Category Archives: Medieval Monks

Spirituals and Spirits

I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.

Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.

Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.

By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.

He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.

His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.

John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.

Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.

In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.

Sources:
The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

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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Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

Sources:
The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

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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Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Gatehouse

The gatehouse, Roche Abbey (2)

The Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

This is our final visit to the monastery and we’re leaving, as is proper, via the gatehouse. Like castles, monasteries were surrounded by a wall. In some parts of the country monasteries were subject to raids at various times, so some kind of fortification was important. Since monks had no means of defending themselves, the wall and the gate had to be as strong as possible. 

Gatehouses were staffed by porters, whose job it was to question those who wanted to enter, or leave, the monastery. The purpose of their questions was to find out whether that person had the right to come in or go out. Once he had made sure of the visitor’s identity and their reason for coming to the monastery, the porter directed them to the relevant obedientiary.

The porter could either be a monk or a lay employee and he was usually given accommodation in or near the gatehouse.

Gatehouses didn’t just allow entry to people, but also to carts. Supplies arrived from the abbey’s granges in carts or on the backs of horses, and guests would arrive with carts containing some of their belongings. My favourite gatehouse is this one where you can see the separate entrances for both carts and for people on foot. In many monasteries there was a single entrance for both.

Visitors were only allowed into what was effectively an outer courtyard. They were not allowed into the inner courtyard: the cloister. Like an outer bailey of a castle, this outer courtyard, known as the precinct, could be very large. It was here that any stores, barns, workshops, cattle-sheds, mills, smithies, stables and cemeteries were located.

The gates were closed at Compline, the last office before the monks went to bed. The porter could, however, open them for guests who had been delayed on their way or even pilgrims arriving after dark.

Large gatehouses like the one at Easby Abbey below, had rooms upstairs that could be used as offices or accommodation for the porter. Stores of items to be given as alms to the poor could be stored there so that they could be dispensed without the poor needing to enter the monastery. Alms were given out from a covered porch on the other side of the gate.

Easby Abbey gatehouse (2)

Gatehouse, Easby Abbey

Another use for the space on the upper floor was as a prison. Prisons were used to punish disobedient monks. We saw some weeks ago how they were sentenced in the chapter house and imprisonment was one of the most severe forms of punishment.

The gatehouse at Roche Abbey was built in the fourteenth century. Most of the slabs underfoot are original. Considering its purpose, it’s very elegant. It has beautiful vaulted ceilings with carved heads scattered about. When it was built it had an upper story, but that hasn’t survived.

Corbel, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Carved head, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval pavement, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval Pavement, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Roche Abbey by Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall

 

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Infirmary

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey (3)

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey

The infirmary was where monks went when they were unable to fulfil their duties because of ill health or advanced age. It was also the place to which elderly monks retired. Infirmaries usually had their own chapel, dormitory, refectory, kitchen and latrines. Some infirmaries even had their own cloister where its inhabitants could walk. The infirmary cloister garth was probably a herb garden for the pharmacy. In many ways, it was a monastery within the monastery, but on a much smaller scale.

All the monks stayed there at some point, since they had regular blood-lettings and they were allowed to convalesce in the infirmary for three days afterwards. With its special diet (including meat) and a fire, it was much more comfortable than anywhere else in the monastery, so spending any time there must have made a very pleasant change. The main part of the infirmary space would have been partitioned with wood or stone to make cubicles containing only one or two beds, which would also have made a stay there desirable. The infirmarian and his staff had to be careful, though, as it wasn’t unknown for monks to pretend to be ill in order to enjoy the comforts of the infirmary for a few days.

Sometimes the infirmarian was a physician, but more often a lay physician was employed by the monastery to work under him. He would have been assisted by a staff of monks.

Within the infirmary, there was a pharmacy where herbal remedies were made. It would probably have had a library, probably just a chest, of medical books.

Whatever our opinion of the state of medical knowledge in the Middle Ages might be, they knew as well as we do, that rest is important for the sick. In most monasteries, the infirmary was built far away from the main cloister, where healthy monks walked, worked and taught, in order to ensure that its inhabitants could have peace and quiet.

Care of the sick was important for those following the Benedictine rule. St. Benedict wrote, “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: I was sick and you visited me, and  What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me.” This care extended beyond the monks themselves. In Cistercian monasteries, there was a separate infirmary for the lay brothers and many monasteries provided another infirmary for lay people living nearby, either within the monastery or just outside. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield started in this way, like many other hospitals, in the twelfth century.

By the fifteenth century, the monastic population had decreased and large infirmaries were no longer needed. Some were converted in guest houses or lodgings for the abbot, but some were demolished so that the stone could be reused.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

 

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Kitchen

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Kitchen, Byland Abbey

Unlike the majority of domestic kitchens, those in monasteries were built in stone. This reduced the risk of an out-of-control fire within spreading to the rest of the buildings, a fairly common occurrence in the Middle Ages.  Monastic kitchens were, therefore, usually built next to the refectory.

Few of them have survived, although the Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey is a marvellous exception. I have visited Glastonbury, but it was about 35 years ago and I’m not sure where the photographs from that day are. Here is a link to someone else’s photograph of the abbot’s kitchen.

Where kitchens were built next to refectories, there was a hatch between them through which the food was served. Where they weren’t, the food would be carried along a covered passageway between the two buildings. In Cistercian monasteries there were two refectories: one for the monks and one for the lay brothers. Both were served by the same kitchen.

When they were first built, monastic kitchens had a central fire with a flue or vent in the roof above it to allow the smoke to escape.  These were often, but not always, replaced by a fireplace later.

In accordance with the rule of St. Benedict, only vegetables and legumes were cooked in these kitchens. In some monasteries there was an additional kitchen where meat was cooked for guests and for monks in the infirmary. Meat was initially forbidden to the rest of the monks for fear of enflaming their baser passions. By the late fourteenth century, though, this rule was relaxed, although some monasteries continued to forbid meat to the monks.

As set out in St. Benedict’s rule,  all the monks were to take their turn at cooking and working in the kitchen, as they did at serving in the refectory and in reading. Gradually, however, paid servants were taken on to do this work in all save Cistercian and Cluniac monasteries.

Some orders had very strict rules about how things were to be cooked and which utensils could be used. In some monasteries the rule was that there were three cauldrons (caldaria for those of you interested in the Latin) in which water was heated. One was for cooking legumes, one for vegetables and one for washing dishes and other utensils.

Waste from the kitchens was disposed of through the drainage channels taking the monastery’s waste to the nearest river.

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Drainage Channel, Rievaulx Abbey

A monastic kitchen fed many people and needed a lot of fuel. The was usually stored in a service yard just outside the kitchen. The kitchen was also served by a pantry (where bread was stored), a buttery (were the wine was kept) and a scullery (where utensils and kitchen equipment were kept).

Monks’ Kitchen, Muchelney Abbey

At Muchelney Abbey there are now two kitchens, originally dating to the fourteenth century. Today they back onto one another, but when they were first built they formed a single kitchen. At that time there would have been a central fire and a vent in the roof. Around 1400 the kitchen was divided and a fireplace was installed in each part. One kitchen is much larger than the other and that was where the food was prepared for the abbot and his guests. The smaller kitchen served the monks. Both kitchens have changed extensively over the centuries and you can see from the photographs below that the medieval fireplaces were much larger than the eighteenth-century replacements.

 

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Muchelney Abbey by John Gooddall and Francis Kelly

 

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbot’s Lodgings

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Abbot’s Lodgings, Muchelney Abbey

When St. Benedict wrote his rule of monastic life, his intention was that the monks would live a truly communal life: all monks, regardless of their status, would eat together in the refectory and sleep in the dormitory.  As monasteries grew richer and their abbots more powerful, however, the focus of some abbots was no longer within the monastery, but outside. By the mid-twelfth century, most abbots were spending much of their time with secular authorities. Such men had to be entertained in the monastery in the same way that they were elsewhere, which couldn’t always be done by having them eat in the refectory with the monks or by meeting them in the chapter house. It’s impossible to imagine such men, who would usually travel with their own beds, giving up the comfort of their mattresses to sleep in a monks’ dormitory.

In some monasteries, this meant building a separate house for the abbot where he could eat with his guests and they could all sleep. These lodgings usually contained a hall, a parlour, a chapel and bedchambers. They became increasingly luxurious. Often this house had its own kitchen. It was more or less identical to great secular houses.

Not everyone was comfortable with the change and many abbots had to be forced to live in this way, which they saw as neglecting their obligations to the monks. A large number, however, took very well to having plenty of space and comfort. Even where they didn’t have an entire house to themselves, they might take over the whole of the upper floor of what was known as the west range. These were the buildings on the western side of the cloister, as you can see in the photograph of Muchelney Abbey below.

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Abbot’s Lodging, Muchelney Abbey

Many abbots’ lodgings survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries simply because they were houses in which the new owner of the monastery could live. Apart from the latrine block and a barn, it’s the only part of Muchelney Abbey to have survived. Most of the building dates from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and it occupied the top floor of the west range.

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

Although it’s much later than the things I usually write about, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the abbot’s lodgings at Muchelney Abbey in detail. By the end of the fifteenth century, the domestic hall had been replaced by a (smaller) great chamber. This was partly because owners of great houses were tending to eat apart from the rest of the household, so a large space was no longer required. Despite that, this is still an imposing space. Tapestries would have hung on the walls and there would have been more imposing furniture and furnishings than you can see in the photographs. The guidebook on the table is mine and is not representative of anything medieval.

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

At Muchelney, the abbot’s lodgings incorporate rooms build over the cloister. These rooms have been changed many times over the centuries, but some early sixteenth-century wall paintings are still visible.

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Wall Painting, Muchelney Abbey

The Cistercians, who were strict, but pragmatic, complied with the requirement for the abbot to sleep with the other monks by connecting his lodgings to the monks’ latrine, which was, in turn, connected to the dormitory.

 

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Muchelney Abbey by John Gooddall and Francis Kelly

 

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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Warming Room

warming room, Rievaulx Abbey

Warming Room, Rievaulx Abbey

Last week I wrote about the cloister, which was the place where the monks spent most of their time when they weren’t in church. The cloister was, at least in the early Middle Ages, mostly unheated and the light on wet or snowy winter days would have been too poor for reading or copying books, which is what the monks were doing there. There would also be days when it was simply too cold to sit in the cloister, even if there were braziers at strategic points.

On those days the monks could sit in the calefactorium (warming house or warming room). In most monasteries it was just a large room, but in Cistercian monasteries it was a separate building.

It was called a warming room because it had a fireplace, sometimes two. It was one of only three rooms in a monastery that had a fire, the other two being the kitchen and the infirmary.

The fire was lit on All Saints Day (1st November) and was allowed to burn until Good Friday (anywhere between 20th March and 23rd April).

One of my sources suggests that clothes were dried in the warming room in winter, which would explain the two fireplaces. I think the size of the room and the number of monks it might have to accommodate explain them fairly adequately.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Cloister

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

Last week I wrote about monks borrowing books from the monastery library, but not reading them there. That’s because they read them in the cloister: the square/rectangular/odd-four-sided space around which the most important buildings were gathered.

Monks had two hours of spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) a day. Their reading would not have been a private matter, however, as silent reading was not encouraged, nor was it the normal practice in the Middle Ages. Reading was generally done aloud, usually with an audience. The monks probably couldn’t choose a book, but had one assigned to them. Whether it was their own choice or not, whatever they borrowed was recorded and they had to return it within a certain time period. Many books were stored in the book cupboard in the cloister and some monasteries never needed more than this one cupboard in which to keep their books.

Easby Abbey refectory and cloisters

Cloister and Refectory, Easby Abbey

The central part, the cloister garth, was uncovered, but the cloister itself was covered and enclosed. It was also the place where the monks worked, taught, walked and meditated. In some monasteries the cloister garth was a lawn, in others it was a herb or vegetable garden. In Cistercian monasteries it was the burial ground. Some monasteries had their lavatorium here and most monasteries had a well.

Where possible, the cloister was on the south side of the church. The floors were covered with rushes or matting, which must have helped with the cold. Some monasteries allowed braziers to be lit on very cold days, but most cloisters were unheated. At night, lamps burned in the cloister. I’m not sure why, since no one was supposed to be there then and access to anyone who didn’t belong to the monastery was severely restricted at all times.

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Reconstructed Cloister Arcade, Rievaulx Abbey

The exterior walls of the surrounding buildings formed the interior walls of the cloister. The exterior wall was usually in the form of an arcade, allowing as much light as possible into the cloister. The church wall of the cloister was lined with carrels where the monks studied, except in Carthusian monasteries where the monks studied in their own cells.

A carrel was made of stone or wood and was an enclosed space. They had rooves, or canopies, and doors to keep the drafts out. There was enough space in each for a bench and a desk. In some monasteries there were additional carrels along other walls.

The cloisters, Roche Abbey

The Cloister, Roche Abbey

The novices were often taught on the western side of the cloister and, in Benedictine monasteries, the southern side held the scriptorium, where books were copied.  In some monasteries the scriptorium wasn’t in the cloister, but in a separate room, usually on an upper floor. The scriptorium was located so that it would receive as much light as possible. Some monasteries had carrels in the scriptorium, others did not.

Copying books was considered to be a good thing for monks to do, because they could do it in silence. Books weren’t just copied; most were also illuminated and painted. Books were produced in places besides the monasteries, but the monasteries were the main source, at least until the development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.

The cloister at Easy Abbey is a very odd shape, due, I think, to the site, which is very uneven. It has three shorter sides and one long side. Sadly, this hasn’t come out in my photographs.

Easby Abbey cloister towards church

The Cloister and Part of the Church, Easby Abbey

The cloister at Rievaulx was one of the largest built by the Cistercians in England.

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The Cloister and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

The cloister also had a part to play in the offices. It was used on some occasions for processions before the monks entered the church.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library

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The library, Rievaul Abbey

If I was surprised by the size of the chapter houses I’ve seen, I was dumbfounded by the size of the libraries. I had anticipated huge spaces, but they were tiny.

All monasteries had a library, but they weren’t necessarily very large, not to start with, at least. In the early Middle Ages, all of a monastery’s books could be kept in a single cupboard. Eventually, however, they needed a room to themselves. From the end of the fourteenth century in many monasteries, that room had to be quite large. By the end of the Middle Ages, even a fairly small monastery could have 1,000 books. The monastery at Canterbury had over 4,000.

Most of the monasteries I’ve visited recently are Cistercian. As you can see from the photograph of the libraries at Rievaulx Abbey above and Roche Abbey below, their libraries tended to be narrow spaces between the north transept of the abbey church and the chapter house. All Cistercian monasteries were laid out on the same plan, with some accommodation being made for the geography of the site and the size of the monastery, so they all had fairly small libraries.

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The Library, Roche Abbey

In monasteries of other orders, the libraries eventually became quite large and there would be additional cupboards of books located around the monastery: in the church, the refectory and the infirmary. Like the dormitories, these larger libraries were often on upper floors.

Books were both valuable and rare, even more so in the early Middle Ages. Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, every book had to be written by hand. The books in a monastic library were either copied in the monastery’s own scriptorium or were the gifts of benefactors. The armarius was responsible for both the library and the scriptorium. Monks could borrow books for their own use from the library and there was time set aside each day for them to read. They didn’t read in the library, but, mainly, in the cloister.

Reading was an important activity for a monk. As a minimum, a monastery had books for the offices and some complete Bibles. The libraries typically held individual books of the Bible for personal study. These often had notes or commentaries written in the margins. Works of the Church Fathers (such as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome) were also held, as were histories; lives of saints; classical texts; books of sermons; meditations; and treatises on medicine and agriculture.

In the thirteenth century, Rievaulx Abbey had 225 books, of which 22 survive. Two catalogues from that time are extant and they list legal works; histories by Bede, Henry of Huntingdon and Eusebius; philosophical works by Cicero and Boethius; books by Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the founders of the Cistercian order; and works by former abbots and monks of the monastery.

Many books from monastic libraries were burned during the dissolution of the Monasteries, although some libraries were just broken up, with the books ending up in private hands. Fortunately, men like Sir Robert Cotton recognised the importance of these books and collected and preserved as many of them as they could. The collection of Sir Robert, his son and his grandson later formed the basis of the British Library.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

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