Tag Archives: St Benedict

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 Obedientiaries Part One

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

Last week I mentioned that the responsibility for running a monastery was shared between the abbot, the prior and the obedientiaries. These last were like heads of departments in a business. They each had a very precise area of responsibility, often with a large staff, and they had to co-ordinate their efforts with the other obedientiaries. As I said before, all of this applies to convents as well as to monasteries.

In this post, we’ll look at the cellarer.

The cellarer had a wide range of responsibilities and a correspondingly large number of monks and lay servants beneath him. His main responsibility was the supply of food, wine/beer and fuel both to the monastery and to any guests staying there. You would be excused for thinking that this meant that he simply bought food, wine and wood, but he was also responsible for their production. He oversaw the transport of provisions from the monastery’s estates and their storage once they had arrived at the monastery. St. Benedict said that he should be ‘sober and no great eater’, since the temptations for a man in his position were very great.

Monasteries could be large landowners encompassing many manors whose tenants paid rents to them. The cellarer had the right to appoint bailiffs to these manors. Monasteries also had granges. These were farms some distance away from the monastery to which they belonged and they were managed directly by the monastery. This wasn’t easy and granges were usually managed by a granger under the cellarer, although it was the cellarer’s responsibility to make sure there were enough men to work the granges. He also had to ensure that the workers on the granges weren’t stealing, but were working as they should. The tithe barn at Bradford-on-Avon in the photograph at the top of the post, was on one of the granges belonging to the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, thirty miles away. All of the produce from the granges went to the monastery, although some of it was sold, especially the wool. Some monasteries owned thousands of sheep and they were great exporters of wool.

Given that he knew more about land than any of the other monks, it was also the cellarer’s job to lease and sell land on behalf of the abbot.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Undercroft and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Not only was the cellarer responsible for growing the food, but he was also responsible for storing it and processing it. Like most medieval buildings of any size, monasteries had undercrofts, like those in the photograph above, where things could be stored. He also managed the monastery’s mills, the brew-house, the malthouse, and the bakehouse.

Some of the monastery’s manors might have the right to have markets and fairs within their boundaries. People who sold goods at the markets and fairs had to pay a toll to the lord of the manor, and the cellarer was responsible for collecting these.

He looked after monastery’s guests, usually through his subordinate, the guest-master. We’ll come to his duties in a bit. As you might guess, given that most of his work was based outside the monastery, the cellarer was the person charged with communication between the monastery and the world beyond its walls.

The cellarer’s responsibilities were wide-ranging, so he managed a large staff. Head of these was his deputy, the sub-cellarer, whose specific duties concerned food and drink. In some monasteries, these included responsibility for the guest-house, although larger monasteries had a separate guest-master. The sub-cellarer was assisted by the granatrorius, who looked after the granary. All wheat and malt corn from the monastery’s estates passed through it. The granatorius had to keep accounts of what came in and went out, and where it came from and went to.

The guest-master was a senior member of the cellarer’s staff. Monasteries received two kinds of visitors. The first were poor pilgrims who might ask for free accommodation and food from monasteries on the way to the shrine that was their goal. The second were royalty, cardinals, bishops and nobility. Both groups could include women. The pilgrims were the province of the almoner, while the guest-master looked after the high-status guests. He provided accommodation and meals for them and stabling for their horses. With his assistant, the hosteller, he worked closely with the kitchener.

The kitchener, or coquinarius, looked after the cooking of food and made sure that portion sizes were as prescribed by St. Benedict. No one else, other than his assistants, was allowed into the kitchen. He planned the meals, supervised the kitchen, made sure that cooking pots were cleaned and employed an emptor to buy any provisions that couldn’t be obtained from the monastery’s manors.

The caterer supervised the serving of food at mealtimes.

Easby Abbey refectory 2

Refectory, Easby Abbey

The fraterer, or refecteror, was responsible for the refectory and its cleanliness. This was where the monks ate their meals. The crockery, table linen and lavatorium, where, amongst other things, the monks washed their hands before meals, were his responsibility. He kept an inventory of cups and spoons; made sure that the table linen was clean and in good repair; and he kept the lavatorium clean and supplied with towels. He also made sure that the refectory floor was covered with fresh rushes.

The gardener was another of the cellarer’s staff. He provided fruit, vegetables and herbs to the kitchen and herbs to the pharmacy. Monastic gardens were often places of experience and experimentation, and monks were, generally, ahead of the rest of the population in the cultivation of plants.

As part of their estates, many monasteries owned woods under the care of a woodward. The woods provided fuel and building material to the monastery.

As you can see, feeding a large monastery was not a straightforward business.

Sources:

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
Medieval Monasticism by C.H. Lawrence

 

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 – Monks Again

Pedestrian access, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Gates, Roche Abbey

Last week I said that we would move on to the spaces within a monastery, but I thought it might be useful to look more closely at the monks themselves. We saw the timetable of their days last week, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of their lives. They were members of a community which was also a commercial enterprise, and each man had his part to play.

Hierarchy was as important in the monastery as it was everywhere else in the medieval world. The abbot was at the top of the Benedictine monastery. Abbot means ‘father’, coming from the Hebrew ‘abba’. This was a term used by Jesus when referring to God in the Gospels. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule that the abbot was to represent Christ in the monastery. His commands were, therefore, to be obeyed as if they were from God.

The abbot was elected to the position for life by the monks of the monastery, but the appointment had to be approved by the king. Sometimes the pope also interfered in the election. The abbot had absolute authority over the monks, subject only to the Rule and to his own conscience. The abbot was supposed to teach and advise the monks, and St. Benedict advised him to consider himself their servant rather than the other way round. He was responsible for everything to do with the monastery including its estates.

An abbess was the abbot’s equivalent in a convent, and all the positions that I’ll refer to later also applied to convents.

Abbots tended to come from noble families and could be involved in affairs of state in their own right, often attending parliaments. This meant that the day to day running of the monastery was usually left to the prior.

The prior (prioress in a convent) acted as the abbot’s deputy in Benedictine monasteries. In Cluniac and mendicant houses, however, the prior was the superior and his deputy was the sub-prior.

The role of the prior was not something that St. Benedict recommended. He thought there could be discord between the abbot and the prior, who might, through pride, ‘consider himself a second abbot’. What St. Benedict wanted was a system of deans where each dean would have charge of ten monks. This was tried in some monasteries in northern Africa, but it didn’t have much success.

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

There was too much work involved in running a monastery for the abbot and the prior to be able to do it all between them. Since the method proposed by St. Benedict for managing a monastery had been rejected, another way had to be found. In the end, it was done through a small group of monks referred to as obedientiaries, that is those who owe obedience. They included the cellarer, the precentor and the sacrist amongst others. They had to provide accounts for their particular area of responsibility each year at Michaelmas (29th September).

When a new abbot was appointed, the obedientiaries’ terms ended. Some of them had such demanding duties that they didn’t have to attend all of the offices and were permitted to leave the monastery on occasion.

As time went on and the tasks became too many or too complex for one man (or woman), the obedientiaries took on subordinates. The cellarer’s staff, for example, could include a kitchener, a refecteror, a gardener and a woodward (a man in charge of a wood). Each of these might have their own staff beneath them, sometimes including lay servants.

It’s probably easiest to look at the obedientiaries in terms of heads of departments, with staff beneath them. By the time I got to the end of all the obedientiaries and their staffs, though, I had enough information for four posts, so I’ll return to them over the next few weeks.

If you think that all this organisation seems a bit excessive, it’s worth remembering that there could be hundreds of monks in a monastery. Rievaulx at its peak had 600. Providing even their clothes, food and drink would have required the labour of many people, whose efforts would have had to be organised and co-ordinated.

Sources:

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
Medieval Monasticism by C.H. Lawrence

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

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What is the Benedictine Rule?

St._Benedict_delivering_his_rule_to_the_monks_of_his_order

 

In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.

Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.

The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.

The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.

The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.

Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.

It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.

In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.

The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.

The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.

The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.

For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.

 

 

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Monks and friars and how to tell them apart

Monk

I used to work in an area of London called Blackfriars. It took its name from the monks of the priory built there in 1276. The Black Friars were Dominicans and wore black habits. There were other monks who were white friars, as well as Benedictines and Cluniacs and others, and I have never been able to come to grips with the differences between the various monastical orders. I wasn’t even sure that there were differences.

Since a character in my work in progress is a monk, it seemed like a good idea to work out what kind of monk he was and, perhaps, get all the different varieties sorted out. There appeared to have been a huge number of different kinds of monks wandering around fourteenth century England, but it’s even more complicated than I thought.

There were essentially two types of monks – those who lived in monasteries and those who did not. The members of the monastical orders lived in monasteries and very rarely left them after they had entered them (although it might be more accurate to say that they were not supposed to leave them). The monasteries were often large and usually owned great swathes of land. Some monks were also friars, who did not live in a monastery. We’ve all heard of Friar Tuck roaming the countryside with Robin Hood; he was a member of one of these orders. Friars belonged to mendicant orders. In the fourteenth century there were four monastical orders and four mendicant orders. The mendicant orders had no great houses and the monks lived on the alms of people who wanted to help them. They were, essentially, beggars. These were the preaching orders, usually working to convince people to give up the various heresies that threatened to overwhelm the church in the Middle Ages. When the inquisition was formed, many of its members were Dominicans, from one of these preaching orders. Many parish priests resented the mendicant monks, because they took money that the priests thought could be better used by them in their parishes. Others found it hard to accept monks who did not live up to the monastic ideal of entering a community and not leaving it again. Despite their members living as beggars, these orders eventually became very wealthy.

Monasticism has its roots in the desert monks of the fourth century. Christians in North Africa left the towns to live as hermits in the desert so that they could pray and study. They became known as particularly holy men and people would visit them in the hope that they would learn something, or that the holiness would rub off on them. Some of these visitors would become disciples of the hermits and monastic communities were born.  One such community gathered around St Benedict in the sixth century and he formalised the way in which the members should live together in his Rule. Monks were to pray and work together. Over time it became accepted that the prayers of simple monks had value and the monasteries were given money so that their inhabitants would pray for the donors.

Monks in monastic orders generally followed some form of the Benedictine Rule. The Benedictines were the oldest order, but later monks thought they had become corrupt and there were a series of reformations, which brought about the other three orders. These were the Cistercians, Carthusians and Cluniacs.

Books were produced in monasteries and this was often the sole labour of the monks and the Rule said that they were supposed to work. They would spend their time when not in church sitting at desks in the cloisters of the monastery copying out books.

Monasteries were often pilgrimage sites, because they often held relics of saints. Pilgrims came to visit the shrine holding the relic expecting miracles and left gifts behind.

Due to the communal nature of their lives, almost two thirds of the members of monastic orders in England died during the Black Death. Some monasteries never recovered. Rievaulx in Yorkshire had once held over 400 monks, by 1381 there were only 18.

By the fourteenth century monks were increasingly treated with suspicion. They came to be seen more as wealthy landowners who behaved in the same way as other wealthy landowners than as men who prayed. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, monks and their churches were as much targets of attack as the property of wealthy and unpopular men like John of Gaunt. The Archbishop of Canterbury was killed.

By the sixteenth century the monasteries were easy prey for Henry VIII. Many monasteries were too small to continue effectively and others had departed so far from the rule that the monks were bad examples to the people around them. Most monasteries were dissolved,  with the Crown taking their land. The buildings themselves either fell into ruin or became the homes of wealthy middle class men. I can never read Emma without thinking that Donwell Abbey was once a place where monks prayed for their fellow men.

 

 

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