needs, hearing their confessions, ministering the sacraments to them, and sometimes aiding in the management of their affairs. The Nun's Priest of the Canterbury Tales was such a figure, who appeared first in the General Prologue to the poem as one of three unnamed priests (all of them, technically, "nuns' priests") accompanying the Prioress, Madame Eglentyne, as she journeyed with her nun-secretary to Canterbury.

The appearance of the Nun's Priest in The Canterbury Tales offers an important reminder of the generally routine presence of ordained men alongside nuns within the medieval religious life. For much of the medieval period, nuns across Europe heard the Mass regularly from the lips of priests, whose ties to women's monasteries were embedded within a series of local, institutional, and familial networks. Nuns required priests, as Chaucer implicitly recognized. Yet, at some point between his day and ours, the nuns' priest ceased to be so plainly acknowledged and slipped quietly from historical view. Other figures among the pilgrims—knights, nuns, monks, clerks, lawyers, millers, and friars—appear in modern scholarly accounts of the Middle Ages. The nuns' priest does not. He is absent from most studies of the secular clergy and also from those of male religious life, although it was often ordained monks or friars who ministered to nuns in nearby women's communities. Even histories of female monasticism have often passed over the nuns' priest in silence, preferring to cast the female monastery as a space for women's governance and autonomy.

Nuns' Priests' Tales seeks to restore nuns' priests to discussions of medieval religious life, recognizing that these men were more common and more integral to medieval society than recent accounts have typically allowed. Nuns' priests existed, in large numbers, and they supported female religious life in women's monasteries across Europe throughout the medieval period. They served nuns spiritually as confessors and pastors and often materially as well, attending to the practical needs of women's communities. In certain cases, priests developed deep and cherished friendships with nuns, whom they admired. They lived near, and sometimes with, women, challenging ideas concerning the segregation of the sexes within the religious life. Some men were even buried at female monasteries, extending their spiritual relationship with religious women beyond the grave. Their service to women was crucial to female religious life, but it could be equally central—as I argue in this book—to male spirituality and devotion as well.

The chronological focus of this book—pace Chaucer—is the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, a period of tremendous spiritual enthusiasm marked by church reform, the development of new forms of devotion and pious practice, the expansion of the monastic life, and—significantly, for the purposes of this study—the campaign for clerical celibacy. Ecclesiastical rulings during the eleventh century against clerical marriage signaled the beginnings of a "social revolution," as Christopher Brooke argued. The families of priests were dissolved and delegitimized, with catastrophic effects: clerical wives found that their marriages were declared invalid and their children illegitimate, causing them to forfeit dowries and inheritances. The eradication of clerical marriage was the primary concern of church reformers; even so, the disruptive implications of the celibacy movement extended beyond married priests and their families. Secular priests and ordained monks who served among nuns faced a context in which any contact between priests and women might be deemed suspect. As the celibacy movement spread through dioceses in Italy, Germany, northern France, and into England, anxiety concerning relations between the sexes grew—even for men and women in the monastic life, whose vows had long included chastity.

Given the intensity of arguments against clerical marriage during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, historians have often assumed that priests at this time began to avoid women altogether. Yet this period of tremendous social change was equally marked by the dramatic expansion of female monasticism—an expansion that would not have been possible without the support of ordained men. The resulting contradiction, between the presumed rejection of women by churchmen and the concurrent expansion of female religious life, forms the starting point of my study and is the focus of my first chapter, which examines the nuns' priest as an ambivalent figure in medieval religious life and modern scholarship. Despite the ubiquity of nuns' priests, medieval clerical and monastic sources mention them only infrequently and usually with a mixture of concern, suspicion, and distrust. Modern scholars, guided by the anxieties of the medieval texts, assume a monastic experience defined by the segregation of the sexes and, in effect, by male monastic rejection of women. For both groups—medieval and modern—the nuns' priest has posed problems of categorization and interpretation that obscure the reality of men's spiritual service to religious women. So while historians have tended to accept that nuns had (and, indeed, needed) priests, their assumption that male spirituality required separation from women has simultaneously rendered nuns' priests unthinkable as serious religious figures. In this first chapter, I trace medieval and modern perceptions of nuns' priests as contradictory and problematic, showing why these men have been absent from studies of the medieval religious life, and arguing for the need to move beyond fixed assumptions concerning male spirituality in order to bring them back into historical view.

In subsequent chapters, I consider nuns' priests from both a spiritual and an intellectual standpoint, tracing these men's ideas about religious women and their spiritual motivations in ministering to them. What interests me most is not how priests provided religious women with pastoral care—that is to say, the practical details that governed their service to nuns—but rather why they did so, risking the alleged dangers and temptations of contact with women in order to provide nuns with spiritual care and support. A significant challenge in studying nuns' priests is that few are known by name and fewer still recorded their thoughts and experiences in writing (even Chaucer's Nun's Priest is "strangely unknowable," as Marilyn Oliva has observed). My examination of nuns' priests thus involves two parallel and complementary quests: first, to broaden the scope of enquiry, claiming as "nuns' priests" men who ministered to women, but whose lives and writings have been deemed unrepresentative of mainstream medieval life and thought (notably, but not exclusively, the controversial philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard); and second, to explore nuns' priests in aggregate, focusing less on individual men than on the set of ideas that they held in common, their "tales" as these ideas are invoked in the book's title. Exploring the ideas that nuns' priests shared about service to religious women—the motifs that appear in scattered sermons, letters, wall paintings, manuscript images, biblical commentaries, and the liturgy—allows a more complete sense of how these men, broadly, viewed their spiritual role in relation to nuns, revealing the contours of a clerical counter-discourse in which spiritual care for women was understood as a holy service and an act of devotion and obedience to Christ.

Chapters 2 through 4 treat several of the most prominent motifs embraced by nuns' priests during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, showing how examples and ideas concerning men's spiritual involvement with women drawn from the Bible (Chapter 2), the Church Fathers (Chapter 3), and the heroes of early medieval monasticism (Chapter 4) were adopted and repurposed by these men to explain and defend their spiritual service to nuns. The willingness of nuns' priests to minister to women was not an isolated phenomenon of the central or later Middle Ages, as these examples show, but formed part of a venerable tradition of men's care for pious women that stretched back to the origins of Christianity.

The most compelling model for the spiritual involvement of medieval men with religious women was provided by Jesus himself, as I show in Chapter 2. Not only was Jesus born of a woman, but he surrounded himself both in life and in death with women and revealed himself first to women following his resurrection. Medieval men were well aware of Jesus's close friendships with women and of the spiritual dignity that he accorded them, citing both of these in defending their own service to nuns. They also particularly noted Jesus's concern to arrange for the care of his mother after his death: as he hung on the cross, Jesus commended Mary to his disciple John, entrusting him with her care (John 19:27). Some early exegetes interpreted the commendation as a divine command that all men should provide spiritual care for women. Drawing on this interpretation, certain medieval monks and priests came to view their care for women as a powerful form of Christian devotion—an act of obedience and love for Jesus that was performed through spiritual service to nuns, characterized as Christ's "brides." In serving religious women, these men imagined themselves as emulating John, Jesus's friend and beloved disciple, whose care for Mary had been Jesus's dying command.

In the third chapter, I turn to Jerome (d. 420), the theologian, exegete, and saint who devoted himself to the spiritual guidance of devout Roman noblewomen. For medieval men, whose relationships with religious women were often subject to criticism and distrust, Jerome's example was especially appealing. Unlike John (whose chastity was never called into question), Jerome's relationships with women were widely disparaged during his lifetime, and may even have led to his exile from the city of Rome. Nevertheless, Jerome emerged during the Middle Ages as a model for the chaste spiritual involvement of pious men with women; his relationship with the wealthy widow Paula—which likely formed the source of his troubles in Rome—became a byword for innocent spiritual friendship between the sexes. Nuns' priests regularly cited Jerome as the saintly figure whose involvement with women had inspired their own care for nuns and whose trials demonstrated that even saintly male-female pairs might be maligned. Nuns' priests found further encouragement in Jerome's writings, seizing on his characterization of religious women as dominae—"ladies" or "female lords"—a status rooted in women's presumed role as brides of Christ. If nuns were brides of Christ, it followed that priests were their servants, as some men argued, since priests were servants of Christ. According to this logic, providing support for religious women was fundamentally an extension of men's existing service to Christ and a further way to please him.

My fourth chapter examines the most common, and yet least controversial, bond joining chaste men and women within the religious life: the sibling bond between biological brothers and sisters. Although medieval churchmen warned against opposite-sex relations, kinship bonds were generally deemed innocent and "safe" within the early medieval monastic life. My purpose in this chapter is to understand how this became so, particularly given the explicit rejection of biological family in the teachings of the New Testament. As I show, biological kinship emerged within the early monastic life as a legitimate, and even holy, context for engagement between the sexes. Stories of monks who provided spiritual care and attention to a pious sister bolstered the perception that care for a man's sister was not simply acceptable, but might actually form part of his saintly profile. The example of Benedict of Nursia (d. c. 550), the sixth-century abbot whose sister Scholastica supposedly lived near his monastery at Monte Cassino, is a case in point: Benedict and Scholastica were celebrated in medieval legend as saintly twins (despite meager evidence for Scholastica's existence), providing a virtually unimpeachable model of spiritual intimacy between siblings. During the central Middle Ages, men's closest connections to religious women were often founded on concern for a sister in the religious life: the brothers of Christina of Markyate (d. after 1155), Elisabeth of Schönau (d. 1164), and Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), for instance, provided spiritual service for nuns in their sisters' communities. Fraternal care was so widely accepted by this time that defensive measures were rarely necessary: few ordained men saw the need to defend, or even explain, their spiritual involvement with a professed sister—a striking exception to the more usually defensive discussions of male pastoral care that appear in other contexts.

In the fifth and final chapter, I turn from models of care that medieval men adopted from past examples and adapted to fit new circumstances in order to explore some of the period's more innovative topoi. In particular, the chapter traces the idea that women's prayers were more efficacious than those of men, a function of the increasingly widespread identification of religious women as brides of Christ. Scholars have for some time recognized that religious men were drawn to holy women whom they viewed as visionaries and prophets. As Caroline Walker Bynum observed some thirty years ago, holy women were sought by men as both a "standard of piety and a window open to the divine." In this chapter, I show that religious women generally—and not only mystics and visionaries—could be viewed as powerful intercessors on men's behalf, a view founded on their presumed and gendered intimacy with Christ. Drawing on a late antique vocabulary, medieval men approached nuns as "brides" (sponsae) and "ladies" (dominae), whose intercession with the "bridegroom" would be more effective than the intercession of any man—regardless of his purity, devotion, or priestly standing. Evidence from letters, necrologies, and burial records indicates that the promise of intercession by Christ's brides served as a strong incentive to medieval priests, who hoped that women's prayers would accompany them in death, as in life, and bring them ultimately to heaven. Serving as a priest to nuns was no distraction for ordained men, as these examples show, but could be understood as spiritually beneficial and even critical to men's salvation.


In an important study published some years ago, Alcuin Blamires traced what he called the medieval "case" for women, naming both Abelard and Chaucer among the primarily male medieval figures who wrote about women in positive terms, thereby contributing to what Blamires described as a "long-standing medieval tradition in defence of women." However, as Blamires acknowledged, that literature was, by and large, theoretical: the arguments in favor of "woman" that some medieval men developed were not intended to have real implications for actual women, nor, typically, did they. In his Conclusion, Blamires regretted the fact that the medieval case for women, although it reached "epic proportions" and incorporated a wide range of profeminine models, ultimately made very little practical difference.

In this book, I contend that the ideas, motifs, and rhetorical strategies adopted by nuns' priests—their "tales"—did make a difference. Like the men whose case for women Blamires so richly explored, nuns' priests knew how to defend women, drawing on classical, biblical, and early Christian profeminine examples. But unlike male proponents of the case for women, nuns' priests were not primarily concerned with women's spiritual dignity or even with their place in the church (although they did tend to exalt women spiritually). They were concerned rather with defending and legitimizing their own position as ordained men whose spiritual role involved supporting and serving female religious life. Nuns' priests faced ridicule, censure, skepticism, and accusations of wrong doing in their spiritual service to women, as I explain in Chapter 1. Their reflections concerning women's place within the religious life had critical implications for their sense of their own spiritual involvement with nuns and for the separate roles, and reciprocal obligations, that they believed bound ordained men to professed women. Studying the "tales" embraced and perpetuated by nuns' priests adds immeasurably to our understanding of male spirituality during the central Middle Ages, broadening our perception of religious men and of their devotional practices beyond the reductionist assumption that celibacy defined male spirituality in the age of reform. At the same time, men's narratives have important implications for the history of women, since priests who found a way to justify men's spiritual involvement with women were more likely to serve willingly in female monasteries, facilitating the liturgical lives of nuns and therefore also the expansion of female monasticism. Such men were critical to female religious life. They, no less than the women they served, deserve our attention.