Mischievous Monks and Naughty Nuns? Scholar re-examines the illicit sexual accusations against monasteries in England during the dissolution

When King Henry VIII on England set about the dissolution of monasteries in the years 1536 to 1541, one of the main reasons given the English government for the suppression of hundreds of religious communities was accusations of widespread illicit sex by monks and nuns. Now research by a scholar at the University of Toronto has shown that the evidence collected by King Henry’s officials did not even show many sexual crimes, but instead used accusations of masturbation to make the monastic communities seem like they were deviant.

Christian Knudsen, a PhD student at the Canadian university, presented his findings at a paper entitled ‘Sodomitic Monks and Other Dissolution Myths: The Late Medieval Monastic Decline Narrative Re-visited.’ They were presented this week to fellow medievalists on the campus of the University of Toronto. He makes use of the few available records about the state visitations that took place in 1535 and 1536, where about 85% of the monasteries in England were inspected by royal bureaucrats who were collecting evidence that would help Henry dissolve the monasteries.

Knudsen focuses his research on the Comperta Compertorum, a book made the bureaucrats which gave summaries of the accusations against monks and nuns in English dioceses of York and Norwich. The bureaucrats were only able to uncover 33 cases of sexual misconduct with other persons, but they also included scores of accusations of the monks committing ‘voluntary pollution’ which historians believe was a term for masturbation. For example, in the East Anglian priory of Westacre, they found that 13 of the 20 monks there were accused of some kind of sexual crime, but ten of those were for masturbation.

Knudsen believes that when preliminary inquiries into the behaviour of monks and nuns failed to turn up many accusations of sexual deviancy, the bureaucrats became more creative and added masturbation to the list of illicit activities, even listing them under the category of sodomy. This allowed the English government to effectively level propaganda against the monasteries, paving the way for Henry to close them and take control of their properties.

The research is meant to challenge the notion that English monasteries were in decline during the later Middle Ages. Knudsen notes that many historians still hold the notions that monasticism in England was a “decadent, promiscuous and corrupt institution,” that was on the brink of failure by the time King Henry dissolved them.

Knudsen’s research also examines other accusations against the monastic community in late medieval England, and finds that during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries accusations of sexual misconduct were rare. Using episcopal visitation records from Lincoln and Norwich between 1436 and 1532, the researcher finds that there were 113 accusations of sexual misconduct made – in other words, only about 4% of the monks and nuns were accused of illicit activities, while 96% did not. An article of his, ‘Promiscuous Monks and Naughty Nuns: Poverty, Sex, and Apostasy in Later Medieval England,’ will appear in Poverty and Prosperity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott, later this year.

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