Phenomenology of the Past:

Pain and Illness in the Twelfth Century[1]


Robert Kugelmann

University of Dallas



            Subjected to relentless pain, lives contract and crumble.  As in the days of Job, lonely on his dunghill, and of Philoctetes, marooned because of his foul-smelling wound and piercing cries, chronic pain today imprisons many in isolated torment.  There, perhaps, the similarities between pain today and pain in ages past end, because historical epochs and cultures shape suffering in diverse ways.  A social constructionist approach arguing that “culture `completes’ humans by explaining and interpreting the world, helping them to focus their attention or to ignore certain aspects of their environment, and instructing and forbidding them to think and act in certain ways” (Cushman, 1990, p. 601) orients thought to these divergences.  This approach has been applied to topics such as sexuality, pregnancy, depression and stress (Foucault, 1980; Martin, 1984; Kleinman, 1986; Kugelmann, 1992).  Pain is not simply an oppressive given in experience, but also a response to oppression (Levinas, 1988).  Its sociogenesis has received attention (Osterweis, Kleinman & Mechanic, 1987; Johnson, 1989; Csordas & Clark, 1992).  Studies of the cultural and historical expression of pain exist (Zborowski, 1960; de Moulin, 1974) as do psychosocial investigations of pain (Buytendijk, 1961; Bakan, 1968; Scarry, 1985).  Morris (1991) surveys the wide field of pain’s meanings, concluding that in our day chronic pain, as it becomes more common, becomes paradoxically increasingly senseless because our social construction defines pain biomedically.  There is an “existential crisis of meaning” of pain (Csordas & Clark, 1992, p. 392).

            To gain critical distance from and insight into chronic pain in the late twentieth century, I turn to the past.  Central to my approach, a phenomenology of past experience, is attention to the exteriority of the past.  The past cannot be understood through concepts imported there from our own understandings of ourselves.  The past is other, foreign; it harbored different existences (van den Berg, 1974; Starobinski, 1975).  The taken-for-granted world of the twelfth century radically differs from ours.  Yet we can read and listen and learn.  This approach is not whiggish, that is, does not assume our superiority, our progress, in any way.  The twelfth century was a different reality. 

            A study of pain in the twelfth century reveals pain to have been embedded in culture.  Pain had sense as a natural, social, and spiritual experience.  Depending on circumstances, it could manifest disharmony and imbalance in any of these three registers.  Pain was unavoidable and something to be alleviated.  The life of Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167),[2] a British Cistercian monk who suffered greatly throughout much of his active life, provides an example of pain in twelfth-century monasticism.  With contemporaries such as Bernard of Clairvaux, a driving force behind the Cistercian reform of monastic life, Aelred championed a renewed spiritual life in English society.  Aelred was a gifted writer, his works contributing to the formation of Cistercian spirituality.  Moreover, they expressed a distinctively twelfth-century view of human life.  In comparison with earlier spiritual writings, they show a more focused concern with psychology and a greater interest in the humanity of Christ.  Aelred was learned in Latin literature and interested in human affairs for their own sake (see Morris [1987], for this definition of humanism).  Aelred’s experience is available because Walter Daniel, his close friend and fellow Cistercian, wrote a hagiographic biography of Aelred, paying detailed attention to Aelred’s suffering.  Aelred’s writings and Walter’s Life of Ailred together afford a picture of pain in twelfth-century monastic life.

            The twelfth century saw a flowering of a humanism that was literate, introspective, and self-expressive, yet marked by an understanding of the self as embedded in social bonds.  That is, self and self-expression were not valuable for their idiosyncrasies, as they are today, but insofar as they revealed a self struggling to approximate its true form.  For Aelred, that form was Christ.  Yet western Europe was undergoing the initial tremors of what later proved to be a seismic shock to its psychosocial landscape, with the growth of towns, lay literacy, commerce, and nation states.  For all these reasons, the social construction of pain in the twelfth century is crucial for gaining a sense of the beginnings of the modern sense, or lack of sense, of pain.

            Pain was neither a symptom of hidden disease, knowable only to a medically trained gaze, nor a symbol requiring learned exegesis, but a patent sign of disorder.  Its meaning demanded no detailed interpretation, because the lack of harmony and order it signified was evident.  However, Illich argues that, in the twelfth century, pain began to be disembedded from culture.  This abstraction of pain occurred with the beginnings of modern western individualism, “possessive individualism” (MacPherson, 1962; see Illich, 1982, p. 11).  Essentially, Illich argues that through a new understanding of compassion, a kind of empathy, and through inquisitional torture, physical pain became a phenomenon isolated from the general run of misery.  Pain became central to the experience of being an individual self.  He writes that “bodily pain of the other which no medical treatment can reach became a central theme of western culture--through compassion” (1987, p. 16).  Others have similarly stated that pain became disembedded from social relationships in the modern era (van den Berg, 1974; de Moulin, 1974; Caton, 1985; Morris, 1991).

            The concept of “disembedding” comes originally from Karl Polanyi (1957), who applied it to the study of market economies.  When the economy becomes an end in itself, it becomes disembedded from social relationships.  An embedded economy is one in which “society is superordinate to the economy because society culturally determines the exchange process” (Stanfield, 1986, p. 10).  In a disembedded economy economic activities stand apart from political and other social activities, and market forces alone determine economic decisions.  For Polanyi and others (MacPherson, 1962; Dumont, 1977; Illich, 1982), the disembedding of the economy implies a parallel change in the nature of the self.  To speak of the parallel disembedding of the economy and of pain is not to speak simply about analogous events.  Discussion of the disembedding of the economy, however, is beyond the scope of this paper.

    In the writings of Aelred and of Walter Daniel, we see an adumbration of the disembedding of pain, insofar as it became an object of the compassion and friendship.  Because compassion and friendship were still in the service of community, they did give pain an individual, while retaining a social significance.  But disagreements existed between Walter and some other Cistercians over Aelred, his pain, and his views on friendship.  For Walter, only a compassionate eye could understand his friend.  Aelred’s critics seemed implicitly concerned with what we might call his subjectivism. 

            To develop the web of meanings of pain in Aelred’s life, we need first to set the scene for the specifically medieval medical, Christian, and monastic setting of the experiences of pain. 


Embedded Pain:  The Contexts


Medieval English Medicine (Tenth-Twelfth Centuries)

            There have been a number of studies of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman medicine (Singer, 1917; Grattan & Singer, 1952; Riddle, 1974; Rubin, 1974; Kealey, 1981; Meaney, 1992).  Anglo-Saxon and Latin texts, compilations and summaries of ancient sources mixed with local knowledge, survive.  Such documents, despite uncertainties as to their relation with actual healing practices, do indicate something, giving clues to bodily experience and the understanding of illness and suffering, and attitudes toward them.  In general, medicine in this period was eminently practical.  In the pre-Scholastic epoch, “medicine was an art, not a scientia....It could no more be formally studied than woodcarving, plowing, or butchering.  Medicine was neither a science nor chance but a skill, a trade” (Riddle, 1974, 160).  Medieval medicine, largely herbal in nature, was based neither on anatomy nor on a differentiation of symptoms from diseases (see Singer, 1917, p. 111).  Imbalance of humors (not necessarily the classical four humors) was considered a primary cause of disease, according to Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript of the tenth century (Cockayne, 1961; Meaney, 1992), although people recognized many other causes. 

            It is difficult for us to imagine or appreciate non-anatomically based medicine, but if we are attempting to understand pain in the medieval context, the effort is required.  Rubin puts the issue negatively:  “The leech [the Anglo-Saxon term for “physician”] had little acquaintance with internal disease; it was with the outside or exterior of the body that he mainly concerned himself” (1974, p. 108).  But “exterior” does not mean the naked body lying on a twentieth-century examining table.  The leechbooks do concentrate on symptoms, that is, on what is perceptibly experienced and not inferred or speculated about, but symptoms were not “physical” in our sense of that term (that is, separated from psychological and social factors).  Anglo-Saxon legal opinions concerning penalties for inflicting injury show that the flesh was the person defined in social terms.  The stress falls on “mere” symptoms and appearances because the flesh embodied the man or woman.  We need not ascribe to the leeches, as we must to Walter and Aelred, an understanding of analogical interpretation, to recognize that, in perceiving a symptom, a sign was observed, signifying in no clearly systematic way person, social rank, temperament, season, biography, relation to God.  Because Aelred was saintly, his touch could heal, but so might an herbal preparation dripped through “a flax-blue cloth” (“Lacnunga,” in Grattan and Singer, p. 99) and perhaps not through cloth of another color--all depending upon circumstances.  It is not a question of simple minds believing in magic; rather, it is a question of people with habits of perception and thought more attentive to perceptual givens than we are.  I would add that their habits of thought displayed a greater appreciation for paradox than ours do--as I hope to make clear below in discussion of spirit and body.  To attempt an analogy, it was as if they perceived the body as an enormous tattoo that etched one’s biography. 

            Treatments aimed at alleviating perceptible distress.  The remedy was sometimes eaten, or rubbed on the skin, or, at times, simply placed in the house.  Blood-letting was to be performed on certain days and not on others.  In an old tradition, it was understood that blood increased in the body in some seasons and waned in others.  Illness and treatments had their seasons, as did all natural things.  Such a view did not make illness good, but it could give people expectation for its arrival and, they surely hoped, its departure.  Season and balance were perceptible in symptoms. 

            Walter’s Life of Ailred contains instances of miraculous healings.  One miracle attributed to Aelred, the most dramatic in Walter’s text, was the calling forth of a frog from the belly of a young man from Galloway who had accidentally swallowed it while drinking.  The fellow had become horrifically bloated as the frog ate his insides.  Aelred “inserted two fingers into his mouth and, invoking God,” prayed for the man.  The frog crawled out of the man onto Aelred’s fingers.  The man wretched “glutinous humours and pus horrible beyond measure” (p. 47)[3] for a day and returned to health.  Walter defended the veracity of the miracle:

                        Reliable witnesses to its authenticity are at hand, Robert our under-porter, a good and excellent man, Henry of Beverley, Baldric the lay-brother, who has been proved in many things, and almost more persons in Galloway than can be numbered.  (p. 69)

Walter himself did not witness the miracle, but he believed the eye-witnesses.  However, Galloway, where Aelred established a monastery, was “a wild country where the inhabitants are like beasts, and is altogether barbarous.  Truth there was nowhere to lay her head,” wrote Walter (p. 45).  What was unbelievable to some of Walter’s monastic contemporaries was believable in Galloway.  A difference between learned society and a primarily oral culture perhaps shows itself here.

            What emerges from this overview of medieval English medicine is a view of illness and pain that situates them in relation to the natural and supernatural worlds.  Pain was embedded in the rhythms of nature, and explainable in terms of the structure of the cosmos.  While at Rievaulx’s infirmary much of the ritual aspects of medieval medicine may have been absent (there is no evidence in Walter’s text that magic was used), Aelred and Walter lived in an epoch in which the bonds that tied bodily experience to the natural and supernatural worlds were like iron.  Early medieval medicine provides one context for Aelred’s suffering.


The Context of Christianity

            In the fourth century, Basil the Great, who had studied medicine, stated that there were six reasons why Christians become ill:

                        First, some diseases are “for our correction.”  He includes as part of the corrective process both the suffering involved in the disease itself and the pain incurred in the treatment of the ailment....Second, illness is often a punishment for sin and should be distinguished from a third category, namely, those infirmities that “arise from faulty diet or from any other physical origin.”  Fourth, some illness comes at the Evil One’s request, for example, the case of Job, where God confounded Satan’s boasts by the heroic patience of Job.  Fifth, “God places those who are able to endure tribulation even unto death before the weak as their model.”  And last is the instance of any great saint, for example, the apostle Paul, who was afflicted with physical suffering “in order that he might not seem to exceed the limits of human nature and that no one might think him to possess anything exceptional in his nature.”  (Amundsen and Ferngren, 1982, p. 99)

Basil’s learned views, of course, would not be echoed intact throughout the ages.  Much would depend on a combination of factors, including local pre-Christian culture and the local estimation of human nature and its depravity.  In general, however, the healing arts were highly regarded as a gift from God.  Amundsen and Ferngren write that “the charitable and philanthropic impulse of the [monastic] movement was to play a far more significant role in Christian attitudes toward sickness and suffering [than its ascetic impulse]” (1982, p. 108).  Even if Aelred and Walter did not know Basil’s writings, they did know Augustine, who did know Basil’s writings; the Confessions was one of Aelred’s guides to his own ongoing conversion.  Augustine’s attitudes toward illness parallel Basil’s.  Life is a test or trial for Augustine; disease can come from nature and be a trial.  Whatever the differences over the centuries and the miles, the common thread that tied together medieval views of illness and pain was the view that suffering was a consequence of a fallen world (Duden, 1991, p. 87; Illich, 1976, p. 149).

            In twelfth-century England, many of the monk-physicians were well educated (Rubin, p. 181), as were Aelred and Walter.  Both Aelred and Walter have been identified as physicians, although in Aelred’s case, “the title [medicus] may have been intended as a compliment rather than as a mark of professional training” (Kealey, p. 124).  Walter called himself medicus and was probably the infirmarian of the Rievaulx abbey (Kealey, p. 149).  Walter was thus knowledgeable in both the medical and monastic contexts of pain.

            Bernard of Clairvaux was favorably disposed toward medicine and toward its practice by monk-physicians, although he drew the line at a monk making much money from a practice (see Kealey, p. 27).  Using an established tradition, Bernard compared vice to illness, and conversion to healing.  Medicine was a good, but a relative one:  “The ideal of Epicurus was the body’s sensual pleasure, of Hippocrates to promote its good health, but my Master preaches contempt of these two pursuits” (1976, p. 121).  Health was a secondary good.  But medicine held sufficiently high repute to be used regularly as an analogy for the perfection of the human being:

                        It is the practice of medical doctors to begin the cure of their patients with purgatives and afterwards to make use of restoratives, so that the sick body is first relieved of its noxious humours, and then strengthened with nourishing foods.  The same order of treatment has been adopted in the healing of our souls by the Lord Jesus Christ, our spiritual Physician (1950, p. 199).

This passage is instructive in showing the estimation of medicine in Bernard’s eyes, and in showing typical medical practice.  In humoral medicine, purgation and restoration would have been key to the restoration of health.  In another instance, Bernard satirized monks overly solicitous of their own health, and thus not mindful enough of their true profession:  “Beans produce flatulency, cheese causes dyspepsia, milk gives me headaches, water is bad for my heart, cabbages bring on melancholy, I feel choleric after onions, fish from the pond or from muddy water does not agree with my constitution” (1976, p. 122).  These medical commonplaces indicate the character of medicine in the monasteries.  The practices did not substantially differ from what happened beyond monastic walls.  Bernard, in fact, in warning against luxurious living, prescribed as appropriate treatments the simple remedies of the poor.

            The warnings against luxury lead to the heart of the monastic context for pain:  asceticism.  Ascesis means “training,” originally athletic training, and monastic culture preserved that sense throughout the Middle Ages.  Monks were “athletes” for Christ, in addition to being martyrs.  Cistercian practices were directed toward disciplining the will toward its proper end of “the good in love” (Sommerfeldt, p. 134).  Training included “the practice of continence by which we wash away the stains from our past sensual indulgence” (Bernard, quoted in Sommerfeldt, p. 135), fasting, manual labor, silence, simplicity in dress and diet, a day ordered by prayer and meditation.  Such practices entailed pain, they prepared the monk for the inevitable pains of disease, and fortified him to bear pain as but another opportunity to die to the world. 

Aelred’s Pain

Walter’s account of Aelred’s illnesses

            Walter Daniel’s Life of Ailred is no biography in the modern sense of the term.  As hagiography, the Life asserts the conformity of Aelred’s life with the model of earlier saints.  Yet Walter’s text does shed light on Aelred’s experience of pain, an experience itself formed by the models Aelred sought to imitate.  First mention of his ill health appears in Walter’s defense of Aelred’s election as abbot of Rievaulx.  Some said (and his critics were apparently plentiful) that he lived luxuriously.  In defense, Walter replied that Aelred suffered for a long time from bladder stones.  Walter identified Aelred as a sick man.  He lived no life of luxury; his behavior sought only to alleviate pain while he maintained as rigorously as possible his monastic practices.  Walter wrote that “he would occasionally drink wine because of his old malady the stone, which grievously tormented him every month” (p. 34).  The periodicity of the stones called forth no comment from Walter, but it is probable that stones, like other ailments, were cyclical in nature, attuned to the rhythms of the humors.  The main point for Walter was that Aelred’s behavior indicated the severity of his suffering.

            Ailred suffered from other illnesses.  During his last ten years what Walter called arthritis caused him much pain.  At times he could not even walk to chapel or kneel to pray.  His pain was so severe that “the general chapter of abbots at Cîteaux allowed him to eat and sleep in the infirmary, and carefully made other needful concessions to his bodily weakness” (p. 39).  Walter described in detail how Aelred modified his ascetic practices as little as possible, and how he conducted affairs from his sickbed.

            Finally, “throughout the last year of his life a dry cough racked his breast and, added to all his other various infirmities,...weakened and wearied him” (p. 54).  Walter made it clear that the pains were physical:

                        But the following night brought the father great pain, and us most pain of all, for his was only of the body while ours was the pain of a sorrowful mind, exceeding sad because of him.  And so he continued, very weak in flesh, yet very strong in spirit.  (p. 57)

            Walter pondered the origins of Aelred’s illnesses in terms of humoral physiology.  The source of the pain was a “distemper,” a derangement of the temperament, an imbalance of humors.  Walter spoke also in terms of “dryness,” a staple of humoral medicine.  His account is essentially non-anatomical, the passage of humors from the chest to the head bypassing what anatomy would determine as the possible routes.  The Peri didaxeon, a tenth-century text, stated that humors rule in the head, blood in the breast, rough bile in the intestines, and black bile in the gall bladder.  Each rules in its season, with the humors in the head waxing in winter (Cockayne, vol. II, p. 83; Meaney, 1992, p. 14).  Aelred died in winter (12 January 1167), when head humors would have been dominant.  It is likely that Walter knew of this division of the body into regions of the four humors.

            The physiology did not act independently of the soul.  The important point for Walter was that, after a year of such pain, Aelred prayed for deliverance “from this prison” and passage to “a place of comfort” (p. 55).  Then and only then did the monks know that Aelred was dying:  “They saw that the infirmity and the will of the father were at one” (p. 56).  Walter stressed the strength of Aelred’s spirit to the weakness of his body in this passage and in others.  So the distemper in the head signified in part the contrast of this life with the happiness that is to come.         

            Walter did reckon with Aelred’s ill health as a sign of sinfulness and rejected such a notion:  “Nor let anyone find it strange that he himself suffered from many bodily infirmities; the Apostle who was the most of all afflicted says, ‘When I am weak, then am I strong.’  So Ailred was made very strong in his great weakness” (pp. 34-35).  Bodily weakness and pain can make the glory of God manifest.  The paradox in Paul’s words was a living reality for Aelred and Walter.  In this paradox, there was a distinction but no division between the spiritual and the physical, despite the dualistic connotations of the language.  If there were really dualism, in the modern or Cartesian sense of the word, then there would be no connection between illness of the body and health of the spirit.  The physical mirrored the spiritual, but in no single-minded fashion.  Health was not sanctity, but the image of it.  Yet herein was the paradox.  In The Mirror of Charity, Aelred argued for ascetic practices.  He criticized “the point of view of those who...may be tempted to identify spiritual grace with what is sometimes its physical and psychological effect” (Squires, p. 34).  Aelred’s physical sufferings, voluntary and involuntary, prepare him for salvation.  Walter’s text exudes compassion for the bodily suffering of his abbot, as he celebrated the splendor of his spirit.

            In describing Aelred’s appearance just after his death, Walter demonstrated how the abbot’s sanctity glowed through the flesh:

                        His flesh was clearer than glass, whiter than snow, as though his members were those of a boy five years old, without a trace of stain, but altogether sweet, and composed and pleasant....Perfect in every part of his body, the dead father shone like a carbuncle, was fragrant as incense, pure and immaculate in the radiance of the flesh as a child.  (p. 62)

Walter was not universally believed in the Cistercian community, and he was accused of not writing “with sufficient caution” (p. 76).  To this charge, he replied that of course he spoke in hyperbole, because that was the only way to express the truth of the experience:

                        For what are the facts?  Is it supposed that the dead body of Ailred did not shine when it was washed?  It was a light to all of us who stood by.  And how?  Much more than if a carbuncle had been there. . . .  I say without a grain of falsehood that I never saw such bright flesh on any man, dead or alive.  You must pardon me, therefore, if I magnified the incomparable, as it deserved, by using a permissible hyperbole.  (p. 77)

The words of the passionate but not foolish Walter demonstrated that the flesh resonated in many registers in Anglo-Norman days.  The person was not separable from the flesh, the way a person is separable from the anatomized body that we experience (see Duden, 1992).  That the words Walter used were borrowed strengthens the embedded sense of the flesh.  The description of Aelred after death echoes the words of Sulpicius Severus from his fifth-century life of St. Martin (Squire, p. 1).  Walter’s dependence was the norm in hagiographic writing.  Walter’s purpose was to demonstrate that Aelred’s life conformed to the model of sainthood embodied by St. Martin.  Walter could see in Aelred’s life and pain the paradigm that Aelred was imitating.


Aelred’s response to pain

            A distinction must be made immediately between Aelred’s responses to his own pain and to that of others.  For himself, there were various remedies, palliatives, and endurance; for others there were miracles that healed.  An example of the inability of the physician to heal himself?  I think not.  In contrasting Aelred’s intervention on the part of others with his own suffering, Walter emphasized Aelred’s selflessness.

            According to Walter, Aelred suffered his own pain as an ascetic practice; the pain of others he sought to relieve to manifest the glory of God.  Walter noted that, except as death approached, Aelred did drink wine (which would have been in keeping with Benedict’s Rule) and at times took a great number of baths, both of which to deal with his stones: 

                        The agony [of the stones] was intense, for very often his urine contained fragments of stone as big as a bean, the passage of which was so unbearable that, if in his suffering he had not tempered and softened the obstruction in the bath to ease its course, he would have incurred sudden death.  One day, after no less than forty visits to the bath, he was so incredibly exhausted in the evening that he looked more dead than alive.  (p. 34)

Other forms of treatment include herbs, taken at least sometimes in pill form, rest, and moderation of his duties and monastic practices.  All these treatments were tempered by Aelred’s desire to be an “athlete of Christ.”  Squires writes:

                        From the Celtic background of his home country comes Aelred’s inclination to value the more extreme and violent forms of bodily asceticism, but this is tempered by the warmer, gentler piety which had been on the increase in fervent monastic circles since the eleventh century, and particularly flourished among the first generation of the monks of Cîteaux.  (1969, p. 127)

Aelred’s primary response to pain was to incorporate it into his ascesis.

            Aelred’s asceticism had pains of its own and prefigured the severe pains of his last years.  When he was young, “the chains of my worst habits bound me, love of my kinsmen conquered me, the fetters of gracious company pressed upon me tightly; above all the knot of a certain friendship was dearer to me than all the delights of my life” (1983, p. 134).  Lust in his friendships became a special torment.  In a veiled autobiographical passage, he recounted his struggles:

                        He weakened his body by fasting, and by depriving it of its lawful due suppressed its simplest movements.  But when he was forced by weakness to allow himself more, the flesh came to life again and upset the tranquility which he thought he had acquired.  Often he plunged into cold water and stayed there for some time singing psalms and praying.  Frequently too when he felt forbidden movements he rubbed his body with nettles and so, by inflaming his bare flesh, overcame the inflammation of lust (1971, p. 67).

For Aelred, “what difference does it make whether it be by fasting or by sickness that the pride of the flesh be tamed?”  (1971, p. 69)  Health of the body could be neglected for that of the soul, although he also taught moderation of the practices when ill-health prevailed.  When Aelred did become ill, then, he was fortified.

            In response to his pain, Aelred became dependent on the care of his fellows.  Yet here was a man still abbot, author, active in ecclesiastical matters.  Aelred had built a hut, a “mausoleum” as he called it, near the abbey’s infirmary, where he lived under the care of two of the monks, where he conducted business as he was able, and where he wrote many of his important works, including Spiritual Friendship and Rule of Life for a Recluse.  Aelred intensified his ascetic practices toward the end.  Walter used the images of the ark and the temple to describe  them:

                        Like a second Noah, he compacted the ark of his life within the breadth of a single cubit, and, keeping the fabric of the pure temple, his body, in good repair, renewed and perfected it, and polished all the stones of the spotless sanctuary, his breast, and made them all square, and with the plummet of exact living built them into a house of perfection.  (p. 48)

The images of ark and temple give a glimpse into Walter and Aelred’s attitude toward pain, as guided by monastic ascetic practices.  Illness in the “temple” and anguish in the “sanctuary” have meaning beyond themselves.  Walter described Aelred’s appearance as “angelic,” an aspect that came from severe fasting.

            As death approached,

                        he rejected the curatives which he had been wont to take, and if by chance he tasted anything of that kind in his mouth he took it out with his fingers and, while his attendants were engaged on other things, threw it on the ground and ground it to powder with his foot so that it should not be seen....The father, taking his soul in his hands, gave greater weight to his own counsels than to those of the physicians, and for God’s sake despised the cure of the body and considered in all ways the health of the soul. (pp. 49-50)

I interpret this passage to mean that, as Aelred realized that death was inevitable, he ceased trying to preserve his physical health and focused more intently on his spiritual well-being. 

            Yet the response to pain was not Aelred’s alone.  The reply to the suffering was equally Rievaulx’s and the Cistercian Order’s.  As mentioned, the Order allowed him to modify his duties to accommodate his weakness.  The construction of separate quarters further gave Aelred’s pain a place in the abbey.  Walter wrote that this building consoled the monks, “for every day they came to it and sat in it, twenty or thirty at a time” (p. 40).  Aelred’s sufferings were “held” by the community of the Order, the abbey, and his friends.  His pain was embraced by mercy and compassion.

Compassion for Pain

            Colin Morris has noted the revolution of compassion that marked twelfth-century humanism.  Spiritual practices gave a new emphasis to the humanity of Christ.  Aelred’s spiritual writings demonstrate “a new stress on compassionate participation in the Lord’s passion” (Morris, 1987, p. 141).  In Rule of Life for a Recluse he described for his sister a meditation that encourages her experiencing various scenes from the life of Christ.  He emphasized that she should feel for and with Christ, and imitate his passion in her life and meditation.  For Morris, this concern with the humanity of the suffering Christ echoed in compassion for others.  Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred’s spiritual father, made possible and desirable weeping for the sufferings of others.  Squires indicates “the compassion which was the fruit of Aelred’s own physical and moral trials” (1969, p. 130).  Formerly, in the monastic tradition, tears were deemed appropriate in sorrow for sin and in anticipation of future joy; to these Bernard added compassion for self and other (McGuire, 1991).  Aelred in The Mirror of Charity described the life and death of one of his friends, a fellow monk.  He dwelt on his feelings, including the fact that at first, after Simon’s death, he did not weep because he felt so numb:  “But numbness at last gave way to attachment, gave way to grief, gave way to compassion....Are these tears reprehensible?  Yet the tears you shed over the death of your friend excuse us, Lord, for they express our affection and give us a glimpse of your charity” (p. 157).  In compassion, there was identification with the physical suffering of another.

            Walter similarly described his own weeping after Aelred’s death.  In a verbal display that raised eyebrows in its own day, Walter lovingly clings to the body of his dead friend and abbot:  “I was not able to restrain the kisses which I gave his feet, though I chose his feet lest feeling rather than pure affection should reproach me; the beauty of one who sleeps rather than the love of one who lies as he lay” (p. 62).  Walter expressed here both his loss and his affection in tears of compassion.  This focus on the loss of his friend valorized a personal relationship. 

            The context for the enhanced value of the personal relationship was friendship.  When Bernard lamented his brother Gerard’s death, when Aelred mourned for his friend Simon, and when Walter cried over Aelred, in each instance a man missed his friend.  Friendship was held, especially by Aelred, as the highest form of relationship, and he even affirmed that “God is friendship.”  From friendship flowed the compassion that enabled these men to be present to the pains of others.  Morris affirms the novelty of this attitude in the twelfth century.  It departs from the earlier understanding of Christian mercy, in a way that highlights the personal over the corporate.  Compassion extracts the unique self from its social matrix.  Although this trend was not universal in twelfth-century thought--friendship and compassion were bonds “integrated into commitment to the good of the community” (McGuire, 1988, p. 424)--considering other evidence (Dumont, 1982; Illich, 1982; Morris, 1987; McGuire, 1988), this attitude adumbrates the modern view which disembeds pain from the cosmic context in which the medievals viewed it (see Caton, 1985).  For in compassion what was prominent was not the sense of pain as evidence for a broken world, but pain as the plight of this person, whose wounds affected his friend deeply, and pain as something the friend needs to express.  That when Bernard grieved for his brother, he (in full rhetorical control) interrupted his sermon on the Song of Songs--”How long shall I keep my pretence while a hidden fire burns my sad heart, consumes me from within?”  --he symbolically broke with the earlier medieval tradition.  Personal pain became valuable in and of itself.

            Walter was an interlocutor in Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship.  At one point he asked his abbot about the benefits of friendship.  Aelred replied:

                        “A friend,” says the Wise Man, “is the medicine of life.”  Excellent, indeed, is that saying.  For medicine is not more powerful or more efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully, so that, as the Apostle says, shoulder to shoulder, they bear one another’s burdens.  (1977, p. 72)

For Aelred, friendship was “a stage toward the love and knowledge of God” (p. 74) not an end in itself.  Aelred knew the pain that friendship could bring:  it was the source of his greatest temptations and the occasion of his severest asceticism.  Yet it also brought the greatest sweetness to life.  He did not deny the gift of friendship, even though it came with dangers.  The trials of Aelred’s friendships became the source of his great compassion.

            This estimation of friendship and its medicinal value parallels Bernard on the proper ranking of the ends of human life.  So, even though friendship elevated the personal, it did not abstract it from the greater good.  In this light, we can see Walter’s Life as a text of compassion for Aelred.  His attention to medical details was figural on the background of Aelred’s holiness.  Without the latter, the former would not have made sense to Walter. 

            Aelred was a controversial figure in his day.  His emphasis on friendship and his sanction of personal intimacy were viewed as problematic by some Cistercians.  That Walter was forced to write a defense of Aelred and of the Life of Ailred is indicative of the ambivalence of many toward the great abbot of Rievaulx.  Walter could see what the critics could not because of his friendship with Aelred and his compassion for Aelred’s suffering.  This in itself is unproblematic, and hardly distinctive of the twelfth century.  Still, in the context of an epoch that witnessed the rise of troubadour poetry and the romance of Abelard and Heloise, Walter’s passionate devotion appears emblematic of the day.  Walter’s compassion and friendship gave him private eyes that others did not share.  This suggests a disembedding of Aelred’s pain from its social matrix.

            The elaborate context for pain did not hold.  I would not argue that the raised estimation of the personal by itself caused the disembedding of pain, or that twelfth-century humanism led in a linear fashion to contemporary meaningless pain.  However, the complex web of significance that held pain bound within personal, social and cosmic sense dissolved.  As friendship and compassion became antagonistic to society (with a disembedding economy), pain became secularized and divided into objective (biomedical) and subjective (psychological) components (de Moulin, 1974; Caton, 1985).  The experience of pain, now a private matter, resists speech and comprehension and meaning.  At this juncture, the present reality of pain appears:  nothing is more real subjectively, nothing easier to deny objectively (see Scarry, 1985).  Pain today too often “serves no useful purpose” (Raj, 1986, p. 14).



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[1] Published in Methods:  A Journal for Human Science (1993), 31-48.  Author address:  Psychology Department, University of Dallas, 1845 E. Northgate, Irving, Texas, USA 75062.  Email:


[2].  In this paper, I use the spelling “Aelred,” although “Ailred” is found in some texts. 

[3].  Citations in the text from the Life of Ailred will be indicated solely by the page number.