We Learned to Love the Hard Way / You’re Going to Learn it Too

One of the books I picked up at Kzoo was an anthology of hagiography and miracles by Aelred of Rivaulx, The Lives of Northern Saints. Here we can find his version of the life of Ninnian, stories of the miracles of the saints of Aelred’s ancestral home, Hexham, and what I present to you here, the miracle of the Nun of Watton.

Some of you, perhaps most, undoubtedly already know the story. Those of you who don’t, hold onto your cowls and grip your soft bits: a Gilbertine nun, admitted as an oblate somewhere around her fourth year (and we might better say: abandoned to the nuns by her father), never quite takes to the calling. No wonder: there’s doesn’t seem to have been any institutional support in this convent for oblates (see Boswell 310 n50). She grows up to be flirty, dirty-minded, and, inevitably, she gets mixed up with a fellow–a conversus (lay brother?) a canon?–who rapes her. Their relationship, such as it is, continues, and, when she discovers herself pregnant, the man runs off. She’s beaten, imprisoned, and fettered by her scandal-fearing sisters, who top the torture off by compelling her to betray her lover, such as he was. When he’s been captured, he’s brought before his lover, who–again, under compulsion–castrates him. After the sisters throw the bloody penis in the chained sister’s face, they drive the castrate out.

My summary leaves a lot out.

A list of the stranger bits, each of which merits more attention, maybe in your Fall courses:

  • The varying translation of one of the most shocking moments, “sicut foeda sanguine in ora peccatricis projecit”: the Cistercian Pub. version (trans Jane Patricia Freeland) reads “flung them as they were–foul and covered with blood–into the face of the sinful woman”; in an exuberant, outrageous stretch, Boswell does it as “foul and bloody just as they were, [one of them] stuck them in the mouth of the sinner”; and the Gutman, splitting the difference, does is as “threw them into the mouth”;
  • The conversus rapes the nun at first, covering her mouth “lest she cry out.” But the relationship continues, and the other nuns grow suspicious because of “the sound they often heard,” which is, presumably (?), the sound of pleasure. Yet when the pregnancy’s first revealed, the nuns are all amazed;
  • The punishments the sisters initially want to inflict on the pregnant nun sound shockingly like a précis of the typical delights of martyrdom: “Zeal immediately flamed up in their bones, and, 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” (115; Salih, 161, also makes this point);
  • Her lover is captured as follows: he returns to the grounds of Watton, which indicates that he had not entirely abandoned his lover; he rushes at what he thinks is her; it’s one of brothers of the community, disguised with a veil [irruit in virum quem feminam esse putabat], and, for his misdirected lust, he’s beaten and taken to what Aelred describes as a “spectaculum,” a show.

The actual miracle is, of course, not the Grand Guignol of the prison: the spectaculum is not the miraculum. The miracle is the salvation of the pregnant nun from producing another of what she was, an unwanted birth. Swollen with child in a cell scarcely able to contain her bulk, gray with exhaustion, she finds relief of a sort in a dream. Archbishop Henry Murdac of York, who had overseen her oblation, appears and berates her. Thanks a lot, Henry. On the next night, he appears again, this time accompanied by two women. Murdac covers her face with his pallium, and after a while, she sees the two women carrying an infant wrapped in white silk. She feels her belly, and it’s gone slack. A miracle!

I was reading this episode on one of my flights home from Kalamazoo, and, at the same time, was aware that Pope Benedict had just reaffirmed his church’s stance on birth control (for example, see here). With Benedict’s words in my mind, I had to ask: what happened to the fetus (or infant, or parasite, &c.) of Watton? Compare this story to another, somewhat similar story Boswell translates (459-60) in which the infant’s taken to “a certain hermit…who should bring the baby up in [the BVM’s] service.” We might also recall Marie de France’s “Lai de Fresne,” or the many stories of the abandoned child who should have stayed lost (see Oedipus and ff.) But in this story, here, the two women simply leave with the baby.

This miracle is not–apparently not–an abortion. The nuns accuse her of it, but she claims, rightly, that she doesn’t know what’s become of her infant. It’s alive, somewhere, maybe: but I wonder about the silk wrapping: as sideways as such a thought is, I can’t help but be reminded of funeral wrappings (and how might a child in 12th-c. Yorkshire be buried?), or of the folds of cloth holding souls in the lap of Abraham, which could function as a sort of antechamber for souls awaiting entry into paradise (see Le Goff, Birth of Purgatory 122).

At Watton, we have, on the one hand, a miracle of astonishing naivete: pushing past a fundamental contradiction, Aelred wants to condemn abortion while maintaining compassion for what his own condemnation causes, viz., the social and emotional catastrophe of forced pregnancy and unwanted children (represented here by the nun of Watton herself and what she carries). On the other hand, we should not simply sniff at Aelred’s compassion: is it simply that he wants the impossible, judicial judgment without violence (he explains “I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shedding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy,” 117), or can we feel in his desire for the impossible, driven as it is in part by compassion, some possibility of the force of law opening up into something else? Might the law be dissolved by the mixture of Aelred’s tears with those of the pregnant oblate?

(Creative Commons photo from here)

Further Reading:
For the Latin: PL, vol 195:780-96
Other translations: John Boswell The Comfort of Strangers 452-58 (for a brief discussion, see 310)
O. Gutman in Carolyne Larrington, ed, Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook 128-33;
Other discussions Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England 152-65, which admirably treats the complexities of space in the story; and Giles Constable, “Ailred of Reivaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order,” in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978): 205-226, which I read in my pre-database days and hence do not remember: did he write about double-monasteries and scandal?

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