Anatomy of a Monastery – The Chapter House

Chapter House, Rievaulx Abbey

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.

rpt

Chapter House, Roche Abbey

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.

Sources:
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

 

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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23 Comments

Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

23 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Chapter House

  1. Sounds like a civilised version of parliament, ours should take note.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hmm, maybe not! Would be good to see an MP being beaten for transgressions now and then though. 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting April. I never knew what the purpose of a Chapter House was. Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I can see the merit in St. Benedict’s warning system approach to discipline, which aligns with what we see in schools today!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m fascinated by the idea of monkish misbehaviour. I can see that not keeping silence might have occurred quite frequently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the vow of silence must have been very difficult to keep.

      The Decameron is full of tales of monks and nuns misbehaving, although I’m not sure how accurate they are. One of the podcasts I listens to has had a few contemporary accounts of less than ideal monastic behaviour. In one of them a monk stole candles meant for the church. In another one an abbot kept a mistress in a nearby village. There are also tales of fights breaking out. I suspect that these were recorded as being of note since they’re exceptions rather than the norm.

      There are many tales from the later Middle Ages about animals kept in monasteries getting out of hand, nuns dressing in worldly fashions, and monks and nuns leaving the monastery for a night in a local tavern. These were complaints from the locals, though, so had presumably not been brought up in the chapter house.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the Decameron was probably what we would call escapist literature. (Fine by me.) I have a particular sympathy for wayward nuns, because I often wonder how many were nuns by choice. When I was trotting around the Monasterio [nunnery] de Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, I asked my guide about this, and her response was that in those days you did as you were told.
        Out of your period and place, but even so…

        Liked by 1 person

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  9. I am really enjoying reading at your site and hope you don’t mind me sharing a memory of a ‘joke’ that came to mind when I read this post – In my family, long in the USA, and no monks in the family, but a few Protestant ministers sprinkled through, the story/joke told about “Chapter House” conversations was as follows: “After a year of silence, one brother was afforded the opportunity to speak his mind in chapter, on any topic, in rotation. The first year, one brother rose and solemnly stated, “I really like and am grateful for the oatmeal we have for breakfast” – the next year, the next brother rose and said, “While I’m grateful to have food, I personally do not like the oatmeal we have for breakfast” and the third year, the next brother rose and said, “I’m really tired of this constant bickering and fighting over the oatmeal”.

    Liked by 1 person

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