The Rt Rev Dom Joseph Delargy, is Abbot of the Mount St Bernard Abbey,
Leicestershire, of the Cistercians of Strict Observance. Here he shares with us
a lighthearted talk he gave to his community recently.
In the middle ages in England there were at least 140 convents of nuns that
we know of. On the whole these convents were not very large and only four of
them had communities of more than 30 nuns. It has been calculated that the
average size of a convent community in those days was about 14 nuns. In the year
1350 it is estimated there were 3,500 nuns in total in the country. Most studies
of medieval abbeys concentrate on the monasteries of men, the monks, maybe this
is because their buildings tended to be bigger leaving more ruins behind for us
to look at today. Less attention is paid to the nunneries but there does seem to
be a wealth of detail available on the day-to-day life of the nuns.
In the wonderful book Medieval English Nunneries by Eileen Power,* a history
professor from Cambridge back in the 1920’s, we have details of all aspects of
the nun’s life. It is from this book that I discovered a most intriguing fact.
As is still the case today all monasteries of monks and nuns would be visited
by another superior or bishop once every one or two years. The purpose of this
visit, amongst other things, is to check up on discipline of the house. At the
time of the visitation of the medieval nunneries it seems for centuries the
bishops had particularly trouble in trying to root out from the convents what
Eileen Power calls the three D’s. Before reading any further can you think what
these three D’s could be that time and time again drew special condemnation from
the bishop visitors?
They were * Dancing, * Dresses and * Dogs.
It was this third one, dogs, that I found most intriguing. It seems the
keeping of pet animals was quite a problem in medieval women’s religious houses.
The Ancren Riwle, or Nun’s Rule, was the English rule for nuns written in
about 1300. At first it was a rule for hermits but was soon revised to apply to
all nuns. It is quite a strict and rigid rule but in part 8, ‘On Domestic
Matters’ we read:
‘You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat.’
So we see the Nun’s rule did permit the keeping of cats. It seems, though,
the favoured pets of the nuns were dogs and other animals and it was this that
caused problems to the visiting bishops. To quote Power:
’Monkeys, squirrels and rabbits were also kept but dogs and puppies
abounded…partly because human affections will find an outlet under the most
severe rules. The nuns clung to their small hounds and Archbishop Peckham had to
forbid the Abbess of Romsey from keeping monkeys and a number of dogs in her own
At Chatteris and at Ickleton in 1345 the nuns were forbidden from keeping
fowls, dogs and small birds within the precincts of the convent. Evidently the
nuns were bringing these animals into church with them and Power says,
‘Injunctions against bringing dogs and puppies into choir by the nuns is also
found at Keldholme and Rosedale abbeys in the 14th century’.
To Romsey Abbey in 1387 the visitor, William Wykeham, wrote:
’We have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some of the nuns bring with
them to church birds, rabbits, hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto
they give more heed than to the offices of church, with frequent hindrance to
their own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of
their souls. Therefore we strictly forbid you, all and several, in virtue of the
obedience due unto us, that you presume henceforward to bring to church no
birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline.’
Try to imagine the scene. The nuns lined up in their choirs stalls singing
the divine office with rabbits hopping about, birds fluttering around and
singing and dogs sitting at their feet. It sounds quite nice.
William Wykeham goes on to lay down the punishment:
’If any nun continues to bring their pet animal to church and persists after
three warnings she is to fast on bread and water on one Saturday for each
offence.’ Eileen Power says:
’Bishops regarded pets as bad for discipline and for century after century
tried to turn animals outs of the cloisters without the least success. Nuns just
waited till the bishops went and whistled the dogs back again.’
Maybe the bishops realized they were fighting a losing battle for in the
1400s Dean Kentwood ordered the prioress of St Helen’s Bishopgate to remove all
the dogs from the cloister and just content herself with one or two, and in 1520
the Prioress of Flixton was bidden to send all dogs away from the convent except
one which she prefers.
Eileen Power points out that today the problem of nuns keeping pets seems
harmless and amiable enough. As an abbot visitor myself I have never encountered
any problems with monks’ or nuns’ pets though I have heard of a case where a pet
monkey became a problem in one of our overseas houses due to the fact that it
became the centre of attention. Today all monasteries seem to have cats and some
have dogs, other pets are rarer.
As we read about a problem from the past that today seems quaint and trivial
to us, let us ask ourselves if, in 700 years time, people will be looking back
at us and wondering why were we so concerned about this or that?
* Medieval English Nunneries, c.1275 to 1535, by Eileen Power.
Cheshire, CT, USA: Biblo & Tannen, ISBN 0819601403, 1922, reprinted 1988
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