The Miller was a stout carl, for the nones


Millers were vital members of fourteenth century society. Everyone ate bread, and grain had to be ground into flour. This could be done by hand, using a quern, but it was very time-consuming. Powered mills (by water or wind) were labour saving devices, allowing the man who had grown the grain (or his wife and children) to do something else while the grain was being ground. The quality of the flour from a mill was also better, being more finely ground and containing less grit.

For the lord of a manor a mill was a source of income, if he had one on his land. Many had more than one. His peasants had to pay to have their grain ground and they were not allowed to grind it themselves. Many did so secretly, however, using a domestic quern, which had to be well-hidden. If they were caught they would be fined and the quern confiscated or destroyed.

This monopoly was resented by the peasants. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 some men forced their way into St Albans Abbey where confiscated millstones had been set into the parlour floor. The millstones were dug up and broken into pieces.

Mills were expensive to build. Watermills needed ponds, weirs and leats to provide enough water moving quickly enough to turn the millstone. The millstone itself had to be cut properly before it could be used. All of this meant that they could only be built by the lord of the manor.

Windmills were invented towards the end of the twelfth century. They were used in flat areas where the water did not move fast enough to turn a wheel.

The most famous miller of the fourteenth century was the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He is described in the Prologue as being a bit of a brute: tall, wide, and strong enough to break a door down with his head, and the winner of every wrestling contest he entered. He was not an attractive man, having a hairy wart on the end of his nose. He stole from his customers, overcharging them for good measure. The tale he tells is lewd, but very funny.

Not all millers were as dishonest as Chaucer’s miller, but he did represent the contemporary view that millers were thieves. Most of what is known about millers comes from court records, which contain mostly complaints about theft, dishonest weights and overcharging. Millers certainly had plenty of opportunity to steal from those who brought their grain for milling.

Millers either rented the mill from the lord of the manor, or collected the tolls and payments for the lord if employed by him. Some mills were by bridges and the miller would also collect the tolls from those crossing the bridge.

Peasants had to pay a multure to have their grain ground. This was sometimes a sixteenth of the grain or flour.  Freemen paid a smaller percentage. Despite the cost, freemen who did not have to use the mill took their grain there and paid to do so. Not only did the mill produce better quality flour, but it was also a more efficient use of their time than grinding by hand, even though it was considered inconvenient to take the grain to the mill.

Some mills used tidal water for their power. Tide mills were less efficient, however, as they could only operate for six to ten hours a day. Eling Tide Mill on Southampton Water benefited, and still benefits, from Southampton’s double tides in order to mill for longer. Travellers are still required to pay a toll to cross the nearby bridge. Although there has been a mill on the site for nine hundred years, the current building dates from the late eighteenth century.

Watermills were made of wood and there is rarely much left for archaeologists to find. Despite this, the team at Guédelon Castle decided to build a watermill as part of their project to build a castle using only techniques from the thirteenth century. Last year I reviewed the DVD Secrets of the Castle about the project. It shows the operation of a wooden watermill, as well the use of a quern. Some of the difficulties involved in operating a watermill are highlighted, not least the problems involved in producing enough power to turn the millstone.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

Fourteenth century society


We’re often told that medieval society consisted of three groups: those who work, those who fight and those who pray. Even by the last quarter of the fourteenth century when Langland had Piers Plowman say to the knight “I’ll toil and sweat for both of us. I’m willing to work all my life because of the good will I have towards you. But this on condition that you, for your part, protect Holy Church and myself against those ravaging villains who destroy everything they come upon” it was no longer true.

Medieval society was far more complex than the concept of the three orders would have us believe. Chaucer reflected this at the end of the century, not only in the assortment of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but in the subjects of the tales they tell.  His pilgrims included a miller, a knight, a cook, a reeve and a pardoner. Characters in the tales include a carpenter, an alchemist and a priest. When most of us think about the fourteenth century, however, I’m sure that we think in terms of peasants, knights (and their ladies) and priests or monks.

Not only was there diversity within society, but there was also diversity within groups. Not all peasants were poor. Some lived very comfortably and employed other peasants. Some had a lot of land, others had just enough to live. Some, reeves, had authority over the others in their village, rich or poor. Not all knights were rich. Some could barely afford to buy armour or keep their horses. Some became wealthy by capturing and ransoming other knights. Some became poor because they had themselves been captured and had to pay a ransom. The church didn’t just consist of monks and priests, but friars, pardoners and summoners.  Some priests lived well in rich parishes or in the households of wealthy men, others struggled to live on the tithes of their parishioners.

Towns had their own structures and hierarchies. Merchants had apprentices and could aspire to high office. Richard Whittington (of Dick Whittington and his cat fame) was a mercer who became mayor of London. In the towns men practised trades: smiths, bakers, apothecaries, coopers, wheelwrights, bowyers and fletchers.  Some towns had universities, which grew in the fourteenth century, producing scholars and learned texts. Increased access to education meant that there were more people, in towns at least, able to read the texts. Education gave commoners the opportunity to rise in the church or in government.

Fourteenth century society was not static. Women could rise in society by marriage and men could advance through their own efforts and by patronage.



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Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey


On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.


Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey


This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.


Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey


Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.


Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey


In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Edward III and King Arthur


From the time of Edward I English kings used the legends about King Arthur to bolster their claim to rule all the British Isles. Although Arthur was a British hero, by the thirteenth century he had come to symbolise the English, and the mythology was used, consciously or unconsciously, to unite Britons, Saxons and Normans. King Arthur represented many things: he was the ideal king, the ideal knight, the ideal husband and the ideal Christian.

The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were known all over Europe and were recorded very early in ‘romances’, long poems which are often regarded as the prototype of the novel. Even though Arthur was associated with Britain, works about him were written in many countries. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth-century cleric, from or based in Wales, whose book Historia Regium Britanniae contains a very early version of the Arthur stories. Later in the twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes, who served at the court of Marie de France, Coutness of Champagne, wrote four complete and one incomplete romances about Arthur (Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval). He is also credited with inventing the character of Lancelot. Another French poet of the late twelfth century, Robert de Boron wrote Josephe d’Arimathe about the Holy Grail, and Merlin. Around the same time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival in Bavaria (probably), claiming that Chrétien de Troyes had got the story wrong. In the 1360s the Italian poet Boccaccio wrote a long poem about Arthur. Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was written in England in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet referred to either as ‘the Pearl poet’ or ‘the Gawain poet’. Possibly the best known version of the stories is Le Morte d’Arhur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the middle of the fifteenth century. Ironically, given the chivalrous nature of Arthur and his knights, Malory was a less than savoury character, being a thief and possibly a murderer. He changed sides during the Wars of the Roses and wrote down the stories while in prison.

Edward I was obsessed with Arthur, even taking his new bride to see Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury.  He usurped the Arthurian mythology when he conquered Wales. To the Welsh Arthur was the British hero who would return to beat back the English, but Edward I used him to bolster his own legend and to demonstrate to the Welsh that Arthur wasn’t coming back.

His grandson, Edward III, was similarly obsessed. Edward venerated his grandfather, and this was probably why he was interested in Arthur, although, as we shall see, there were other reasons for him to pursue this interest. From boyhood Edward III studied the lives of great kings from the past in order to be a good king and these included King Arthur. He studied the histories about Arthur, rather than the romances. Even though Edward III probably did not read the romances himself, it’s probable that he either heard the stories read aloud or told as entertainment. Both his mother and his wife were fond of the romances.

After he had overthrown his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1330 Edward III’s contemporaries began to talk of him as King Arthur returned, fulfilling the prophecies of Merlin. He, however, was careful to claim no more for himself than the rôle of Sir Lionel, which had been assigned to him by Mortimer during a tournament. In this he learned from Mortimer himself. Mortimer had made himself unpopular by (amongst other things) identifying himself with Arthur.

Mortimer’s family held that they, being descendants of the Welsh kings were also descendants of Arthur. In 1329 Mortimer played the part of King Arthur and Isabella played Guinevere at a tournament, while Edward, the king, was a mere knight, Lionel. Mortimer was clearly putting himself above the king and this was probably one of the many things that made Edward III feel threatened and led to his coup against his mother. Lionel could be understood to mean ‘little lion’ and Edward later used it as a reference to the lions on his standard.  He named his third son Lionel.

When Edward III came to found his order of chivalry in the 1340s, his original vision was that his band of knights should have a round table at Windsor. He even planned a round building to house it. It was Edward I who had ordered the construction of the Round Table which is now in Winchester Castle and Edward III was probably thinking of this when he ordered his own Round Table to be built. Although there is nothing specific in the way the Order of the Knights of the Garter was set up that refers to Arthur, the mere fact that Edward set up an order of chivalry with a small number of knights was enough to make his subjects see the comparison.

Other medieval monarchs used the mythology of Arthur to their own ends. Henry VII named his first son Arthur. Henry was Welsh and, like Mortimer, was claiming descent from King Arthur. He did this in order to legitimise not only his own reign, but that of his son. The use of Arthur as a name for the Prince of Wales is not limited to medieval times; the current Prince of Wales also has Arthur as one of his names, as does Prince William.



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Review of The War on Heresy


I was reading this book at the same time as I was reading histories of medieval monasticism and it made me think how little difference there seemed to be between the messages of the friars and the heretics. Both believed that those who followed Christ most closely should live a common life, not owning any property, not eating meat and abstaining from sex. It must have been incredibly difficult for someone not trained in theology to see the difference.

It is one of Moore’s propositions that there was often no difference and that the war against heresy was more often about political manoeuvring by the church or the nobility rather than heresy.

In a world where even trained theologians could find themselves inadvertently contradicting the teaching of the church, it was easy for ordinary people as well as poorly educated priests and monks to fall into heresy, or what was perceived as heresy. As I discovered as I read the book, not everything that’s called a heresy is heretical and, often, the people doing the name-calling were themselves not living in accordance with the church’s teachings, which changed from time to time. Until the twelfth century it was permissible for a priest to be married. One of the results of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 was that marriage was formally denied to priests. Around the time of the change was someone who preached against married clergy a heretic or someone who was upholding the true faith? It could go either way. The same council decided that simony (purchasing church offices) was no longer to be tolerated, but those who had purchased their office persecuted as heretics those who opposed them. Were people who refused to attend Mass presided over by these men heretics? Often that was the judgement made against them, and frequently such a judgment was fatal.

Most of the issues that heretics (or catholic believers depending on your point of view) had with the church centred around whether or not the bread and wine in the Mass really were the body and blood of Jesus, the efficacy of the baptism of children, whether or not a priest’s sins rendered the sacraments he gave ineffective and abstaining from sex, and this is reflected in the definition of heretical belief set out by the Second Lateran Council. Heretics are those who, ‘simulating a kind of religiosity, condemn the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood; the baptism of children; the priesthood and other ecclesiastical orders; and legitimate marriages’.

Although Moore points out that many thoroughly orthodox catholic believers were persecuted or burned, there were also many heretics who suffered the same fate. From the very beginning the church had been split by different beliefs and some of these continued to flourish in the remoter parts of Europe.  There were also newer heresies spread by hermit preachers. Until the late twelfth century no one had worried about them very much, but a papal bull in 1184 threatened them and any bishops or priests who had not did not take action against them. This eventually led to a period of mass burnings in the thirteenth century and the setting up of the Inquisition.

The final part of the book deals with the famous heretics in the south of France –the Albigensians and the Cathars – and the crusades against them. These resulted in massacres and mass burnings, mutilation, theft of property and all imaginable, as well as unimaginable, horrors. Moore relates the astonishingly complex background to the crusades and examines the motives of those involved in them.

This book is not an easy read, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the people or events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as I am not. People I had heard of such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry II of England and Walter Map for example, turn up in unexpected contexts. Neither is it an enjoyable read, the atrocities are far too clearly set out for that. It is a very informative read and challenges all of the assumptions that I had about the heresies of the twelfth century.



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Alchemy: Science or magic?


One of the characters in a current work in progress is an alchemist, which is a shame, as I know next to nothing about alchemy. I have been doing some reading, however, and it is, as you would expect, a fascinating, if complicated, subject.

Until the eighteenth century only seven substances were recognised as metals: gold and silver (the noble metals) and copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury (the base metals). Gold and silver were noble because they resisted corrosion, whereas the other metals changed, for the worse, over time. Much of the theory of alchemy was about ‘healing’ the base metals from their corrosive bodies.

There were various thoughts about how this might be achieved. Some thought that each metal had a body and a spirit and, if the sprits of two metals could be drawn off and the spirit of one added to the body of the other, the other would take on the substance of the original. Other alchemists adapted the ideas of Aristotle. He had identified four primary qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. There were also four elements; fire, air, water and earth. Aristotle thought of them as abstract principles, but an alchemist called Jabir thought they might have physical existence. One of his theories was that gold is hot and wet, and lead is cold and dry, therefore turning lead into gold should just be a matter of introducing more hot and wet or reducing the cold and dry. Others again thought that combining mercury and sulphur in some special way would produce the Philosophers’ Stone, which would achieve the transmutation.

Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt in the third century AD.  The first great practitioner was Zosimos of Panopolis. He was one among many, but some of his work has survived, whereas that of his rivals, or colleagues, has not. He was a methodical researcher and was particularly interested in the action of vapours on solids. Theory was important to him, as well as practical research.

The first references to the Philosophers’ Stone, a substance which could turn base metals to gold, occurred in the seventh century.

From around 750 to 1400 alchemy developed in the Islamic world. Here the premise was developed that the Philosophers’ Stone was made up of two parts: a white agent for making silver and a red one for gold.

Somewhere between the sixth and eighth centuries the best known text relating to alchemy appeared. Although is attributed to Hermes or Trismagestus, the Emerald Tablet was probably an Arab work.

In the twelfth century alchemy came to Europe when Arab works, including the Emerald Tablet, began to be translated into Latin, but this declined in the twelfth century and more original works were written in Latin. A surprisingly large number of writers about alchemy in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were Franciscan friars. These included Paul of Taranto, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon and John of Rupescissa. Not all of them thought it was a good idea, or even believed that it was acceptable to try to change metals into gold.

John of Rupescissa was influenced by the Spirituals in the Franciscan Order and was expecting the Antichrist to appear at any moment. He thought that any weapon that could be used against him should be investigated. Gold would be useful, he thought, and so would something that could prolong people’s lives. He was probably the first alchemist to consider using the healing properties of the Philosophers’ Stone on people, not, as popularly believed, to bestow immortality, but to extend life for a time. He was imprisoned in 1344 and spent the rest of his life in captivity, but he was permitted to carry out his experiments and to write. It was not his alchemy which worried the authorities, but his prophetic activities and his denunciation of clerical abuses.  In 1351 he learned how to distil alcohol from wine when he was imprisoned in Avignon, where they had been doing this for medicinal purposes since the 1320s.  He made tinctures by adding herbs to the alcohol and these tended to be more effective than those made using water. When he noticed that alcohol did not decay and that meat immersed in alcohol was preserved indefinitely, he thought he had discovered the elixir that would preserve life.

Alchemists became associated with counterfeiters and Pope John XXII condemned them in 1317. Edward II banned their efforts in England, but his son, Edward III, ever short of money, encouraged them.

Apart from its connection with counterfeiters and tricksters in general, alchemy was serious science.  Its practitioners were not usually inspired by greed, but by curiosity. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that chemistry began to be seen as separate from alchemy.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

The influence of the mendicant orders in the fourteenth century


Towards the end of the eleventh century there was an increasing desire in many monks to return to the life of the hermit. There was also a desire to emulate the apostles by owning nothing and sharing everything. This was known as the apostolic life. Religious fervour swept through parts of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and more and more people came to live together in religious communities. They were usually lay people, rather than ordained monks. Frequently their beliefs tended towards the heretical – the Cathars and the Albigensians for example. All their beliefs were based on interpretations of the apostolic life and a desire to embrace poverty as Christ had done.

The Franciscans

Founded by St Francis in 1209, the Franciscans were the Grey Friars or Friars Minor. ‘Friar’ is a corruption of the Norman French ‘frere’ which in turn came from the Latin ‘frater’ or ‘brother’. The Franciscans were the least intellectual of the mendicant orders, which may explain why they seemed to be rather prone to heresy. They took a vow of poverty and preached with great emotion about the sufferings of Christ.

Francis wanted to return to the simplicity of the early church. He embraced poverty and aspired to preach in the streets as the apostles had. He lived in caves, begging for food and wearing cast-off clothes.

Francis’ aim was to reform the church from within by example. He did not criticise the church, although its faults were very clear to him. His early followers were members of the aristocracy and the merchant class, who had wealth to give up. The call to poverty did not appeal to those who already had next to nothing.

The Franciscans realised that, if they were to evangelise, which was an important element of their interpretation of the apostolic life, they could not live in monasteries, but would have to be in the world. They had houses, between which individuals moved in small groups as directed by their superiors, but the friars did not have permanent homes.

As people living in towns began more frequently to receive an education and there was greater access to books, occasionally even a New Testament in their own language, they began to realise that their parish priests were not well-educated and knew little more than they did themselves, sometimes less. They became critical of their priests and open to the various heresies that arose when people were able to study the New Testament for themselves. By the time the Franciscans started travelling from town to town, town dwellers were used to seeing laymen preach the gospel. The only difficulty was telling the difference between a preacher approved by the church and a heretic.

The Franciscans first arrived in England in 1224, when they established themselves in Canterbury, London and Oxford.

There were constant arguments in the order about whether or not they should become university-trained theologians, or whether they should have servants, or whether they should own property. Within twenty-five years of Francis’ death the minority who insisted on simplicity and poverty became known as the ‘Spirituals’; their opponents were the ‘Conventuals’. At the end of the thirteenth century the Spirituals were accused of heresy and their leaders were burned to death. They had developed extreme views, believing that St Francis had replaced Jesus. They did not accept the authority of the pope.

Early Franciscans had been lay men and this was a great problem for the medieval church, as they could neither hear confessions nor dispense the sacraments. Not long after Francis’ death control of the order passed from lay brothers to ordained brothers, which made the order more acceptable to the rest of the church.

The Franciscans eventually moved into the universities and the intellectual world of the later Middle Ages was dominated by Franciscans like Alexander of Hales (1185 – 1245), Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), Duns Scotus (c. 1266- 1308) and William of Occam (1285-1349).

The Dominicans

The Dominicans were the Black Friars who gave their name to the area of London between the Thames and St Paul’s. They were founded in 1215 by St Dominic. Their full name was the Order of Friars Preachers, which indicates their rôle. They were mendicants who went from place to place preaching against heresy. They were used to combat the heresies that were rife in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in southern France. By the middle of the thirteenth century most of the members of the recently formed Inquisition were Dominicans. They encouraged leaning and rational theological debate, as they believed this was the most effective way to combat heresy.

The Dominicans were an ordained order from their inception. They were well-educated and dedicated to preaching. Dominic had been involved in preaching against the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Very quickly they decided to focus their activity around the universities, initially in Paris and Bologna. When they came to England in 1221 they went to Oxford.

The rule they followed was Augustine’s. This was based on an annotated version of St Augustine of Hippo’s letter number 211, which he wrote for his sister when she entered a religious community. It contained instructions for liturgical prayer, poverty, reading and silence. In this rule study was more important than manual labour.

The Dominicans were the first compilers of Biblical concordances, as they were an aid to preaching. They also collected anecdotes from the lives of the saints as examples for their sermons. By the thirteenth century few parish priests were capable of preaching a sermon, and the situation worsened after the Black Death. The friars stepped into the gap.

A friar had to study for three years before he was permitted to preach. There was a teacher of theology in each house, as well as special schools for friars who were going to teach. From these a few would go on to teach at the universities. Some of the greatest minds of the thirteenth century were Dominicans – Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and Robert Kilwardby (1215 – 1279).

The Carmelites

The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was founded at Mount Carmel in the early thirteenth century. It was approved by the pope in 1226. These were the White Friars.  The order’s early members were hermits in the deserts of the Holy Land. The first Carmelite house in England was founded in Aylesford after 1240 when many monks left the East after the failure of the Crusades. The twelfth century Pilgrim’s Hall at Aylesford is pictured above. Aylesford was on the pilgrim route from London to Canterbury and pilgrims were offered hospitality there. The monks were removed from Aylesford in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but returned in 1949, and this photograph shows the modern open air shrine area.


The Carmelites were the most contemplative of the mendicant orders. From the middle of the thirteenth century the emphasis of the order changed to the Franciscan model of mendicant preachers.

The Fourteenth Century

Most parish priests were not well-educated and their parishioners flocked to hear the friars preach, particularly the Dominicans. The friars gave the laity a way of living the Christian life whilst living in the world. Ordinary people saw that they did not have to become monks or priests in order to follow Christ fully.

It was easy for people in general to identify with the poverty of the friars, since that was their own lot in life. Monks in wealthy monasteries seemed very remote from their lives and increasingly irrelevant.

By the mid thirteenth century there were many mendicant orders as well as splinter groups, and the Second Council of Lyons abolished the smaller orders in 1274. Only orders created before 1215 were allowed to continue, save where they had received papal authority. This meant that only the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Austin Friars survived into the fourteenth century.


Filed under Church, Fourteenth Century

The Monastic Orders

Wenlock Priory

By the fourteenth century there were four major monastic orders: the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians and the Cistercians.  The three later orders began as reform movements. Most monastic movements began with the intention of reflecting the austere life of the desert monks of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, but over time they became increasingly remote from their origins and there would come a point when someone would think that things needed to change.

The Benedictines

The Benedictines dated from the sixth century and they were the dominant order from the ninth century on. Their way of life was based around the Rule of St Benedict. They lived in community, slept in dormitories and ate together in a refectory. Each monastery was an independent entity under the control of its abbot. The monks wore black habits.

Throughout the Dark Ages the Benedictines managed to keep scholarship and liturgical worship going. Their abbeys were centres of learning throughout the Middle Ages.

In England they became rich and powerful, owning vast swathes of land.

The Rule was very flexible and its practitioners eventually came to be seen as lax, both by monks and by people outside the monasteries.

The Cluniacs

The first reform movement began with the abbey at Cluny in 910. It was founded by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. One of the major differences from the Benedictines was that the abbot of Cluny controlled all the daughter houses. Everything was centralised, and English or French monks owed their allegiance to Cluny rather than to church authorities in their own countries.

The Cluniacs had an elaborate liturgy and the architecture of their buildings was extravagant. They also wore more expensive clothing than that worn by other monks. Their focus was on prayer and they did little manual labour.

Their first English house was founded in 1077 at Lewes. Wenlock Priory, pictured above, was a Cluniac house.

The Carthusians

The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse were founded in 1085 by St Bruno of Cologne. They did not have their own rule, but followed the Benedictine Rule in a different way. Their way was austere. These monks were silent and they fasted for much of the time. They took vows of austerity, humility and silence.

The monks slept in cells rather than in dormitories, reflecting a desire to return to the roots of the desert hermits. Each cell had its own garden and each monk had a patch of land to cultivate. For three days a week they were allowed only bread and water. On other days they had fish, eggs and vegetables. They usually ate alone, but ate together on feast days.

The monks met together only for Mattins, Lauds and Vespers. They celebrated the other liturgical hours alone in their cells.

Each house contained a prior and twelve monks with eighteen lay brothers. These last looked after the crops and animals belonging to the house. The Carthusians wanted to avoid a priory growing too large or becoming too well endowed.

Their monasteries were called charterhouses and the first one in England was built in 1178.

The Cistercians

Robert of Molesme founded the abbey at Cîteax in 1098, clearly believing that the Carthusians were insufficiently austere. The Cistercians’ clothing was made of undyed wool, hence they were called white monks. They ate neither fish nor eggs. They lived in cells and slept on boards. They worked in the fields and did not study. They used lay brothers to do much of the manual labour so that they could devote themselves to prayer. Their churches were plain with white walls and had no stained glass, or towers.

The most famous Cistercian was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). He arrived a Cîteaux a few years after it was founded. A former soldier, he had a difficult fight against the temptations of the flesh, but he preferred to fight on his own rather than with the assistance of his fellow monks. He believed in fasting and physical suffering, and was considered extreme even by the Cistercians. He was sent to Clairvaux to set up a monastery. He almost died in the early days, but Clairvaux became the most influential monastery in Europe. Under Bernard’s guidance all Cistercian abbeys became very similar in their layout. There were 343 Cistercian abbeys in Europe by Bernard’s death.

In 1132 the Cistercians founded Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was remote and desolate. They were experts at transforming the landscape and exploiting mineral resources. By the end of the twelfth century they owned so much land and so many sheep that they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. They chose sheep originally because they had so many uses. Their fleece became wool; their milk made cheese and butter; and their skins could be turned into vellum for books or sold to glovemakers.

The Cistercians were entrepreneurs, which went against the Rule. Benedict had prescribed that monks should not engage with the world. In another contravention of the Rule, each Cistercian house was subject to the house from which it had been founded, rather than ruled independently by its abbot.

Their first house in England was founded in 1128. They usually built in remote places and made them flourish by their labour.

The Fourteenth Century

There’s no denying that by the fourteenth century St Benedict would have recognised few monasteries as living in accordance with the Rule. Even though the Rule was flexible, many abbots and monks bent it until it broke. Monasteries were wealthy landowners; monks had servants; they ate meat and they were no longer respected by the people around them. The writing was on the wall in the thirteenth century and men like St Francis and St Dominic found a different route to reformation, as we shall see next week.


Filed under Church, Fourteenth Century

What is the Benedictine Rule?



In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.

Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.

The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.

The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.

The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.

Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.

It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.

In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.

The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.

The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.

The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.

For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.




Filed under Church

Monks and friars and how to tell them apart


I used to work in an area of London called Blackfriars. It took its name from the monks of the priory built there in 1276. The Black Friars were Dominicans and wore black habits. There were other monks who were white friars, as well as Benedictines and Cluniacs and others, and I have never been able to come to grips with the differences between the various monastical orders. I wasn’t even sure that there were differences.

Since a character in my work in progress is a monk, it seemed like a good idea to work out what kind of monk he was and, perhaps, get all the different varieties sorted out. There appeared to have been a huge number of different kinds of monks wandering around fourteenth century England, but it’s even more complicated than I thought.

There were essentially two types of monks – those who lived in monasteries and those who did not. The members of the monastical orders lived in monasteries and very rarely left them after they had entered them (although it might be more accurate to say that they were not supposed to leave them). The monasteries were often large and usually owned great swathes of land. Some monks were also friars, who did not live in a monastery. We’ve all heard of Friar Tuck roaming the countryside with Robin Hood; he was a member of one of these orders. Friars belonged to mendicant orders. In the fourteenth century there were four monastical orders and four mendicant orders. The mendicant orders had no great houses and the monks lived on the alms of people who wanted to help them. They were, essentially, beggars. These were the preaching orders, usually working to convince people to give up the various heresies that threatened to overwhelm the church in the Middle Ages. When the inquisition was formed, many of its members were Dominicans, from one of these preaching orders. Many parish priests resented the mendicant monks, because they took money that the priests thought could be better used by them in their parishes. Others found it hard to accept monks who did not live up to the monastic ideal of entering a community and not leaving it again. Despite their members living as beggars, these orders eventually became very wealthy.

Monasticism has its roots in the desert monks of the fourth century. Christians in North Africa left the towns to live as hermits in the desert so that they could pray and study. They became known as particularly holy men and people would visit them in the hope that they would learn something, or that the holiness would rub off on them. Some of these visitors would become disciples of the hermits and monastic communities were born.  One such community gathered around St Benedict in the sixth century and he formalised the way in which the members should live together in his Rule. Monks were to pray and work together. Over time it became accepted that the prayers of simple monks had value and the monasteries were given money so that their inhabitants would pray for the donors.

Monks in monastic orders generally followed some form of the Benedictine Rule. The Benedictines were the oldest order, but later monks thought they had become corrupt and there were a series of reformations, which brought about the other three orders. These were the Cistercians, Carthusians and Cluniacs.

Books were produced in monasteries and this was often the sole labour of the monks and the Rule said that they were supposed to work. They would spend their time when not in church sitting at desks in the cloisters of the monastery copying out books.

Monasteries were often pilgrimage sites, because they often held relics of saints. Pilgrims came to visit the shrine holding the relic expecting miracles and left gifts behind.

Due to the communal nature of their lives, almost two thirds of the members of monastic orders in England died during the Black Death. Some monasteries never recovered. Rievaulx in Yorkshire had once held over 400 monks, by 1381 there were only 18.

By the fourteenth century monks were increasingly treated with suspicion. They came to be seen more as wealthy landowners who behaved in the same way as other wealthy landowners than as men who prayed. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, monks and their churches were as much targets of attack as the property of wealthy and unpopular men like John of Gaunt. The Archbishop of Canterbury was killed.

By the sixteenth century the monasteries were easy prey for Henry VIII. Many monasteries were too small to continue effectively and others had departed so far from the rule that the monks were bad examples to the people around them. Most monasteries were dissolved,  with the Crown taking their land. The buildings themselves either fell into ruin or became the homes of wealthy middle class men. I can never read Emma without thinking that Donwell Abbey was once a place where monks prayed for their fellow men.




Filed under Fourteenth Century