One of the things that surprised me when I started looking properly at monasteries was how small the chapter houses tended to be. The chapter house was the second most important building in the monastery and was usually located near to the most important: the abbey church. All the monks gathered inside it once a day. You can see why I was expecting them to be large.
Not only did the monks meet here daily, but it was also the place where important guests were received and where monks took their vows.
It was called the chapter house because a chapter of the rule governing the monastery was read aloud to the assembled monks each day. This wasn’t necessarily the Rule of St. Benedict, although it was the most common. The Augustinians, for example, were governed by the rule of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Pope Benedict XII decreed in 1344 that in all monasteries where there were more than six brothers there should be a daily meeting with all of them present. This had been the practice in many large monasteries from the eleventh century.
The monks usually met after the office of Prime. The abbot sat on a raised seat with the obedientiaries either side of him. There were stone benches along the walls where monks could sit during the meeting, although the seating was usually insufficient to allow everyone to sit down. In some monasteries, such as Rievaulx (shown above), the seating was tiered and could accommodate most of the community.
The meeting began by remembering the martyrs who were being celebrated on that day. Then there were prayers for the dead, with particular emphasis on those who had been benefactors of the monastery. A chapter of the rule was read aloud and the abbot or the prior addressed the monks. After that they dealt with the monastery’s business. The monks were allocated their weekly duties; correspondence was discussed; and reports from the monastery’s officials were read. These reports were about the running of the monastery itself and its estates. Visitors were present sometimes for this first part of the meeting.
The final part of the meeting took part in private and was mostly concerned with the discipline of the community. Brothers might be accused by others of failing to comply with the rule, or they might accuse themselves. Every member of the community, except the novices, was allowed to speak in this part of the meeting.
In his Rule, St. Benedict took a fairly compassionate approach to discipline that wasn’t necessarily put into practice in medieval monasteries. He said that a monk should be warned privately by a senior monk if he was found to be at fault and he allowed for the monk to be warned twice before any action was taken. Only after that was his fault to be made public. If he still went his own way, he was to be punished. This punishment might be a beating or it might be exclusion from the common life for a while. The monk was said to be excommunicated, because he was no longer in communion with his brothers. He ate alone and wasn’t allowed to lead in any part of the offices. For more serious faults, the monk would not be permitted to talk to the other monks. St Benedict said that it was the abbot’s responsibility to help the non-compliant monk to see his fault and to amend both his behaviour and his attitude. The ultimate punishment was to the expulsion of the recalcitrant monk from the monastery. Failures of discipline were taken seriously because obedience was one of the main requirements of the monastic life.
Most breaches committed by medieval monks were things that we would consider relatively minor, such as not keeping silence or neglecting to give alms. More serious faults included blasphemy and rebellion. These were the kind of failures that might require more than a warning from a senior monk.
The abbot decided the case and any punishment was announced to the assembled brothers. If the punishment was a beating, it would be carried out there and then, with the whole community as witness. Other punishments included putting the monk on a diet of bread and water or demoting him.
The monks were not permitted to talk about anything discussed in the chapter house outside of it and there were strict rules about how discussions within in were to take place. For example, the monks were to speak clearly so that everyone could hear them. When one monk was speaking, everyone else was to be silent. Only the abbot could interrupt when someone was speaking.
Sometimes chapter houses were used for secular meetings by local authorities. The King’s Court, the predecessor of Parliament, met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey.
When a monk died, his body was taken to the chapter house to rest before it was buried in the monastery cemetery. Abbots had the privilege of being buried beneath the chapter house.
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
The Rule of St Benedict in English
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter