Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aelred of Rievaulx

By E.M. Powell

Aelred was one of the great monastic educators and teachers in early medieval times. His writings are still studied today and are widely available. And by wide, I mean Amazon has decided that he should have his own Author Page. (Understandably, Aelred hasn’t uploaded an author headshot.) But he is also Saint Aelred, although he was probably never formally canonised. Instead, he was one of the last western saints to be so recognised "by popular acclaim". Popular acclaim essentially means that people thought that Aelred was something very special, and his reputation ensured he was elevated to sainthood. He did indeed have a remarkable life.

He was born around 1110 into a good family with noble connections. When he was about fifteen, he was sent to the court of the King of Scots as part of the fosterage system. Aelred was hugely popular at court, rising to the position of dapifer suumus, a position which may have been a steward of the royal table, in charge of "feasts and entertainments".

Public Domain

Despite Aelred’s success and many friendships, he was privately struggling with court life. He wrote of it thus: "Those men around me kept saying, how lucky he is, how lucky he is. But they did not know there was evil in me…corrupting my soul with intolerable stench." There have been suggestions that Aelred may have been conflicted by his sexuality. But in his early twenties, while on a mission to York on behalf of the archbishop at the time, Aelred encountered a new monastery at Rievaulx in the county of Yorkshire. It was a pivotal moment in his life.

Rievaulx is in an isolated, cold, wet part of the world. But the isolation was a choice- the monks wouldn’t be distracted by the ways of the world. The land was good enough to yield food for the community, there was river both to provide fish and water and to carry away any nastiness.  After a night’s deliberation, Aelred offered himself as a monk at its gates.

Rievaulx Abbey
© 2014 Paul Fogarty - Private Collection

Aelred didn’t find the religious life easy. His work contains references to his "many temptations" as a young man. He took numerous cold baths to keep temptation at bay. There’s a record of him having 40 in one day. That, in anyone’s book, is quite a lot of temptation. It could also have been part of the medical treatment of the day. According to other chroniclers, Aelred suffered from kidney stones as well as gastric disease, passing stones "the size of beans." (Apologies, gents.)

Despite his challenges, Aelred proved to be a gifted leader within the abbey and it flourished under his abbacy. He presided over 150 monks and 500 lay brothers. Yet his guidance, best summarised with the title of one of his greatest works, Spiritual Friendship, was radical in the 12th century, to say the least.

© 2015 E.M. Powell 

Traditional monastic discipline as per the Rule of St Benedict, cautions monks to avoid "particular friendships". Aelred saw singular, tender affection for his monks as a way to experience God’s love. We read of him with a novice who had fled the abbey, persuaded by Aelred to return through "encouragement and compassion." The man died in Aelred’s arms in the infirmary many years later. When attacked by another monk "in the vilest disorder" and thrown on a fire, the by then elderly Aelred held no rancour and insisted the attacker must be ill and so cared for.

Aelred's Life of Edward the Confessor
Public Domain

While Aelred was clearly a deeply compassionate man, it’s intriguing that he was a great deal tougher on his sister. She was an anchoress- a reclusive nun. (I wrote a post for EHFA on the life of an anchoress here.) Aelred encouraged friendships in his monastery, but he repeatedly warns his sister against friendships with anyone at all- male or female. He insists on his sister’s purity, and it has been suggested that he did so to compensate for his own sins of the flesh as a young man. Either way, he was adamant that she live a very different life to him.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 

Also coming under Aelred’s fire were the aspects of monastic life that irked him. He didn’t approve of the Cluniac monks conducting lively services and inviting lay people to them. There are dark mutterings about "histrionic gesticulations, ridiculous dissipation" and people who have come "not to pray, but to gawk." He also took a dim view of cloister carvings: he is not happy with "filthy monkeys, harpies and striped tigers." The last straw for him is the cost: "Good Lord, even if the foolishness of it all occasion no shame, at least one may balk at the expense."

Public Domain

Aelred died on January 12th 1167, cradled in the arms of one of his heartbroken monks and surrounded by many more. He was deeply mourned. Gilbert of Swineshead, in his eulogy of Aelred, said it best: "What a honeycomb, how mighty and how rich a one, has passed in these days to the heavenly banquet."

It’s a wonderful metaphor for the life of a brilliant, intriguing, contradictory and complex man whose voice still echoes down the centuries. And he doesn’t even have a real Author Page.

Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship, Cistercian Publications Inc. (1977)
Encyclopaedia Saint Aelred of Rievaulx
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Leyser, Henrietta: Medieval Women, Orion (1995)
And with thanks to Paul Fogarty.

E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight which have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. The third in the series, The Lord of Ireland, will be release on April 5 2016. Find out more at
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