Child oblation was the practice of promising one’s infant or
young child to the monastic life and was almost exclusively practiced by the
upper classes. The reforming
orders of the 12th and 13th centuries made a point of
opposing the practice and requiring that postulants actually be of an age to
make an informed decision before entering the monastic life. What they were speaking out against was
a practice that had been going on for centuries and, as they saw it caused some
pretty major problems in monastic discipline.
This was generally not, as has been argued, a way of getting
rid of excess or unwanted children.
The fact that many families sent nobody into the Church for generations
while others committed “dynastic suicide” by sending all of their children as
oblates or letting them join later.
Rather, the idea was that the parents were offering a gift to God and to
the Church. Making one’s child a
monk or nun set them on a holier path than the secular life, it ensured there
was someone praying for one’s soul, and it opened up the potential for much
greater political power than a child of any parents less prestigious than the
upper nobility could ever hope for.*
It also meant that the child in question would be raised in a secure
place and position.**
Once such a promise was made, it was very hard to get out
of. When the oblate was drawn to
the religious life, or at least unopposed to taking it up, things worked out relatively
well. It was when they had no interest
in the monastic life that things got sticky. Some communities might allow a young oblate to leave the
community. More often though,
especially if the child had been sent to the Cluniacs, leaving was extremely
difficult, if not impossible.***
As a result, many monasteries contained a certain number of people who
didn’t want to be there and had no interest in asceticism.
Child oblation served a purpose and for some it worked well,
but the benefits weren’t worth the problems both for and caused by those who
weren’t so inclined to the monastic life.
A few Church councils tried to forbid the practice, but it didn’t begin
to fall out of favor until the 12th century when it began its slow
*Abbot Suger of St. Denis came from a simple knightly family
and went on to become friend and advisor two kings. Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Nogent came from similar
families of the lesser nobility.
Abbots and Abbesses tended to do better in the position if they hadn’t
been raised exclusively in a monastery.
***Katharina von Bora, a later example, had to be smuggled
out among fish barrels.
Barber, Malcolm. The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320. London: Routledge, 1993.
Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Strong of Body, Brave & Noble: Chivalry & Society in Medieval France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Archambault, Paul J. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: a Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1989.