Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Inhabitants of the Medieval Monastery

by E.M. Powell

In around 530 A.D, the Roman Christian, Benedict of Nursia, sickened by the sinfulness of Rome, decided to live apart from the world as a hermit. And he wasn’t just apart: one of his early holy dwellings was a cave half-way up a cliff face. Although a community grew up around him and he established a group of monasteries, it’s doubtful that he could have envisaged just how popular his vision for monastic life was to become.

By the medieval period, those who inhabited monasteries made up a substantial section of the population. It has been estimated that by 1348, some thirty thousand people lived a full-time religious life in England, with two percent of adult males being clergymen. Most houses were male, but around two thousand women lived in one hundred and fifty nunneries.

Much in monastic life had evolved over the centuries, including how it was ordered by, and for, those who lived it. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, the abbot was to be seen as the father of his monastic family and had ultimate authority in the running of his holy house. He was to be obeyed in all matters. The abbot was indeed the head of the medieval monastic community. And by medieval times, he also got the best food.

Many monasteries owned huge amounts of land and running it profitably became the abbot’s responsibility. The chronicles of monastic houses recorded ‘bad’ abbots whose mismanagement caused debt or loss of land. Those who had been successful in running the estate were deemed to have been virtuous.

Such an undertaking was complex and demanding, so a number of monks were appointed to hold offices or ‘obediences’ to assist the abbot and were known as ‘obedientiaries.’  Deputy to the abbot was usually the prior. (In a priory, the prior is the superior.) As the abbot would have to travel, often for weeks or even months at a time, so the role of day-to-day running of the monastery fell increasingly to the prior.

Another obedientiary was the cellarer, responsible for seeing that sufficient food and drink was available. This meant extensive dealings with outside tradesmen and those on the monastic estate who produced food. The food rent attached to Ramsey Abbey in Nottinghamshire in around 1000 A.D. consisted of 80 bushels of malt (for brewing), 40 bushels of oatmeal, 80 bushels of flour (for bread), eight sides of bacon, sixteen cheeses and two fat cows. Eight salmon were required in Lent. Yet this was only enough to feed the monks and servants of a large monastery for a week or two. In Wales, food rents consisted of loaves of bread, oats, cattle, sheep, pigs, butter, ale and honey. The cellarer also had the headache of feeding the large numbers of visitors who would pass through the monastery.

The sacrist had charge of the vestments and sacred vessels (including the corporals), while the precentor directed the church services. The corporals are pieces of linen on which the bread and wine are placed and consecrated in the Eucharist. The sacrist would launder these and there is an account of the sacrist at the London Charterhouse hanging the corporals on the lavender bushes to freshen them.

Timekeeping also fell to the sacrist. He would ring a bell or strike a board to wake his fellow monks in the (very early) morning, to assemble for prayer or to gather for a meeting. Without a mechanical clock (which did not make an appearance until the late thirteenth century), the sacrist might use a candle clock, a water clock, a sundial or rely on the position of the stars. Norwich Cathedral Priory acquired one of the earliest mechanical clocks in the 1270s but they were hugely costly.

The infirmarer cared for the sick but maintained the health of the well, too.  Bloodletting was performed on healthy members of religious communities at regular intervals throughout the year. It is described in monastic customaries and mentioned in visitation records and account rolls. It took place in groups and was quite a social occasion with the added advantage of plenty of good food and the chance to sleep in the infirmary after.

The infirmary was a place of warmth and comfort. Music might be played and prayer was considered an essential part of recovery. Injuries such broken bones, scalds and burns had to be treated in the infirmary as well as disease. When mental ill health occurred, it was often considered to be demonic possession. Behaviours such as uncontrolled raving or blaspheming called for Satan to be banished or expelled from the individual. Again, it was believed that such occurrences could be countered with prayer. But very little could counter the sickness that came calling to almost every monastery in England in 1348. The plague killed almost two-thirds of their inhabitants, the close proximity in which people lived helping the spread of the deadly disease.

The almoner was the monk who carried out charitable acts on behalf of the holy house and looked after the poor of the neighbourhood. His duty was to distribute alms for those deemed fit to receive them.

The majority of the monastic community consisted of choir monks or nuns whose days and nights were centred on the liturgy. Anyone wishing to become a monk had to first undergo a probationary period known as the novitiate. The novitiate could last up to a year but many novices completed only a few weeks before their acceptance.

The novice master had charge of the novices, a responsibility with challenges all of its own. One can hear the frustration of 14th century novice master Henry of Kirkstead: ‘novices acquire years sooner than understanding.’

Once they completed their novitiate, the novices were professed as monks and made full members of the community. The ceremony to receive them into the brotherhood took place in front of the entire community. Each of them made a will. Then the sacrist had another duty to perform: the new monk was given a tonsure.

The tonsure is of course the part of a monk's or priest's head left bare on top by shaving off the hair. The familiar image of the medieval monk bears the tonsure of Saint Peter: either a circular patch on the crown, or the whole upper part of the head so as to leave only a fringe or circle of hair. There are other types. In the Eastern Church the whole head is shaven (the tonsure of St Paul). In the ancient Celtic Church, the head was shaved in the front of a line drawn from ear to ear, which is the tonsure of St John.

Many of the new monks went on to take Holy Orders and become priests. Lay brothers, however, did not. Lay brethren took vows of obedience and were required to observe various liturgical Offices but unlike the monks, their day was centred on manual labour. They farmed the land, reared livestock and did building and repair work. They wore work clothes rather than habits and did not receive the tonsure. Their work was supported by other non-religious servants.

Monks were often known by where they came from, such as Hugh of Durham. Others were numbered. Thorney Abbey had a Jocelin I, a Jocelin II and a Jocelin III.

One would not perhaps expect to find a child in a monastery. But children sometimes were gifted to the community and were known as oblates. A younger son of a nobleman who would not inherit his father’s land and/or title might have met such a fate. Oblates received an education until the age of seventeen, then took their vows. The practice flourished in the eleventh century but was phased out during the twelfth and prohibited at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The last group to find shelter within a monastery’s walls were its visitors. They included patrons. The monasteries were closely bound in to the secular elites, who patronised a monastery as a matter of family prestige, to ensure that they would be remembered in the monks’ prayers and buried in an honoured place in the church. Relatives of the brethren, as well as visiting monks and other travellers would also seek accommodation. And, of course, pilgrims. Making a gift or a donation to a monastery would allow the pilgrim to be let off a penance. By the thirteenth century, one could acquire, for the right sum, indulgences for souls in purgatory.

One can only wonder what Saint Benedict, living in his isolated cave, would have thought.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Dyer, Christopher: Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press (2002)
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, London, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Livingstone, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)

E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight & The Blood of the Fifth Knight which have both been #1 Historical Thrillers on Amazon's US and UK sites. The Fifth Knight was published in Germany on January 12 2016 as Der fünfte Ritter. It is currently the #1 Historical thriller there.

Sir Benedict Palmer and his wife Theodosia are back in book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland. It's 1185 and Henry II sends his youngest son, John (the future despised King of England), to bring peace to his new lands in Ireland. But John has other ideas and only Palmer and Theodosia can stop him. The Lord of Ireland is published by Thomas & Mercer in April 2016.

E.M. Powell was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State) she now lives in the north west of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com

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  1. Such a fascinating, and very different way of life from what we're accustomed to today. It's interesting also how they sough to escape the world, yet over the centuries their monasteries become very important trade centers and places of learning. Very neat:)

    1. Indeed, Mark- they certainly didn't escape the world but ended up being one of the most powerful and wealthy influences within it!


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