Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Why I Can’t Be a Nun

Though we see nuns cavorting in The Land of Cokaygne, criticism of women religious was scant compared to that of males, perhaps because by the fourteenth century, at least, expectations were less stringent.  Nuns’ orders were founded on tenets of obedience, chastity, and devoutness, and their daily activities centered on prayer and study, but many communities became associated with social and worldly values.  Like all religious houses, some remained poor, but many became wealthy through endowments.  Some convents had royal patrons, but many were supported by aristocrats who placed daughters in the houses and wanted them to live comfortably.

The lifestyle inside a convent was therefore frequently far from austere, and the order’s original purpose was not always vigorously enforced by the prioress, often an aristocrat herself who enjoyed special benefits, sometimes to extravagance.  The report of an episcopal visitation to Polsloe Priory in 1308 records some of the concerns over the lack of proper conduct of the nuns: keeping of silence in certain places; attendance at religious services; communal rather than private meals; selection of a confessor; limited and supervised visits outside the convent; and regulated contact with secular persons.  The prioress is charged with building repairs, keeping accounts and having them audited, and proper record keeping.  The visit ended with a warning that these and other ordinances be observed under threat of punishment (Nunnery Visitation 455).

These injunctions reflect regulation of devout cloistered decorum.  A common perception by moralists went beyond matters of piety and practicality to virtue and vice, as is seen in Why I Can’t Be a Nun.  In this story, an aristocratic father refuses to place his willing daughter into a nunnery, ironically to avoid the benefits other fathers sought.

The text survives in a single manuscript, which is damaged.  The poem is therefore incomplete, missing the beginning, end and several internal stanzas and lines, but the poet’s observation about women religious, both negative and positive, are preserved.  The dialect is comparatively easy and the first-person speaker engaging, so this may be a good “starter” poem for reading Middle English text.

Why I Can’t Be a Nun

[The beginning is missing and the extant text opens with the lord’s deputies examining nunneries throughout the land.]

When they had received their assignment, they avoided neither mud nor mire but rode all over England to seek out nunneries in every shire.  Their hearts were in their work and they were as fervent as any fire to do their lord’s bidding, since they were being very well paid.  They rode into diverse shires, but I will pass over the names of the towns, for to recount them all would be a long tale to hear.  But I swear on a book in good faith and on womanhood that no town was forgotten far or near throughout England, long and broad.

When the messengers came home again, my father was eager to hear their reports and called them in together and asked how they had fared: “How were the nuns that you visited?”  They replied that they had been welcomed and that the lord’s desire would be fulfilled.  My father thanked them and was pleased.  He looked at me and said, “Damsel, you said you would be a nun, and may God reward your good intent.  But you many not fulfill your purpose.”

Crying, the girl replied, “Father, will you listen to my few words?  I believe my desire shall be acceptable to our sovereign Lord Jesus, to whom I am and always shall be true with all my will and observance.  And I will not forsake him, for I love him steadfastly.  Truly I sorely repent that I cannot have my wish.”  Then my father laughed and said no more, but went his way quite glad.  I mourned, my heart full of woe; “Alas,” I thought, “my circumstance is bad and I believe that fortune is my foe.”

One morning in May of that year, my pensiveness would not go away but grew more and more.  I walked alone, weeping and sighing in a mournful mood; I said little but thought more, so that no man could hear.  Every day at different hours I entertained myself in a garden, beholding the sweet effect of April flowers and fair herbs, and birds singing on every branch.  But despite all these diversions, my longing and sadness would not leave.  The birds sat on the green boughs, singing cheerfully; their feathers were lovely and bright, and they were all merry.

Then I went into a beautiful herber and knelt alone to pray to God: “Lord God, who has all virtue and had no beginning, keep me from the corruption of sin so that I may lead a chaste life.  Though my father and all my kin forsake me in my need, I hope to win such grace that our Lord Jesus will receive me.  Sovereign Lord omnipotent, now be my comfort, sweet Jesus.  Before You all things are present: all that ever was, all that is, and all that shall be.  You know all things, both most and least.  Now Jesus, king of heaven’s bliss, show me, your servant, what is best.

“I am now desolate, destitute of good counsel.  Lord, be the mediator of my mourning, for you are my only refuge.  I come to You for the comfort of having everlasting joy, for her love who bore that fruit.  Sweet Jesus, have mercy on me!  I know nothing more than to trust in You, in whom is all wisdom and knowledge; all things are in your sight and you know what is best for me.  I, your handmaiden, sit despised and at the point of destruction.  I commend my cause to You, Lord; do with me as You will.”

At that word I fell fainting among the fresh, fine herbs. I laid my head on a bench of chamomile and lay in great pain, constantly weeping and sighing, and I prayed my lord would help me.  I finally fell asleep all alone in the garden, and I thought a fair lady came and called me by name.  “Katryne, my daughter, awake and pay attention to my talk.  I mean to comfort you and bring your heart out of pain.”

At her bidding I looked up and saw her figure and prayed that God save her, for she was the most goodly creature I ever saw, I assure you, as I will tell you before I go.  I beheld her features, beauty and clothing well.  Without lying, I thought I was awake then as I am now, and it was such a wondrous thing to see that lovely lady that I forgot all my sorrow.  She who was so beautifully dressed spoke to me and comforted me in many ways, and asked me to arise soon.

I thought I got up, knelt three times and, with great reverence, asked her name.  “My name is Experience,” she replied, “and, daughter, my teaching may not fail, for it is fully true. I have come now out of pity to help you, and with the aid of Jesus Christ I hope it will be for the best, for I shall show you things I believe will put your heart at rest.”

I thanked her and pledged her my service: “Whatever you tell me to do or say I promise obedience, to bring me out of this sad way.”  Then I thought she took me by the hand as I knelt and told me to rise.  “Kateryne, today you will see a convent of nuns; watch diligently and note well what you see there.”  Then she led me quickly through a fair, green meadow, and soon she brought me to a place with the most royal building on earth.  On the outside it shone fair and clear, but the inside was made fully unclean with sin, as you shall hear.

I asked the lady as she led me where we were, and she told me to take good heed of what I saw.  We went through the gates as though we were at home and came to the cloister.  It was a house for nuns of different orders and ages, young and old, but it was not well-governed according to the rule of steadfast living, which was a pity.  Where self-will reigns it causes discord and strife and exiles reason; such a house is unfortunate.  Whoever reads the first book of Aristotle’s Morality plainly sees that every man needs to be aware of the loss of reason that accompanies sensuality and not to pursue his beastly condition but to let reason rule.  In that way he will acquire virtue.  If you would like to know what I saw, which should not belong to religion, and who lived in that place, I will tell you part and keep some to myself, for I was taught when young to hear and see but say not all.

The lady called Dame Pride was held high in reputation, and poor Dame Meekness sat aside and hardly anyone would look her way or pay her any respect. Dame Hypocrisy read a book and beat herself upon the breast.  Quickly I cast my eye about on every side to see if I could espy Dame Devout.  She was with but few of that company, for Dame Sloth and Dame Vainglory had violently put her out, which filled my heart with sorrow.

Dame Envy, who can seek strife everywhere, dwelt there, as did another woman, called Dame Love Inordinate; Dame Lust, Dame Wantonness and Dame Foolish lived there day and night so that few attended to God’s service.  Dame Chastity had little welcome in that convent.  Though some loved her dearly, many did not and gave her leave to go.  I saw much more but will not describe it all, out of courtesy.  As I said before, whoever chatters like a magpie and tells all he hears and sees will be put out of company and told to shoe the goose,1 as wisdom teaches us.

I busily walked about the place and saw how Dame Envy had great custody; she bore the keys to many a door.  Experience said, “Kateryne, I assure you that this lady is seldom away from home.”  Then I sought throughout the nunnery for Dame Patience and Dame Charity, but I couldn’t find them and wanted to know where they were.  An outer chamber had been built for them, where they lived peacefully and were sought by many good women who were desirous of that life.

There was another lady there, Dame Disobedient, who had no respect for her Prioress, and I then thought that all was destroyed.  Subjects should always be diligent in word, will and deed with good intent to please and obey their sovereign.  God forbid it should be otherwise.  Of all the defaults shown me by Experience, the lack of obedience was one that grieved me most.  It should be resolved in the conscience according to all religious rules.  When I saw Dame Obedience given no reverence or heed, I could no longer stay on account of shame and woe that made my heart bleed.

That convent was so full of sin that I left quickly, and Experience led me out the gates where we had entered.  When we were outside, we sat down on the grass and looked around us.  We talked as we pleased, and I asked Experience to tell me why she showed me this nunnery.

“Your first desire and intention was to be a professed nun, but your father would not give his consent.  Your heart was oppressed with mourning and you didn’t know what was best to do.  I said I would end your grieving, and now I have shown you the nuns’ governance.  For the most part, the nuns in every district are as you see them within yonder walls. But not all, God forbid, for that would be hard.  Some are devout, holy and obedient and follow the right way to bliss, but some are weak, lewd and unruly.  May God amend those who are amiss!  And now, Kateryne, I have done everything I can within my sphere to comfort you, so let us arise and return to the herber where I came to you.”

She left me in this garden and I thanked her with great reverence.  I pray to God that the fair Lady Experience be blessed.  I awakened soon after she was gone and thought how I might govern my life, for I would never be a nun after such defects I had seen.  God give me grace to see the day when they may be amended and sin forsaken both day and night; it will not be right otherwise.  But perhaps some man would say, and so it might seem to him, that I gave up a perfect way because of a fantasy or dream.  But it was no fantasy or dream; to me . . .

[The manuscript is torn here; the last line of this stanza, without which the penultimate line cannot be interpreted, a full stanza and part of the next are missing.  The following narrative seems to be addressed to nuns.]

It is written in the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis how Dinah would not stay home but went out to see things in vain and was defiled against her will, for which thousands of people were slain.  Your veil, wimple and scarf, your mantel and devout clothing make men believe without fail that you are holy in living, so wearing your habit is a holy thing.  Then you should be inwardly as you appear outwardly, my dear ladies.  A fair garland of green ivy that hangs on a tavern door is a false token unless the wine is good and sure.  In the same way unless you forbear your vices and let lewd custom be broken, by God, I assure you that your habit is no true token.

[stanza missing]

Now, ladies, take good heed of the exhortation I have taught you, as well as the conversation of good women before, a store of holy virgins who lived religiously and therefore now have endless joy and bliss: St Clare, St Edith, St Scholastica, St Bridget, St Radegund and many more who were professed in nun’s habit.  They busily used all their wits to be aware of and free from sin.  Now they are free from all sorrow and woe forever.

[The poem breaks off in the middle of the next stanza, which begins with another list of women saints.]


1  The meaning of the proverbial expression “shoe the goose” is now obscure but by the nineteenth century meant “to engage in a silly and fruitless task .“   It was apparently long-lived and appears in works by Hoccleve, Skelton and others.  John Heywood ends one of his proverbs with “Who medleth in all thing; may shoe the gosling,”  with “gosling” used instead of “goose” for the sake of rhyme (Heywood 102-03).

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