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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The nature of sickness: the example of Rievaulx in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries


So dreadfully afflicted was he that I have seen him suspended in mid-air in a linen sheet,
held by a man at each of its four corners, being carried to relieve himself or from one
bed to another. A mere touch affected him like a piercing wound and his cries revealed
the measure of his pain. (12)

Spatula for mixing ointment
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
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Spatula for mixing ointment

Walter Daniel, a twelfth-century monk of Rievaulx Abbey, in Yorkshire, relates several vivid accounts of maladies suffered either by members of his own community or by those from one of Rievaulx’s daughter-houses. In so doing, he offers a wealth of information regarding the nature of sickness that afflicted monks at this time and of how ailments were treated. Walter was probably the infirmarer of Rievaulx, and this would explain his keen observations on the community’s health. The fact that the subject of his biography, Aelred of Rievaulx, was dogged by ill-health accounts for the large number of references to sickness.

A twelfth-century case of insomnia
A young monk of Ford abbey, suffered from terrible insomnia – ‘a punishing affliction’ for those of the monastic profession – prompting his father, who was also a monk of Ford, to seek help from Wulfric, the recluse of Haselbury. The holy man instructed that each monk of the abbey should recite the Lord’s Prayer three times for their sleep-deprived brother. This evidently did the trick and the young monk claimed to have slept like a log ever since.
[Cited in chapter 29 of John of Ford’s Life of Wulfric, translated in The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, ed. and tr. P. Matarasso, pp. 246-7].

Walter’s vivid accounts of Aelred’s afflictions, particularly during the last ten years or so of his abbacy, convey something of the intense agony that the abbot endured as he battled against various ailments including urinary stones and colic. Walter describes Aelred’s excruciating pain as he passed stones the size of beans and how, to ease the passage and prevent certain death, he would take baths. Bathing was generally considered a luxury but Walter stresses that in Aelred’s case, this was not an indulgence; it was a necessity, for had one of these stones caused a blockage the abbot would surely have died. Walter also explains that the entire process was far from relaxing. He describes one occasion when the abbot had to endure forty baths and was so exhausted by the evening ‘that he looked more dead than alive.’(13) Aelred would also drink a little wine to ease the passing of these stones, as prescribed by his physicians, but whilst they advised that this should be drunk straight, Aelred insisted on watering it down.(14)

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