Medieval and Modern Perceptions of Transgression

AHA Session 26
Medieval Academy of America 1
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Karen A. Christianson, Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies
The Audience

Session Abstract

Medieval and Modern Perceptions of Transgression, Karen Christianson, Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies, Chair

Dangerous Liaisons? Nuns, Monks, and the Sexual Indiscretions of Monastic Life, Michelle Armstrong-Partida, University of California, Los Angeles

Forgery, Crime, and Punishment in the Central Middle Ages, Robert F. Berkhofer III, Western Michigan University

Roving Nuns and Cistercian Realities: The Cloistering of Religious Women in the Thirteenth Century, Erin L. Jordan, University of Northern Colorado

Behaviors that seem obviously wrong today—immoral, illegal, even criminal—sometimes were perfectly acceptable to Europeans during the Middle Ages. The opposite case also arises, where actions that would scarcely raise an eyebrow today resulted in severe punishments. At the same time, some behaviors labeled transgressive by medieval prescriptive and legal sources appear in fact to have been widely practiced and accepted. The papers in this panel will engage a variety of documents of practice to unearth, in specific cases, how—and why—medieval people defined certain acts as transgressions, and they ways they enforced or chose not to enforce instances of wrongdoing.

Michelle Armstrong-Partida’s paper explores monks and nuns in Catalunya engaging in sexual relationships—apparent cut-and-dried instances of transgressive behavior. But visitation records reveal a more nuanced story, with gender and social class determining whether and how the individuals involved were punished, and even whether they were required to end the errant relationships. Robert Berkhofer examines the issue of forging documents in medieval France and England. Legal documents including records of confessions demonstrate a shift over time in attitudes toward the practice; in the earlier Middle Ages forgery seems scarcely to have been perceived as wrong, whereas during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries authorities began to both punish forgers and to develop ways to prevent or discover forgeries. Erin Jordan’s paper addresses new rules enforcing strict enclaustration of thirteenth-century Cistercian nuns. Women who left their cloisters clearly committed an infraction of Cistercian regulations, but Jordan examines charter evidence to explore how contemporaries viewed these actions, unearthing a more complex and fluid reality. The three papers taken together complicate and amplify our understanding of how medieval people perceived, engaged in, prohibited, and punished transgressions.

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