Forbidden Emotions: Self-Pity and the Medieval Bishop

When reading the lives of medieval saint-bishops, in which depictions of emotional extremes often figure prominently, it is easy to feel that Johann Huizinga’s claims about ‘the unrestrained extravagance of the medieval heart’[1] were perhaps not so far from the truth after all. Consequently, I have now started to look for occasions when emotions were reined in, and emotional behaviours which were generally frowned upon.

For medieval bishops, one forbidden emotion was self-pity. Whilst the vitae of the English saint-bishops of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are generally tear-sodden affairs, tears of self-pity are conspicuously absent. An extract from the Life of St Richard of Chichester illustrates the correct response to personal misfortune:

When they told him that a fire had caused great destruction to his houses and property, his household grieved and wept, but he wore a serene expression and cheerful aspect and thanked God and comforted those in distress saying ‘Do not be said. We still have sufficient to provide you with clothing and other necessities.’ And he added, ‘These things have happened because we have not given alms as generously as we should. Therefore we wish and command that we provide more lavish alms in future.’ [2]

Whilst his household was overwhelmed by fear and loss, the saint knows that it is not appropriate to weep. Instead, he is calm and rational. He understands that this misfortune is a lesson from God, considers what they had done to displease Him, and identifies a solution which will restore them to divine favour.

But, human nature being what it is, it would be very surprising if medieval bishops never felt sorry for themselves- and there are a handful of stories in which a bishop indulges in self-pity. Perhaps the most striking is Henry of Huntingdon’s recollection of how Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln (1094-1123), wept one night at dinner. When asked the reason for his tears

He said ‘In the old days those who waited on my were dressed in costly apparel. Now, because of the fines imposed by the king, whose pleasure I have always been most diligent to serve, they have to be clothed in woollens.’ He felt such despair about the king’s friendship that when he was told that the king, in his absence, had spoken high praise of him, he sighed and said ‘The king only praises one of his men when he has decided to destroy him utterly.’ [3]

Bloet was a stereotypical courtier-bishop whose priority (at least until he fell out of favour with Henry I) was undoubtedly royal service. But in Henry of Huntingdon’s hands, this is more than just a critique of a bad bishop. Bloet was, he says, a good man, ‘meek and humble, building up many and pulling down no one, the father of the fatherless, the delight of his men.’ His fatal weakness was his loyalty to the king, which turned him into a ‘worldly man.’ According to Henry of Huntingdon, such men ‘usually meet bitter misfortunes before death.’ Indeed, Bloet’s death itself demonstrated the dangers of putting too much faith in the King, and too little faith in God. A few days later after the aforementioned dinner, Bloet was at a hunting party at Woodstock, in the company of the king, when he suffered a stroke.

Still alive, but speechless, he was carried into his lodgings and shortly afterwards, while the king was with him, he died. The great king whom he had always served, whom he had greatly loved and feared, whom he had regarded so highly, and in whom he had placed such confidence, could give no more help to the poor man in his greatest need.[4]    

There was very little danger than Robert Bloet would ever be considered as a possible saint, yet his story was not without value: the reader could learn from the mistakes of this fallible human being just as he could profit from the exemplary conduct of the saint-bishop. And in both of these stories, the depiction of emotional behaviours is central to their power. We know that Richard Wyche is a saint because, confronted by disaster, his response is different to that of his household; his emotions set him apart from the rest of humanity. On the other hand, the power of Robert Bloet’s story derives from his very humanity, as reflected in his tears. The reader who fails to learn from the failings of this man will come to share his sorrow.

[1] J. Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1997), p. 15.

[2] Saint Richard of Chichester: The sources for his life, ed. D. Jones (Lewes, 1995), p. 115 (with translation at p. 191).

[3] Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon: Historia Anglorum, ed. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), pp. 586-89.

[4] Historia Anglorum, pp. 588-89.

Robert Grosseteste’s Ghost


Over the past year, I’ve been working mainly on episcopal emotions, in particular the ways in which displays of emotion influenced popular perceptions of late medieval English bishops. I’ve assembled quite a collection of emotional bishops, most of them either tearful or angry.[1] Amongst my favourites is undoubtedly the story of Bishop Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln (1235-53), as told by the St Alban’s chronicler Matthew Paris. [2] Grosseteste was a staunch defender of the liberties of the English Church, and consequently his episcopate was characterised by frequent clashes with both King Henry III and the Papacy. When Grosseteste died, Pope Innocent IV spied a chance for revenge:  

One day, the pope, in an excessive fit of anger, wished, despite the opposition of all the cardinals, to throw the bones of Robert, bishop of Lincoln, out of the church, and to hurl him to such infamy and degradation that he might be proclaimed a heathen and disobedient rebel throughout the whole world. And he ordered a letter, stating such to be his purpose, to be written and sent to the king of England, knowing that he would willingly vent his fury against that prelate, and upon a church which was open to be plundered.[3]   

But Grosseteste was never one to shy away from a confrontation, and even death could not prevent him from protesting against this latest papal outrage:

In the night following this day, a vision appeared to the pope whilst lying restless in his bed, in which the said bishop of Lincoln, clad in his pontifical robes, with a severe and grim look approached him, and addressed him with a terrible voice, at the same time poking him in the side with a shepherd’s staff he carried. “Villanous Pope Senebald,” said the phantom, “did you intend to eject my bones from the church, to the disgrace of me and my church of Lincoln? Whence arises this act of temerity on your part? It would be more worthy of you, who are exalted and honoured by God, to cherish those who are exalted servants of God, even though they be dead. The Lord will not suffer you henceforth to have any power over me.”[4]

The ghost proceeded to complain about the ‘haughtiness’ with which Innocent responded to the many letters which Grosseteste sent him, begging him ‘to correct your frequent errors.’ Then:

With these words Bishop Robert departed, leaving the pope half-dead, who had been groaning and sighing as if he were pierced with a lance each time he was poked with the staff.[5]    

Innocent never recovered from this episode; Paris tells us that he suffered from ‘an incurable pleurisy’ and ‘never was well, either mentally or bodily, but sensibly yielded to the influence of death.’[6]

So what was the significance of this tale? Its appeal to Matthew Paris is clear: the chronicler was extremely hostile to the papacy, and always inclined to think the worst of its incumbents. His attitude to Bishop Grosseteste was rather more positive: although he disapproved of his harsh methods of visitation, he strongly approved of his criticism of the papacy, and on several occasions used him as a mouthpiece for his own anti-papal views.[7] After Grosseteste’s death, Paris seems to have viewed the bishop as a potential saint, and this is certainly the light in which he is cast in this story. Medieval ghosts typically came from purgatory in order to seek the help of the living, but saintly ghosts were already in heaven and therefore did not need such assistance. Instead they came to right wrongs, to complain about slights to their reputation, and to punish their enemies- often physically.[8]

And this strange episode also allowed Paris to demonstrate that Grosseteste possessed several of the attributes required of a good medieval bishop. Medieval men were expected to use moderate anger to defend their rights and uphold justice[9], and medieval bishops were no exception to this rule. A bishop who deployed his temper in a controlled fashion, and for a good reason, was therefore demonstrating that he was a good man, a good bishop, and perhaps even a potential saint. This is what is happening in this episode. Grosseteste’s anger is strong and violent, but also contained; moreover, it is a justified response to a papal attack on both the bishop’s reputation and the liberty of his church. There is, perhaps, a parallel to be drawn with medieval conceptions of divine wrath: powerful, fearsome, but always dignified and always just.[10]

Of course, the notion of just anger is an ambiguous one. Was Grosseteste’s ghostly anger justified? For Matthew Paris, the answer was undoubtedly yes; those who sympathised with the papacy might well have answered rather differently. Certainly Robert Grosseteste was never promoted to the ranks of the papally-sanctioned saints, despite numerous attempts on the part of the canons of Lincoln to secure his canonisation. One assumes that they did not repeat this tale when they sought to persuade the pope to investigate the sanctity of their former bishop. Ultimately, the ambiguity of episcopal emotions made them powerful, but also dangerous tools in the creation of an episcopal reputation.


[2] Matthew Paris was not the only writer to tell this story; claims that Grosseteste appeared after his death to rebuke the pope circulated throughout the later middle ages. In the sixteenth century, John Foxe (author of The Book of Martyrs) repeated Paris’ tale although, as a good Protestant, he reminded the reader that God was quite capable of punishing his enemies without bringing the dead back to life. For the developing legend of Robert Grosseteste as ‘proto-reformer’, see J. McEvoy, Robert Grosseteste (OUP, 2000), pp. 62-75.

[3] Matthæi Parisiensis, Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora, ed. H. R. Luard, RS, 57, 7 vols (London, 1872-83), v. 429.

[4] Chronica Majora, v. 429.

[5] Chronica Majora, v.430.

[6] Chronica Majora, v. 430. 470-1.

[7] Paris’ prejudices are unpicked by R. Vaughan, Matthew Paris (CUP, 1958).

[8] R. C. Finucane, Ghosts (New York, 1996), p. 74.

[9] R. Barton, ‘Gendering Anger: Ira, Furor, and Discourses of Power and Masculinity in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’ in R. Newhauser (ed.), In the Garden of Evil: The Vices and Culture in the Middle Ages (Toronto, 2005).

[10] Uncontrolled and/ or unjustified anger was another matter, to which I shall return in another post. 

Bishops and Animals

One of the better known stories about St Hugh, bishop of Lincoln (d.1200) is the tale of his special relationship with a swan. The swan (resident at the episcopal manor of Stow) was an extremely fierce bird, prone to attack both humans and other swans. But in the company of the bishop it became tame, allowing him to feed and pet it, following him around, and even foreseeing Hugh’s death.[1] This is not an isolated story: even as a young monk, Hugh had enjoyed a special affinity with wildlife. He tamed little birds and squirrels ‘They left the woods and daily kept the hour of dinner, not only at his table, but even eating from his own dish and hand and almost always attending him.’[2] As prior of Witham, he tamed a house sparrow which ‘would come to his table every day, having learned the man’s natural kindness, to take food and nourishment from his hand and dish.’ The bird even brought her chicks to him; this continued for three years, until she died.[3]

Other saint-bishops were associated with more masculine animals, especially hawks. Thomas Becket of Canterbury, Richard Wyche of Chichester and Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford were all reported to have healed sick hunting birds which were brought to their shrines, or whose owners made offerings to the saint in order to bring about such a cure.[4]  

Yet, whilst many late medieval saint-bishops were characterised by their close affinity with nature, animals could also form a distraction from more important spiritual matters. When the prior learnt that the young Hugh of Lincoln was sharing his meals with woodland creatures, he ordered Hugh to stop ‘lest these practises please him too much and disturb his prayer.[5] And whilst Robert de Bethune, bishop of Hereford had presumably derived pleasure from his menagerie, on his deathbed it troubled him, and he asked his attendants:

‘Do you deem it of no account that I used to have in my house a black dog courtly indeed with his white paws but yet a dog; that I kept a tame stag, a ram with four horns, cranes and peacocks, and other delights of the vain; for all these I, wretched that I am, used to throw or hold out from my own hands the bread upon the table which I myself had blessed; defrauder of the poor and sick, to whom these fragments were due.’[6]

 Less saintly bishops, on the other hand, probably enjoyed the company and entertainment which animals provided without tormenting themselves with guilt. Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury (d.1407) kept many hunting dogs, but also two pet dogs, which seem to have been fed mainly on bread.[7] Other prelates kept caged birds. Robert de Insula, bishop of Durham (d.1283), favoured more exotic pets:

He kept in his court, after the custom of modern prelates, as some relief from their cares, a couple of monkeys- an old one and a young one. One day at the end of dinner, desiring to be refreshed by amusement rather than food, the bishop caused a silver spoon with whitened almonds to be placed in the enclosure of the younger monkey, the bigger one being kept away from it. The little monkey, seeing the coveted food, and wishing to avoid being despoiled by the bigger one, made every endeavour to stuff all the contents of the spoon into her left cheek, which she managed to do. Then, just as she thought to escape with the spoil, the older monkey was released, and ran to her, seized the right cheek of the loudly screaming little one, dew out all that was stuffed into the left cheek, and refreshed itself, until not a single almond was left. Everybody who saw this burst out laughing…[8]

The chronicler who recorded this story found a moral message in it (condemning the oppression of the poor by the rich), and the modern reader may well feel that the bishop’s treatment of his pets was unnecessarily cruel. However, the story also illustrates an important point about the role of pets in the lives of the medieval bishops. In episcopal vita, a special affinity with nature was indicative of saintly tendencies. But for many bishops, animals played a more prosaic, but equally significant role, not dissimilar to the role of pets in the modern world: they were a source of relaxation and pleasure, helping the bishop to unwind and to briefly forget the burden of the episcopal office.  




[1] Magna Vita Sancti Higonis ed. D. Douie and H. Farmer (London, 1961), i. 103-9

[2] The Life of Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln , ed. R. Loomis (New York, 1985), pp. 10-11

[3] Loomis, pp. 12-13

[4] R. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (Yale, 2004), p. 184

[5] Loomis, pp. 10-11

[6] B. J. Parkinson, ‘The Life of Robert de Bethune by William de Wycombe’ (Oxford B.Litt dissertation, 1951), pp. 211-14

[7] K. Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets (Woodbridge, 2013), p. 42

[8] The Chronicle of Lanercost, ed. H. Maxwell (Edinburgh, 1913), p. 37 

The Bishop in Bed

Given the public nature of the medieval bedchamber, and the exalted social status of the bishop, it is unsurprising that episcopal beds were luxurious items. Ralph Erghum, bishop of Bath and Wells (d.1398), bequeathed no fewer than four beds in his will:  

To Agnes, my sister, my green bed with white lilies with all the hangings of the chamber of that suit, and eight of my best feather cushions. To Elisabeth, my sister, my bed with lions and two hangings of blue with silk curtains, my hanging of tapestry work which I bought of the executors of lord Thomas, once Bishop of Exeter…To John Podmore my old bed of silk with all the apparel, viz silk curtains and the four red hangings with my arms which are wont to hang in my chamber. To John Auncell my red bed in which I am wont to lie in my inner chamber with curtains, sheets and all the apparel…[1]

150 years later, another bishop of Bath and Wells, William Knight (d.1547), also disposed of several beds in his final testament:

To Thomas Lambeley…two fetherbeds and two bolsters. To Richard Roberts, £10, a fetherbed and a bolster. To Richard Mylner…a fetherbed.[2]

Such beds were clearly intended to be comfortable; after all, sleep was one of the six non-naturals which was thought to influence an individual’s state of health, and it was therefore very important that the bishop was able to get a good night’s rest. But the bishop’s bedchamber was also a public space, somewhere to conduct business, hold meetings and entertain important visitors. This meant that an impressive bed was an essential piece of furniture, used to impress the bishop’s guests with his status and wealth.   

But the episcopal bedchamber also had another, less public purpose. During the day, the bedchamber might be buzzing with activity, but at night only the bishop and a few of his most trusted servants were allowed in. Further privacy was offered by bed-curtains; some bishops also seem to have used curtains to partition their bedchamber, and thus create a more private space around the bed. The bedchamber, and especially the bed itself, was one of the few places where such a public figure could enjoy something approaching privacy, and work in peace. There are several records of medieval clergymen keeping books by their beds, and being read to as they prepared for sleep. Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford liked to write sermons at night, whilst sitting in or near his bed- much to the chagrin of Robert Deynte, who shared the episcopal bedchamber and was kept awake by the bishop’s lantern.[3]

The relative privacy of the bedchamber at night meant that it was also the place where saint-bishops performed many of their private devotions. Every English saint-bishop of the later Middle Ages is said to have spent hours of every night engaged in tearful private prayer. By praying in his bedroom, whilst the rest of the household slept, the saint-bishop could keep his devotions a secret, and thus avoid accusations of hypocrisy. Then, after his death, a servant who had accidently witnessed the bishop’s nocturnal devotions could record them in a hagiography, or report them to the canonisation enquiry, thus demonstrating that his master had fulfilled one of the key requirements for sainthood.

Of course, even a saint-bishop had to sleep sometimes. But when he did so, he would take steps to ensure that he did not sleep too well, or too pleasurably. The bed of Thomas Cantilupe, bishop of Hereford (d.1282) appeared luxurious- it was a fine bed with hangings and linen sheets- but he refused to use a mattress, instead placing a folded cloth over straw. Because Cantilupe very rarely removed his hairshirt, his bedclothes were full of lice.[4] Many saint-bishops simply rejected the bed in favour of somewhere less comfortable. Edmund of Abingdon, archbishop of Canterbury (d.1240) ‘rarely or never lay on his bed to rest, sleeping fully clothed and belted, scarcely ever removing his shoes.’[5] Richard Wyche, bishop of Chichester (d. 1253) would ‘rest against rather than lie in his bed and allow his exhausted body some rest, snatching sleep as nature demands rather than that which brings pleasure to the flesh.’[6] And multiple witnesses reported that Thomas Cantilupe often slept on the floor, fully clothed and with only a few cloths to cover him.[7]

The medieval bishop’s bedchamber thus encapsulated the contradictions of his position. It was a very public space, a place where worldly business was conducted, and where the bishop’s status was emphasised. It was also a very private space, a place where the bishop could engage in intensely personal activities, from prayer to sleep. And ultimately, the episcopal bedchamber was the site for one of the most important scenes in the bishop’s life: his deathbed.     


[1] Somerset Medieval Wills, ed. F. Weaver (3 vols, London, 1901-5), I. 295-7

[2] Somerset Medieval Wills, ed. F. Weaver (3 vols, London, 1901-5), III. 97-8

[3] C. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (London, 2006), pp. 199-200

[4] C. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (London, 2006), p. 196-9

[5] The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris, ed. C. H. Lawrence (Stroud, 1996), p. 138  

[6] Saint Richard of Chichester: The Sources for His life, edited by D. Jones (Sussex Record Society, 79, 1995), pp. 109-10/ 186.

[7] Woolgar, Senses, pp. 199-200