Mabillon’s Public Concern for Imprisoned Brother Denis

face of a prisoner

Jean Mabillon, a seventeenth-century European scholar and religious leader, poignantly failed to value ordinary communication with prisoners. Mabillon wrote a short essay criticizing the harsh regime of monastic prisons. Contrasting monastic prisons with lay prisons, he noted that prisoners in lay prisons usually had “the liberty to see each other at certain hours and even to receive visits from friends and other charitable persons.” Regarding errant monks deprived of such visits in monastic prisons, he declared, “May no one say that it is good for them to be left alone in order to get time to think about their conscience and seriously reflect upon the sad state into which they have precipitated themselves.” He argued that imprisoned monks should be visited at least once or twice a week, and that the visits “should last more than a moment; one should listen to them, hear their troubles and their complaints, revive them, console them, fortify them.”^

Mabillon himself engaged in friendly communication with an imprisoned monk, but he did not recognize publicly the value of this type of communication. In their monastery at Saint-Germain des Près in Paris, Brother Denis, a younger monk, became Mabillon’s companion and assistant. Brother Denis and Jean Mabillon apparently developed a close relationship.^ ^ Denis, however, engaged in “libertinage,” deserted his duties as a monk, threw off his habit, and roamed outside the monastery for months. He later reappeared deeply in debt. An effort to reform him ended with Brother Denis again abandoning his habit and running away from the monastery. Denis was subsequently apprehended and imprisoned. Mabillon described Denis as a “poor brother and friend.” When Denis was in prison, Mabillon wrote letters to him and at least sought to visit him. Mabillon communicated with Denis as a friend.

Mabillon did not publicly recognize his own practice of communicating with his imprisoned friend. In his written proposal for reform of monastic prisons, Mabillon wrote:

{Imprisoned monks} should be frequently exhorted and the superior or some one in his place should take care to visit them separately and console and fortify them from time to time. Laymen and outsiders should not be given entrance in this place, where a strict solitude should be maintained.^

Ordinary communication with family and friends, such as that of Mabillon with his imprisoned friend Brother Denis, is a typical means for consoling and fortifying. Mabillon ignored such communication in his written proposal for prison reform.

Mabillon expressed considerable concern for the reputation of monks among their peers. He noted:

it is an insupportable lack of charity, unfortunately too common, not to spare the reputation of a monk who has fallen into error, but to spread within an entire Order, or sometimes even outside, information about sins that were either hidden or known only to a few persons besides his judges.^

Showing similar concern, an early Pennsylvanian penal reformer described the consequences of public punishment as infamy and ignominy. These destroy “the sense of shame, which is one of the strongest out-posts of virtue” and have consequences that are “universally acknowledged to be worse punishment than death.”

Social elites tend to be more intensely concerned about reputation than are ordinary persons. Social reputation, however, isn’t central to ordinary understandings of friendship. Jean Mabillon was an elite, seventeenth-century religious leader. His social status may have prevented him from expressing publicly the value of his communicating with his imprisoned friend Brother Denis.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *