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Saturday, 15 October 2011


Throughout England there are many monasteries. Who were the builders of these grand and stately edifices? What kind of men lived within those walls? What life did they lead? We will try to picture to ourselves the condition of these noble abbeys, as they were in the days of their glory, before the ruthless hands of spoilers and destroyers robbed them of their magnificence.

It has often been remarked that the monks knew well how to choose the most beautiful spots for their monastic houses, establishing them by the banks of some charming river, surrounded by beautiful scenery and fertile fields.
They loved the beauties of nature, and had a keen sense for discovering them. They had a delicate and profound appreciation of the delights of the country, and loved to describe the beauties that surrounded their habitations. Nature in its loveliness and wild picturesqueness was a reflection of God's beauty, a temple of His light and goodness. Moreover they built their monasteries amidst forests and wild scenery, far from the haunts of men, seeking solitude, wherein they could renew their souls by the sweetness of a life of contemplation, and consecrate their energies to the service of God. In the days of war and bloodshed, of oppression and lawlessness, holy men found it very difficult to be "in the world and yet not of it." Within the monastic walls they found peace, seclusion, solitude; they prayed, they worked, they wrote and studied. They were never idle. To worship, to labour, to fight as the milites Christi with weapons that were not carnal, these were some of the duties of the monks.
The world owes much to these dwellers in monasteries. They rescued the people from barbarism, and uplifted the standard of the cross. They emerged from their cells to direct councils, to preach and teach at the universities, to build churches and cathedrals, and astonish the world by their skill and learning. Who can tell what services they rendered to their nation and to all mankind by pouring forth that ceaseless stream of intercession day and night for the averting of the judgments of divine wrath which the crimes and follies of men so richly deserved? "What the sword is to the huntsman, prayer is to the monk," says St. Chrysostom; and well did they use this weapon for the spiritual and material benefit of all.

Another great benefit they conferred upon the world was that of charity. They were the true nurses of the poor. There were no poor laws, and union workhouses, and hospitals. The monks managed to supply all the wants of all who suffered from poverty, privation, and sickness. "The friendship of the poor constitutes us the friends of kings," says St. Bernard; "but the love of poverty makes kings of us." They welcomed in their ranks poor men, who were esteemed as highly as those of noble birth on entering the cloister. All men were equal who wore the monk's robe.
Amongst other services the monks rendered was the cultivation of learning and knowledge. With wonderful assiduity they poured forth works of erudition, of history, of criticism, recorded the annals of their own times, and stored these priceless records in their libraries, which have done such good service to the historians of modern times. The monasteries absorbed nearly all the social and intellectual movement of the thirteenth century. Men fired with poetical imagination frequently betook themselves to the cloister, and consecrated their lives to the ornamentation of a single sacred book destined for the monastery which gave them in exchange all the necessaries of life. Thus the libraries of the monastic houses were rich in treasures of beautifully illuminated manuscripts, which were bound by members of the community. The Abbot of Spanheim in the fifteenth century gives the following directions to his monks:—

"Let that one fasten the leaves together, and bind the book with boards. You, prepare those boards; you, dress the leather; you, the metal plates, which are to adorn the binding."

Terrible is it to think of the dreadful destruction of these libraries at the time of the spoliation of monasteries and of the priceless treasures which they contained.
We are apt to suppose that the lives of the monks were gloomy, hard, severe, and that few rays of the sunshine of happiness could have penetrated the stern walls of the cloister. But this does not appear to have been the case. The very names of monasteries show that they rejoiced in their solitude and labour. Netley Abbey was called the Joyous Place, loeto loco; and on the Continent there are many names which bear witness to the happiness that reigned in the cloister. Moreover the writings of the monks proclaim the same truth. Cluny is called by Peter Damien his hortus deliciarum (garden of delights), and it is recorded that when Peter de Blois left the Abbey of Croyland to return to France he stopped seven times to look back and contemplate again the place where he had been so happy. Hear how Alcuin laments on leaving the cloister for the Court of Charlemagne:—

"O my cell! sweet and well-beloved home, adieu for ever! I shall see no more the woods which surround thee with their interlacing branches and aromatic herbs, nor thy streams of fish, nor thy orchards, nor thy gardens where the lily mingles with the rose. I shall hear no more those birds who, like ourselves, sing matins and celebrate their Creator, in their fashion—nor those instructions of sweet and holy wisdom which sound in the same breath as the praises of the Most High, from lips and hearts always peaceful. Dear cell! I shall weep thee and regret thee always."

The life was very peaceful, entirely free from care, and moreover lighted by the whole-hearted friendships which existed between the brethren. A chapter might be written on the love of the cloister, which like that of David for Jonathan, was "wonderful, passing the love of women." Thus St. Bernard burst out in bitter grief at the loss of a brother monk:—

"Flow, flow, my tears, so eager to flow! he who prevented your flowing is here no more! It is not he who is dead, it is I who now live only to die. Why, oh, why have we loved, and why have we lost each other?"

The letters of Anselm to Lanfranc and Gondulph, his dearest friends, abound in expressions of the most affectionate regard and deep true friendship. He writes:—

"How can I forget thee? Can a man forget one who is placed like a seal upon his heart? In thy silence I know that thou lovest me; and thou also, when I say nothing, thou knowest that I love thee. What can my letter tell thee that thou knowest not already, thou who art my second soul?"

The monks' lot was not sad and melancholy. They loved God and His service, and rejoicing in their mutual regard and affection were happy in their love and work. Orderic Vitalis writes, "I have borne for forty-two years with happiness the sweet yoke of the Lord." Moreover they shed happiness on those who dwelt around them, on the crowds of masons and carpenters, traders and workmen, who dwelt under the shadow of the monastery or farmed the fields of the monastic estates. No institution was ever more popular; no masters more beloved. They took a hearty interest in the welfare of all their tenants, and showed an active sympathy for all. The extent of their charity was enormous. In a French abbey, when food was scarce, they fed 1,500 to 2,000 poor in the course of the year, gave monthly pensions to all the families who were unable to work, entertained 4,000 guests, and maintained eighty monks—a wonderful record truly.

The influence of the monastery was felt in all the surrounding neighbourhood—the daily services, the solemn and majestic chants, the processions, must have created a deep impression on the minds of people. Many of the great writers and thinkers of subsequent ages have appreciated the wonderful labours of the monks. Dr. Johnson wrote:—

"I never read of a hermit, but in imagination I kiss his feet; never of a monastery, but I fall on my knees and kiss the pavement."

And now these noble buildings, hallowed by a thousand memories, exist only as dishonoured ruins. Some have been pulled down entirely, and the site used for gaols or barracks. Convicts labour where once monks prayed. The renowned abbey of Cluny is a racing stable, and Le Bec, the home of Anselm, has suffered a like profanation. Factories have invaded some of these consecrated sites. Many have been used as quarries for generations. All the carved and wrought stone has been cut off, and used for making bridges and roads and private houses. Nature has covered the remains with clinging ivy, and creeping plants, and wild flowers, and legends cluster round the old stones and tell the story of their greatness and their ruin. The country folk of western Ireland show the marks on the stones furrowed by the burning tears of the monks when they were driven out of their holy home. I am describing the condition of the monasteries in the days of their glory, when the spirit of the religious orders was bright and pure and enthusiastic. It cannot be denied that often the immense wealth which kings and nobles poured into the treasury of the monks begat luxury and idleness. Boccaccio in Italy, and even Dante, and our own Chaucer, write vigorously against the corruption of the monks, their luxury, love of sport, and neglect of their duty. Thus Chaucer wrote of a fourteenth-century prior:—

  "Therefore he was a prickasoure a right:
  Greihounds he hadde as swift as foul of flight:
  Of pricking and of hunting for the hare
  Was all his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.
  I saw his sleves purfiled at the hond
  With gris, and that the finest in the loud.
  And for to fasten his hood under his chinne,
  He hadde of gold ywrought a curious pinne:
  A love-knotte in the greter end ther was.
  His head was balled, and shone as any glas,
  And eke his face, as it had been anoint.
  He was a lord full fat and in good point
  His eye stepe, and rolling in his bed,
  That stemed as a forneis of led.
  His botes souple, his hors in gret estat,
  Now certainly he was a fayre prelat.
  He was not pale as a forpined gost.
  A fat swan loved he best of any rost.
  His palfrey was as broune as is a bery."

Many were the efforts to reform the abuses which crept into the monastic houses. Holy men grieved over the scandals of the times in which they lived. Many monasteries remained until the end homes of zeal and religion, and the unscrupulous tools of Henry VIII. could find naught to report against them. The only charge they could fabricate against one monastery was "that the monks would do evil, if they could."

The foundation of the various orders of monks shows the efforts which were from time to time made by earnest men to revive the zeal and religious enthusiasm characteristic of the early dwellers in monasteries. The followers of St. Benedict and St. Columba were the first monks of the western Church who converted the peoples of England, Germany, Belgium, and Scandinavia. The Benedictines had many houses in England in Saxon times. In the tenth and eleventh centuries flourished a branch of the Benedictines, the order of Cluny, who worked a great religious revival, which was continued in the twelfth by the order of the Cistercians, founded at Citeaux in Burgundy. Some of our most beautiful English abbeys—Fountains, Kirkstall, Rievaulx, Tintern, Furness, and Byland—all belonged to this order. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the new orders of preaching friars founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic arose, and exercised an immense influence in the world. They did not shut themselves up in the cloister, but went everywhere, preaching in the market-places, and tending the sick, the lepers, and the outcasts. At first they were immensely popular, but the orders degenerated like their predecessors, and long before the Reformation laid themselves open to the derision and the scoffs of the more enlightened men of the age. Since the days of the Friars there has been no building of monasteries in England. Wealth, luxury, and corruption had destroyed the early piety of the monks, and rich men preferred to give their wealth for the purpose of founding colleges and hospitals, rather than in increasing the number of religious houses.

We will now visit these monasteries, and try to picture them as they stood in the days of their glory, and see the daily life which the monks led. The rules of the orders differed somewhat, some being stricter than others; and likewise the arrangements of the buildings were not all based upon one plan. The Carthusian monasteries differ widely from those of the other orders, owing to the rule that each monk should have his separate cell, wherein he lived and had his food, and only met his brethren in church and in the chapter-house. We will examine the usual plan of a monastery, the main buildings of which clustered round the cloister-court. This was called the paradise, around which was a covered ambulatory. Here the monks read and wrote, and sometimes had little spaces partitioned off for studies, with bookstands and cupboards. It was the great centre of the monastic life. The earlier ambulatories were open, but in the fourteenth century they had windows looking on to the cloister-court, filled with stained glass. The monks must have found the open cloister a somewhat chilly place for writing, and although their fingers were endured to hardness, had sometimes to abandon their tasks. Orderic Vitalis tells us that his fingers were so numbed by the cold in a hard winter that he was obliged to leave his writing until a more congenial season.

On the north of the cloister-court stood the monastic church, the grandest and noblest of the monastic buildings, adorned with shrines, and tombs, and altars. Several of our cathedrals were monastic churches, and afford us some idea of the splendour and magnificence of these stately buildings. Many other churches built by the monks, quite as large and noble as any of our cathedrals, are now in ruins, with only a wall or a buttress remaining to mark the site of the once noble minster. The church was usually cruciform, with nave and aisles. East of the high altar in the choir stood the lady-chapel, and round the choir a retro-choir, or presbytery. There was a door on the south side of the church, opposite the eastern ambulatory, for the entrance of the monks. The south transept formed part of the eastern side of the cloister. On the same side stood the chapter-house, a large chamber richly ornamented with much architectural detail, and adorned with mural paintings. Between the chapter-house and the church there is a narrow room, which was the sacristy, and on the south of the chapter-house a building in two stories, the ground floor being the frater-house, where the monks retired after meals to converse, the upper room being the dortor, or dormitory, where they slept. A passage often separated the chapter-house from this building.
On the south side of the cloister-court stood the refectory, a long room in which the monks took their meals; and on the west was a range of buildings the use of which differed in various monasteries, in some for cellars and larders, in others for dormitories. Sometimes this western building was the domus conversorum, or house of the lay brethren. The abbot's lodging was a fine house, consisting of hall, chambers, kitchen, buttery, and cellars, capable of entertaining a large number of guests, and frequently stood on the east side of the chapter-house quite separate from the other buildings. In small monastic houses governed by a prior his residence often formed the western side of the cloister-court. The farmery, or infirmary, where sick monks were nursed during illness, was a separate building, having its own kitchen, refectory, and chapel. The hospitium was also a separate building near the outer gate of the abbey, and consisted of a hall, dormitories, and a chapel, in which each night a goodly company of guests were entertained and courteously welcomed by the hospitaller. A high wall surrounded the abbey precincts, in which was the outer gate, consisting of a porter's lodge, a prison, and a large room in which the manorial court was held, or the abbot met the representatives of the townsfolk in order to direct their affairs and choose their chief magistrate or settle their differences.

The author of Piers Ploughman gives a description of the appearance of a monastery in the fourteenth century. As he approached the monastic buildings he was so bewildered by their greatness and beauty that for a long time he could distinguish nothing certainly but stately buildings of stone, pillars carved and painted, and great windows well wrought. In the centre quadrangle he notices the stone cross in the middle of grass sward. He enters the minster, and describes the arches as carved and gilded, the wide windows full of shields of arms and merchants' marks on stained glass, the high tombs under canopies, with armed effigies in alabaster, and lovely ladies lying by their sides in many gay garments. He passes into the cloister, and sees it pillared and painted, and covered with lead, and conduits of white metal pouring water into bronze lavatories beautifully wrought. The chapter-house was like a great church, carved and painted like a parliament-house. Then he went into the refectory, and found it a hall fit for a knight and his household, with broad tables and clean benches, and windows wrought as in a church. And then he wandered and wondered at "the halls full high and houses full noble, chambers with chimneys and chapels gay," and kitchens fit for a king in his castle, and their dorter or dormitory with doors full strong, their fermerye (infirmary) and frater, and many more houses, and strong stone walls, enough to harbour the queen. The author was evidently amazed at all the sights which he witnessed in the monastery.

We will now see the monks at work, and spend a day with them in their monastic home. It is not easy definitely to map out a monk's day. The difficulty arises in a measure from the want of distinct marks of time. A monastic day was divided into twelve hours of uncertain length, varying according to the season; but the religious observances began at midnight, when the brethren rose at the sound of a bell in the dortor for the continuous service of Mattins and Lauds. They then retired to sleep, until the bell again summoned them at sunrise, when Prime was said, followed by the morning Mass, private masses and confessions, and the meeting of the Chapter; after this, work; then Tierce; then High Mass, followed by Sext. A short time was then devoted to reading, during which the ministri and the reader at table dined; and then the monks sat down to dinner. This was the first food of the day, though the weaker brethren were allowed to sustain themselves with wine and water, or bread steeped in wine. Dinner was followed by a brief rest in the dormitory. If the monks did not wish to sleep they could read in the dorter; but they were to be careful not to disturb their resting brethren by any noise, such as that caused by turning over the leaves of their books. At one o'clock the bell rang for None, a short service consisting of a hymn, two psalms, some collects, the Lord's Prayer, and versicles. Then the brethren washed themselves, had a stoup of wine in the frater, and worked until Evensong, which was followed by supper. After supper they read in the cloister until the bell rang for Collation, which consisted of a reading in the chapter-house, whence they retired to the fratery for a draught of wine or beer. Then followed Compline, and then the monks were ready for bed, and retired to the dortor. Even there rules followed them, and directed them how they were to take off their shoes, and "to behave with more quiet, self-restraint, and devotion than elsewhere."

I have not exhausted all the services which the monks attended. In addition to the principal ones there were several minor functions, at which devotion to the Blessed Virgin was the chief feature. The life was hard and the discipline severe; and lest the animal spirits of the monks should rise too high, the course of discipline was supplemented by periodical blood-letting. The doctors of the day were firm believers in the utility of this practice, and perhaps it had special advantages for dwellers in monasteries. According to the mediaeval metrical treatise on medicine, Flos Medicinae, or Regimen Sanitatis Salerni

  "Spiritus uberior exit per phlebotomaniam."
  "It maketh cleane your braine, releeves your eie,
  It mends your appetite, restoreth sleep,
  Correcting humours that do waking keep;
  And inward parts and sences also clearing
  It mends the voyce, touch, smell, taste, hearing."
According to the Observances of the Augustinian Priory at Barnwell, Cambridge, each brother was compelled to be bled seven times a year. It was probably a welcome duty, as the monks enjoyed a regular holiday, and were solaced with unwonted good fare.

Those who wished to be bled asked leave in Chapter, and having received a formal licence, attended High Mass. After the gospel they left the quire, and were bled in the farmery, where they remained three days. During this period they were excused attendance at the daily services, except on very special occasions; and minute directions are given for their personal comfort. They were allowed fire and lights, with suitable food, eggs and vegetables being specially mentioned; and they might take exercise within the precincts, and even beyond them, should the prelate give them leave. The infirmary seems to have been the most cheerful place in the monastery. Its inmates were "to lead a life of joy and freedom from care, in comfort and happiness." Conversation was freely permitted, though sarcastic and abusive language was strictly forbidden. "Games of dice and chess, and other games unsuitable to those who lead a religious life, were forbidden"; "because beyond all doubt they are offensive to God, and frequently give occasion to strife and contention among those who play them." We notice that invalids were allowed to walk in the "vineyards"; evidently the monks grew their own grapes, and made their own wine. The infirmary must have been well frequented. The complaints which are often specially mentioned as likely to compel the monks to resort to it are "irksomeness of life in the cloister," "long continuance of silence," "fatigue in the quire or extension of fasting," and "sleeplessness and overwork."

With regard to blood-letting the various orders had different customs. The Benedictines and Cluniacs had no stated times or seasons for the operation. The Cistercians prescribe bleeding four times in the year. The Carthusians were bled five times, and the Dominicans four times in the year.

The food of the monastery was varied and plentiful. Fish and flesh were brought to the table, the former being obtained from the monastic stew-ponds. Fruit was supplied, both raw and cooked, and a good supply of beer and wine. Wine seems to have been very commonly used, and some relaxation was evidently permitted in the matter of drink.

The hospitium, or guest-house, is worthy of a visit. Thither flocked a mixed crowd of knights and dames, monks and clerks, palmers, friars, traders with their wares, minstrels with their songs, and beggars, enjoying to the full the hospitality of the monks, who recognised it as one of their duties "to entertain strangers." The religious houses were, to a great extent, the inns of the Middle Ages; and when they were situated on the high roads, the guests were numerous and their entertainment costly. We are reminded, however, by the Observances of Barnwell Priory that "by showing hospitality to guests the reputation of the monastery is increased, friendships are multiplied, animosities are blunted, God is honoured, charity is increased, and a plenteous reward in heaven is promised." It was enjoined that the hosteller, or brother in charge of the hospitium, should have "facility of expression, elegant manners, and a respectable bringing up; and if he have no substance to bestow he may at any rate exhibit a cheerful countenance and agreeable conversation, for friends are multiplied by agreeable words." He had to provide clean cloths and towels, cups without flaws, spoons of silver, mattresses, blankets and untorn sheets, pillows, quilts, etc. His duties are laid down with much minuteness; every morning he was required to go through the inventory, lest anything should be missing.

The meeting in the chapter-house we must not omit to describe. When all the brethren had taken their seats, one monk went to the pulpit and read aloud the martyrology for the day. Then some psalms and collects were read, and a portion of the monastic rule, and briefs announcing the deaths of persons in whom the brethren were interested. The tabula, or notice-board, recording the names of those who were responsible for certain duties, was read; and a sermon followed. After the precentor had given minute instructions with regard to the reading and singing of the services for the day, the abbot said: "Speak of your own order." This was the call to confession; and any brother who was conscious that he had transgressed any rule, or neglected his duty, came forward and asked pardon for his fault. This was followed by the report of the circator, whose duty was to play the spy, and discover the faults of the monks. And after this the brethren accused each other. One brother started up saying: "I accuse —— a brother." The accused came forward and stood before the abbot, waiting patiently for the charge. The accuser then stated the charge, which was admitted, or denied, by the accused. If the abbot judged him to be flogged, the culprit might not be flogged by his accuser. He rose from his knees and modestly divested himself of his garments, remaining covered from his girdle downwards; and he who flogged him might not cease till the abbot bade him. Then he helped the brother to put on his clothes, who bowed to the abbot and went back to his place. The Chapter, after this exciting interlude, proceeded to transact the temporal business of the house, and then adjourned.

The chapter-house was often the scene of great events in the history of England. At Reading Abbey in this noble chamber parliaments were held. Here Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, presented to Henry II. the keys of the Holy Sepulchre, and invoked his aid in the crusade against the Saracens. Here the bishops assembled and excommunicated Longchamp, Chancellor and Regent of the country. Here the marriage contract between John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster was signed, when there were great rejoicings in the ancient town, and tilts and tournaments took place daily. These gay scenes must have greatly disturbed the tranquil life of the monks, and contrasted strangely with their normal condition.

The picture of monastic life, which a study of the records of a monastery brings before us, is strange and alien to our present ideas; but it is brightened by a spirit of sincere religion and true charity, and helps us to understand the attraction of the convent walls in turbulent and troublous times.

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