Depression, Guilt, and a Parish Priest in Medieval London

Raven_1899On some night in the mid-twelfth century, Martin, the parish priest of All Hallows on the Cellar was interrupted while going to bed. Just as the priest was taking off his shoes, a serving-boy entered his house bearing a message from his employer. This employer was the wife of Roger Bat, a member of a powerful and wealthy London family. The Bats were urban oligarchs, one of the sixteen major interlocking families that provided seventy-percent of the aldermen who held office in the city of London before the civil war. The boy told the priest that he was needed immediately for “some business” with Roger’s wife. Annoyed, the priest asked what the business was. Martin especially wanted to know if she was ill. The boy did not know, but added that his mistress “didn’t seem sick.” That Roger’s wife appeared well convinced Martin that there was no immediate danger to her soul, and that he could safely go to bed. If she had been ill, Martin would have been duty-bound to return with the serving-boy to administer the Last Rites. Since the boy’s mistress apparently suffered from no physical illness, the priest dismissed the interruption in his evening as a nuisance call. Martin told the boy, “Perhaps she’s drunk. Go and say to her that it isn’t convenient to talk with her tonight about any business.” The priest said that he would gladly meet with her tomorrow, after his morning services. The boy returned and told Roger’s wife what the priest said, and her response was tragic. The woman agreed that she was very drunk, but added that the priest “hereafter will not speak with me in this life.” She retreated into her room, locked the door, and hanged herself with a noose. The woman’s suicide, according to the theology of medieval Christianity, condemns her soul to Hell, and the priest eventually paid the price for his negligence. Martin lived for a long time after the woman’s suicide. He lived badly, breaking his vow of celibacy and living with a concubine with whom he had multiple children. After many years, Martin grew old and sickly, at last taking to bed while suffering from a final illness. On his deathbed, the priest cried out: Woe is me! Woe that I ever took up the name and responsibility of a priest. For my miserable and filthy life and especially that woman, who hanged herself through my negligence, now drag me to damnation. During the night, as Martin’s final moment drew near, ravens flew into the room through the windows extinguishing all of the candles. The ravens disappeared suddenly as Martin exhaled his final breath, signalling the priest’s entrance into Hell. This story combines specific pieces of medieval religiosity with expressions of mental illness familiar to a modern audience. The woman’s cry for help is discounted because her problem isn’t immediately visible as a bodily disease. The priest also dismisses what a modern reader might regard as a symptom of the woman’s interior illness, her drunkenness, as something that she just needs to get over. Martin’s easy assumption that Roger’s wife is drunk suggests that intoxication was a regular issue for her that the priest had dealt with before. These familiar elements represent an extraordinary continuity in the history of emotions.RaveninFlight.jpg An important moral of this story is that inattention to the interior emotional and mental states of others is a form of negligence. Martin tells the reader as much right before he is carried off to Hell. Modern responses to suicide and mental illness often stress similar messages (although for quite different reasons). While this medieval story suggests that the priest should have been more attentive to saving souls, the modern concern most often lies with saving and improving lives. When I read this story, I am also struck by how deeply it is shaped by class and gender. We only have a record of this suicide because it involved the wife of a remarkable man. If this event did not touch one of the wealthiest families in medieval London, it would have been entirely lost in time. How many other similar struggles were not only nearly invisible in their own time, but have also been entirely lost because of the low social status of the people involved? We do not even know the woman’s name. Her value and her memory are entirely bound up with the person of her husband, Roger Bat. The author of the story tells us not only the name of the priest (Martin), but also the names of several of the priest’s sons and a servant, who are present when Martin dies. The woman, in contrast, who is central to the story’s plot, has no name of her own. The role of class and gender in this medieval story remind us of the on-going importance of these issues in access to mental health resources and even in the wider visibility of the need for access to these resources for marginalized populations.  Background on the Story: The story of the bad priest Martin comes from the Liber revelationum or Book of Revelations of Peter of Cornwall. This work is a very large collection of visions and revelations put together around the year 1200. Much of this collection is now available, in both Latin and English translation, as Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations, edited by Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe. The manuscript’s author, Peter of Cornwall, was an Augustinian canon and the prior of Holy Trinity Aldgate. It is the twenty-second chapter of the first book (pages 288-91 in the edition by Easting and Sharpe). Modern Mitre square roughly corresponds to the cloister of Peter’s priory, and the only visible remnant of it is an arch inside Swiss Re House. Click here to link to a Google map with locations of this story.

Link to: for a google map of sites in this story.
Link to: for a Google map of sites in this story.

Information on the Chapel of All Hallows on the Cellar: The church called All Hallows on the Cellar, or All Hallows the Less, stood on Upper Thames Street. It took its name from its location on top of arched vaults. It is not to be confused with the larger All Hallows. The Third Edition of the London Encyclopaedia claims the church is first attested in 1216, but the story of the bad priest Martin is a good deal older. In John Stow’s survey, the church is attached to a large house called Cold Harbour (Survey of London, 1598 and 1603, 1:235-37). The church burned in the Great Fire of 1666 and was not rebuilt. By CHE Postdoctoral Fellow Michael David Barbezat.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36.

2 thoughts

  1. I do believe all the concepts you’ve offered to your post.

    They are very convincing and can definitely work. Still, the posts are too quick for beginners.
    May you please lengthen them a little from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.

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