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 decline.
*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.
**Mostly. 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.