Get Thee To A Nunnery
January 2007 Meeting Report
Guest Speaker - Brian Hodgkinson
The Keyworth & District Local History Society had its first meeting of 2007 on 5th January in The Centenary Lounge, Keyworth. Unfortunately the scheduled presentation on Ilkeston had had to be cancelled but a substitute speaker had been organized and the theme for the evening was “get Thee To A Nunnery”. The guest speaker was Brian Hodgkinson and the meeting was very well attended.
Brian began his talk with the quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 3 Scene 1) in which Hamlet says to Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” This quotation begged the question of why a woman would want to join a nunnery. The obvious answer was that it was a place where a chaste and devout woman could pursue her spiritual inclinations. This was not always the case and Brian then developed his talk through three separate themes. These were: - (1) the early churches attitude to women, (Eve portrayed as a sinner against Adam). (2) The formation of “Double Monasteries” (where men and woman lived on the same site but were strictly segregated). (3) The vital role that patronage played in the financing of holy houses.
It would seem that the early Christian Church had some very mixed views regarding women. On the one hand the was the deep reverence that was felt for the Virgin Mary whilst, on the other hand, there was the disgust and contempt with which Eve was regarded for having led Adam astray in The Garden of Eden. It seems that the early Christian Church regarded women in general as dangerous creatures that could not be trusted. The image of Eve as a sexual predator whose loose morals tended to lead men away from the paths of righteousness was a theme that was still being portrayed by famous artists into the middle ages. Brian showed a number of classical paintings by famous artists on this theme. In general womankind was split into two opposite camps, the first portrayed in the bible by Martha, the housewife, the second portrayed by Mary, the nun. Various passages from the Bible were read, each depicting women in a poor light. The first was St Paul’s Epistle to Timothy, (Chapter 2 verses 11 to 14) which requires that women should know their place. Since God created Adam first, then it logically follows that he must be more important than Eve. Also, since Eve was the cause of Adam’s fall from grace woman must try to redeem themselves spiritually. To do this they must do as their masculine teachers tell them and “learn in silence with all subjection”. Another source quoted women as being prone to “chattering” and this gave the Church rather a headache as chattering was perceived to be the work of the Devil. All in all this section of Brian’s presentation was very non-P.C. and drew some audible groans from certain sections of the audience, (on the other hand it drew laughs as well). The general theme though was that because Eve had sinned against God and man she must atone for this and one way was to lead a spiritually pure life. The early Church classified women into three separate categories; wives, widows and virgins. Ideally the Church was happy with women staying virgins but marriage was looked on kindly, since without it the Church could not expand. Widows were technically virgins as long as they abstained from sex. Virgins were highly regarded and the best place to protect these treasures was to keep them in a nunnery away from temptations of the flesh.
An obvious place to lead a spiritual life is a monastery and the next part of Brian’s talk developed this theme. The early Church held the view that the history of man was split into two separate halves, the secular and the spiritual. It was felt that to satisfy the spiritual needs of men and women a place designed specifically for this purpose was desirable. Hence the concept of a dwelling where men and women could pursue their religious and spiritual calling. In order to cater to the requirements of both sexes it was felt that a community dwelling could be established where men and women could co-exist but along strictly segregated lines. Thus the double monastery came into being. The earliest known examples appear to have originated in the near east in Egypt. There is no known definitive founder of the system but both St Pachomius and St Basil and his sister, Macrina, are known to have established very early double monasteries. The double monastery appears to have arrived in Europe around the 6th century. There are known examples in Gaul from that time founded by St. Caesarius of Arles, St. Aurelian, his successor, and St. Radegundis, of Poitiers. The double monastery system was further spread by St Columbanus and his followers into Belgium, Germany and Spain. Indeed, so successful was the spread of the double monastery that by the 8th century there were no less than two hundred such establishments in Spain. Strangely, the concept never took off in Ireland, only one known example from the time being recorded. In England however the system proved popular and most of the early monastic house were built along the lines of the double monastery. An early and important example was the double monastery founded by St Hilda at Whitby. One very important aspect of this monastery, (and others like it), was that the supreme spiritual head of the establishment was the Abbess. By the middle of the 13th century there were over one hundred and forty monasteries had been founded in England, most of which were double monasteries. It would seem that the civil war, which raged between King Stephen and his queen, Matiltda, provided the opportunity for many of these monasteries to be founded since at the time of the hostilities central government was very weak and the resulting power vacuum, could thus be exploited.
Brian then went on to explain how vitally important patronage was for successful foundation of these monasteries. Without the financial backing of a wealthy patron the opportunity to acquire sufficient land to make the proposed monastery viable could not occur. Land for farming, either by the monks themselves, or by tenanted farmers, was essential to provide the food and income that would be necessary for the monastery to flourish. The motivation of the patrons to invest large sums of money into the monasteries was varied but a large number involved a certain degree of self-interest. Undoubtedly some of the financial backers were motivated by nothing other that the desire to assist in God’s work on earth, others may have seen the patronage as a means of increasing their prestige and social standing. Others might even have seen it as a way of, literally, buying their way into heaven. Whatever their motivation the fact remains that without such patronage no monastery could have hoped to be successful in the long-term.
For several centuries the monasteries thrived, many becoming incredibly wealthy in the process, so much so that they became a very real and potent political force in the land. They were great sources of employment in their locations and a source of relief to the deserving poor. They also helped to spread and reinforce the Christian Church and the role that it played in society, both locally and at a state level. All that would come crashing down when in 1538 Henry VIII began his campaign to dissolve the monasteries. The process was slow at first but began to gather momentum until, by the end of his reign the age of the great, religious monasteries was over, never to reappear.