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

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

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

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

Synopsis

During the Middle Ages, female monasteries relied on priests to provide for their spiritual care, chiefly to celebrate Mass in their chapels but also to hear the confessions of their nuns and give last rites to their sick and dying. These men were essential to the flourishing of female monasticism during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, yet they rarely appear in scholarly accounts of the period. Medieval sources are hardly more forthcoming. Although medieval churchmen consistently acknowledged the necessity of male spiritual supervision in female monasteries, they also warned against the dangers to men of association with women. Nuns' Priests' Tales investigates gendered spiritual hierarchies from the perspective of nuns' priests--ordained men (often local monks) who served the spiritual needs of monastic women.

Celibacy, misogyny, and the presumption of men's withdrawal from women within the religious life have often been seen as markers of male spirituality during the period of church reform. Yet, as Fiona J. Griffiths illustrates, men's support and care for religious women could be central to male spirituality and pious practice. Nuns' priests frequently turned to women for prayer and intercession." Casting nuns as the brides of Christ and adopting for themselves the role of paranymphus (bridesman, or friend of the bridegroom), these men constructed a triangular spiritual relationship in which service to nuns was part of their dedication to Christ. Focusing on men's spiritual ideas about women and their spiritual service to them, Nuns' Priests' Tales reveals a clerical counter-discourse in which spiritual care for women was depicted as a holy service and an act of devotion and obedience to Christ.

Excerpt

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 . . .

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