I recently came across a post on medievalists.net about a thesis by Christian D. Knudsen concerning sexual misconduct in convents and monastic houses. The idea that the monasteries were corrupt, and in “decline” just before the Dissolution is a narrative that has been largely unchallenged for 500 years, and in that light the Dissolution undertaken by Thomas Cromwell was a positive experience that has contributed enormously to the success of English Protestantism. There have been some historians recently, notably Eamon Duffy in his book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 that have been trying to give what may be a more balanced and accurate picture (after all, if the religious houses, and Catholicism in general was in such a debauched state, there likely wouldn’t have been the amount of rebellions by normal people willing to fight for it, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace where much of Northern England fought back against the new religion). Knudsen’s thesis is available online through the University of Toronto (where he presented it) and is fascinating reading – he specifically looks at monastic sexual misconduct in cloistered religious houses in Lincoln and Norwich between 1430-1530, so the 100 years leading up to the Dissolution. What he finds is surprising.
The negative perception of late medieval monks was influenced by the contemporary writings of Protestants who were strong supporters of the Dissolution. Knudsen quotes Simon Fish’s Supplicacyon for the Beggars (1529) which describes monks as “disguised ypocrites, vnder the name of the contempt of this world, wallowed in the sea in the worldes wealth.” As England grew more Protestant during and after the English Civil War, historians went with the “Decline Narrative” without questioning it, though some like David Hume, argued that while the monasteries were “receptacles of sloth and ignorance,” it was still Henry’s greed rather than religion that drove the Dissolution.
The main source of information for scholars and historians in this area have been visitation records, which are the report made by a bishop when visiting a monastery in the diocese. Their purposes was to correct faults and as such monks and nuns were encouraged to confess their own sins as well as others, and then the bishop would recommend reforms based on the confessions. These can be viewed with skepticism when you leave room for gossip and rumors, as well as politics.
We also need to figure out how we are judging the nuns and monks – do we compare them to earlier ages, to society as a whole, or their own standards. Visitation records themselves only start to appear towards the end of the 13th century, so it is difficult to use them to compare from earlier periods. The earlier periods were documented from the monastic chronicles, and so while visitation records would lead to much more gossip and negative actions being confessed, chroniclers themselves would largely be expected to report on the positive actions in their houses. Just because there is more documentation about something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s happening more. It’s also important to think about what was actually considered sexual misconduct. Even within the houses themselves there was often disagreement about how much reform was needed, if any.
Still, with all that said, in his thesis, Knudsen found that during the 15th and 16th centuries the accusations of sexual misconduct were still rare. In Lincoln and Norwich there were 113 accusations of sexual misconduct, only 4% of the monks and nuns were accused of doing anything untoward. There were more accusations of monks committing “voluntary pollution” which researchers believe is a term for masturbation. So in one East Anglican priory of Westacre, 13 out of 20 monks were accused of a sexual crime, but 10 of those were for masturbation.
Knudsen believes that when early inquiries into the behavior of monks and nuns failed to turn up the expected amounts of deviant and antisocial behavior, Cromwell and his bureaucrats creatively added masturbation to the list of illicit activities and listing it under the same category as sodomy. This paved the way for the English government to launch a PR campaign against the monasteries and justify closing them.