Nun of Watton: judging seduction and castration

artistic representation of nun of Watton's monastery

About the year 1160, terrible events occurred at the Gilbertine monastery in Watton. A nun was impudent, wanton, and impious. A lay brother was young and handsome. They caught each other’s eye:

They regarded each other caressingly …. The thing was first done by nods, but nods were followed by signs. Eventually the silence was broken, and they spoke of the sweetness of love. They inflamed one another; they sowed in one another the seeds of delight, the kindling of desire. He was planning debauchment, but she said afterwards that she was thinking only of love.[1]

The only record of this ancient incident is the account of the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx. He had no way of knowing what the brother was planning. What the nun of Watton said afterwards could easily have been the product of her rationalization hamster. Aelred of Rievaulx reported:

They agreed with one mind on a place and time to speak more freely with each other and take more pleasure together. … The thoroughly wicked man gave a signal of ruin to the ruined: at the sound of the stone that the unhappy man promised to throw at either the wall or the roof of the house in which she usually stayed, she, being alerted to his arrival, might come out to him.

Wanting to have sex with a woman doesn’t make a man “thoroughly wicked.” Men’s sexuality doesn’t in itself ruin women. Aelred continued:

She goes out, and soon, liked a deluded dove, heartless, she is seized by the talons of a hawk. She is thrown down, her mouth is stopped lest she cry out, and, having been already debauched in mind, she is debauched in body.[2]

According to Aelred, the woman is a poor dove. The man is a vicious hawk. Aelred didn’t see the incident. The only source of information about it was the woman involved. She gave information to her sister nuns, who probably gave information to Aelred. Even accepting Aelred’s third-hand account as factual, and ignoring the obvious anti-men bias, the man may have passionately and consensually fell to the ground with the woman and covered her mouth to muffle her orgasmic moaning. If you can imagine the pleasure men can provide to women, you can better understand the next lines of Aelred’s account:

The wicked gratification, once experienced, compelled her to repeat it. When it began happening so frequently, the sisters wondered at the sound they heard and suspected deceit. She was a special object of suspicion, as her habits had already been suspected by them.

Universities in the U.S. are now moving to presume men’s sexuality to be criminal outside of criminal law. Consistent with that trend, the most important recent work on the nun of Watton states that the man raped her.[3] Do you think such gender bigotry has any relation to the huge gender protrusion in America’s massive prison population?

The story of the nun of Watton in some ways challenges gender stereotypes. The nun’s sisters at the Watton monastery discovered that she was pregnant. They reacted with brutal violence:

looking at each other and striking their hands together, they rushed upon her, tearing the veil from her head. Some thought she ought to be given to the flames, others that she should be flayed alive, and others that she should be put on a stake to be burned over live coals. The older women restrained the fervor of the young. She was, however, stripped, stretched out, and whipped without mercy. A prison cell was prepared, where she was bound and enclosed. To each of her feet two rings were attached with fetters, with two chains of no small weight fastened to them. The end of one was fixed in an immense block of wood, and the end of the other pulled outside through the entryway, closed by a bolt. She was sustained on bread and water; she was fed with daily opprobrium.[4]

The nuns at Watton worried that their sister’s revealed sexual activity would hurt their reputation. They decided that, after she gave birth, they would require the man to support her and the child. They thus pressed the woman for information about the father of the child. The woman revealed the time and place for her next rendezvous with him. She thus betrayed her lover.

Men and women of the community joined together to punish the man brutally for having sex with the woman. The superior of the community organized brothers to ambush the man. When the man came, expecting to continue his sexual affair with the woman, the brothers seized him, beat him with cudgels, and bound him. Afterwards, the nuns requested custody of the man “for a short time, as if to learn some secret from him.” Once they had custody of him, they viciously assaulted him:

they knocked him down and held him. She, that cause of all evils, was brought in as if to a performance. They put an instrument into her hands and compelled her unwillingly to cut off his particular male parts with her own hands. Then one of those standing by seized those things of which he had been relieved and flung them as they were — foul and covered with blood — into the mouth of the sinful woman.[5]

Aelred called the woman the “cause of all evils.” That’s merely an abstract, conventional phrase. By requiring the woman to cut off the man’s genitals, the nuns of Watton enacted a vicious lesson of hating men’s sexuality. That lesson continues to be prominently taught in today’s universities.

The nuns of Watton seem to have transformed Saint Jerome’s example of resisting rape into brutal sexual assault. Jerome described a man who was imprisoned and bound in a pleasure garden. The man was then sexually fondled by a beautiful woman. Rather than allow himself to suffer completed rape, he bit off his tongue and spit it into the woman’s face.[6] The nuns forced the sexually active nun both to enact hatred for men’s sexuality and to experience disgust at her sexual attraction to men. Many young women at universities today undoubtedly are inculcated with similar soul-destroying emotional conflicts.

Like violence against men generally, the violence against the man in the story of the nun of Watton has been of relatively little concern. Aelred of Rievaulx praised the latter violence with rhetorical sophistication. Immediately after describing the nuns of Watton flinging the man’s bloody, “foul” genitals into the woman’s face, Aelred declared:

Do you see with what zeal these women, champions of decency, burned, these persecutors of impurity, these women who loved Christ more than anything else? Do you see how they avenged the injury to Christ by mutilating the man and pursuing the woman with opprobrium and abuse?

Aelred went on to offer biblical exempla of similarly inspired action. Then, he rhetorically demurred:

I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shredding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy.[7]

Those words are about as convincing as the concern today for due process in collegiate panels adjudicating claims that a man raped a woman. After being castrated, the man vanished from Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton. In medieval scholarship, concern for castrated men has been warped into representing “men’s fear of women.”[8] Like claiming that the man raped the nun of Watton, misrepresenting men’s castration is anti-men gender bigotry welcomed in today’s educated society.

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Notes:

[1] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton) s. 3, from Latin trans. Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 112-3. Watton is in Yorkshire, England. The characterization of the nun of Watton and the (lay) brother above are those of Aelred of Rievaulx. Id. s. 2, 3. Gilbertine monasteries had men and women religious living on the same site in different buildings. Lay brothers were non-ordained men who were assigned manual work at the monastery. In earlier monastic life, lay brothers would have been called simply monks. That the man was a lay brother is reasonably inferred from Aelred’s description of him as a young brother in a party of brothers doing manual work for the women’s monastery.

All subsequent quotes from The Nun of Watton are from id., with a few of my minor improvements in the translation. De Sanctimoniali de Wattun survives in one manuscript, MS Corpus Christi College 139. Id. titles the work “A Certain Wonderful Miracle.” The Latin text is available online in Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, v. 195, pp. 789-96. McNamara (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

[2] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 3.  Predatory, animalistic characterizations of men’s sexuality are common in medieval literature. In Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s drama Thais and Pafnutius, the desert father Pafnutius described men engaging in consensual sex as “wolves.” Boccaccio in the Decameron, Day 3, provided a sophisticated literary perspective on describing men’s sexuality as wolfish.

[3] Marsha Dutton, in an introduction entitled, with apparently unappreciated irony, “A Mirror for Christian England,” declares: the account “builds slowly through seduction, rape, pregnancy, battery”; “a handsome lay brother, who, after a time of growing familiarity, raped her”; “their {the nuns’} vengeance on her rapist.” Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 21,22, 24. With no apparent appreciation for women’s possible orgasmic responses, id. p. 27 misreads Aelred’s description of the couple’s sexual interaction: “he describes the young nun herself as attempting to resist her seducer.” That’s not in the text. Karl Steel, writing at an online site of fashionable medieval scholarship, states twice that the man raped the nun of Watton. A 2013 course at Saint Louis University, ENGL 429-01, “Sexualities in History: 1200-1600,”offered students the opportunity to “look more closely at the Virgin Community of Nuns in The Nun of Watton and draw some conclusions on how their actions complicate attitudes toward female sexuality.” The lead discussion piece states, “Not only is she most likely raped and abandoned by her lover … Did all this rebellion disappear because she was raped?” Adam Cruz courageously comments:

First, before the idea that the “rapist” male in any way deserved his castration, I feel it is essential to point out, as Dr. Evans did at the start of class, that it is unclear whether or not a rape takes place. Indeed, in Eleanor’s discussion, she assumes that the rape is an actual event when in fact it is much more ambiguous.

Too few persons similarly read, think, and speak truthfully, compassionately, and with perceptive moral concern.

[4] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 6. The realistic detail in the description of the bindings is consistent with Aelred of Rievaulx’s claim that he visited the bound nun of Watton.

[5] Id. s. 7. The literal translation in Constable (1978), p. 208, is similar. I’ve used the more literal translation of ora as “mouth.” For propriis virum, I’ve replaced the abstract noun “manhood” with “particular male parts.” That phrase seems to me to capture better the specific reference and Aelred’s revulsion to specifying male genitals: “those things of which he had been relieved.”

Geoffrey de la Tour Landry in 1373 completed in French a book on instruction for his daughter. That book included a story of a similar castration scene:

I want you to know the example of the lady who left her lord, who was a fair knight, and went with a monk. Her brothers pursued her and found her that night lying with the said monk. They cut off the monk’s genitals and cast them in their sister’s face.

From French trans. Barnhouse (2006) p. 190. Caxton translated Geoffrey’s text into English in 1484. The story of the castration is in Ch. 55 (Of the wife of Lot that trespassed the commandment of God). See Offord (1971) p. 80.

[6] Jerome, The Life of Paul the First Hermit, s. 3.

[7] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 7. Reviewing Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton, (which she retitled “A Certain Wonderful Miracle”), Dutton summarizes:

From the first to the last line of the work emphasizes ‘the Lord’s miracles, the clear signs of his divine loving-kindness’ and ‘the glory of Christ’. The emotional weight of the work, however, is on the suffering of a girl grown to young adulthood among a community of women who neglected her, resented her, and finally brutally punished her when she became pregnant.

Freeland & Dutton (2006) p. 20. Dutton’s misandristic, “poor dear” scholarship, like Aelred’s account of the man’s castration, ends with a superficial rhetorical flourish:

As he {Aelred} declares that God created men and women as equals, he portrays them as equally sinners and lovers of God, equally recipients and ministers of God’s loving-kindness to his creation.

Another scholar of the Nun of Watton declared, “the text appears superficially antagonistic to women.” She read the text to “uncover some of the experiences of the silenced minorities (in this instance, women)” and discerned that women exerted authority over other women. Freeman (2000) pp. 3-4. That women exert authority over other women should be no revelation to any woman with a mother, or any women who has ever worked with other women. Students of medieval literature should aspire to be better readers, more insightful thinkers, and more truthful writers than Aelred and his modern-day followers.

[8] On scholarly reading of castrating men, see Libro de buen amor‘s exempla from the Archpriest of Hita, especially note [8]. The quality of scholarly writing on castrating men is totally divorced from facts about violence against men and facts about rape of men. Such writing merely spews forth cultic pondering and in-group name-dropping within a fabric of abstract, comic absurdity:

as I have argued, the male, monastic anchorhold was a place which always threatened to collapse into that feminine realm because of its idealogical insistence upon chastity and the relinquishment of active male sexual identity. For its earliest adherents, therefore, discourses of masculine prowess were privileged in order to counter such feminization. Within this context, Conrad Leyser has argued that ascetic masculinity in the early Middle Ages should be read as fierce display of public power rather than as a retreat into passivity and invisibility. This is suppored by McNamara, who suggests that since masculinity has far weaker biological underpinnings than femininity upon which to build its construction, so it requires a strong and systematic support in order to maintain its fictions. I argue, therefore, that such a systematic support makes its presence felt as ‘alpha-masculine’ discourse in many of the works written for, by and about celibate males throughout the Middle Ages in an attempt to construct what Mc Namara terms ‘a cosmos and terrestrial order that firmly support[s] the natural law of masculine superiority’.

Herbert McAvoy (2011) p. 68, footnotes omitted. This scholarly work’s title deploys the term “anchoritisms.” Forming plural nouns is today regarded as serious literary work. Related work: gender in Aucassin and Nicolette.

[image] Abbey among Oak Trees (Abtei im Eichwald). Caspar David Friedrich, 1809 or 1810. Oil on canvas. In the Alte Nationalgalerie. Thanks to Google Cultural Institute and Wikicommons.

References:

Barnhouse, Rebecca, trans. 2006. Geoffrey de La Tour Landry. The book of the knight of the tower: manners for young medieval women. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Constable, Giles. 1978. “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order.” Pp. 205-26 in Derek Baker. Medieval Women. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell.

Freeland, Jane Patricia, trans. and Marsha L. Dutton, intro., ed. 2006. Aelred of Rievaulx: the lives of the northern saints. Cistercian Father Series 71. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2000. “The Medieval Nuns at Watton: Reading Female Agency from Male-Authored Didactic Texts.” Magistra: a journal of women’s spirituality in history 6(1): 3-36.

Herbert McAvoy, Liz. 2011. Medieval anchoritisms: gender, space and the solitary life. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: D.S. Brewer.

McNamara, JoAnn, trans. 1995. “The Nun of Watton.” Magistra: a journal of women’s spirituality in history 1(1): 122-138.

Offord, M. Y., ed. 1971. Geoffroy de La Tour Landry. William Caxton. The book of the knight of the Tower. London: Oxford University Press.

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