A few days ago I finished the 1980 book, The Benedictines in Britain by D.H. Turner, Rachel Stockdale, Dom Philip Jebb, and Dr. David Rogers. The Benedictines in Britain consists of a series of essays about (you guessed it!) the Benedictine monastic order in the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages. One essay covers the order during the Dissolution and another covers the order in more modern times. (I say more modern because the book was written in the 80s.)
In 1980 the British Library put on an exhibition celebrating Saint Benedict’s fifteen hundredth birthday. The Benedictines in Britain was written to accompany the exhibition.
As I read this book in 2022, I did not see the exhibition. Due to this, my review will be about the text itself. I also could not find the exact name of the British Library’s exhibition, so I will simply refer to it as “the exhibition” from this point onwards.
(I assume the exhibition was called “The Benedictines in Britain” but as I don’t know for sure, I won’t call it that. If I do find the name, I’ll edit this blog post accordingly and make a note I edited it.)
The Benedictines in Britain is a short book, coming in at 111 pages. The text includes a list of illustrations, a forward, seven informative essays, and a list of exhibits featured at the 1980 exhibition.
Each essay discusses aspects of monastic life. The essays are pleasantly written and easy enough to understand. A few of the essays devolve from informative to argumentative, which was a jarring tone shift as most essays simply informed the reader about the Bendictine order.
The Benedictines in Britain includes many black and white images of manuscripts and other pieces of art that were on display at the British Library’s exhibition. (Presumably. As previously stated, I was not there so I cannot say for sure.) There are a few color images as well.
Each essay frequently refers to the included images. The text would be much more effective when describing/incorporating the images if they were all in color. However, I am grateful for the inclusion of photos adjacent to the text. I had a general idea of what each author meant as they described dynamic artwork, brush strokes, details, etc.
Luckily, in the year of our Lord 2022, I can find the manuscripts’ digitized versions on the internet to see them in color. However, I’m sure the book’s intended audience could have benefited from color images after they left the exhibit.
(Yes, I know it costs more to print books in color. According to the book jacket, it cost $12.95 in 1980 which is roughly $45 in 2022. I don’t really want to argue the logistics of a book that came out in 1980. I just think it would have been nice if all the images were in color.)
Overall, The Benedictines in Britain was a pleasant book to read. I already knew a good chunk of what was shared in the text, however, for readers who went to the exhibition without much knowledge (if any) of the Benedictine order, I believe this book would be very helpful. It was also nice to see more medieval manuscripts. I plan on using The Benedictines in Britain as another jumping off point to find more images for my medieval themed Instagram.
In the past, I compiled three lists regarding female names, male names, and nicknames from the Domesday Book. Today’s list will be of place names. There are a lot of amusing town/village names. I figured I would share some I find particularly interesting for no real reason or logic as to why I find them interesting. I just do. Like my other name lists, this one will be added to in the future.
If you follow me on Instagram and Twitter, then you probably already know that my short story “Brother Maternitas” is featured in Tenebrous Press’s anthology “Your Body is Not Your Body.” All proceeds of the anthology will go to the charity Equality Texas for trans youths. Tenebrous Press publishes new weird horror.
Brother Maternitas is about a pregnant medieval monk and the extreme traumatic body dysphoria he suffers as he carries a demonic baby. I use a lot of medieval terms in Brother Maternitas. My beta readers pointed out some terms are probably unfamiliar if you don’t know much about the Middle Ages.
I created this glossary for readers who want a better understanding of Brother Maternitas. I’ll post another article at a later date explaining the cultural and historical references in Brother Maternitas.
The glossary is in alphabetical order.
The head monk at a monastery/abbey. According to The Rule of Saint Benedict, the abbot is Christ’s representative at his monastery. An abbot is his monks’ spiritual father (and sometimes mother!). Because the abbot is in charge of his monks, the abbot is responsible for their souls. The Rule of Saint Benedict teaches if an abbot lets his monks sin or misbehave, he will answer to God on Judgment Day. In theory, nothing happens in a monastery without the abbot’s permission.
Some monastic orders have an abbot who runs the entire order.
A long piece of material (usually parchment, but sometimes cloth) covered in religious drawings and prayers. It was wrapped around the stomach during labor.
Their purpose was to help protect a pregnant person from dangerous childbirth by calling upon God, Jesus, and saints. Some birthing girdles may have been used as a pregnancy belt/belly band to support the abdomen before birth.
From my understanding, a birthing girdle was used as a type of religious healing charm. While a birthing girdle may not have any modern scientific backing, childbirth was (and still is!) extremely dangerous. I’d classify wearing one under the “listen, I know it’s not scientifically tested, but let’s not risk anything” category. Medieval people, on the other hand, probably felt differently.
Blessings have different purposes depending on the situation. In Brother Maternitas when Brother Columba blesses the pilgrims an invocative blessing is used. New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia defines an invocative blessing as “those in which the Divine benignity is invoked on persons or things, to bring down upon them some temporal or spiritual good without changing their former condition. Of this kind are the blessings given to children, and to articles of food.”
The medieval medical practice of cutting someone and letting them bleed. Losing blood was thought to balance a person’s humours. Medieval monks regularly underwent bloodletting as it was a standard medical practice up until the 19th century. Bloodletting was considered a good way to practice preventative care.
During bloodletting, medieval monks had the chance to get away from the harsh standards of monastic life. They spent time in the warm infirmary, ate meat (which in theory monks were not allowed to do unless they were bled or sick. In practice they created loopholes), slept, and could chat with their friends as medieval monks were often bled in groups. Needless to say, monks were known to fake being sick so they could relax in the infirmary, eat rich food, and gossip with their friends!
Refers to the other monks at a monastery/priory. An easier way to say “other monks.” Also “brethren” implies a family unit of sorts.
A monk’s formal title.
The monk in charge of clothing and bedding. He makes sure monks have clean proper-sized clothes and mattresses to sleep on. Depending on the size of the monastery, he might also be in charge of other domestic tasks, such as running the kitchen and/or the guesthouse.
The monks’ daily meeting. The head monk (whether he be an abbot or prior or someone else left in charge) went over the day’s tasks. After a reader read a section of The Rule of Saint Benedict, the abbot punished any wrongdoings.
Chapter was also an opportunity for monks to accuse their fellow brethren of bad behavior and for monks who had done wrong to publicly admit their faults. (Faults could be a really big deal like breaking their vows or little like accidentally damaging a tool.)
The room Chapter was held.
A piece of bread that is considered to literally be the body of Christ after a holy ritual. Catholics believe it’s literally Jesus’s body. A consecrated host is extremely holy. Before concentration, it’s just a piece of bread (and in the modern day comes in plastic bags. As of the time I’m writing this you can buy communion wafers on Amazon for, like, $12 depending on the brand).
A sacrament where a person tells their sins/wrongdoings to a priest (confesses them if you will!) and receives a penance so God will forgive them. (Penance is defined below.) Confession cleanses a person’s soul. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important a person confesses before death so they can go to Heaven. Only priests can perform the sacrament of Confession.
Here Brother Alstan is referring to Europe.
The daily prayers monks and nuns sing each day. Also known as the Divine Office and the Liturgy of the Hours.
Exactly what it says on the tin.
Corporal punishment was part of monastic life. Depending on the severity of the crime, wrongdoers in the monastery were beaten. In theory, an abbot used his discretion. He wasn’t supposed to flog a monk if he knew a flogging would make the bad behavior worse.
If you search for “punishment” on my website you’ll be able to find all the articles that cover corporal punishment. (I’ve written about/mentioned corporal punishment in monasteries so many times that there’s no point in listing all of the articles here.)
The robe monks wear. It symbolizes their religious devotion to God. It lets everyone around them know a monk is a monk.
Depending on where you are in Brother Maternitas, the narrator refers to an abortifacient or healing plants. Herbs were used to make medicine. Depending on the herb, it could have chemical components that actually relieved symptoms and has modern-day scientific backing. Other herbs don’t have scientific backing.
The monk who runs the infirmary. The equivalent of a physician/healer depending on the monk’s training. He does all the medical stuff.
A monastery hospital. A sick monk stayed in the infirmary until he recovered or died. Elderly and disabled monks lived in the infirmary so they received the extra care they needed. (Kind of like a nursing home/rehab.) Sometimes staying in the infirmary was a treat because a monk got a break from the rougher aspects of monastic life.
Not a monk. A secular person.
A handwritten book.
An archaic word for depression.
Bad smells believed to cause disease. Miasmas came from dirty things like toilets, discarded garbage, dunghills, a sick person’s bad breath, etc. To put it simply, it was kind of like germ theory before people knew what germs were.
Refers to people from Scandinavia. As the story takes place in a seaside monastery during the Viking Age (the last place you’d want to be!) the narrator specifically means a Viking raider.
I had a hard time trying to define penance, so here is Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition: “an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin.” Some penances were fasting or praying, but it really depended on the circumstance.
A penitential is a guidebook for priests that tells them the kind of penances they should give out. I’ve written about penitentials in detail in this article.
People who visit holy sites such as shrines, churches, locations where Jesus Christ lived, etc. Pilgrims would visit holy sites for various reasons. Sometimes if a person was ill they’d visit a place in hopes of being cured. Other times they visited because it was kind of like a vacation. Pilgrims had many different motivations for visiting holy sites.
The medieval equivalent of a souvenir. Pilgrim badges were mass produced and made of cheap metal. Pilgrims pinned them to their clothing. Their designs varied depending on the place. A pilgrim badge proved that you actually visited the place you said you did. Pilgrim badges were around a few centuries later than when Brother Maternitas takes place, but I included them for thematic purposes. While Columba may have claimed her badges were just the side wound and not a vulva, in real life, some pilgrim badges did not try to pass themselves off as anything other than various types of genitalia!
A euphemism for semen.
The prior is the abbot’s second in command. He’s in charge if the abbot is out on business/has left the monastery for whatever reason. If the prior is part of a monastic order who has an abbot in charge of the entire order, then the prior is the head of individual priories.
While I don’t like citing Wikipedia, it happens to have the easiest explanation of religious ecstasy, so I will quote it here: “Religious ecstasy is a type of altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness, frequently accompanied by visions and emotional (and sometimes physical) euphoria.”
Funnily enough, while you would think that monastics would be fascinated and excited when one of their peers was overcome with the Lord, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes an episode of religious ecstasy was considered very annoying. I’ve written more about that here.
A nun’s formal title.
NOTE: A lot of my information comes from various print and online sources. For this article I’ve mostly included online sources as I’ve collected the information needed for Brother Maternitas over the years and while writing this glossary I wanted to double check to make sure what I remembered was correct.
Fiddyment Sarah, Goodison Natalie J., Brenner Elma, Signorello Stefania, Price Kierri and Collins Matthew J. 2021 Girding the loins? Direct evidence of the use of a medieval English parchment birthing girdle from biomolecular analysisR. Soc. open sci.8202055202055 http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.202055
Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.
Kardong,Terrence G. OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSEmuse.jhu.edu/book/46804.