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Vocabula Mira: “Monialis”

Gregory DiPippo

The final meeting between Ss Benedict and Scholastica, depicted in a 14th-century fresco in the Sacro Speco of Subiaco. 

The English noun “sanctimony”, meaning “a show of being superior to others”, and the adjective “sanctimonious”, did not always have the highly negative meanings which they have now. When they first entered the language, they had the same connotation as the Latin word “sanctimonia” from which they derive: “sacredness, sanctity, moral purity, virtuousness.” Thus we find in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (IV.iii.53), “Which holy undertaking (i.e. a pilgrimage), with most austere sanctimonie she accomplisht”, and in The Tempest (IV.i.16), “Before all sanctimonious ceremonies may… be ministred.” (ita scripta)

The Latin adjectival form “sanctimonialis”, however, occurs much later than the noun “sanctimonia”, and is almost always used by the Church Fathers to mean specifically a woman religious, very often joined with words like “femina”, “domina” or “virgo.” In his account of the miracle performed by St Scholastica, the sister of St Benedict, whose feast day is kept today, Pope St Gregory the Great refers to her three times as “sanctimonialis femina.” Since Benedict was unwilling to stay overnight at Scholastica’s house, she prayed to God that it would rain too heavily for him to make the walk back to his monastery.

“Sanctimonialis quippe femina caput in manibus declinans, lacrymarum fluvios in mensam fuderat, per quas serenitatem aeris ad pluviam traxit. Nec paulo tardius post orationem inundatio illa secuta est, sed tanta fuit convenientia orationis et inundationis, ut de mensa caput jam cum tonitruo levaret: quatenus unum idemque esset momentum, et levare caput, et pluviam deponere.

For the holy woman, laying her head in her hands, had poured forth rivers of tears upon the table, by which she turned the clearness of the sky to rain. And that inundation did not follow her prayer a little after, but the prayer and inundation were so close to each other that when she lifted her head from the table, there was already thunder; and thus it was at the same moment that she lifted her head, and rain came down.” (Dialogues II, 23)

By the later 4th century, as monasticism was growing in importance in the Church, Latin-speaking Christians had adopted the Greek word “monakhos – solitary” into “monachus” to mean “a monk”, just as earlier generations had adopted words like “diaconos” and “episcopos”. There were a great many women who undertook the monastic life, and so this word could also be in the feminine form “monacha.” By the seventh century, the common use of “monacha” had inspired a truncation of “sanctimonialis” to “monialis”, a word that would perhaps have sounded to Cicero and Vergil something like “solo-y” does to us: a foreign root with a native termination stuck onto it, and barely comprehensible. Writing in the year 674, St Ildephonsus of Toledo described St Isidore of Seville as “doctor et sustentator monachorum ac monialium – a teacher and supporter of monks and nuns.” In the Roman Breviary, one of the readings of the life of St Theresa of Avila says, “Vigesimum aetatis annum agens, ad moniales sanctae Mariae de Monte Carmelo se contulit. – In the twentieth year of her life, she betook herself to (i.e. joined) the nuns of St Mary of Mount Carmel.”

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