Anatomy of a Monastery – The Monks

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century, we have a (mostly) false idea of their number and importance to people in the Middle Ages. If they weren’t broken up and their stones and lead taken away to be used elsewhere, monastic buildings were turned into private dwellings and we have few physical reminders of them.

In my own town, for example, the friary that was within the medieval town’s walls has disappeared completely. A priory just outside those walls has left behind a gateway in someone’s garden and is recalled in a street name. Within 5 or 6 miles of my house there were at least five monasteries plus hospitals and other institutions founded and managed by them. I can’t over-emphasise how important monasteries were and how much of an impact they had on the lives of everyone in England, monks or otherwise.

Not all monasteries were as large as Rievaulx in the photograph above, but they all had similar spaces within them to meet the requirements of the monastic life. In order to understand the spaces, we need to look at the purpose of a monastery. The monastic movement began in northern Africa in the third century with men and women going to secluded places to live alone and pray without distractions. Gradually the hermits joined together for support and protection, and a number of different sets of rules were created to govern their communities. Those produced by St. Benedict early in the sixth century gained widespread acceptance.

Roch Abbey Church

Roche Abbey Church

The rules set out what the monks could eat and wear, and how they would spend their time. Monks weren’t to spend all their time in prayer, but also take on physical work. The rules also set out how a monastery was to be run. The life of a monk wasn’t supposed to be easy.

Cistercian timetable – the offices are in bold type
Summer
1.30 a.m. Rise
2.00 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
3.30 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
Rest
Reading
6.00 a.m. Prime
Chapter meeting
Work
8.00 a.m. Terce
Mass
Reading
11.30 a.m. Sext
Dinner
Rest
Work
2.30 p.m. None
Work
Supper
6.00 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
8.00 p.m. Compline
8.15 p.m. Retire to bed

Winter
2.30 a.m. Rise
3.30 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
Reading
6.00 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
Prime
Reading
8.00 a.m. Terce
Mass
Chapter meeting
Work
Noon       Sext
Mass
1.30 p.m.  None
Dinner
Rest
Work
4.15 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
6.15 p.m. Compline
6.30 p.m. Retire to bed

St. Benedict divided the monks’ day into three parts – opus dei (work of God or church offices); lectio divina (spiritual reading); and opus manuum (manual labour). As you can see above, their timetable varied from season to season, depending on the hours of daylight available, although some of the offices took place during the night.

The number of offices comes from the Psalms, in which the Psalmist praised God seven times a day and got up at midnight to give thanks. There were eight offices a day and they were made up of psalms, readings from the Bible and prayer. In addition, Mass was celebrated once a day.

Spiritual reading took up about two hours of the day, bearing in mind that the length of an hour was longer in the summer than in the winter.

There was also a meeting of the entire community in the chapter-house each day. This was when the business of the monastery was discussed and rule-breaking punished. At the end of the meeting, a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict was read aloud.

Easby Abbey west range

Easby Abbey

The manual labour part of the day lasted from two to four hours. This could take the form of gardening, agricultural work, carpentry or copying manuscripts. The monks were supposed to do all the labour need to support the community themselves, but many monasteries had servants to assist, St. Benedict having conceded that not all monks would be up to manual labour. The Cistercians decided that their whole day should be devoted to the opus dei and the lectio divina, and instituted the concept of lay brothers, who had dedicated spaces within a monstery. They slept in a separate dormitory, ate in a separate refectory and were cared for when in ill a separate infirmary. They spent most of their time in manual labour and only attended two offices a day.

Having established what monks did, we can move on next week to look at the spaces in which they carried out those activities.

Sources:
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Monks

  1. I admire their dedication to pray. Imagine getting up at 1.30am!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I shiver at the thought of the early morning prayers. I assumed someone was in charge of waking them all up, but how did they know when to ring the bell for matins, for example? I shall have lots of questions for this series of posts, you can tell!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. This is a great and interesting post, April. I wish I had found a post like this when I was researching medieval monasteries earlier this year for my new book.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I would not have made a good monk! You should put Mount Grace on your list next time you get up here- one the best.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I’m thinking this series may be – to date – your magnum opus!

    I can see why the Hours were pared down, especially the night ones. If someone forgot to turn the sand glass, and many may have, it could mess up the entire schedule.

    Bells were used to call the Hours, and perhaps poorer houses relied on nearby richer ones’ bells for their needs.

    It seems these smaller houses, all so near each other, must have had different ideas of holy life (sort of sounds like Wesleyans v. Methodists v. Brethren: all similar but for small, but key points). Otherwise, why not join into larger community?

    Perhaps some preferred a Dominican life, or an intimate little fraternity, or some other nuance. Hope your series sheds light on my musings.

    Wonder who declared that 5 hrs., 15 min. sleep would suffice for summer? St. Benedict? I do forget Europe is much further north than Indiana. Do you really have that little night time in summer? When I spent a January in England, we went by clocks, not sunlight, and it seemed perpetually dark. But golly yes, it did always seem daylight the two weeks in June I was there!

    REALLY ENJOYING THIS! ☺

    Liked by 2 people

    • Around midsummer we get about 5 1/2 hours of real darkness in my part of the world. That would decrease the further north you go. Yes, January is just dark. In the middle of winter you’re lucky if you get 7 hours daylight. Fog, rain and snow can make it much less.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. They must’ve been permanently sleep deprived, don’t you think?

    Liked by 5 people

    • I think there were other opportunities for sleep. There was also a first and a second sleep in the Middle Ages, so everyone broke their sleep in the middle of the night. Despite that, I agree that they must have struggled to get enough sleep.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Oh dear, the thought of that early to bed/early to rise regime alarms me too. I could never have made a monk. Though the absence of artificial light would have made the early bedtime more attractive, particularly in winter.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. lydiaschoch

    Do you think you’ll ever write (or have you written?) a post about who entered the religious life and why they chose it? For example, were most monks/nuns/priests from wealthy families? Poor families? A mixture of both?

    Liked by 4 people

    • I haven’t written such a post, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t include one. I think I’d better start a list of things I haven’t thought of yet that I should cover.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’ve read that while houses for women were supposed to have been founded on many of the same principals as men’s, they frequently degenerated into storehouses for excess well-bred damsels. Some of these young women never even took orders, but were housed due to;

        ○ lack of marriageable dowers
        ○ awaiting marriage brokering (especially if valuable orphans)
        ○ supposed “deformities”
        ○ other reasons to house spare upper crust women and girls

        Can’t just let them take a trade or live alone! They’re WOMEN!

        Mind you, some kind of dowry or upkeep was expended by the family, lest gossip spread beyond the cloister that their daughters were poorly kept, causing families to lose face (and some heavenly black marks). Dowries made the difference in the placement of women; few really and truly “poor handmaidens” became Mother Superiors. Most dowries were pittances compared to what married women had to hand over to their menfolk.

        They rarely saw a farthing. From one man’s hands to another’s.
        Of course any convent dowries went straight into the house coffer, unless indulgent relatives gave girls spending money.

        Less marriageable women did not need (supposedly) the finery of their wedded sisters. However, plenty of proof exists, and April hinted as such in one of her replies, that these women did not take well to cloistering and were frequently flaunting the rules (remember the spending moolah).

        I think she has plenty more to share about this. Knowing April, it’s gonna be good!

        Liked by 1 person

        • There’s a lot less information available about nuns and convents, but I’ve got some. Most of it is about nuns breaking the rules of their convent, though, so it gives the impression that all nuns misbehaved, which wasn’t the case.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I would imagine we would get quite a decent idea of the number of abbeys, priories, etc in a given sized area and the numbers of their inhabitants from the numbers in Europe around that time, and the records they kept.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Really fabulous post, April – well done, you!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hats off to their dedication in summer, indeed! After just 1 week of 5 hrs of sleep per night, I am POOPED.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Such an interesting subject, April, (I’m catching up). The life of monks certainly wasn’t easy, totally bound by time. I wonder what they did in their ‘Rest’ periods?
    Henry VIII had a lot to answer for! Such beautiful buildings and lives, no doubt ruined or changed forever. It must have been a terrible time for the monks within the monasteries.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Medieval Priests | A Writer's Perspective

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