medieval warning to men about sexual effects of cold baths

Men in medieval Europe loved women even more than did the classical lover Ovid. They especially delighted in the lovely, warmly receptive women of the Italian city Pavia. The early church father Jerome understood well men’s ardent desire for women. He and other Christian leaders recognized dangers of gyno-idolatry. To avoid terrible hardships like the Archpoet endured, medieval men needed inspiring examples of heroic chastity. Apparently attempting to meet that need, the twelfth-century cleric Jocelin of Furness described how cold baths affected Saint Kentigern’s sexual desire for women.

By Jocelin’s time, the seventh-century abbot and bishop Aldhelm of Malmesbury was renowned for his feats of chastity. Gerald of Wales, who was a near-contemporary of Jocelin, counseled men against trying to imitate the example of Saint Aldhelm:

He spent every night between two young women, one on his one side, the other on his other side, and so was slandered by men. But he is described as lying prostrate to God, by whom the conscience of this very man was truly recognized, and his continence would be more abundantly rewarded in the future.

{ qui inter duas puellas, unam ab uno latere alteram ab altero, singulis noctibus, ut ab hominibus diffamaretur, a Deo vero cui nota fuerat conscientia ipsius et continentia copiosius in futurum remuneraretur, jacuisse describitur }[1]

Suspicious of Aldhelm’s practice of sleeping with young women, some slandered him for it.[2] Gerald and others, however, insisted on Aldhelm’s continence. The classical philosopher Xenocrates stolidly slept with the lovely courtesan Phryne. King David chastely warmed himself in bed with the beautiful Abishag the Shunammite. Why couldn’t Aldhelm behave similarly?

Aldhelm reportedly developed his strong sexual restraint with a rigorous practice of bathing. The twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury described Aldhelm’s practice:

So as to overcome the force of bodily rebellion, he immersed himself up to his shoulders in the spring that was next to his monastery. There, not caring for the icy rigor in winter, nor for the fragrant mists running from marshy places in summer, he lasted nights unharmed. The limit of his Psalter, having been sung through, simply established the end of his labor.

{ ut vim rebelli corpori concisceret, fonti qui proximus monasterio se humerotenus immergebat. Ibi nec glatialem in hieme rigorem, nec aestate nebulas ex locis palustribus halantes curans, noctes durabat inoffensus. Finis duntaxat percantati Psalterii terminum imponebat labori. }[3]

Aldhelm understood that men who don’t take such cold baths readily fall into fornication. He warned one of his students to stay away from prostitutes and brothels. He also advised against leading oneself into temptation:

He admonished a student not to read the lascivious poems of the classical poets, nor to spend time in the company of courtesans, nor to emasculate his mind’s vigor with the allurement of voluptuous clothing.

{ discipulum monuerit ne lasciva poetarum carmina legat, ne meretricularum consortio inhereat, ne delicatarum lenocinio vestium vigorem mentis effeminet. }[4]

Aldhelm didn’t advise men students to take cold baths to quell their sexual urges. Was Aldhelm keeping from his students how they could sleep chastely with two young women simultaneously? A good teacher shouldn’t deprive students of useful knowledge.

Saint Aldhelm of Malmesbury in stained glass

In his life of Saint Kentigern, Jocelin of Furness depicted Kentigern as having realized Aldhelm’s method of heroic chastity. The early church father Jerome urged Christians to “nakedly follow the naked Christ {nudus nudum Christum sequi}.”[5] According to Jocelin, Kentigern did so while imitating Aldhelm’s bathing practice:

He customarily stripped off his clothing and nakedly following the naked Christ, yielded himself himself naked and uncovered, and immersed himself in rapidly flowing cold water. Then surely as the stag desires springs of water, so too his spirit longed for God, the living fountain. There in cold and nakedness, with his eyes and hands fixed on Heaven, with a devout heart and voice he would sing the entire Psalter.

{ expoliare se vestimentis suis solebat et nudus, nudum Christum sequens, nudum et exertum se reddens, aquis vehementibus et frigidis se inmergebat. Tunc plane quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum, ita anima ejus desiderabat, ad Deum fontem vivum; ibique in frigore et nuditate oculis ac manibus celo infixus, corde et ore devoto, totum ex integro decantabat psalterium. }[6]

Like Aldhelm, Kentigern reportedly became heroically chaste:

Therefore by the daily use of this beneficial bath, as if in a new Jordan, his flesh was restored to the flesh of a little boy. Because sin’s rule that wars in the genitals was in him so weakened and the fire of lust so deadened and extinguished, no corruption of his tingling flesh, neither awake nor even sleeping, polluted or discolored the lily of his snow-white chastity. He did not directly sense his flesh’s movement to sow and thrive. So cooperating with Christ’s grace in this innocence of childlike purity, his flesh blossomed with its pricks sleeping. And indeed this just man, like an unwithering lily, germinated in the Lord’s sight. Concerning that, he also professed frankly to his followers on a certain occasion that he was no more pricked at the sight or touch of a most beautiful young woman than at that of the hardest flint.

{ Ex diutino ergo usu hujus salutaris lavacri, quasi Jordanis novi, restituta est caro ejus quasi caro pueri parvuli; quia lex peccati que in membris pudendis militat, ita in ipso debilitata est, et ignis libidinis emortuus, et extinctus, ut nulla carnis prurientis putredo in vigilando, vel etiam dormiendo, lilium sui nivei pudoris pollueret, vel decoloraret. Nec etiam simplicem motum in se sevire, vel vigere sentiret. Cooperante namque gratia Christi in cujusdam puerilis puritatis innocentiam, sopitis stimulis caro ejus effloruit. Et imo justus iste, sicut inmarcessibile lilium, ante Dominum germinavit. Unde etiam quadam vice discipulis suis simpliciter profitebatur, quod non magis ad speciosissime puelle visum, aut tactum, quam ad durissimi scilicis, stimularetur. }

Men have always striven to serve women. If women, even beautiful, young, warmly receptive women, were to need comfort and company in bed, Saint Kentigern was prepared to serve them chastely. Saintly men serve God and neighbor in ways that other men can’t.

Just as some had suspicions about Aldhelm sleeping with women, Jocelin’s text provides reason to doubt the claimed sexual effects of cold baths. Consider closely the peculiar claim that Kentigern was “no more pricked at the sight or touch of a most beautiful young woman than at that of the hardest flint {non magis ad speciosissime puelle visum, aut tactum, quam ad durissimi scilicis, stimularetur}.” Medieval men tended to imagine beautiful women as being soft and warm. The hardest flint, in contrast, is explicitly hard. Moreover, stone lacks the warmth of living flesh. The sight or touch of a hard, cold woman, to say nothing of an obtusely anti-meninist woman, wouldn’t arouse most men. In that sense, the most beautiful young woman and the hardest flint have opposite sexual effects on men.

However, the most beautiful young woman and the hardest flint can have similar effects in pricking men’s senses. Flint tends to be sharp. Touching it can wound like the wounding of lovesickness. In human history, flint-like stone commonly has been used for arrowheads. The sight of an arrowhead directed at a man might cause him to tremble. Moreover, the classical love god Cupid shoots arrows at men to make them madly in love. Being pricked by the most beautiful woman in that sense is similar to being pricked by the hardest flint.

Men taking cold baths to inure themselves against women’s sexual allure isn’t generally supported in medieval literature. Medieval literature celebrates seminal blessing. Such a blessing depends on women’s attractiveness to men. Bishop Nonnus delighted in the sight of the beautiful, semi-naked actress Pelagia. She inspired him to love God more ardently. Saint John Climacus followed Bishop Nonnus in understanding bodily beauty as orienting men to God. Moreover, Saint Agnes redeemed men gazing upon women. Only persons ignorant of vital thrusts in medieval literature would believe that medieval men generally sought to deaden their senses with cold baths.

In our dour and dogmatic age, women and men together must ponder how best to put the Devil back into Hell. One way is cold baths, castration culture, more pervasive penal punishment, and other means to deaden men’s sexuality. A more excellent way celebrates the story of Sarah and Tobias, hope for the resurrection of the flesh, and medieval “laughter of Easter {risus paschalis}.”

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[1] Gerald of Wales {Giraldus Cambrensis}, Jewel of the Church {Gemma ecclesiastica}, Division {Distinctio} 2, Chapter {Caput} 15, “About acknowledgments that cohabiting chastely with women is very much to be avoided {De mulierum cohabitatione continentiam professis summopere vitanda},” Latin text from Brewer (1862) pp. 236-7, my English translation. The English translation of Hagen (1979) isn’t readily available to me. For a brief survey of Gerald’s life and works, Skeel (1918), introduction. For a detailed review, Henley & McMullen (2018).

Gerald of Wales further stated:

The privileges of individuals do not constitute a common law, nor are graces given singularly to some granted in common to all. If by fleeing we could triumph over such an enemy, rather than be pushed forward by our own fires, then we might not be burned by arrogantly attempting to triumph. To do otherwise is indeed like testing God. Jerome did not attempt this. He taught not to attempt it. So we read in the Epistles of Jerome’s same book, a certain monk, socializing in the city, came to Jerome who was dwelling in solitude. The monk asked Jerome whether it is more glorious and worthy of a greater crown to lead an angelic life among men or to live far from them. Jerome himself answered: “It is among men.” And the monk said to him, “Then what are you seeking in the desert?” To him Jerome responded, “That I may not see you, that I may not hear you, that I may not be corrupted by your conversation.” But the monk said to him, “This is to flee, not to fight.” To whom Jerome said, “I confess my weakness. I prefer to flee than to fight and be conquered.” For Jerome knew that both the world and woman are better conquered by fleeing than by resisting.

{ Privilegia namque singulorum communem legem non faciunt, nec gratiae quibusdam singulariter datae communiter omnibus sunt concessae. Utinam enim fugiendo potius de hoste hujusmodi triumphare possimus, quam ignibus sponte admoti ut non ardeamus triumphum arroganter attemptare. Hoc enim quasi Deum temptare est. Non hoc Jeronymus attemptavit; non attemptandum docuit. Sicut enim in Epistolari ejusdem libro legitur, monachus quidam in urbe conversans, accessit ad eum in solitudine commorantem, quaerens ab eo utrum gloriosius esset majorique dignum corona vitam angelicam inter homines ducere an procul ab ipsis. Cui ipse respondit: “Quod inter homines.” Et monachus illi: “Quid ergo quaeris in heremo?” Cui Jeronymus: “Ut te non videam, te non audiam, tuo non corrumpar colloquio.” At monachus illi: “Hoc est fugere non pugnare.” Cui Jeronymus: “Fateor imbecillitatem meam; malo fugere quam pugnare et vinci.” Sciebat quippe quia et mundus et mulier melius fugiendo vincitur quam resistendo }

Gemma ecclesiastica 2.15, sourced as previously. Gerald cited here a letter falsely attributed to Jerome: Letter to Occeanus {Epistula ad Occeanum}, incipit “To Occeanus about the life of clergy {Ad Occeanum de vita clericorum},” Latin text available in Patrologia Latina 30.288B-292A (letter 42). In reality, Jerome closely associated with women, although he probably didn’t sleep with women.

[2] Like Gerald of Wales, William of Malmesbury also acknowledged doubts about Aldhelm:

It is truly not right to believe that the holy man acted differently than he taught and that he lived differently than he said.

{ Neque enim fas est credi sanctum virum aliter fecisse quam docuit, aliter vixisse quam dixit. }

William of Malmesbury {Willelmus Malmesbiriensis}, Deeds of the English Bishops {Gesta pontificum Anglorum} 213 (Book 5), Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[3] William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213.

William added:

I should be almost shy to dwell at this point on the saint’s remarkable continence, were it not that it gave rise to a glorious victory. If he felt the prick of the flesh, he did not merely do nothing to satisfy it. He also won a triumph over it of a most unusual kind. For he would not at such moments avoid feminine society, as others do who fear the possibility of a lapse. Rather, he would sit or lie while keeping some woman by him, until his flesh cooled and he could go off in a quiet and calm state of mind. The Devil realized that he was being mocked when seeing Aldhelm close by a woman and his mind elsewhere, intent on singing the Psalter. Aldhelm would say farewell to the woman with modesty and chastity unimpaired. The disquiet of his flesh died down, but the evil spirit grieved about the disturbing mockery.

{ Inter haec preclaram hominis continentiam describere pene uerecundaretur oratio, nisi esset in facto gloriosae uictorie occasio. Siquando enim stimulo corporis ammoneretur, non solum illecebre denegabat effectum, sed alias insolitum reportabat triumphum. Neque tunc consortium feminarum repudiabat, ut caeteri qui ex oportunitate timent prolabi. Immo uero uel assidens uel cubitans aliquam detinebat, quoad, carnis tepescente lubrico, quieto et immoto discederet animo. Derideri se uidebat diabolus, cernens adherentem feminam uirumque, alias auocato animo, insistentem cantando psalterio. Valefatiebat ille mulieri saluo pudore, illesa castitate. Residebat carnis incommodum; dolebat nequam spiritus de se agitari ludibrium. }

Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[4] William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum 213, Latin text from Hamilton (1870), my English translation, benefitting from that of Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

The student that William warned against prostitutes and brothels was Wihtfrith. This student was traveling to Ireland for further study. William declared to Wihtfrith:

As one bent low with flexed knees and bent legs, driven to that by filthy report, I further beg you, my pupil, not to allow that pimp, riotous living, to lead you into houses of prostitutes and brothels, where prostitutes lurk to show off their wares, decked out with gleaming gold anklets and delicate bracelets, like chariot horses in their proud trappings.

{ Porro tuum discipulatum, ceu cernuus arcuatis poblitibus flexisque suffraginibus, feculenta fama compulsus, posco, ut nequaquam prostibula uel lupanarum nugas, in quis pompulentae prostitutae delitescunt, lenocinante luxu adeas, quae obrizo rutilante periscelidis armillaque lacertorum tereti, utpote faleris falerati curules, comuntur }

Gesta pontificum Anglorum 214, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Winterbottom & Thomson (2007) vol. 1.

[5] Jerome declared, “Nakedly follow a naked Christ {nudum Christum nudus sequere}” as the penultimate sentence (para. 20) is his Letter 125, To the monk Rusticus {Ad Rusticum Monachum}, incipit “No one is happier than the Christian {Nihil Christiano felicius},” Latin text and English translation in Wright (1933). Closely similar phrases were widely used in twelfth-century Europe. Constable (1979).

The phrase “nudus nudum Christum sequi” became a motto of the Fransciscans, an order of monks formed in the thirteenth century. A versified life of Saint Francis that Henry of Avranches {Henri d’Avranches} wrote between 1232 and 1239 celebrates the naked Saint Francis:

His clothes, he lays them down, including his trousers.
Without a stitch, stark naked he stands, for all the world like Adam.
But he differs from Adam in this: he suffers freely what Adam
was forced to endure. He suffers by merit what Adam endured for sin,
and yet he is penalized as Adam was — though in a different way.
Exposed was the shamefulness of Adam, while no shame
is discovered in him. Where is the shame in a naked body
when the vesture of its soul is honor? Wherein did this
manliness lie? In scorning the world, in making himself disdained
by the world, in caring not a whit for his property or person.

{ Exutus vestes etiam femoralia ponit.
Stat sine veste palam nudoque simillimus Adae;
In causa tantum distat status huius et eius:
Suffert iste libens, quod sustulit ille coactus;
Suffert hic propter meritum, quod sustulit ille
Propter delictum; tamen hic punitur ut ille.
Sed secus: eius enim patuere pudenda, sed huius
Nulla pudenda patent. Quid enim caro nuda pudendum
Offerret, cuius animam vestivit honestas?
Quae fuit haec virtus? Mundum contemnere, mundo
Reddere se contemptibilem, rerumque suarum
Personaeque suae nullis insistere curis. }

Henri d’Avranches, The Versified Life of Saint Francis {Legenda Sancti Francisci Versificata}, vv. 175-187, Latin text of Menestò & Brufani (1995), English translation (modified slightly) from Armstong, Wayne Hellmann & Short (1999-2001).

[6] Jocelin of Furness, Life of Saint Kentigern, Bishop and Confessor {Vita Sancti Kentigerni Episcopi et Confessoris}, chapter 14, “About the godly bed of Saint Kentigern, and his vigils, and his bath in cold water {De lectisternio Sancti Kentegerni; et vigilis, et balneo in aquis frigidis},” Latin text from Forbes (1874), my English translation, benefitting from those of id., Green (1998), and help from an expert Latinist. On the stag desiring springs of water, cf. Psalm 42:1. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Chapter 14 of Jocelin’s Vita Sancti Kentigerni.

The twelfth-century English anchorite Wulfric of Haselbury also reportedly spent nights submerged in a cold bath while reading through the entire Psalter. Green (1998), The Life of Kentigern (Mungo), note 127, refering to Chapter 5 of John of Ford, About the Life of Blessed Wulfric, anchorite of Haselbury {De vita beati Wulfrici anachorete Haselberie}. For Latin text, Bell (1933), with a new edition forthcoming in Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis; for an English translation, Matarasso (2011).

[image] Saint Aldhelm of Malmesbury in a stained-glass window installed at Malmesbury Abbey, England, in 1928. Source image thanks to Adrian Pingstone and Wikimedia Commons.


Armstrong, Regis J. J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short. 1999-2001. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Hyde Park NY: New City Press. Commission on the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition online edition, including Latin of Menestò & Brufani (1995).

Bell, Maurice, ed. 1933. Wulfric of Haselbury, by John, abbot of Ford. Edited, with introduction and notes. Somerset Record Society XLVII. Printed for Subscribers Only.

Brewer, J. S., ed. 1862. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera. Volume 2 of 8. Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages {Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores}. London: Longman. Description of volumes. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 5. Alternate source.

Constable, Giles. 1979. “Nudus nudum Christum sequi and parallel formulas in the twelfth century.” Pp. 83-91 in Williams, George Huntston, F. Forrester Church, and Timothy George, eds. Continuity and Discontinuity in Church History: essays presented to George Huntston Williams on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Leiden: Brill.

Forbes, Alexander Penrose, ed. and trans. 1874. Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern. Compiled in the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Green, Cynthia Whidden. 1998. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. M.A. Thesis, Department of English, University of Houston. With English translation Jocelyn, a monk of Furness: The Life of Kentigern (Mungo). Alternate source.

Hagen, John J., trans. 1979. Gerald of Wales. The Jewel of the Church. Lugduni Batavorum: Brill.

Hamilton, N. E. S. A., ed. 1870. Willelmis Malmesbiriensis Monachi. De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum. London: Longman & Co. Alternate source.

Henley, Georgia and A. Joseph McMullen, eds. 2018. Gerald of Wales: New Perspectives on a Medieval Writer and Critic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Matarasso, Pauline Maud, trans. 2011. John of Forde, The Life of Wulfric of Haselbury. Collegeville, MN: Cisterican Publications. Review by Philip F. O’Mara.

Menestò, Enrico, and Stefano Brufani, eds. 1995. Fontes Franciscani. Assisi, Italy: Porziuncola.

Skeel, Caroline A. J. 1918. Selections from Giraldus Cambrensis. Text for Students. No. 2. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Winterbottom, Michael and Rodney Malcolm Thomson, ed. and trans. 2007. William of Malmesbury: Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops. Oxford Medieval Texts. Volume I: Text and English translation. Volume II: Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Alternate presentation.

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