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Title: Early Double Monasteries - A Paper read before the Heretics' Society on December 6th, 1914
Author: Stoney, Constance
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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 A Paper read before the Heretics' Society
           on December 6th, 1914


         G. BELL & SONS, LIMITED.



The system of double monasteries, or monasteries for both men and women,
is as old as that of Christian monasticism itself, though the phrase
"monasteria duplicia"[1] dates from about the C6. The term was also
sometimes applied to twin monasteries for men; Bede uses it in this
sense with reference to Wearmouth and Yarrow, while he generally speaks
of a double monastery as "monasterium virginum."

The use of the word "double" is important. The monastery was not mixed;
men and women did not live or work together, and in many cases did not
use the same Church; and though the chief feature of the system was
association, there was in reality very little, when compared with the
amount of separation. In time, the details of organisation varied, such,
for example, as whether an abbot or an abbess ruled the whole monastery,
though it was generally the latter. Details of the rule of the community
naturally altered at different times and in different places, but the
essential character remained the same.

As to the object of such an arrangement, opinions differ. Some have
regarded it as a sort of moral experiment; others have seen in it only
the natural outcome of the necessity for having priests close at hand to
celebrate Mass, hear confessions and minister in general to the
spiritual needs of the nuns. There is, too, the practical side of the
plan--namely, that each side of the community was economically dependant
on the other, as will be seen later. However this may be, the practice
of placing the two together under one head seems to be as ancient as
monasticism itself.

The double monastery in its simplest form was that organisation said to
have been founded in the C4 by S. Pachomius,[2] an Egyptian monk. He
settled with a number of men, who had consecrated themselves to the
spiritual life, at Tabenna, by the side of the Nile. About the same
time, his sister Mary went to the opposite bank of the Nile, and began
to gather round her women disciples.

This settlement soon became a proper nunnery under the control of the
superior of the monks, who delegated elderly men to care for its
discipline. With the exception of regulations concerning dress, both
monks and nuns observed the same rule which S. Pachomius wrote for
them[3]. It was very simple. There were to be twelve prayers said
during the day, twelve at twilight, twelve at night, and a psalm at each
meal. Mass was celebrated on Saturday and Sunday. Meals were to be eaten
all together and the amount of food was unlimited. A monk could eat or
fast as he pleased, but the more he ate, the more work must he do. They
were to sleep three in a cell. No formal vows were to be taken, but the
period of probation before entry into the community, was to be three
years. The men provided the food, and did the rough work for the women,
building their dwellings, etc., while the women made clothes for the
men. When a nun died her companions brought her body to the river bank
and then retired; presently some monks fetched away the body, rowed back
across the Nile, and buried it in their cemetery.[4]

That the communities of S. Basil and his sister Macrina (also in the C4)
were of this type, may be seen from the rule of S. Basil. The
communities, like those of Pachomius, were on opposite banks of a
river--in this case, the Iris; and Macrina's nunnery is supposed to have
been in the village of Annesi, near Neo-Caesarea, and founded 357 A.D.
In her nunnery lived her mother and her younger brother Peter, who
afterwards became a priest. The life of this saintly family and the
relation between the two communities may be learned from the charmingly
written Life of S. Macrina by her brother Gregory of Nyssa.[5]

The Rule of S. Basil is written in the form of question and answer, and
much of it refers to the relations between monks and nuns, while all
impress upon the religious the duty of giving no occasion to the enemy
to blaspheme. "May the head of the monastery speak often with the
abbess? May he speak with any of the sisters other than the abbess, on
matters of faith? May the abbess be angry if a priest orders the sisters
to do anything without her knowledge? If a sister refuses to sing the
psalms, is she to be compelled to do so?" All the answers urge both
parts of the community to avoid giving ground for scandal. The nuns, in
this case, seem to have had a separate church, for Gregory speaks of the
"Chorus of Virgins" who awaited him when he came to visit his sister
Macrina on her death bed. There were, too, schools for boys and girls
attached to S. Basil's house, for he makes regulations concerning their

There is practically no evidence for double monasteries in the C5, but
at the opening of the C6 we find them again. In the West the earliest
monastic communities had been founded by S. Martin of Tours, first at
Milan in 371 and afterwards in Gaul, which from then became the chief
monastic centre.

It is here, then, that another brother and sister figure as the founders
of a double monastery. S. Caesarius, Bishop of Arles,[6] persuaded his
sister Caesaria to leave Marseilles, where she was in a convent, and
join him at Arles to preside over the women who had gathered there to
live under his guidance; and the rule which he afterwards wrote for
these nuns is the first Western rule for nuns, and was afterwards
followed in many double monasteries.[7] He arranged it, as he himself
says, according to the teachings of the fathers of the Church. He
stipulates that all joining the community shall, on their entry,
renounce all claims to outside property. Only those women are to enter
who accept the rule of their own accord and are prepared to live in
perfect equality and without servants. Much attention is paid in the
rule to the instruction of the nuns; they were to devote considerable
time to music, as being an art through which God could fittingly be
praised; to be taught reading and writing; to practice cooking, and
weaving both of Church vestments and their own clothing.

They were to attend to the sick and infirm, and above all they were not
to quarrel. They were not entirely cut off from the outside world, since
they were permitted to entertain women from other convents; but, says
the Rule, "Dinners and entertainments shall not be provided for
churchmen, laymen and friends." We have only indirect evidence that
Arles was a double monastery. The confusion, for example in Caesarius's
will between his two foundations of S. John's and S. Mary's, resolves
itself, if we suppose that the monks were at the one, and the nuns at
the other, and that they associated in the great church in the
monastery, described by the authors of the Life of S. Caesarius, as
being dedicated to S. Mary, S. John and S. Martin.[8] Such an
arrangement was common in later double monasteries.

Another famous C6 monastery in Gaul now supposed to have been double was
that of S. Rhadagund at Poitiers about 566.[9] S. Rhadagund was married
to King Clothair against her will, and their life together was a series
of quarrels. She was so devoted to charitable work, we are told, that
she often annoyed the King by keeping him waiting at meals, left him
whenever possible and behaved in such a way that the king declared that
he was married to a nun rather than a queen. Finally the murder of her
young brother, at the instigation of the king, determined her to leave
the court, and flying to the protection of Bishop Medardus, she
demanded to be consecrated a nun.[10]

After some natural hesitation on the part of the Bishop, she was made a
Deaconess--a term applying to anyone who, without belonging to any
special order, was under the protection of the Church.[11] She devoted
herself to the relief of every kind of distress, bodily and spiritual;
and at length the desire came to her to provide permanently for the men
and women who came to her for help. So, on an estate which she owned at
Poitiers, she founded a nunnery dedicated to the Holy Name, and,
probably at the same time, the house for men, separated from the convent
by the town wall and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was in S.
Mary's that Rhadagund was buried and after her death, her name was added
to the dedication. Beside this evidence of association between the two
houses, the only other is the correspondence of Rhadagund and the Abbess
Agnes with the poet Fortunatus, who was probably a monk of S. Mary's. He
certainly seems to have been the director and counsellor of the nuns,
and to have been often engaged in business for them; but he did not live
in the same house with them for in one of his letters he laments the
fact. His letters and verses addressed to the two women throw a strong
light on the friendship, and real affection which existed among the
three friends. He says that he will work day and night for Rhadagund,
draw the water, tend the vines and the garden, cook, wash dishes,
anything, rather than that she should do the heavy and menial work of
the house. He begs the abbess Agnes to talk often of him with the
sisters that he may feel more really that she is his mother. He sends
gifts of flowers for their sanctuary, and baskets which he has plaited;
and with a basket of violets he sends the following charming verses.[12]
(I give a translation which must necessarily be inadequate.)

"If the season had yielded me white lilies, according to its wont, or
red roses with sweet smelling savour, I had plucked them from the
countryside, or from the turf of my little garden, and had sent them,
small gifts for great ladies! But since I lack the first, I e'en pay the
second, for he presents roses in the eyes of love, who offers only
violets. Yet, these violets I send are, among perfumed herbs, of noble
stock, and with equal grace breathe in their royal purple, while
fragrance with beauty vies to steep their petals. May you, likewise,
both have each charm that these possess, and may the perfume of your
future reward be a glory that blooms everlastingly."

The nuns of Ste. Croix, too, seem not to have been lacking in
generosity. Fortunatus frequently thanks them for gifts of eggs, fruit,
milk, etc.; and on one occasion he receives more dishes than one servant
could carry. He must have stood in some official relation to Rhadagund,
for such freedom of intercourse to be possible; and if his verses
sometimes suggest the courtier rather than the monk, it must be
remembered that they are the work of a poet who had first been a friend
of princes and was among the most fashionable men of letters of his day
in Ravenna; and that they are addressed to a woman who was, after all, a

In 587 Rhadagund died and Bishop Gregory of Tours tells how greatly she
was mourned by the whole community, and how some 200 women crowded round
her bier, bewailing their loss. One of them, the nun Baudonivia, several
years afterwards, cannot, she says, even speak of the death of Rhadagund
without being choked with sobs.[13]

It will be seen from these examples, that in all probability, the
origin of the double monastery need not be sought, as has been supposed,
in Ireland, since it seems to have been known in Gaul before S.
Columbanus and his Irish disciples landed there and preached a great
religious revival, at the end of the C6. Indeed, though there are
scattered notices in the lives of the Irish saints, which seem to
suggest that there were double monasteries in Ireland in very early
times, there is no definite evidence until the description in
Cogitosus's "Life of S. Bridget," of one at Kildare, probably in the C8.
The monasteries actually founded by S. Columbanus himself, were all for

On the other hand, the double monastery seems always to have flourished
wherever the fervour of the Irish missionaries penetrated. Perhaps, as
Montalembert[14] suggests, the ideal atmosphere of divine simplicity and
single-mindedness which characterised them, was particularly favorable
to the growth of such an institution.

S. Columbanus dedicated Burgundofara, or Fara, as a child, to the
religious life; and she afterwards founded the monastery of Brie to the
south-east of Paris, which we learn from Jonas, who was a monk there,
and from Bede, was a double monastery.

It is clear that this house was one of those ruled by an abbess, for
Jonas says that no distinction was recognised between the sexes, and
that the abbess treated both alike. The discipline here, however, seems
to have been very severe, for he adds that some of the new nuns tried to
escape by ladders from the dormitory. Brie is interesting to us as
forming one of the links between Continental and English monasticism at
this time. Bede says of the daughter of Erconberht, King of Kent, "She
was a most virtuous maiden, always serving God in a monastery in France,
built by a most noble abbess, Fara by name, at a place called Brie; for
at that time, but few monasteries being built in the country of the
Angles, many were wont, for the sake of monastic conversation, to repair
to the monasteries of the Franks or Gauls; and they also sent their
daughters there to be educated and given to their Heavenly Bridegroom,
especially in the monasteries of Brie, Chelles, and Andelys."[15]

He adds that two daughters of King Anna of East Anglia, "though
strangers, were for their virtue made abbesses of the monastery of

Little is known of Andelys, except that it was founded by Queen
Clotilda. At Chelles, founded by Queen Bathilda in 662, ten miles from
Paris, on the river Marne, many famous persons, both men and women,
received their education. Among them was a Northumbrian princess,
Hereswith, whose sister was Hild, the most famous of English abbesses.

The prevalence and influence of the double monastery in England may
perhaps be better understood by a reference to the position of women
generally in Anglo-Saxon society. Nothing astonished the Romans more
than the austere chastity of the Germanic women, and the religious
respect paid by men to them, and nowhere has their influence been more
fully recognised or more enduring than among the Anglo-Saxons. This fact
largely accounts for the extreme importance attached by them to marriage
alliances, particularly those between members of royal houses.[16] These
unions gave to the princess the office of mediatrix; in Beowulf she is
called Freothowebbe, "the peace-weaver."[17] From this rose the high
position held by queens. Their signatures appear in acts of foundation,
decrees of councils, charters, etc. Sometimes they reigned with full
royal authority, as did Seaxburg, Queen of the West Saxons, after the
death of her husband.[18] From the beginning of Christianity in England,
the women, and particularly these royal women, were as active and
persevering in furthering the Faith, as their men. "Christianity," says
Montalembert,[19] "came to a people which had preserved the instinct
and sense of the necessity for venerating things above," and "they at
least honoured the virtue which they did not themselves always

Consequently, when the young Anglo-Saxon women, having been initiated
into the life of the cloister abroad, returned to England to found
monasteries in their own land, they were received by their countrymen
with reverence and respect. This respect soon expressed itself in the
national law, which placed under the safeguard of severe penalties the
honour and freedom of those whom it called the "Brides of God."

Princesses, royal widows, sometimes reigning queens, began to found
monasteries, where they lived on terms of equality with the daughters of
ceorls and bondmen; and perhaps it is fair to say that it was not the
lowest in rank who made the greatest sacrifice.

But the influence of these women did not cease with their retirement to
the cloister. When one of them, by the choice of her companions, or the
nomination of the bishops, became invested with the right of governing
the community, she was also given the liberties and privileges of the
highest rank. Abbesses often had the retinue and state of princesses.
They were present at most great religious and national gatherings, and
often affixed their signatures to the charters granted on these

I have already referred to one of the greatest of these abbesses, Hild
of Whitby. She was the grandniece of Edwin, the first Christian King of
Northumbria and had been baptised with her uncle at York in 627 by the
Roman Missionary Paulinus.[21] Bede says that, before consecrating her
life to religion, "she had lived thirty-three years very nobly among her
family." When she realised her vocation, she went into East Anglia where
her brother-in-law was king, intending to cross over to the continent
and take the veil at Chelles. She spent a year here in preparation, but
before she could accomplish her purpose, Bishop Aidan invited her to the
north, to take charge of the double monastery of Hartlepool, which had
been founded by Heiu, the first nun in England. "When," says Bede, "she
had for some years governed this monastery, wholly intent upon
establishing the regular life, it happened that she also undertook the
construction or arrangement of a monastery in the place which is called
Streonesheal (Whitby), and diligently accomplished the work enjoined
upon her. For in this monastery, as in the first, she established the
discipline of the regular life, and indeed, she taught there also,
justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, but especially the guarding
of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive
church, no one there was rich and none poor, all things were common to
all and no one had property. So great was her prudence, moreover, that
not only ordinary persons in their necessity, but even kings and princes
sought and received counsel of her. She made those who were under her
direction give so much time to the reading of the Divine Scriptures, and
exercise themselves so much in the works of righteousness, that many
could readily be met with there, who were fit to take up ecclesiastical
office, that is, the service of the altar." Bede goes on to mention six
men from Hild's monastery, who afterwards became bishops. The most
famous was perhaps S. John of Beverley, who was first bishop of Hexham,
and afterwards of York, and who was noted for his piety and learning.
Aetta held the see of Dorchester for a time. Bosa, another scholarly
disciple of Hild, became Archbishop of York, and Tatfrith was elected
bishop of the Hwicce, though he died before his consecration.

None of these, however, have a greater claim to be remembered than the
cow-herd Caedmon, the first English poet, and the story as given by Bede
is perhaps one of the most charming in his Ecclesiastical History.[22]
Apart from the literary interest attaching to the story, his life shows
some of the details in outward organisation of these great double
monasteries. Before his entry into the monastery, says Bede, he was
advanced in years, and yet had so little skill in music that he was
unable to take his turn at feasts in singing and playing on the harp, an
accomplishment common to high and low among the Anglo-Saxons and kindred

The story is familiar: on one occasion when the feast was over, he left
the hall as soon as he saw the harp being passed, according to custom,
from hand to hand. He went out to the cattle-sheds, tended the beasts
and lay down to sleep. In a dream he heard a voice, "Caedmon, sing me
something." He answered, "I know not how to sing; and for this cause I
came out from the feast and came hither because I knew not how." Again
he who spoke with him said, "Nevertheless, thou canst sing me
something." Caedmon said, "What shall I sing?" He answered, "Sing me the
Creation." Then Bede relates how the cow-herd sang songs before unknown
to him, in praise of "the Creator, the Glorious Father of men, who first
created for the sons of earth, the heaven for a roof, and then the
middle world as a floor for men, the Guardian of the Heavenly Kingdom."
When the abbess Hild heard of the miracle, she instructed him in the
presence of many learned men to turn into verse a portion of the
Scriptures. He took away his task and brought it to them again
"composed in the choicest verse." Thereupon the abbess, says Bede,
"embracing and loving the gift of God in the man, entreated him to leave
the secular, and take upon him the monastic life, and ordered him to be
instructed in sacred history." So he was received into Whitby monastery
with all his family "and," continues the story, "all that he could learn
he kept in memory, and like a clean beast chewing the cud, he turned it
all into the sweetest verse, so pleasant to hear, that even his teachers
wrote and learned at his lips."

The story throws a good deal of light on the way in which a large double
monastery was organised. One gathers from it that not only isolated
monks and nuns were received into the community but sometimes whole
families. Caedmon entered "cum omnibus suis," which is generally taken
to mean that his whole family were received with him. We see from it,
too, how earnest was the desire of the superiors of the monasteries to
instruct the ignorant; how rich and poor alike in the C7 might aspire to
the monastic life, the only passport being the honest desire to serve
God in the best possible way.

Again in the latter part of the story, dealing with Caedmon's sickness
and death, there is evidence of how the aged, the sick and the dying
were tended with special care.

Whitby was not only an important religious but also political centre
and the abbesses took by no means a small part in controversy. At the
Synod of Whitby[23] held here in 664, when the respective claims of
Irish and Roman ecclesiastical discipline were discussed, Hild took the
side of the Irish Church; while her successor, Aelflæd, interested
herself in the doings of her brother, King Egfrith. Hild reigned thirty
years at Whitby and died after many years of suffering, during which she
never failed to teach her flock, both in public and in private. All that
we know of her character, indicates a strong and vivid personality, a
mind keenly alive to the necessities of the age, and a will vigorous
enough to be successful in providing for them where opportunity
occurred. She had a worthy successor in Aelflæd, a friend of the holy S.
Cuthbert. Bede says of her that "she added to the lustre of her princely
birth the brighter glory of exalted virtue," and that she was "inspired
with much love toward Cuthbert, the holy man of God."[24]

On one occasion she had fallen seriously ill, and expressed a wish that
something belonging to S. Cuthbert could be sent to her. "For then," she
said, "I know I should soon be well." A linen girdle was sent from the
Saint, and the abbess joyfully put it on. The next morning she could
stand on her feet and the third day she was restored to perfect health.
Later, a nun was cured of a headache by the same girdle, but when next
it was wanted, it could nowhere be found. Bede argues quaintly that its
disappearance was also an act of Divine Providence, since some of the
sick who flocked to it might be unworthy, and, not being cured, might
doubt its efficacy, while in reality, their own unworthiness was to
blame. "Thus," he concludes, "was all matter for detraction removed from
the malice of the unrighteous."

A contemporary of Hild's was Aebbe, a princess of the rival dynasty of
Bernicia, and sister of the royal saint, King Oswald, and of Oswy, the
reigning king. Her brother intended to give her in marriage to the king
of the Scots, but she herself was opposed to the alliance. Her family
had embraced the Christian religion in exile, and she determined to
follow the monastic life.

Accordingly, she built a double monastery, apparently in imitation of
Whitby, at Coldingham on the promontory still called S. Abb's Head. She
does not seem, however, to have maintained, like Hild, the discipline
and fervour of which she herself gave an example; for Bede notes here a
rare example of those disorders of which there were certainly far fewer
in England at this time than anywhere else.[25] Aebbe was apparently in
ignorance of the relaxation of discipline in her monastery until she
was warned of it by an Irish monk of her community, named Adamnan.

As he was walking with the abbess through the great and beautiful house
which she had built, he lamented with tears, "All that you see here so
beautiful and so grand will soon be laid in ashes!" The astonished
abbess begged an explanation. "I have seen in a dream," said the monk,
"an unknown one who has revealed to me all the evil done in this house
and the punishment prepared for it."

And what, one naturally asks, are these crimes for which nothing short
of total destruction of the splendid house is a severe enough visitation
from Heaven? Adamnan continues "The unknown one has told me that he
visited each cell and each bed, and found the monks, either wrapt in
slothful sleep, or awake, eating irregular meals and engaged in
senseless gossip; while the nuns employ their leisure in wearing
garments of excessive fineness, either to attire themselves, as if they
were the brides of men, or to bestow them on people outside." One must
admit that here and there in the writings of the period, there are
references to this worldliness in some monasteries; but whatever may
have been the state of things at a later date, there does not seem to be
evidence of graver misdeeds in these early years of monasticism in
England. Bede uses perhaps unnecessary severity in speaking of renegade
monks and nuns so-called, since he is admittedly speaking from hearsay
and not about disorders which came under his own observation. Whatever
the sins of Coldingham may have been, the community at a later date
atoned for them, for in the C9, when the Danes invaded Northumbria, and
killed the men of this monastery, among others, the nuns are said to
have mutilated their faces in order to escape the marauders. The Danes,
in fury at the loss of their prey, burned the monastery to the ground,
and all that remains to mark the site is a small ruined chapel.

At Ely there was also a double monastery founded by Aethelthryth,[26]
later known as S. Awdrey. She was the daughter of Anna, King of the East
Angles, and therefore a niece of the great abbess Hild. She was married,
for the second time, probably for political reasons, when over thirty
years old to King Egfrith of Northumbria, then a boy of fifteen. After
living with him for twelve years, she left him and went to Coldingham,
where she received the veil. Whether Egfrith agreed to this or not, it
is impossible to say. There are reasons for believing that he was, at
any rate, unwilling; for Bede says that she had long requested the king
to permit her to lay aside worldly cares and serve God in a monastery
and that she at length, with great difficulty, prevailed.

She remained at Coldingham for a year and then went to Ely, the island
in the fens given to her by her first husband; and there she built a
monastery, of which she became abbess.

She renounced all the splendours and even ordinary comforts of her
former royal life. Bede says that from the time that she entered the
monastery, she wore no linen, but only woollen garments, rarely washed
in a hot bath, unless just before any of the great festivals, such as
Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Epiphany; and then she did it last of all,
after having, with the assistance of those about her, first washed the
other nuns.

After presiding over the monastery six or seven years, she died of a
tumour in her throat, which she used to say was sent as a punishment for
her excessive love of wearing necklaces in her youth. Hence the "tawdrey
lace" of "The Winter's Tale" and elsewhere, which was a necklace bought
at S. Awdrey's Fair, held on the day of her festival, October 17th. She
was succeeded by her sister, Seaxburh, the widow of Erconberht, King of
Kent, who had founded a double monastery at Sheppey, of which she was
the first abbess. There is no mention of monks as well as nuns before
her reign. Her daughter, Ermengild, succeeded her as Abbess of Sheppey,
and at her mother's death, of Ely. Ermengild's daughter, Werburh (the
famous S. Werburh of Chester), also became abbess of Sheppey and Ely in

In the same way, Minster in Thanet remained in the family of its
foundress, Eormenburg or Domneva, as she is sometimes called, the wife
of the Mercian prince Merewald. According to tradition she received the
land from Egbert of Kent, as wergild for the murder of her two brothers.
She asked for as much land as her tame deer could cover in one course,
and she thus obtained about ten thousand acres, on which she built her
monastery. Her daughter, Mildred, who succeeded her as abbess, acquired
greater fame. She was educated at Chelles, and was there cruelly
ill-treated by the abbess, who was inappropriately named Wilcona, or
Welcome. She wished to marry Mildred to one of her relatives, and when
the girl refused, she put her into a furnace. When that punishment
failed, she pulled her hair out. Mildred adorned her psalter with the
ravished hair and sent it to her mother. Finally she escaped and
returned home. Her name is among the five abbesses who signed a charter
granting church privileges at a Kentish Witanagemot.[27] Her successor,
Eadburg, or Bugga, built a splendid new church in the monastery, which
is described in a poem attributed to Aldhelm.[28] The high altar was
hung with tapestries of cloth of gold, and ornamented with silver and
precious stones. The chalice, too, was of gold, and set with jewels;
there were glass windows, and from the roof there hung a silver censer.
Mention is made of the united singing of the monks and nuns in the

Eadburg and her mother, a certain Abbess Eangyth, were both friends of
Boniface, the great English missionary bishop of Mainz, the "Apostle of
Germany." Eangyth writes to him of her troubles as abbess of a double
monastery, of the quarrels among the monks, the poverty of the house,
and the excessive dues which had to be paid to the king and his
officials. In one letter Boniface thanks Eadburg for books and clothes,
and asks if she will write out for him in gold letters the Epistles of
S. Peter, that he may have the words of the Apostle before his eyes when
he preaches.

Repton was another double monastery under an abbess, though nothing is
known of its foundation. Some information about it is gained from the
Life of S. Guthlac by Felix. Guthlac was a noble of Mercia, and in his
youth a great warrior; but at the age of twenty-four, he went to Repton
and received the tonsure under the abbess Aelfthryth. Her rule was
apparently very strict, for we find Guthlac getting into trouble for
breaking a rule by _not_ drinking wine.

Several chapters in Bede's Ecclesiastical History are devoted to stories
of the double monastery at Barking, which was one of the most famous. It
was founded by Erconwald, who afterwards became bishop of London. He
built one for himself at Chertsey, and one for his sister Aethelburg at
Barking, and, as Bede says, "established them both in regular discipline
of the best kind." This monastery included both a hospital and a school,
under the energetic rule of its first abbess.

Hildelith succeeded Aethelburg, and it was for her and her companions
that the scholar Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, wrote his work, "De
Laudibus Virginitatis."[29] He speaks of the nunnery as a hive where the
nuns work like little bees, for they collect everywhere material for
study. Their industry is not confined to the study of Holy Scripture. He
speaks of them as searching carefully into the writers of history, as
having a knowledge of ancient law and chronography, and in writing, of
the rules of grammar and orthography, punctuation, metre, together with
the use of allegory and tropology; all of which goes to prove that the
field of secular knowledge was not particularly limited for nuns in
those days. Aldhelm enlarges on the charms of their peaceful life in the
nunnery, and the opportunities for thought and study it affords them. He
recommends the works of Cassian and Gregory for their reading, and warns
them against pride, a special temptation to those who have adopted the
religious life.

Again there comes the warning against worldliness in both monk and nun.
Some of the men, he says, contrary to the rule of the regular life,
wear gay clothing. "The appearance of the other sex, too, corresponds:
a vest of fine linen of hyacinth blue is worn, and above it a scarlet
tunic with hood and sleeves of striped silk; on the feet are little
shoes of red leather; the locks on the forehead and temples are waved
with a curling-iron; the dark grey head-veil has given place to white
and coloured head-dresses, the folds of which are kept in place by
fillets and reach right down to the feet; the nails are pared to
resemble the talons of a falcon." Aldhelm condemns all this, but hastens
to add that of course he is addressing no one in particular. The work
closes with an affectionate greeting to those whom he calls the Flowers
of the Church, Pearls of Christ, his monastic sisters and scholarly
pupils, whose prayers he always desires.

In Wessex the double monastery of Wimborne was the most important of its
time, and most famed for its literary activity. According to the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,[30] it was founded by Cuthburg, sister of Ine,
king of Wessex. Most of our knowledge of the community comes from the
Life of S. Lioba[31] ('the beloved'), who was educated there during the
reign of the Abbess Tetta, another sister of the royal founder. The
author of S. Lioba's Life describes the arrangement at Wimborne. He says
that there were two monasteries there, one for clerks and the other for
women. The two houses were surrounded by high walls and the monastery
was well endowed. No nun could obtain permission to go to the monks'
house, and no man might enter the nuns' convent, except the priests who
came to celebrate in their church. One gathers from this that there was
not a common church for both sides of the community, as was often the
case. The abbess gave any necessary orders to the monks through a
window. No woman was admitted to the community unless she undertook not
to attempt to leave it except for very urgent reasons and by permission
of the abbess.

Some idea of its size may be gathered from the fact that there were five
hundred nuns at Wimborne. That strength and tact were needed to rule
them is shown by one amusing if lamentable episode.

A very religious virgin was placed in authority over the novices, and
she was so hated by them on account of her severity that even after her
death the young nuns could not forget; and rushing out, they trampled
upon her grave, with curses, until the mound became a hole half a foot
deep. The abbess Tetta rebuked them for their unchristian behaviour, and
ordered a three days' fast and penance, after which the culprits
apparently recovered their senses.

Lioba herself seems to have had an attractive personality, and to have
gained the affection both of the abbess and the other nuns. A little
letter of hers is extant, wherein she writes to Boniface recalling
herself to his mind and claiming relationship with him through her
mother. She also encloses some Latin verse for his criticism. She says,
"This too, I ask, that you will correct the mistakes of this letter, and
send me a few words as a proof of your goodwill. I have composed the
little verses written below, according to the rules of prosody, not from
pride, but from a desire to cultivate the beginnings of a slender
genius, and because I wanted your help. I learnt the art from Eadburga,
my mistress, who devotes herself unceasingly to searching Divine Law."

When Boniface was establishing religious houses in Germany he sent to
Abbess Tetta, asking that Lioba might be allowed to come over and help
him. She went, and Boniface put the monastery of Bischofsheim on the
Tauber, a tributary of the Main, under her care. Here she carried on the
traditions of Wimborne, for she taught and encouraged learning in every
way. Her rule was sane and wise. Her biographer says of her, "She was
careful always not to teach others what she herself did not practise.
Neither conceit nor overbearing found any place in her disposition; but
she was gentle and kind to everyone without exception. She was beautiful
as an angel and her conversation was charming. Her intellect was
renowned, and she was able in counsel. She was catholic in faith, most
patient in hope, and of widespread charity. Though her face was always
cheerful, she never broke into hilarious laughter. No one ever heard an
ill-natured remark fall from her lips, and the sun never went down upon
her wrath. Though she provided food and drink with the greatest
liberality for others, she was very moderate herself; and the cup from
which she used to drink was called by the sisters, on account of its
size, 'darling's little mug.'"

She knew that a heedful mind is necessary for both prayer and study, and
so she insisted upon moderation in holding vigils. She allowed herself,
and the sisters under her, a short rest after dinner, especially in the
summer time; and would never willingly allow people to stay up late; for
she maintained that loss of sleep meant loss of intelligence, especially
in reading. Her methods were undoubtedly successful, for Rudolf says
that among the other convents for women in Germany, there was scarcely
one which had not teachers trained under Lioba, so eagerly sought after
were her pupils.

Here this account of some early double monasteries must end. In England
they probably existed right up to the Danish invasions of 870, and
disappeared in the general devastation of the country during the
succeeding years. The organisation, however, appears again in this
country in the C12, and even as late as the C15. The order of S. Gilbert
of Sempringham in the C12 was a double one, and the only order which
actually had birth in England. It was, however, entirely lacking in that
intellectual activity which was a special feature of the earlier double
monasteries, among both men and women, and which, from the secular point
of view, gave to the Anglo-Saxon nunneries a place not incomparable with
the women's colleges of the present day. The latest double monastery in
England was that of S. Bridget of Sion, near Isleworth, on the Thames.

Reference has been made only to the more important early double
monasteries in England; but there are others which may or may not come
under this category. Of these some are Whitern in Galloway, Carlisle,
Caistor in Northamptonshire, Gloucester, Strenshall in Staffordshire,
and Lyminge in Kent.

It is uncertain whether Bischofsheim, in Germany, under the abbess
Lioba, was a double monastery, but the arrangement is known to have
existed in Germany in the C8 and later. There are also traces of them in
Italy, and considerable evidence for the same sort of system in Spain,
but time does not allow of dealing with them here.

Finally, the double monastery did not flourish or find much favour in
the more sophisticated ages of Christianity, but generally followed an
outburst of religious enthusiasm in the earlier centuries of the Faith.
"It was," says Montalembert, "a peculiarity belonging to the youth of
the church, which, like youth in all circumstances, went through all the
difficulties, dangers, and storms of that age, and which in maturer
times gave way before a more practical, if less ideal, outlook on


[1] "Monasteria duplicia ut appellantur." Corp. Jur. Civ. (Krueger)
Codex I. iii., 43.

[2] Vita Pachom. Migne, Pat. Lat., tom. 73, cap. 28, col. 248. Paris,

[3] Regula S. Pachomii. Gallandius Bib. Vet. Pat., tom. 4, p. 718.
Venice, 1765.

[4] Vita Pachom. Migne, Pat. Lat., tom. 73, cap. 28, col. 248. Paris,

[5] Lives of Women Saints. Translated by an early author (unknown)
probably 1610-1615. Edited by C. Horstmann (E.E.T.S.), 1886.

[6] Migne, Pat. Lat., tom. 67, col. 1001.

[7] Bateson, Mary, "Origin and Early History of Double Monasteries."
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. XIII., p. 141.

[8] Bateson, Mary, op. cit., p. 143.

[9] Gregorius Turon, Hist. Franc., Lib. 3, cap. 7.

[10] Nisard, Vie de Fortunat, chap. 52. Paris, 1887.

[11] Eckenstein, Lina, Woman under Monasticism. Page 54. Cambridge,


    Tempora si solito mihi candida lilia ferrent
    Aut speciosa foret suave rubore rosa,
    Haec ego rure legens aut caespite pauperis horti
    Misissem magnis munera parva libens;
    Sed quia prima mihi desunt, vel solvo secunda,
    Profert qui violas, fert et amore rosas.
    Inter odoriferas tamen has quas misimus herbas
    Purpureae violae nobile germen habent,
    Respirant pariter regali murice tinctae
    Et saturat foliis hinc odor, inde decor.
    Hae quod utrumque gerunt pariter habeatis utraque
    Et sit mercis odor flore perenne decus.
    (Nisard, Poésies de Fortunat, Lib. 8, vi. Paris, 1887.)

[13] Gregorius Turon, De Gloria Confessorum, cap. 106.

[14] Moines d'Occident. Tom. V., cap. 4. Paris, 1867.

[15] Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. III., cap. 8. Ed. C. Plummer. Oxford,

[16] This applies to the Germanic peoples generally.

[17] Line 1942. Ed. F. Holthausen. Heidelberg, 1906.

[18] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under 672. Ed. C. Plummer. 1892.

[19] Moines d'Occident. Tom. 5, page 241. Paris, 1860.

[20] Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, iii., 238. Abbesses Mildrith,
Aetheldrith, Aette, Wilnoth, Hereswyth, sign the privilege granted to
the churches and monasteries of Kent, by King Wihtred, 696/716.

[21] Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. IV., cap. 23. (Cp. II. 14.) Ed. C.
Plummer. Oxford, 1896.

[22] Lib. IV., cap. 24. Ed. C. Plummer. Oxford, 1896.

[23] Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. IV., cap. 25.

[24] Bede, Vita S. Cuthberhti, cap. 23. Ed. C. Plummer. Oxford, 1896.

[25] Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. IV., cap. 25. Ed. C. Plummer. Oxford,

[26] Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. IV., cap. 19. Ed. C. Plummer. Oxford,

[27] Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, iii., 238.

[28] S. Aldhelmi opera. Migne, Pat. Lat. Tom. 89, col. 289.

[29] S. Aldhelmi opera. Migne, Pat. Lat. Tom. 89, cols. 103-162.

[30] Under 718.

[31] By Rudolf of Fulda, a monk. He wrote about 836. A. SS. Boll., Sept.

[32] Moines d'Occident. Tom. 5, page 320. Paris, 1860.

Transcriber's Note:

    Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without
    note. Punctuation has been normalised.

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