Spotlight on Faculty Research

Naughty Nuns and Promiscuous Monks: Late Medieval Monastic Sexual Misconduct in Context

By Christian Knudsen, Professor of History

This past summer, I had the privilege of presenting papers at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom and the Medieval Academy of America meeting at UCLA. These papers were part of my larger research on sexuality during the late Middle Ages and my work transitioning my dissertation, “Naughty Nuns and Promiscuous Monks: Monastic Sexual Misconduct in Late Medieval England,” into a book.

For nearly 500 years, historiographical discourse surrounding Henry VIII’s 1536 Dissolution of Monasteries has emphasized its inevitability and presented late medieval monasticism as a lacklustre institution characterized by worsening standards, corruption, and sexual promiscuity. In fact, sexual incontinence was one of the most frequent accusations levied against monasteries by sixteenth-century critics. One sixteenth-century evangelist, Richard Morison, for example, accused monasteries of amassing great stolen wealth, sleeping with married women (“sowing seed in other men’s furrows”), and applauded the Dissolution as the “putting away of maintained lechery, buggery and hypocrisy.”

My own doctoral research on the subject has found evidence which challenges this implied prevalence of ‘promiscuous monks’ and ‘naughty nuns’ by examining evidence of sexual misconduct amongst fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English religious men and women found in a series of episcopal visitation records for two dioceses, Lincoln and Norwich, between 1430 – 1530. Visitation records were made when a bishop toured the religious houses of his diocese for the purposes of administration and reform. It was during these visitations that accusations (or confessions) of sexual misconduct were most commonly heard and recorded by the bishop.

In my research, I examined the records of five bishops from the dioceses of Lincoln and Norwich during the last 100 years before the dissolution – a total of 391 separate visitations. I tracked numbers of alleged sexual relationships reported during these visitations and this data suggests that sexual misconduct was, statistically at least, uncommon for either sex but especially so for women.  The approximate monastic population of Norwich and Lincoln during these visitations was 1,959 people. Seventy-six of these monastic men and women were accused of sexual misconduct, which equates to a misconduct rate of less than four percent. Or perhaps phrased better, the vast majority of monastic men and women (ninety-six percent) were not accused of any sexual misconduct.

But statistically, were there more sexually active monastics towards the end of the Middle Ages? Was sexual misconduct increasing? This is, of course, a more difficult question to answer. However, there is one source which clearly seems to demonstrate an upward momentum of sexual misconduct in English monasteries at the end of the Middle Ages: a set of visitation records compiled by state officials just before the Dissolution. In 1534, Parliament authorized Thomas Cromwell to send his officials to visit every monastery in England.   Naturally, the records from these visitations are quite suspect and most historians have tended to dismiss them since their main purpose seems to have been to collect evidence to make the case to dissolve the monasteries – a decision that had most likely already been made before they even began.

The only surviving, partial copy of the state visitors’ findings is found in a particular manuscript known as the Compendium Compertorum held in the National Archives in London. The Compendium contains the brief summaries of state visitations which were conducted in the late fall of 1535 and early winter of 1536, and its contents are quite shocking.  Nearly a third of the monks and nuns were labelled as incontinent or as sodomites.

Image of the Compendium (Photo: Christian Knudsen)

Image of the Compendium (Photo: Christian Knudsen)

It is dramatic numbers such as this – coupled with the sparse details about the cases found in the Compendium Compertorum – which have led some historians to dismiss the reports altogether. While there is no definitive evidence that the Compendium was actually read in Parliament during the Dissolution debates, it seems likely that propaganda was its main purpose. Moreover, the state visitors seem to have expanded the use of the term sodomy and incontinence to apply to all sorts of crimes not formally covered by them. In particular, the state visitors began to record confessions of masturbation under the heading of incontinence or sodomy – which they termed “voluntary pollutions.” Instances of monastic masturbation were never recorded in normal visitations made by bishops, and their inclusion in the state visitations was quite novel.

A typical entry in the Compendium would record the name of the monastery, followed by a list of the monks who lived there along with any crimes for which they were accused. For instance, under Hickling Priory there was a list of six canons.  The first name, Robert Walsam, was noted to be “cum coniugata,” that is, accused of sleeping with a married woman. The same accusation is appended to the next two names. However, the following three canons are noted to be accused of only voluntary pollutions, i.e. masturbation.  However, beside the entry for Hickling a single word is applied to all the canons (both adulterers and masturbators):  incontinent.

By the time the state visitors reached the north of England by the fall of 1535, the term sodomy was being used the same way, so a monastery with several confessed masturbators would all be captured under the heading of sodomy.  Thus, the visitors could report with confidence that the monasteries of England were filled with confessed sodomites.

Interestingly, however, if we compare the sexual misconduct accusations (minus the masturbation ones) recorded in the Compendium with those from the bishops who visited the same monasteries previously, then a different pattern emerges. A generation earlier, the Norwich bishop, Richard Nicke, had found twenty-seven cases in the same monasteries visited by the state officials. This is nearly identical to the thirty-three cases reported in the Compendium. While the results are far from conclusive, they do suggest that, rather than increasing, sexual misconduct levels were relatively consistent during the last century prior to the Dissolution.