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.