Academic journal article Magistra

The Nun of Watton

Academic journal article Magistra

The Nun of Watton

Article excerpt

Aelred of Rievaulx's report to an unknown friend, concerning his investigation of a strange affair that had occurred in the monastery of Watton, was written around 1160. The monastery was one of the most successful of those founded by Gilbert of Sempringham. These houses were at the time still being organized as an order, indeed the only order to be founded in England. Aelred, a Cistercian, had had other dealings with the Gilbertines and his order took a paternalistic interest in the fledgling group whom they had refused to assimilate because of the membership of women in their houses. The founder, who lived to a fabulous old age, was still alive and this story fits into the first generation of the order whose final constitutions were not published until the early thirteenth century.

Nevertheless, many if not all of the elaborate architectural and logistical measures which were intended to keep the women of this double order separated from the men were probably already in place, and form part of the "exquisite machinery" whose efficacy was so bitterly mocked by the escape of the nun of Watton. Aelred, in fact, was writing in the atmosphere emitted by Bernard of Clairvaux, his order's most prestigious abbot, who pronounced that a man could rise from the dead more easily than he could fail to respond sexually to the presence of a woman.(1) Sympathetic as this story is to the spiritual aspirations of the Gilbertine nuns, it also dramatizes the dangers of any attempt at syneisactism among religious of either gender.(2)


by Aelred of Rievaulx

It is a sort of sacrilege to know about a miracle of the Lord, a manifest indication of divine piety, and conceal it. It would be unworthy to destroy evidence of anything that could be a consolation to those now alive and a lesson to posterity and a source of devotion to all. But most of the time we are constrained by the folly of the crowd who, being consumed by envy or languishing in infidelity, will scarcely believe their own eyes concerning something good, but are very readily induced to believe every evil whisper that comes to their ears. Here is a wonderful thing, unheard of in our time, which I believe must be revealed to you, most beloved father, whose holy simplicity senses the good in all things and holds no wrong to be suspected without certain proof. Let there be no hesitation about the truth of the words here spoken for I saw part of this with my own eyes and the rest was reported to me by persons whose mature age and manifest holiness leave them no reason to lie.

Among the monasteries of virgins which the venerable man Gilbert, beloved by God, father and priest, has constructed in diverse provinces of England with wondrous fervor, one is situated in the province of York in a place which takes its name from the waters and pools. For it is called Watton, that is "humid villa." It was once mentioned in the Historia Anglorum by the venerable priest Bede as having boasted a great multitude of holy women.(4) There the blessed bishop John healed a girl dying from an unchecked flow of blood by his saving prayer and touch. Now, when the aforesaid father by his industry renewed the ancient religion in that place, the ancient miracles were likewise to some extent renewed.

For here the handmaids of Christ, psalming by custom in the midst of their daily handiwork, are so devoted to spiritual offices and preoccupied with theories about heaven that many of them, as though bidding farewell to the world and all that is in it, are swept up in indescribable raptures where they seem to join in the choirs of angels. Frequently they have conferences between them and the spirits of goodness so that sometimes they are enraptured, sometimes instructed and sometimes warned about certain necessary things. So much love appears among them, so much solicitude for one another, that when one of them dies, the others pray incessantly as long as they remain uncertain whether she is in glory or being punished. …

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