Sex, Enclosure, and Scandal in Medieval Monasteries
Published Online (2007)
In her essay “Pregnancy and Productivity: The Imagery of Female Monasticism within and beyond the Cloister Walls” Nancy Warren explores the Middle English version of the story of the pregnant abbess from the Alphabet of Tales. “The abbess’s sexual activity clearly violates her monastic vow of chastity. In breaking her vow of chastity she has sinned against her divine spouse, and this sin may be aligned with the worldly category of transgression against the husbandly authority so crucial in maintaining masculine privilege”. To Warren, the tale of the pregnant abbess further illustrates society’s anxiety over women and is used to “mobilize female monasticism to provide solutions to these anxieties through the regulation of women’s material and spiritual practices,” i.e. full enclosure. Though written as an exploration of relationships between nuns and male clergy during the Reformation, Mary Laven’s argument in her article “Sex and celibacy in Early Modern Venice” could also apply to medieval monasticism when she argues that “the constraints of enclosure conditioned the nature of celibate desire, promoting a model of heterosocial engagement”. It was this “heterosexual engagement” which would plague church reformers as they sought to remove obstacles that could cause scandal for the Church. As much as the Church hated sin, it hated scandal even more and one such example was the barbarous tale of the Nun of Watton, who was handed over to the nunnery at an early age and later had an affair with a teenage monk causing her pregnancy and the brutal torture of her lover.
To a modern reader the constraints of enclosure which were so strictly enforced in medieval monasteries may seem extreme. One could argue that some oblates found themselves subjected to a position they never desired, hence acted out against the rules of celibacy and enclosure. In order to better understand why a woman who had vowed to devote her life to religion would act this way one must understand medieval women’s motives for entering a monastery for these circumstances could be the “determining factor for their behavior once inside”. Women forced into the monastery for political or social reasons often did so against their will and with little or no inclination for a religious life. Some reasons included a desire to protect one’s daughter or dispose of them, to deprive a young girl of their inheritance, or the established custom in large families for one or more daughters to become nuns. A case similar to this can be found in the story of the Nun of Watton, who was handed over to the nunnery at an early age and who it would seem had no desire for a religious life. Besides those wishing to join the convent, and those forced, other women included widows, wives, or daughters of vanquished enemies, as well as the illegitimate offspring or of the clergy.