Tag Archives: Rievaulx Abbey

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.

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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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Latrine Block

Latrine block, Rievaulx Abbey 2

Latrine Block, Rievaulx Abbey

During visits to monastic ruins I’ve often seen signs saying ‘Reredorter’ and I never quite understood what it meant. The dorter was where the monks slept, so I thought the reredorter must be something to do with that. It is, indeed, something to do with monk’s dormitory, but in a way I hadn’t considered.

The original name for the reredorter is the domus necessaria or necessary house – the latrine. Despite its Latin appearance, reredorter was a creation of the Victorians, possibly because they preferred a euphemism. The necessary house was usually an extension to the dormitory, or was built at right angles to it. The latrines were on the first floor, accessible only via the dormitory.

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Some monasteries had complicated systems of pipes and drains to move both clean and waste water around the site efficiently. Others simply built their latrines as close to running water as possible. The latrines at Roche Abbey were sited above the stream. Those at Rievaulx were at the bottom of the slope where it was the last collection point before the drainage system took the waste to the nearest river.

The latrines, Roche Abbey
The latrines, Roche Abbey

Some monasteries discovered the hard way that they had built the latrine block in the wrong place and it had to be rebuilt. Sometimes that would mean rebuilding the dorter and other buildings as well. In other monasteries, the dorter and the latrine block were connected by a bridge.

Latrine drain, Rievaulx Abbey

Latrine drain, Rievaulx Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers slept in their own dorter and had a separate latrine block. Some monasteries had huge latrine blocks. The one at Canterbury could accommodate 55 monks at one time.

We come now to another role in the life of the monastery, one that I’d never heard of before I started reading about latrines. The circator went round the buildings at night looking out for monks who were doing things they shouldn’t be. His unofficial role was to wake up, discreetly, any monks who had fallen asleep in the latrine block.

The latrines were usually a series of cubicles separated by partitions of stone or wood, so that the monks couldn’t see one another. Each cubicle had a wooden seat and a window.

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Latrine, Muchelney Abbey

You can see from this photo taken inside the latrines at Muchelney Abbey where the seats would be fixed. The building has changed so much in the last five centuries that no one is quite sure how the drainage worked, but it’s believed that these arches were part of the outflow system.

Latrine Muchelney

Latrine outflow, Muchelney Abbey

One of my sources says that there were restrictions on monks using the latrines, so they carried portable urinals, whose contents were used for bleaching cloth or tanning animal skins. It’s probably best not to think about that too much.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell
Muchelney 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 Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.

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Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.

saxon-rood

In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Sources:
Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron

 

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 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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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More Medieval Tiles

It was suggested to me that I might write another post on medieval tiles, since I have so many photographs of them, so here it is. I’ve limited myself to tiles from Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys in Yorkshire, which I visited in April.

Tiles, Rievaulx Abbey 6

Tiles at Rievaulx Abbey

When I visited the abbeys, I expected that any tiles I saw would be behind glass, as these are, but that’s not the case. Fortunately, there are still tiles where they were originally laid in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some of them are in the forms of mosaics, as you can see below, but there are also a few, very damaged, inlaid tiles.

The tiles above, under glass, are inlaid. They become very fragile when their glaze wears off, which is why there aren’t many of them in what is now the open air.

Tiles, day room, Rievaulx Abbey

Tiles in the day room at Rievaulx Abbey

These tiles look rather good for having been exposed to the elements for several hundred years. They’re in the monks’ day room at Rievaulx. It had two fireplaces and the monks worked there during the winter rather than in the cloisters, which would have offered little protection against wind, rain and snow.

The colours have faded, but they still give a good idea of what the floor would have looked like when the monks were sitting in the room copying books.

Tiles, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Tiles in the nave of Rievaulx Abbey

The remaining tiles are in the nave of the abbey church. They’re relatively sheltered by bits of walls and pillars.

Tiles, Rievaulx Abbey, nave

Tiles in the nave of Rievaulx Abbey

Tiles, Rievaulx Abbey, nave 2

Tiles in the nave of Rievaulx Abbey

It’s a wonder to me that so many tiles have survived, but Rievaulx has almost nothing compared to Byland Abbey, which is about 15 minutes away by car.

Byland’s tiles are also mostly used to form mosaics.

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Tiles, Byland Abbey

These tiles on the risers of these steps are still colourful, since no one has trodden on them. Their designs are much clearer than those on surfaces that have been walked on for hundreds of years.

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Tiles, Byland Abbey

This pretty pattern of interlocking circles must have been very colourful when it was first laid.

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Tiles, Byland Castle

As you can see, the tiles are exposed both to the elements and to the feet of visitors. Sadly, many of the tiles have suffered as a result.

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Tiles, Byland Abbey

These tiles have almost completely lost their patterns and the tiles themselves are disintegrating. It’s a shame, because the patterns were obviously fairly complex.

Sources:
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter
Medieval Tiles  by Hans Van Lemmen

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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The Importance of Looking Up

In the last post I caused some confusion by mentioning ground and first floors. I believe they don’t mean the same thing to Americans as they do to me. Since there was more that I could write on the subject of looking up when visiting a medieval site, I thought I’d add another post, with a few more photographs to explain what I mean.

I made this diagram last year to show where the great hall was in Richard II’s palace at Portchester Castle.

Richard II's Hall diagram

King Richard’s Great Hall, Portchester Castle

As you can see, the great hall was above the servants level, which is at ground level. Medieval lords and abbots lived above: on the first floor. Great halls, refectories and solars were upstairs. The halls of men of lower status were on the ground floor.

People had to climb stairs to reach King Richard’s hall. It showed that he was a man of high status. His hall also had large windows, not that you can see them in the photograph. The wall on the right is an exterior wall of the castle, not just of the hall. It has no windows for the sake of security.

When I first started visiting medieval sites properly, I was confused by many of the things I saw. It was ages before I understood even a little about how to look at medieval buildings. This photograph from Rievaulx Abbey will illustrate this well.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

This space is labelled ‘Refectory’ and you might wonder, as I did the first time I saw something similar, why there are walls in the refectory. The refectory should have been a large open space where the monks had their meals. The refectory is not at the bottom of the picture, though, but at the top. The walls below are what remains of storage rooms. The refectory starts where the walls change from rough stone to the paler, more finished blocks of stone above. These walls would have been plastered and painted with colourful designs.

This is another refectory, this time in Easby Abbey. Since I was on ground level when I took it, it’s a bit easier to see the vaults below and the magnificent windows of the refectory above.

Easby Abbey refectory 6

The refectory, Easby Abbey

The photograph below shows John of Gaunt’s great hall at Kenilworth Castle. It looks very odd when you see a fireplace halfway up a wall, but, once again, the hall sits on top of storage vaults. The huge windows and the fireplaces are the clues that it was in the room upstairs that the lords of the castle spent their time.

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Fireplace in the Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Looking up and asking questions about what you’re seeing at a medieval site is a good way to learn more about how people lived in the Middle Ages.

 

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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