Academic journal article Magistra

The Medieval Nuns at Watton: Reading Female Agency from Male-Authorized Didactic Texts

Academic journal article Magistra

The Medieval Nuns at Watton: Reading Female Agency from Male-Authorized Didactic Texts

Article excerpt

Commentators on medieval religious women frequently refer to the story of the nun of Watton. Often told and retold, this story from Yorkshire has scandal, miracle and a dramatic tension that makes the narrative both shocking and memorable, all features that undoubtedly contribute to its renown today. The story is known through a narrative written by Aelred of Rievaulx in the 1160s. The most common way of reading this narrative is as a moralized account of an actual historical event. That is, while Aelred may well have inserted his own interpretations of events, there is no reason to doubt that the events he describes did in fact occur. This, then, is why the story is so famous, because the events are without doubt truly remarkable.

As Aelred tells it, in the early 1160s, the Gilbertine double house of Watton in Yorkshire was the setting for both scandal and miracle. The key elements were a young nun, a canon, a love affair, and a miraculously disappearing baby. Somehow, the nun and canon managed to overcome the physical and institutional barriers that existed between male and female members of the community and embark on an affair.

Their affair continued for an unstated period before the canon ran away, fearing the nun was pregnant. This disappearance confirmed the suspicions of her sisters who summoned the nun to confess. Upon admitting the affair, the nun was attacked by the other nuns, stripped, shackled and thrown into the monastery prison. Hearing from the nun that the canon would return to resume the affair, her community began hoping for vengeance.

The master of the community stepped in at this point and ordered one of the brothers to dress as a woman in order to distract the canon while the others had time to capture him. When the canon returned he was seized upon by nuns who bound him and forced the nun to castrate him with her bare hands. One of the sisters thrust the testicles into the nun's mouth. The canon then returned to the brothers and from here disappears from the story. The nun, who was indeed pregnant, was returned to her cell and was the object of constant prayers by the rest of the female community.

Just before she was due to give birth, she had a dream in which the bishop who had placed her in the monastery as a child encouraged her to confess. The following night she had a similar dream. She awoke to find her stomach flat and all signs of pregnancy gone. The other nuns accused her of murdering the child but, after poking and prodding her, they agreed that something strange must have occurred.

After yet another vision the next night the nun awoke to find that her chains had disappeared as well. Gilbert of Sempringham, the founder of the order, arrived at the community to see this wonderful event. Gilbert was perplexed and therefore summoned his Cistercian friend Aelred of Rievaulx to investigate. Aelred forbade the nuns from locking the nun up again since he argued that she had definitely been released from her chains through divine intervention. He returned to Rievaulx and then wrote about the miraculous event, probably soon before his death in 1167.(1) Were it not for Aelred and his composition of de Sanctimoniali de Wattun, this fascinating story would have been lost.


Today the tale of the nun of Watton is well known. The story itself is short, vivid and easily remembered. Further, the unapologetic combination of violence and devotion suggests a medieval mentality that is in stark contrast to the modern one and which seems to sum up the inevitable alterity of the Middle Ages, the many ways in which medieval men and women were so very different from those today. Much of the modern commentary on the incident confines itself to this issue and simply states and restates a bewilderment and repulsion at the severity of the various punishments.(2)

In addition to this general interest in scandal, there are two other areas on which modern attention has focused. …

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