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Life for monks in a medieval monastery, just like in any profession or calling, had its pros and cons. While they were expected to live simply with few possessions, attend services at all hours of the day and night, and perhaps even take a vow of silence, monks could at least benefit from a secure roof over their heads. Another plus was a regular food supply which was of a much higher standard than the vast majority of the medieval population had access to. Besides attempting to get closer to God through their physical sacrifices and religious studies, monks could be very useful to the community by educating the youth of the aristocracy and producing books and illuminated manuscripts which have since proved to be invaluable records of medieval life for modern historians.
Development of Monasteries
From the 3rd century CE there developed a trend in Egypt and Syria which saw some Christians decide to live the life of a solitary hermit or ascetic. They did this because they thought that without any material- or worldly distractions they would achieve a greater understanding of and closeness to God. In addition, whenever early Christians were persecuted they were sometimes forced by necessity to live in remote mountain areas where the essentials of life were lacking. As these individualists grew in number some of them began to live together in communities, continuing, though, to cut themselves off from the rest of society and devoting themselves entirely to prayer and the study of scriptures. Initially, members of these communities still lived essentially solitary lives and only gathered together for religious services. Their leader, an abba (hence the later 'abbot') presided over these individualists – they were called monachos in Greek for that reason, which is derived from mono meaning 'one', and which is the origin of the word 'monk'. Over time, within this early form of the monastery, a more communal attitude to daily life developed where members shared the labour needed to keep themselves self-sufficient and they shared accommodation and meals.
Monastic rules differed between the different orders that evolved from the 11th century CE & even between individual monasteries.
From the 5th century CE the idea of monasteries spread across the Byzantine Empire and then to Roman Europe where people adopted their own distinct practices based on the teachings of Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 543 CE). The Benedictine order encouraged its members to live as simple a life as possible with simple food, basic accommodation and as few possessions as was practical. There was a set of regulations that monks had to follow and, because they all lived the same way, they became known as 'brothers'. Monastic rules differed between the different orders that evolved from the 11th century CE and even between individual monasteries. Some orders were stricter, such as the Cistercians which were formed in 1098 CE by a group of Benedictine monks who wanted an even less-worldly life for themselves. Women too could live the monastic life as nuns in abbeys and nunneries.
As monasteries were intended to be self-sufficient, monks had to combine daily labour to produce food with communal worship and private study. Monasteries grew in sophistication and wealth, greatly helped by tax relief and donations, so, as the Middle Ages wore on, physical labour became less of a necessity for monks who could now rely on the efforts of lay brothers, hired labourers or serfs (unfree labourers). Consequently, monks in the High Middle Ages were able to spend more time on scholarly pursuits, particularly producing such medieval monastic specialties as illuminated manuscripts.
People were attracted to the monastic life for various reasons such as piety; the fact that it was a respected career choice; there was the chance of real power if one rose to the top; and one was guaranteed decent accommodation and above average meals for life. The second or third sons of the aristocracy, who were not likely to inherit their father's lands, were often encouraged to join the church and one of the paths to a successful career was to join a monastery and receive an education there (learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and Latin). Children were sent in their pre-teens, often aged as young as five and then known as oblates, while those who joined aged 15 or over were known as novices. Both of these groups did not usually mix with full monks although neither oblates nor novices were ever permitted to be alone, unsupervised by a monk.
After one year a novice could take their vows and become a full monk, and it was not always an irreversible career choice as rules did develop from the 13th century CE that a youth could freely leave a monastery on reaching maturity. Most monks came from a well-off background; indeed, bringing a substantial donation on entry was expected. Recruits tended to be local but larger monasteries were able to attract people even from abroad. Consequently, there was never really any shortage of takers to join a monastery although monks only ever made up around 1% of the medieval population.
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A major monastery like Cluny Abbey in France had 460 monks at its peak in the mid-12th century CE.
Monasteries varied in size with a small one having only a dozen or so monks and the larger ones having around 100 brothers. A major monastery like Cluny Abbey in France had 460 monks at its peak in the mid-12th century CE. The number of monks was essentially limited to the monastery's income which largely came from the land it owned (and which was given to it by patrons over the years). Monasteries included a good number of lay brothers in addition to the monks and these were employed to do manual labour such as agricultural work, cooking or doing the laundry. Lay brothers did observe some of the monastic regulations but lived in their own separate quarters.
Monasteries were typically managed by an abbot who had absolute authority in his monastery. Selected by the senior monks, who he was supposed to consult on matters of policy (but could also ignore), the abbot had his job for life, health permitting. Not just a job for the old and wise, a monk in his twenties might stand a chance of being made abbot as there was a tendency to select someone who could hold the office for decades and so provide the monastery with some stability. The abbot was assisted in his administrative duties by the prior who himself had a team of inspectors who checked up on the monks on a daily basis. Smaller monasteries without an abbot of their own (but under the jurisdiction of another monastery's abbot) were typically led by the prior, hence the name of those institutions: a priory. Senior monks, sometimes known as 'obedientaries', might have specific duties, perhaps on a rotation basis, such as looking after the monastery's wine cellar, the garden, the infirmary, or the library and scriptorium (where texts were made).
The abbot represented the monastery when dealing with other monasteries and the state, in whose eyes he ranked alongside the most powerful secular landowners. Not surprisingly for such an important figure, monks were expected to bow deeply in the abbot's presence and kiss his hand in reverence. If an abbot were extremely unpopular and acted contrary to the order he could be removed by the Pope.
Rules & Regulations
Monks followed the teachings of Jesus Christ in rejecting personal wealth, as recorded in the Gospel of Mathew:
If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (19:21)
Along these lines, creature comforts were shunned but the strict application of such ideals really depended on each monastery. So, too, silence was a method to remind monks they were living in an enclosed society quite different from the outside world. Monks were generally not allowed to speak at all in such places as the church, kitchen, refectory or dormitories. One might be bold enough to attempt a snatch of conversation in the cloisters right after a general meeting but besides that indulgence, conversation was to be kept to an absolute minimum and when it did occur it was supposed to be restricted to ecclesiastical matters or everyday necessity. Monks were further restricted in that they could only talk to each other as speaking at all to lay brothers and novices was not permitted, not to mention to outside visitors of any kind. For this reason, monks often used gestures which they had been taught as novices and sometimes they even whistled rather than speak to a person or in a place they should not.
Anyone who had broken the rules was reported to the abbot; telling on one's brothers was seen as a duty. Punishments might include being beaten, being excluded from communal activities for a period, or even being imprisoned within the monastery.
Clothing & Possessions
Monks had to keep the tops of their heads shaved (tonsured) which left a distinctive band of hair just above the ears. In contrast to their hairline, a monk's clothes were designed to cover as much flesh as possible. Most monks wore linen underclothes, sometimes hose or socks, and a simple woollen tunic tied at the waist by a leather belt. Over these was their most recognisable item of clothing, the cowl. A monastic cowl was a long sleeveless robe with a deep hood. On top of the cowl another robe was worn, this time with long sleeves. In winter, extra warmth was provided by a sheepskin cloak. Made from the cheapest and roughest of cloth, a monk usually had no more than two of each clothing items but he did receive a new cowl and robe each Christmas.
A monk did not own very much of significance besides his clothes. He might have a pen, a knife, handkerchief, comb and a small sewing kit. Razors were only distributed at a prescribed time. In their own room, a monk had a straw- or feather mattress and a few woollen blankets.
A Monk's Daily Routine
Monks were not usually permitted to leave the monastery unless they had some special reason and were permitted to do so by their abbot. There were exceptions, as in Irish monasteries where monks famously roamed the countryside preaching and sometimes even founded new monasteries. For most monks, though, their daily life was entirely contained within the grounds of the monastery they had joined as a novice and which they would one day die in.
Monks usually got up with the sun so that could mean 4.30 am in summer or a luxurious 7.30 am in winter, the day being very much dictated by the availability of light. Beginning with a quick wash, monks spent an hour or so doing silent work, which for monks meant prayers, reading the text they had been assigned by their superior or copying a specific book (a laborious process that took many months). Next, morning mass was held, followed by the chapter meeting when everyone gathered to discuss any important business relevant to the monastery as a whole. After another working period, which might include physical labour if there were no lay brothers to do it, there was a midday mass (the High Mass) and then a meal, the most important of the day.
The afternoon was spent working again and ended around 4.30 pm in winter, which then saw another meal or, in the case of summer, a supper around 6 pm followed by more work. Monks went to bed early, just after 6 pm in winter or 8 pm in summer. They did not usually have an unbroken sleep, though, as around 2 or 3 am they got up again to sing Nocturns (aka Matins) and Lauds in the church. To make sure nobody was sleeping in the gloom one brother would go through the choir checking with a lamp. In winter they might not return to bed but perform personal tasks such as fixing and mending.
Monks were, of course, very poor as they had few possessions of any kind but the monastery itself was one of the richest institutions in the medieval world. Consequently, monks were well-catered for in the one area which probably mattered most to the majority of the population: food and drink. Unlike the 80% of those who lived outside monasteries, monks did not have to worry about going short or seasonal variations. They had good food all year round and their consumption of it was only really limited by how strict the rules of asceticism were in their particular monastery. In stricter monasteries, meat was not usually eaten except by the sick and it was often reserved for certain feast days. However, those monasteries with more generous rules allowed such meats as pork, rabbit, hare, chicken and game birds to appear on the communal dinner table more often. In all monasteries, there was never a shortage of bread, fish, seafood, grains, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and cheese as well as plenty of wine and ale. Monks typically had one meal a day in winter and two in summer.
Giving Back to the Community
Monks and monasteries did give back to the community in which they lived by helping the poor and providing hospitals, orphanages, public baths, and homes for the aged. Travellers were another group who could find a room when needed. As already mentioned, in education, too, monasteries played a prominent role, notably building up large libraries and teaching youths. Monasteries looked after pilgrim sites and were great patrons of the arts, not only producing their own works but also sponsoring artists and architects to embellish their buildings and those of the community with images and texts to spread the Christian message. Finally, many monks were important contributors to the study of history – both then and now, especially with their collections of letters and biographies (vitae) of saints, famous people, and rulers.
Orders of Medieval Monks in the Middle Ages
The first Medieval monks adhered to the Benedictine Rule which was established by St. Benedict in 529AD. Different orders of Medieval monks were also established during the Middle Ages. The major orders of Medieval monks were:
- The Benedictine Monks - the Black Monk
- The Cistercian Monks - the White monk
- The Carthusian Monks - the silent monks
- The Dominican Monks
- The Franciscan Monks
- Augustine Monks, including the Gilbertines
The daily life of Medieval monks in the Middle Ages were based on the three main vows:
The Vow of Poverty
The Vow of Chastity
The Vow of Obedience
The Daily Life of Medieval Monks
The daily life of Medieval monks was dedicated to worship, reading, and manual labor. In addition to their attendance at church, the monks spent several hours in reading from the Bible, private prayer, and meditation. During the day the Medieval monks worked hard in the Monastery and on its lands.
The life of medieval monks were filled with the following work and chores:
Washing and cooking for the monastery
Raising the necessary supplies of vegetables and grain
Reaping, Sowing, Ploughing, Binding and Thatching, Haymaking and Threshing
Producing wine, ale and honey
Providing medical care for the community
Providing education for boys and novices
Copying the manuscripts of classical authors
Providing hospitality for pilgrims
Monastic Jobs and Occupations
The daily life of Medieval monks included many different jobs and occupations. The names and descriptions of many of these positions are detailed below:
Abbot - the head of an abbey
Almoner - an almoner was an officer of a monastery who dispensed alms to the poor and sick
Barber Surgeon - the monk who shaved the faces and tonsures of the monks and performed light surgery
Cantor - the cantor was the monk whose liturgical function is to lead the choir
Cellarer - the cellarer was the monk who supervised the general provisioning of the monastery
Infirmarian - the monk in charge of the infirmary
Lector - a lector was a monk entrusted with reading the lessons in church or in the refectory.
Sacrist - the sacrist was the monk responsible for the safekeeping of books, vestments and vessels, and for the maintenance of the monastery's buildings
Prior - in an abbey the deputy of the abbot or the superior of a monastery that did not have the status of an abbey
The Daily RoutineThe daily life of a Medieval monk during the Middle Ages centred around the hours.
The Book of Hours was the main prayer book and was divided into eight sections, or hours, that were meant to be read at specific times of the day.
Each section contained prayers, psalms, hymns, and other readings intended to help the monks secure salvation for himself.
Each day was divided into these eight sacred offices, beginning and ending with prayer services in the monastery church.
These were the times specified for the recitation of divine office which was the term used to describe the cycle of daily devotions.
The times of these prayers were called by the following names -
Matins : the night office the service recited at 2 am in the divine office
Prime : The 6am service
Vespers : the evening service of divine office, recited before dark (4 - 5pm)
Compline : the last of the day services of divine office, recited before retiring (6pm)
Any work was immediately ceased at these times of daily prayer. The monks were required to stop what they were doing and attend the services. The food of the monks was generally basic and the mainstay of which was bread and meat. The beds they slept on were pallets filled with straw.
T he daily life of Medieval monks in the Middle Ages were based on the three main vows:
Medieval Monks chose to renounce all worldly life and goods and spend their lives working under the strict routine and discipline of life in a Medieval Monastery . Any man, rich or poor, noble or peasant could become a Medieval monk. The Medieval monks lived under strict discipline. They could not own any property they could not go beyond the monastery walls without the abbot's consent they could not even receive letters from home and they were sent to bed early. A violation of the regulations by a Medieval monks brought punishment. All Medieval monks were clean shaven. They were distinguished by their partly shaven hair called tonsures. Their hair was shaved except for a narrow strip round the head. Tonsures were a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. A tonsure might also indicate that a monk had received clerical status.
1. Why did people choose to become Medieval Monks ?
The life of a monk was hard so why did people choose to become Medieval monks? It was a commitment for life. The life of a Medieval monk appealed to many different kinds of people in the Middle Ages. The reasons for becoming a Medieval monk were as follows:
§ To devote their lives to serving God
§ To live a life in a secure retreat
§ To escape from a violent world
§ The lead a quiet and peaceful life
2. The Daily Life of Medieval Monks
The daily life of Medieval monks was dedicated to worship, reading, and manual labor. In addition to their attendance at church, the monks spent several hours in reading from the Bible, private prayer, and meditation. During the day the Medieval monks worked hard in the Monastery and on its lands. The life of medieval monks were filled with the following work and chores:
§ Washing and cooking for the monastery
§ Raising the necessary supplies of vegetables and grain
§ Reaping, Sowing, Ploughing, Binding and Thatching, Haymaking and Threshing
§ Producing wine, ale and honey
§ Providing medical care for the community
§ Providing education for boys and novices
§ Copying the manuscripts of classical authors
§ Providing hospitality for pilgrims
3. The Daily Life of Medieval Monks - Monastic Jobs and Occupations
The daily life of Medieval monks included many different jobs and occupations. The names and descriptions of many of these positions are detailed below:
§ Abbot - the head of an abbey
§ Almoner - an almoner was an officer of a monastery who dispensed alms to the poor and sick
§ Barber Surgeon - the monk who shaved the faces and tonsures of the monks and performed light surgery
§ Cantor - the cantor was the monk whose liturgical function is to lead the choir
§ Cellarer - the cellarer was the monk who supervised the general provisioning of the monastery
§ Infirmarian - the monk in charge of the infirmary
§ Lector - a lector was a monk entrusted with reading the lessons in church or in the refectory.
§ Sacrist - the sacrist was the monk responsible for the safekeeping of books, vestments and vessels, and for the maintenance of the monastery's buildings
§ Prior - in an abbey the deputy of the abbot or the superior of a monastery that did not have the status of an abbey
4. Daily Life of a Monk in the Middle Ages - the Daily Routine
The daily life of a Medieval monk during the Middle Ages centred around the hours. The Book of Hours was the main prayer book and was divided into eight sections, or hours, that were meant to be read at specific times of the day. Each section contained prayers, psalms, hymns, and other readings intended to help the monks secure salvation for himself. Each day was divided into these eight sacred offices, beginning and ending with prayer services in the monastery church. These were the times specified for the recitation of divine office which was the term used to describe the cycle of daily devotions. The times of these prayers were called by the following names - Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline:
§ Lauds : the early morning service of divine office approx 5am
§ Matins : the night office the service recited at 2 am in the divine office
§ Sext : the third of the Little Hours of divine office, recited at the sixth hour (noon)
§ Nones : the fourth of the Little Hours of the divine office, recited at the ninth hour (3 pm)
§ Terce : the second of the Little Hours of divine office, recited at the third hour (9 am)
§ Vespers : the evening service of divine office, recited before dark (4 - 5pm)
§ Compline : the last of the day services of divine office, recited before retiring (6pm)
*Any work was immediately ceased at these times of daily prayer. The monks were required to stop what they were doing and attend the services. The food of the monks was generally basic and the mainstay of which was bread and meat. The beds they slept on were pallets filled with straw.
Inside a monk’s cell
Although there were some variations, most of the 25 cells at Mount Grace follow a common pattern, as shown in this reconstruction drawing.
There were three rooms on the ground floor – a living room, a study, and a bedroom combined with an oratory (a private chapel). Upstairs, there was a work room. Meals were passed to the monk through a hatch beside the entrance door from the cloister.
Between the cell and the garden was a short corridor that served as a private cloister where the monk could read and meditate. A second corridor led to the latrine, which was set in the garden wall away from the cell. In one of the corridors was a tap for drinking water.
High walls enclosed a private garden where the monk could perform manual labour and grow food. The garden also provided a spiritual metaphor for Paradise. Several of the gardens at Mount Grace have been excavated and details of their planting recovered.
What was it like to be a monk in the medieval period?
Medieval monks devoted their lives to a calling which was fundamental to their role and life. This involved serving God, but in addition, many lived in a secure retreat with like-minded people. Perhaps this was also to escape from what was a violent world, and as a consequence they lead a quiet, ordered and peaceful life dedicated to religious service.
The major orders of medieval monks including Carthusians, Benedictines (such as Cluniacs) and Cistercians all had differing ways of life and worship. This dictated the shape of their days including their gardening duties.
Different orders of monks did different things with their sites and gardens, for example the Carthusian order at Mount Grace Priory had individual cells where they gardened, whereas the Cluniac order of monks at Castle Acre would have expressed their love of decoration in their communal gardening.
Sites with ‘monk’s gardens’ today are rare. English Heritage has three sites (Mount Grace Priory, Rievaulx Abbey and Castle Acre Priory) with herb gardens representing plants which the monks would have used. However, only at Mount Grace Priory do we see the remains of a cell and its garden. Here the monks were in a separate cell with a garden where they lived their life in solitary silence venturing forth to pray. Food was introduced via a hatch by a lay brother who tended to the monks.
Mount Grace Priory today © Historic England Photo Library
Clergy in the Middle Ages
The clergy in the Middle Ages were very important and influential in the society. Some even had a great deal of power politically. The clergy in the Middle Ages were exempted from paying taxes because they were giving services to their parishioners and also provided spiritual satisfaction and care. They were the mediators between God and men.
In the Middle Ages the Pope was powerful and influential. He was the person the people in the Middle Ages looked upon to with promises of redemption from sin and with the absence of the emperor the Pope as the most important clergy member became the most respected public figure both for the Church and the Roman Empire. Due to this, the Catholic Church became the most unifying and universal institution. The religious fervor for the popes in the medieval time was a real culture of the Middle Age.
The role of the Pope as a clergy man in the Middle Age as a governor was to be the churches’ spiritual leader and administrator. Once the Pope was elected he would serve as a pope until the day he dies. The medieval pope was also a legislator. He would make laws that only he could annul and dispense unless his decision was appealed and successfully pass. The Pope in the Middle Ages had the power to appoint clergy men. The medieval popes would rule over disputes and had the power to annul marriages.
The bishops in the Middle Ages
The bishops were appointed by the Pope, but before the papacy was established the secular leaders were the ones who would appoint the bishop and also the Archbishop. The bishop would perform duties like any other clergy priest. They would perform wedding ceremonies, gave last rights, settled disputes in their districts, heard confessions and would give absolution.
In the Middle Ages the bishops were claimed to be the successors of the apostles and so they would step in and assume the vacancy the leaders left behind in the unstable areas. This happened in Rome when St. Peter a clergy in the Middle Ages assumed the vacancy of the throne and later on got the title papa or pope. The bishops were the pope’s advisers but still followed and obeyed the pope‘s authority.
Clergy of the Middle Ages, in this case the bishops were wealthy. They lived and dressed lavishly just like the lords. The clergy (bishops) in the Middle Ages involved themselves in politics and courts to help deliberate judgments.
Priests in the Middle Ages
Clergy in the Middle Ages included priest. Priests often came from humble homes. They never used to pay taxes and were not very well educated but could read and write. The priests were the ones who interacted with the commoners on a daily basis.
The priests were a part of the daily life in Middle Ages. They would tell the tales of the saints to their parishioners he would be in church every Sunday. The priest being literate would be the ones teaching in schools. Clergy (priests) in the Middle Ages would listen to the peoples confessions and advise them on hoe to go about things.
The priests in the Middle Ages would be the ones who kept record in the village and the castle or manor house due to their literacy. In other situations they would help in the collection of taxes. The priests would sometimes tend to the sick when there was no physician or when one could not afford to pay the physician.
In the Middle Ages, prayers were seen as the ‘best medicine’ because any other forms of treatment were perceive as pure sorcery.
Monks and nuns in the Middle Ages
The monks were an important part of the clergy in the Middle Ages. The monks had devoted the life to working in monasteries in the Middle Ages. The monks would put on brown robs with hoods. They were well-educated as a part of their work in the monastery was to read the Bible and copy it since at that time there were no printing presses. The monks also devoted their time to learn, read and write Latin. Some of the earlier encyclopedias in history were written by the monks. They would write and then copy the encyclopedias and Bibles by hand.
On the other hand, this devoted clergy men of the Middle Ages also dedicated their daily life to worshiping God. Not only did they spend their time in church but also immersed themselves in private prayer sessions and deep reading of the Bible and meditation. The monk in the Middle Ages also did many other chores like sewing, teaching, preparing medicine.
Despite their busy schedule the monks had timetable that helped them in their daily routines. When somebody wanted to be a monk there were three vows that he had to take. The first one was the vow of poverty, which meant giving up all your possessions. The second one was the vow to stay single and the third vow was the vow of obedience.
The clergy in the Middle Ages also included nuns. Nuns were women who had taken oath of poverty, chastity, and obedience just like the monks. The nuns could be recognized by what they were wearing. This was the clothes they put on their heads. The most important role of the nuns was to praise God. Each nun had a different role in the community like the almoner would give out alms to the poor and treat the sick.
The sacrists were responsible for taking care of the buildings and safe book keeping. The other nuns were responsible for taking care of orphans in orphanages and educating the children both boys and girls in the community. The infirmarian was the nun in charge of the infirmary.
As a whole, the clergy in the Middle Ages was very important for people, from the nobility to peasants in order to help them, guide them and treat them, but also for the next generation because they were keeping records of the events as being the only ones able to read and write Latin (the official language of the Middle Ages). On the other hand it was also a very wealthy class who was making the most of its influence by using the sins and ignorance of common men in order to make money.
"The Series reflects a variety of occupations, time periods, and global perspectives. The table of contents and index make it easy to locate what you want. There is enough detail for a student to compare workers of today with those in history. Recommended."
-- Library Media Connection , October 2005 (Library Media Connection 20051001)
"From the daily practice of running a monastery to scholars, teachers, farmers and traveling monks, Barter?s book displays a monk?s life as more than isolation and devotion."
-- Children's Bookwatch (November 2004) (Children's Bookwatch 20041101)
Medieval Monks History
History of medieval monks can be traced to early medieval times. In fact, it had started soon after the death of Jesus Christ and after Christianity came to Europe, the practice of monasticism continued to gain popularity.
Saint Anthony the Great, who lived during the third and fourth centuries AD in Egypt, is generally considered the founder of Christian monasticism. During the early medieval times, the practice of monasticism was introduced in Europe and monasteries were built all over the continent.
Medieval Monk with Christian Cross
The Daily Life of Medieval Monks - History
Life in religious communities
eligion was important for people in medieval times and was part of the daily life for many of them. Each village had a church and many monasteries were built all across Europe. Kings, Queen and nobles of the time gave donations to the Church in exchange for blessings and for forgiveness for their wrong-doings. The Church looked after the poor and the sick were taken care of in monasteries. Without books and the ability to read, preachers were the only source of information about God and the scriptures. The insides of churches were not white as we see them today but would have been covered in brightly coloured pictures showing stories from the Bible. It was common for people to choose to dedicate their lives to the Church.
Saint Augustine introduced Christianity into southern England in 597 and he introduced the Benedictine Order to the country. Augustine converted the Pagan king Ethelbert to Christianity. Ethelbert gave Augustine an ancient building in Canterbury which had been a church belonging to earlier British Christians built by King Lucius. Augustine restored and rebuilt sections of the church and it became the centre of Christianity in Britain.
Saint Benedict founded several monasteries in Italy in the early sixth century (A.D. 500 ? A.D. 550) including the monastery at Monte Cassino near Naples. Benedict devised a series of rules that had to be followed by his monks. These rules became known as the Benedictine Order. The rules were easy to follow and were adopted in many other countries as well. The monks had to obey three vows poverty, chastity and obedience. This protected them from the deceits of the World, the lust of the flesh and the snares of the devil. Their day was divided into three parts. The first was devoted to services in the church the second was devoted to work in the cloisters, reading, writing and meditation and the third was devoted to manual labour, to help in the gardens or the infirmary. The Benedictine monks were known as the 'Black Monks' because of the colour of their clothing.
What useful purpose did Abbeys perform?
Abbeys were not just a place of worship. They provided many other purposes that were in great demand in the medieval period.
Important documents, charters and even treasures were held securely within the abbeys and to ensure charters could not be lost of accidentally destroyed, copies were sent to abbeys around the country. Documents were important and could prove ownership of land or prove lineage so that titles could be correctly applied. Kings used these records to show that they were the rightful heirs to the throne of England or Scotland for example.
Abbeys were a place of learning and education. Each would have had a person whose job it was to teach. Nobles would send their children to the abbeys to be educated.
Corrodies were sold by the abbeys and were used by nobles to ensure aging servants or poorer family members would be looked after by an abbey. In return, the abbey would provide the person with food and shelter for the rest of their lives. They could also be given roles within the abbey.
An important role of an abbey was to look after the sick. But it also took in travellers in need of rest and food. Some abbeys took this role so seriously that they struggled to afford the amount of food that travellers required. Kings used the abbeys when they travelled around the country and as they were accompanied by many servants would have imposed greatly on the services the abbeys provided.
The economy of the area surrounding the abbey would have benefitted greatly. Trades of all kinds would have been required for the construction and upkeep of the buildings and lands. Farms would have provided food of all kinds. Fairs and markets would have attracted travellers from far and wide.
Layout of a medieval abbey
Monasteries, abbeys and priories
While most monasteries were constructed in quiet, secluded locations far away from villages and towns where the monks could live without the distractions of everyday life, some were built nearer the centres of civilisation. A good water supply was an important factor for the siting of the buildings both for drinking water and for flushing away waste. Surrounding farm land was also a factor and was used for growing crops and grazing sheep. These could be sold to generate income for running the monastery and the upkeep of the buildings.
Benefactors were also an important source of funds for the monastery. Royalty and wealthy individuals donated money to a monastery in exchange for prayers to be said for them. An example is Hailes Abbey which was founded with money from Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who made a promise to found an abbey during a violent storm at sea if he survived.
Ranks within the Abbey or Monastery
The most important person in the Abbey was the Abbot. The abbot was in overall control of the Abbey and monks within it. Junior to the abbot was the Prior. It was the prior's job to organised the day-to-day running of the abbey. In larger organisations there could be a subprior to assist the prior. Other jobs in the abbey were performed by the chantor (singing), the sacristan (general care of the church and buildings), the hospitaller (looking after guests), the infirmarer (caring for the sick) and the almoner (distributing alms to the poor, in other words seeing to the needs of the poor).
For more information about the roles within a monastery, see Monastic Workers
Then, of course, there were the monks.
By the middle of the eleventh century (1040 to 1060) the monasteries in Britain were in decline. They had been the target of repeated attacks from the Vikings and Danes and many of the buildings lay in ruin. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror granted large amounts of land to the Church and brought Normans over to rebuild and repopulate the monasteries. New churches were built on the foundations of older monasteries and new Norman Benedictine Abbots took over at the head.
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Life within the abbey was very orderly and the monks had to follow a strict routine. The monks were woken for the first services at around 1am. The services of Nocturns, Matins and Lauds were performed in the early hours of the morning. After these the monks went back to bed for a few hours sleep. At 7am the monks were awake again for the next services, Prime, Terce and Morrow Mass. After these it was time for breakfast and after they had eaten the monks listened to the lives of martyrs being read and attended to the business needs of the abbey in the Chapter House. At around midday the monks had the main meal of the day. In the afternoon the monks worked in the gardens, tended the animals, looked after the upkeep of the abbey or studied in the cloisters. Between 5pm and 6pm Vespers were performed before supper and then bed at around 7pm or slightly later in the summer months.
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The Benedictine Order was not the only monastic order followed during the medieval era. Several new Orders were developed from St. Benedictine's.
The Cistercian Order was created by monks from the abbey at Molesme who were unhappy that the abbey had become too rich and the monks there were not following the Benedictine Order's rules closely enough. They built a new monastery at Citeaux and under the direction of Steven Harding and later St. Bernard of Clairvaux the Cistercian Order became one of the most successful monastic orders. When St. Bernard died in 1153 there were over 350 Cistercian abbeys located across Europe.
The Cistercians were also known as the White Monks because they wore white robes.
Each Cistercian abbey sent out small groups of monks consisting of an abbot and 12 monks to fund new monasteries. The monks would live in temporary wooden huts while they built the new church and proper living accommodation. These new abbeys were called daughter houses and a proportion of money they raised was given back to the parent abbey. This ensured the whole chain of Cistercian abbeys was well funded.
UK Cistercian Abbeys Affiliations
The Cluniac Order was founded by a Benedictine called Odo who believed that the strict rule of St. Benedict was not being followed. He founded the abbey of Cluny in 910. In this order the daughter houses were all dependant on Cluny itself for their funds and any money the daughter house received had to be sent back to Cluny. When Cluny started using its funds to increase its own grandeur its daughter houses suffered and popularity of the order began to wane. Monks in this Order dedicated so much time to prayer that they had to employ workers to tend the fields and gardens.
For information about the other monastic order see Religious Orders
A pilgrimage means to travel to and visit a religious shrine or relic. A person on a pilgrimage was known as a pilgrim. Medieval people used pilgrimages to confirm their faith in their religion. The most important pilgrimages for Christians were to visit Jerusalem and Rome but a pilgrimage to shrines in England were also important, such as Canterbury. The pilgrims went to see the shrines of saints or holy relics such as fragments of the True Cross. The True Cross was the cross that Jesus was crucified on and many religious houses claimed to have a fragment of it. Miracles were reported to occur at the shrines of saints. The sick were supposed to have been cured or the blind made to see again. Having a shrine or relic was very important for a church because pilgrims would come and spend their money in and around the church and leave donations.
The cathedrals we have today were monasteries in medieval times. In each area of the country an important church was chosen to be the home of the bishop for that area. The church in which a bishop has his throne is called a cathedral and the area over which the bishop has religious control is called a See. Norwich and Ely Cathedrals were built by the Normans at the time of the Norman Conquest as monasteries and parts of those early buildings still remain today.