In Which the Cradle Catholics Give the Academics an Extremely Nonplused Look

As part of a very long post describing conference papers, I came across something that made an impression on me. Apparently, an academic has discovered that Cistercian nuns’ churches got just as many requests for Masses commemmorating dead folks as Cistercian monks’ churches did. And there was much be-puzzlement among the academics at this conference, because women can’t be ordained! And therefore must obviously have less pull with God!

*incredulous look from all people raised Catholic*
*incredulous laughter from same*
*simultaneous incredulous murmurs of “Art thou sh*tting me?”*

First of all, any priest in good standing, in any parish or no parish, is going to perform a perfectly workable commemorative Mass. You give him a nice stipend and don’t worry about it. In general, everybody capable of saying a Mass for the dead is saying as many of them as he can stand and farming out the rest to poor missionary priests. And that’s in today’s non-believing world, not the medieval world where everybody you’d ever met was probably Catholic.

Second, it’s a well-known Catholic fact that NUNS GET WHAT THEY PRAY FOR. They have pull. They get results. They sit there in their little cloisters and save the world. I thought everybody knew that!

I am not saying anything against monks, especially strong, silent, steel-making Cistercian monks from the Middle Ages. They are good singers, too. Sure, the prayers of a righteous man availeth much, and sure, the priest monks in their churches were very cool and had their own Form of Mass to boot.

But they are not quite the same as nuns, my academic friends. Sweet little nuns with sweet little voices to sing chant in their side of the church — they do not need to be ordained or ordainable. They don’t need to be in persona Christi, because they are sponsae Christi. (Or whatever the proper grammar might be.) You do not mess with the nuns; you want them on your side. (Which is how bits of St. Therese recently got to space, if you remember. Little cloistered St. Therese and her little cloistered Texas friends have big enough pull with NASA to get to Earth orbit.)

There’s also the geographic thing. Which church is closer? That’s the one you’ll likely pick, all else being equal.

So of course the nuns’ church got just as many Masses sung for the dead as the monks’ church did. If you’d said they got more sung, I wouldn’t have been surprised, because nuns are also pretty persuasive salespeople. Besides having pull.


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5 responses to “In Which the Cradle Catholics Give the Academics an Extremely Nonplused Look

  1. Thankyou for the pingback. I think the academic amazement is more justifiable if you’re familiar with the heavily misogynistic ecclesiastical writing of the time. The theology of women’s worthiness as vessels of the Holy Spirit has come a long way since the twelfth century; women’s houses weren’t even initially recognised as genuinely part of the Cistercian Order. Your argument seems to be that nuns are cooler, which is a case now, given how fixated modern society is on the woman as advertising object, but would need a lot more justification for the period we’re talking about. The geographic factor is a good point, certainly, but I think dedication to particular saints means that ‘all else’ never is equal in these cases. In summary, I think that the academics might not be as clueless about their subject as you might like to think…

  2. Pingback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e45v1

  3. Well, perhaps I was too busy being amused to explain my points.

    Re: nuns — You can have a lot of misogyny and lack of respect for nuns existing simultaneously with the common belief, expressed through both legends and through personal stories from people around you, that nuns have the ear of the Almighty. This is quite similar to the way that, although people often didn’t have much respect for beggars and madmen in the usual way of life, they often seemed to feel that they were the go-to people when in desperate need of effective prayers.

    Now, it’s very likely that the strength of such collective notions and running themes has waxed and waned, but (in my admittedly only-for-fun reading), I’ve never run across anything to contradict the basic “messing with nuns is a bad idea, giving them money is a good idea” hypothesis. (Except for “bad nuns in dire need of reform” — but then, you wouldn’t expect “bad nuns” to be perceived as spiritual powerhouses whom you want on your side.)

    But to be totally mundane, I still think it’s a lot more normal for Masses to be said for the dead to be absolutely cramming everybody’s Mass schedules, than for any priest anywhere to be shunned. You’d have to be doing something seriously notorious — and even then there’s some people who would figure the notorious guy at the notorious parish would be a sort of bargain priest, who’s clearly going to be more interested in saying such Masses than the average priest with a full schedule. I’ve heard that it’s very normal for new orders and ministries to eke out financing this way, and I’ve already talked about the current (some say iffy) practice of priests farming out Masses they’ve been asked to say and Mass stipends they’ve been given to missionaries or other priests in inconvenient-to-reach locations. Given that it doesn’t even occur to most US Catholics today to have Masses said for the dead at all, this is a pretty incredible indication of supply and demand levels.

    There are an awful lot of dead people, and an awful lot of mourners; and it never stops.

  4. Certainly to the last point, but current practice is not necessarily a guide to past practice. The big monastic orders, other than Benedictinism, were very new in the period in question, and in exactly the kind of financial quandary you describe, which may explain why gifts of land made under the obligation to say masses (as opposed to just praying) were a relatively new thing in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Cluny’s 24-hour mass schedule did an awful lot to change expectations of what you can get from a gift to a monastery; before that it’s as vague as ‘memory’ or inscription in a book of benefactors, and exactly what was done to commemorate those people is a subject of research still. The standard clause for most early medieval charters of gift has nothing to do with mass or prayer and is simply “pro remedio meae animae”, ‘for the good of my soul’. The shift from alms-giving to expectations of religious service for gifts (as opposed to social connection and economic return benefit, say) is ongoing in this period, as is the spread of a popular (mis-)understanding of Christianity, which is why religious currents in the period such as indicated in these studies are so interesting to the people who study them.

    Also, ‘the basic “messing with nuns is a bad idea, giving them money is a good idea” hypothesis’ is very widespread in the sources, I agree. But who wrote the sources? Exactly the people you’d expect to produce such a message, viz. the clerics who work for the nunneries (because as they can’t be ordained, nuns have to have mass priests from elsewhere or on staff, yes?) or else the nuns themselves, occasionally. This is another reason why gift practice is interesting, because it tells us about the effects of such writing on the wider audience.

    My point is still mainly that there are usually reasons why academics think the way they do that have to do with what they know about their subject, rather than what you may think they/we don’t know about life.

  5. If people were so fond of nuns and so respectful of their powe in the MA, how does that explain that women’s houses were typically smaller and poorer than men’s houses … and that nuns were not completely safe from rape by nice Catholic boys in times of war?

    I was at the paper in question, and there were a lot of nuances and numbers that Jon didn’t really go into, but Jon and I were two of the people there who work pretty extensively with monastic charters and have each read well into the hundreds of them (and Jon may have read more than I). You may not find it surprising based on anecdote, comparison to what you know about the Church now, and the kind of mythos that permeates the education of many cradle Catholics. Sadly, we are expected to look at evidence, and our evidence tends to show that people in the Middle Ages thought pretty differently than we do. And the evidence also supports a picture of cloistered women that changes a lot between say, the 7th and 14th centuries. So when someone finds actual evidence, written or material, that helps to show when and where there are differences from a trend or norm, it can shock us, or sometimes just raise interesting questions that need further investigation. This happened to be a paper that raised many questions. Finding the answers may lead to even more questions, as well as some answers and re-evaluation. But sadly, it won’t let us simply say, “well, duh!” because one of the first things we learn in historian school is that it’s never that simple.

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