Original Research

Die mediëvalistiese karikatuur van seksuele verval in Laat-Middeleeuse vrouekloosters

Johann Beukes
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 43, No 1 | a2415 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2415 | © 2022 Johann Beukes | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 05 November 2021 | Published: 29 April 2022

About the author(s)

Johann Beukes, Department of Philosophy and Classics, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa; Center for the History of Philosophy and Science (CHPS), Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands


The medievalist caricature of sexual regress in Late-Medieval female monasteries: This article confronts the widely published medievalist caricature of sexual regress in Late-Medieval female monasteries by presenting a statistical analysis of the relatively low (measured against the Early and Central Middle Ages) frequency of sexual contact between monks and nuns, monks and monks, and nuns and nuns in 15th century England. C.H. Knudsen’s examination of the pastoral register of the bishop of Lincoln, William Alnwick, in the period from 1436 to 1449 is utilised to counter the common, yet profoundly modernist notion of the Late-Medieval ‘wayward nun’. Five idea-historical developments from the Early and Central Middle Ages are presented as a backdrop to this statistical analysis, showing that sexual encounters in monasteries in the Early to Central Middle Ages in the Latin West occurred more often than merely sporadic. Having defined medievalism as ‘post-Medieval ideological-reductionist and anachronistic reconstructions of the Middle Ages, whereby the Middle Ages is essentialised by one or more contingencies’, it becomes clear that the notion of ‘sexual regress in Late Medieval female monasteries’ with the image of the ‘wayward nun’ centralised therein, points to a form of medievalism: a single contingent aspect of Medieval female monasteries – the occurrence of sexual contact, however discreet – is used to present a fabricated totality of a complex socio-historical context. How complex this historical context indeed is, becomes apparent in Knudsen’s analysis of the bishop of Lincoln’s pastoral register during his 79 visits to 70 monasteries and interrogations of 217 nuns and 528 monks. Concluding that the ‘promiscuous monk’ was a far more general phenomenon than the ‘wayward nun’ in the Later Middle Ages, Knudsen’s analysis confirms that the Middle Ages is still as much a domain of research as it is a realm of fantasy today. The modernist fixation on the Late-Medieval ‘wayward nun’ is, for example, expressed in Heinrich Lossow’s (1843–1897) provocative painting Die Versündigung (ca.1880). It is argued that the ‘wayward nun’ in Lossow’s painting was a self-conscious attempt to escape from the impasse created by Victorian sexual repression: just as in every other 19th and early 20th century representation of sexual regress in Late-Medieval female monasteries, ‘she’ was nothing more than vulgar fiction.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This critique of the medievalist caricature of sexual regress in Late-Medieval female monasteries overlaps with a variety of philosophical and theological disciplines, including Medieval philosophy, Medieval history, church history, patristics, philosophy of religion and sociology of religion. Whenever these proximate disciplines are impacted by niche Medieval research, it may hold implications that these disciplines could take note of.


Augustine; William Alnwick; Peter Damian; Late-Medieval female monasteries; Late Middle Ages; Heinrich Lossow; Medievalism; Shenout of Atripe; Die Versündigung (ca. 1880)


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