Life in a Medieval Monastery
here to open a new browser window with a map of a medieval
Fountains Abbey crypt
Early monasteries originated in Egypt as
places where wandering hermits gathered. These early "monks"
lived alone, but met in a common chapel. By the fifth century the
monastic movement had spread to Ireland, where St. Patrick, the son
of a Roman official, set out to convert the Irish to Christianity.
The Irish monks spread Christianity into Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.
St. Ninian established a monastery at Whithorn in Scotland about 400
AD, and he was followed by St. Columba (Iona), and St. Aidan, who
founded a monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria.
These Celtic monasteries were often built
on isolated islands, as the lifestyle of the Celtic monks was one
of solitary contemplation. There are no good remains of these early
monasteries in Britain today.
The Benedictine Rule
The big change in this early monastic
existence came with the establishment of the "Benedictine Rule"
in about 529 AD. The vision of St. Benedict was of a community of
people living and working in prayer and isolation from the outside
world. The Benedictine Rule was brought to the British Isles with
St. Augustine when he landed in Kent in 597 AD.
The Different Orders
Over the next thousand years a wide
variety of orders of monks and nuns established communities throughout
the British Isles.
These orders differed mainly in the details of their religious observation
and how strictly they applied those rules. The major orders that established
monastic settlements in Britain were the Benedictines, Cistercians,
Cluniacs, Augustinians, Premonstratians, and the Carthusians.
The first buildings of a monastic settlement were built of wood,
then gradually rebuilt in stone. The first priority for rebuilding
in stone was the chancel of the church. This way of proceeding meant
that the rest of the monastery was at risk of fire, which accounts
for the fact that many of the monastic remains you can visit today
are in the later Gothic style of architecture.
Although the details of daily life differed from
one order to the next (as mentioned above), monastic life was generally
one of hard physical work, scholarship and prayer. Some orders encouraged
the presence of "lay brothers", monks who did most of the
physical labour in the fields and workshops of the monastery so that
the full-fledged monks could concentrate on prayer and learning.
|For a enjoyable look at the life of a
medieval monk, read any of the excellent "Brother Cadfael"
mysteries, by Ellis Peters.
The Daily Grind
The day of a monk or nun, in theory at least,
was regulated by regular prayer services in the abbey church. These
services took place every three hours, day and night. When the services
were over, monks would be occupied with all the tasks associated with
maintaining a self-sustaining community.
Abbeys grew their own food, did all their own building, and in some
cases, grew quite prosperous doing so. Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx,
both in Yorkshire, grew to be enormously wealthy, largely on the basais
of raising sheep and selling the wool.
Throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period the
monasteries were practically the only repository of scholarship and
learning. The monks were by far the best educated mermbers of society
- often they were the only educated members of society. Monasteries
acted as libraries for ancient manuscripts, and many monks were occupied
with laboriously copying sacred texts (generally in a room called
In the areas where Celtic influence
was strongest, for example in Northumbria, the monks created "illuminated"
manuscripts; beautifully illustrated Bibles and prayer books with
painstakingly created images on most pages.
These illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospel (now
in the British Museum), are among the most precious remnants of early
The Abbey hierarchy
The abbey (the term for a monastery or
nunnery) was under the authority of an abbot or abbess. The abbot
could be a landless noble, who used the church as a means of social
advancement. Under the abbot was the prior/prioress, who ran the monastery
in the absence of the abbot, who might have to travel on church business.
There could also be a sub-prior. Other officers included the cellerar
(in charge of food storage and preparation), and specialists in the
care of the sick, building, farming, masonry, and education.
One of the main sources of revenue for monasteries
throughout the medieval period were pilgrims. Pilgrims could be induced
to come to a monastic house by a number of means, the most common
being a religious relic owned by the abbey. Such a relic might be
a saint's bone, the blood of Christ, a fragment of the cross, or other
similar religious artefact. The tomb of a particularly saintly person
could also become a target for pilgrimages.
Pilgrims could generally be induced to buy an isignia which proved
they had visited a particular shrine. Some popular pilgrimage centres
built hotels to lodge pilgrims. The George Inn in Glastonbury is one
such hotel, built to take the large number of pilgrims flocking to
Decline of the monasteries
Monasteries were most numerous
in Britain during the early 14th century, when there were as many
as 500 different houses. The Black Death of 1348 dealt the monasteries
a major blow, decimating the number of monks and nuns, and most never
When Henry VIII engineered his break with Rome in the 1530's, the
rich monastic houses were one of his first targets. A few of the abbey
churches near large centres of population survived as cathedrals or
parish churches (for example Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral,
and Westminster Abbey), but those that were isolated, including almost
all the Cistercian monasteries, were demolished. Throughout the Tudor
and later periods these shells of buildings were used by local people
as a source of building material.
What to See:
There are numerous good abbey remains in Britain today Some of the
And of the abbeys that survived the Dissolution
of the Monasteries, some to see are:
Feudalism and medieval life
Medieval Monastery Map
Also see "Medieval
London" in our "London
Prehistory - Roman
Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval
Britain - The Tudor Era - The
Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age
Contents © David Ross and Britain Express