Monks Gone Wild

There is a romanticism to Catholic monasteries.

An image is conjured of mysterious rituals, brown robes and solemn religious tradition. Silent monks walk stone hallways, amongst threadbare tapestries and dusty books. Within the abbey, a fraternal order dedicates their lives to worship, theological study and sinless living. This brotherhood remain cloistered from the horrors of medieval and Renaissance life so they may have the time to focus upon Godly pursuits…

Dominican Order Monk Drinking Jacob Gole (1693 – 1700)

and ungodly pursuits as well. Gluttony, alcoholism, and lust are commonly depicted in medieval (500-1500) and early modern (1500-1800) illustrations and paintings of monks. Monks are shown gambling, visiting brothels, seducing nuns and engaging in homosexual relations. Many of these images were designed to damage the church’s reputation, but there is some truth to the imagery as well. Clergymen didn’t always control their desires of the flesh, and the general public, living in starvation and squalor, was understandably envious of their more comfortable living.

Monk Touches a Woman Cornelis Dusart (1670-1704)

The Catholic church took allegations of corruption within the clergy seriously and conducted regular investigations. Clergymen were held to high standards, not only to prevent the wrath of God, but also to protect the church’s image. When guilty, clergy were punished in a variety of ways, ranging from shaming sentences and forced ritual fasting to prison or excommunication.

Drinking Monks Jan van Somer (1655-1700)

There is some truth to the trope of the happy drunk monk. It has been written that in medieval Europe water was often unhygienic and that everyone, from toddlers to the elderly drank beer. It’s likely that on occasional feast days this was true, but most people would have not been able to afford drinking beer as a daily water replacement. Monks, however, had the time, knowledge and financing to develop breweries. Which they did. Brewing was such big business that often monasteries contained multiple brewing areas, where separate beer was produced for travelers and customers, the poor, and the monks themselves. Surrounded by beer as they were, even the most pious monk was likely day drinking.

Monk and a Woman Cornelis Dusart (1670-1704)
Drunken Monk and Smoking Nun Cornelis Dusart (1670 – 1704)

Monks came from wealthy families and were accustomed to a surplus of food, especially compared to the impoverished parishioners in their communities. Religious limitations, such as a single meal a day, or a ban upon the flesh of quadrupeds (four-legged animals) were no match for human inventiveness and greed. Monks discovered loopholes within the rules and feasted upon birds (two-legs) even on meat-less days (see our post on Barnacle Geese) and they packed on the pounds. Exercise within monastic life was nonexistent and monks generally abstained from manual labor in order to have more time for religious study. This led to obesity and many monks suffered from diabetes, strokes and heart failures.

We have been working on some exciting images of monks lately. You may find them background-free in costumes.

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