From The Nineteenth Centurv. DAILY LIFE IN A MEDIEVAL MONASTERY.
It may be assumed as a fact which scarcely requires to be more than stated that there are few subjects which the great mass of Englishmen are so curiously ignorant of as the history of monasticism, of the constitution of the various orders, of the fortunes of any single religious house, or the discipline to which its members were, in theory at least, compelled to submit. The assumption being granted, it may naturally be asked, How is such ignorance to be accounted for? It is due to more causes than one, but chiefly and primarily to the vastness of the subject itself.
When the monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIII. there was an utter obliteration of an order of things which had existed in our island certainly for more than a thousand years, and how much longer it is impossible to say. The names of religious houses which are known to have existed before the Norman Conquest count by hundreds; the names of men and women who presided over such houses during the centuries preceding that event count by thousands. Some of these religious orders had passed through the strangest vicissitudes; they had been pillaged again and again; they had been burnt by Danish marauders; their inmates driven out into the wilderness or ruthlessly put to the sword; their lands given over to the spoiler or gone out of cultivation; their very existence in some cases almost forgotten; yet they had revived again and again from their ashes. When William the Conqueror came among us, and that awful rule of his began, there was scarcely a county in England and Wales in which one or more religious houses were not to be found, and during his reign of twenty-one years about thirty new monasteries of one sort or another were added to those already existing.
To begin with, the very word monastery is a misnomer: the word is a Greek word, and means the dwelling-place of a solitary person, living in seclusion. But, misnomer though it be, the employment of j a resting-place for their bones. When I
the word in a sense so widely different from that which it first bore, until it got to designate the dwelling-place of a corporate body, among whom no solitude was allowed and privacy was almost impossible, is of itself very significant as indicating the stages through which the original idea of monasticism passed.
It was natural enough, when society was in a condition of profound disorganization, and sensuality and violence were in the ascendant, that men and women of gentle nature should become convinced that the higher life could only be lived in lonely retirement, far from the sound of human voices and the contact of human creatures, whose very nearness almost implies sin. But what a vast step from this to that other conviction which the developed form of monasticism expresses, when experience has convinced the devout searcher after God that no great work can be done in improving the world, or raising the tone of society, or in battling with our own weaknesses and vices, except by earnest, resolute, and disciplined co-operation! It is when we draw together that we are strong, and strongest when we are laboring shoulder to shoulder for some common object, and that no mean and sordid one; it is then that we best find deliverance from our self-deception and most inveterate delusions, whilst living in the light of others’ eyes, and subjected to the influence and control of a healthy and well-instructed public opinion.
In the thirteenth century (and I shall as much as possible confine myself to the limits of that period), a monastery meant what we now understand it to mean —viz. the abode of a society of men or women who lived together in common — who were supposed to partake of common meals; to sleep together in the common dormitory; to attend certain services together in the common church; to transact certain business or pursue certain employments in the sight and hearing of each other in the common cloister; and, when the end came, to be laid side by side in the common graveyard, where in theory none but members of the order could find
say ” societies of men and women” I am again reminded that the other term, “convent,” has somehow got to be used commonly in a mistaken sense. People use the word as if it signified a religious house tenanted exclusively by women. The truth is that a convent is nothing more than a Latin name for an association of persons who have come together with a 1 view to live for a common object and to submit to certain rules in the conduct of their daily lives. The monastery was the common dwelling-place: the convent was the society of persons inhabiting it; and the ordinary formula used when a body of monks or nuns execute any corporate act — such as buying or selling land — by any legal instrument is, “The Prior and Convent of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Norwich;” “the Abbot and Convent of the Monastery of St. Peter’s, Westminster;” “the Abbess and Convent of the Monastery of St. Mary and St. Bernard at Lacock,” and so on.
Bearing in mind, then, that the term convent has to do with a corporation of men or women united into an organized society, and that the term monastery can strictly be applied only to the buildings — the domus — in which that society had its home, it will be well at starting that we should endeavor to gain some notion of the general plan of these buildings first, and when we have done that, that we should proceed to deal with the constitution of the society itself and the daily routine of conventual life.
A monastery in theory, then, was, as it was called, a religious house. It was supposed to be the home of people whose jives were passed in the worship of God, and in taking care of their own souls, and making themselves fit for a better world than this hereafter. As for this world, it was lying in wickedness; if men remained in this wicked world they would most certainly become contaminated by all its pollutions; the only chance of ever attaining to holiness lay in a man’s turning his back upon the world and running away from it. It was no part of a monk’s duty to reform the world; all he had to do was to look after himself, and to save himself from the wrath to come. It is
hardly overstating the case if I say that a monastery was not intended to be a benevolent institution; and if a great religious house became, as it almost inevitably did become, the centre of civilization and refinement, from which radiated light and warmth and incalculable blessings far and wide, these results flowed naturally from that growth and development which the original founders had never looked forward to or could have foreseen, but it was never contemplatsd as an end to be aimed at in the beginning. Being a home for religious men, whose main business was to spend their days and nights in worshipping God, the first requisite, the first and foremost, the sine qua nan was, that there should be a church.
On the church of a monastery, as a rule, no amount of money spent, no amount of lavish ornament or splendor of decoration, was grudged. Sculpture and painting, jewels and gold, gorgeous hangings, and stained glass that the moderns vainly attempt to imitate, the purple and fine linen of the priestly vestments, embroidery that to this hour remains unapproachable in its delicacy of finish and in the perfect harmony of colors — all these were to be found in almost incredible profusion in our monastic churches. You hear some people work themselves into a frenzy against the idolatrous worship of our forefathers; but to a monk of a great monastery his church was his one idol — to possess a church that should surpass all others in magnificence, and which could boast of some special unique glory — that seemed to a monk something worth living for. The holy rood at Bromholm, the holy thorn at Glastonbury, were possessions that brought world-wide renown to the monasteries in which they were found, and gave a lustre to the churches in which they were deposited; and the intense esprit de corps, the passionate loyalty, of a monk to his monastery is a sentiment which we in our time find it so extremely difficult to understand that we can hardly bring ourselves to believe that it could exist and did exist without some subtle intermixture of crafty selfishness as its ruling force and motive.
Tbe church of a monastery was the heart of the place. It was not that the church was built for the monastery, but the monastery existed for the church; there were hundreds and thousands of churches without monasteries, but there could be no monastery without a church. The monks were always at work on the church, always spending money upon it, always adding to it, always “restoring” it; it was always needing repair. We are in the habit of saying, ” Those old monks knew how to build; look at their work — see how it stands!” But we are very much mistaken if we suppose that in the twelfth or the thirteenth or the fourteenth century there was no bad building. On the contrary, nothing is more common in the monastic annals than the notices of how this and that tower fell down, and how this and that choir was falling into ruins, and how this or that abbot got into debt by his mania for building. There was an everlasting tinkering going on at the church; and the surest token that a monastery was in a bad way was if its church was in a shabby condition.
The church was, almost invariably, built in the form of a cross, facing east and west, the long limb of the cross being called the nave, the cross limbs being called the transepts, and the shorter limb, or head of the cross, being called the choir. The choir, as a rule, was occupied exclusively by the monks or nuns of the monastery. The servants, workpeople, and casual visitors who came to worship were not admitted into the choir; they were supposed to be present only on sufferance. The church was built for the use of the monks; it was their private place of worship.
Almost as essential to the idea of a monastery as the church was the cloister or great quadrangle, inclosed on all sides by the high walls of the monastic buildings. Its usual position was on the south of the church, to gain as much of the sun’s rays as possible, and to insure protection from the northerly and easterly winds in the bttter season. All round this quadrangle ran a covered arcade, whose roof, leaning against the high walls, was supported on the inner side by an open trellis work in stone — often exhibit
ing great beauty of design and workmanship— through which light and air was admitted into the arcade.* The open space not roofed in was called the garth, and was sometimes a plain grass-plat and sometimes was planted with shrubs, a fountain of running water being often found in the centre, which afforded a pleasant object for the eye to rest on. The cloister was really the living-place of the monks. Here they pursued their daily avocations, here they taught their school, they transacted their business, they spent their time and pursued their studies, always in society, co-operating and consulting, and, as a rule, knowing no privacy. “But a monk always lived in a cell!” I think you will be inclined to object. The sooner you get rid of that delusion the better. Until Henry II. founded the Carthusian Abbey of Witham, in 1178, there was no such thing known in England as a monk’s cell, as we understand the term. It was a peculiarity of the Carthusian order, and when it was first introduced it was regarded as a startling novelty for any privacy or anything approaching solitude to be tolerated in a monastery. The Carthusian system never found much favor in England. The Carthusians never had more than nine houses, all told; the discipline was too rigid, the rule too severe, the loneliness too dreadful for our tastes and for our climate. In the thirteenth century, if I mistake not, there were only two monasteries in England in which monks or nuns could boast of having any privacy, any little corner of their own to turn into, any place where they could enjoy the luxury of retirement, any private study such as every boy nowadays, in a school of any pretension, expects to have provided for himself, and without which we assume that nobody could read and write for an hour.
• In other words the thirteenth-century monk passed far the greater portion of his time in the open air, except that there was a roof over his head. As time went on, and monks became more self-indulgent, they Jid not by any means like the draughts and exposure in the cloister, and the old-fashioned open arcades were glazed, and the old open walks were turned into «.plendid lounges, comfortable and luxurious, such as the glorious cloisters of Gloucester could be made into, at a small outlay, at the present day.
The cloister arcade was said to have four walks. The south walk ran along the south wall of the nave, the north walk was bounded by the refectory or great dining hall, the east walk extended along the south transept, and where the transept ended there usually came a narrow passage called a slype, passing between the end of the transept and the chapterhouse, which may be described as the council-chamber of the convent. Beyond the chapter-house, and abutting partly upon the east wall of the cloister, but extending far beyond it till, in some cases, it made with the refectory a block of buildings in the form of a T, ran the dormitory or common sleeping-place for the fraternity. The dormitory was always approached by steps, for it was invariably constructed over a range of vaulted chambers, which served for various purposes; one of these chambers was set apart for the reception of those monks who had been subjected to the monthly bleedings which all were supposed to require, and which all were compelled to submit to, that so by a mechanical process, if in no other way, the flesh might be subdued. The beds of the monks were arranged along the walls of the dormitory, at regular intervals: and in some monasteries a wainscot partition separated the sleepers from each other, thus making for each a little cubicle, with a low door leading into it. The broad passage, running from end to end, between the sleeping-places in the dormitory was strewn with rushes ; and at the end opposite to the flight of stairs were the latrines or washing-places, which were open to the air, and under which was always a sewer that could be flushed by a watercourse hard by.
In the dormitory and the latrines lights were kept burning through the night; a provision necessary, if for no other reason, because the services in the church at night-time had to be kept up and attended bv the whole house. In going from the dormitory to the church the monks always passed undercover — sometimes by going through the cloister, sometimes by passing straight into the transept.
We have been round three sides of the cloister: on the north the church; on the east the chapter-house and dormitory; on the south the refectory. There remain the buildings abutting on the west wall. In the arrangement of these no strict rule was observed. But generally the western buildings were dedicated to the cellarer’s hall with cellars under it, the pitanciar’s and kitchener’s offices, or chequers as they
were called, and a guest-chamber for the reception of distinguished strangers and for the duties of hospitality, to which great importance was attached.
These were the main buildings, the essential buildings of a monastery great or small. Where a monastery was rich enough to indulge in luxuries of ” modern improvements and all the best appliances,” there was hardly any limit to the architectural freaks that might be indulged in. There were the infirmary and the hospital; the calefactory or warming apparatus, the recreation hall and the winter hall, the locutorium and the common hall, and I know not what besides. You observe I have as yet said nothing about the library. I must remind you that in the thirteenth century the number of books in the world was, to say the least, small. A library of five hundred volumes would, in those days, have been considered an important collection, and, after making all due allowances for ridiculous exaggerations which have been made by ill-informed writers on the subject, it may safely be said that nobody in the thirteenth century — at any rate in England — would have erected a large and lofty building as a receptacle for books, simply because nobody could have contemplated the possibility of filling it. Here and there amongst the larger and more important monasteries there were undoubtedly collections of books, the custody of which was intrusted to an accredited officer; but the time had not yet come for making libraries well stored with such priceless treasures as Leland, the antiquary, saw at Glastonbury, just before that magnificent foundation was given as a prey to the spoilers. A library, in any such sense as we now understand the term, was not only no essential part of a monastery in those days, but it may almost be said to have been a rarity.
But if the thirteenth-century monastery possessed necessarily no great readingroom, the scriptorium, or writing-room, was almost an essential adjunct. In the absence of the printing-press, the demand for skilled writers and copyists throughout the country was enormous. In the scriptorium all the business, now transacted by half-a-dozen agents and their clerks, was carried on. The land of the country in those days was subdivided to an extent that it is now almost impossible for us to realize, and the tenure under which the small patches of arable or meadow land were held was sometimes very complex and intricate. The small patches were perpetually changing hands, being
bought or sold, settled upon trustees, or let out for a term of years, and every transaction would be registered in the books of the monastery interested, while the number of conveyances, leases, and enfeofments made out in the course of the year was incalculable. In such an abbey as that of Bury St. Edmunds a small army of writers must have been constantly employed in the business department of the scriptorium alone. Obviously it became a great writing-school, where the copyists consciously or unconsciously wrote according to the prevailing fashion of the place ; and there have been, and there are experts who could tell you whether this or that document was or was not written in this or that monastic scriptorium. Paper was very little used, and the vellum and parchment required constituted a heavy item of expense. Add to this the production of school-books and all materials used for carrying on the education work, the constant replacement of church service books which the perpetual thumbing and fingering would subject to immense wear and tear, the great demand lor music which, however simple, required to be written out large and conspicuous, in order to be read with ease, and you get a rather serious list of the charges upon the stationery department of a great abbey. But though by far the greater portion of work done in the scriptorium was mere office work, the educational department, if 1 may so term it, being subsidiary, it must not be forgotten that the literary and historical department also was represented in the scriptorium of every great monastery. In the thirteenth century men never kept diaries or journals of their own daily lives, but monasteries did. In theory, every religious house recorded its own annals, or kept a chronicle of great events that were happening in Church and State. Where a monastery had kept its chronicle going for a long time, it got to be regarded almost as a sacred book, and was treated with great veneration: it lay in a conspicuous place in the scriptorium, and was under the care of an officer who alone was permitted to make entries in it. When any great piece of news was brought to the monastery that seemed worth putting on record, the person giving the information wrote out his version of the story on a loose piece of parchment, and slipped his communication into the book of annals for the authorized compiler to make use of in any way that seemed best to him, after due examination of evidence. This was the
rule in all monastic houses. Unfortunately, however, as it is with the journals or diaries of men and women of the nineteenth century, so it was with the journals and diaries of monks of the thirteenth, they evidently were kept by fits and starts; and before the fourteenth century was half out, the practice of keeping up these diaries in all but the larger monasteries had come to an end.
Before passing on from the library and scriptorium, on which a great deal more might easily be said, it is necessary that one caution should be given; I know not how the notion originated or how it has taken such hold of the minds of ninetynine out of a hundred, that the monks as a class were students or scholars or men of learning; but, as far as the English monasteries of the thirteenth century are concerned, I am sure that it is altogether erroneous. If we except some few of the larger and nobler monasteries, which from first to last seem always to have been centres of culture, enlightenment, and progress, the monks were no more learned than the nuns. As a class, students, scholars, and teachers they were not. When King John died, in 1216, a little learning went a long way, and whatever the Norman Conquest did for England (and it did a great deal), it certainly was not an event calculated to increase the love of study, or likely to make men bookish pundits.
I should only confuse my readers if I dwelt more at length upon the buildings of a monastery. It is enough for the present that we should understand clearly that the essential buildings were (1) the church, (2) <he cloister, (3) the dormitory, (4) the refectory, (5) the chapter-house. In these five buildings the life of the convent was carried on. Having said thus much we will pass on to the corporation itself — that which strictly was called the convent; and for convenience and distinctness it will be as well if we use that word convent in the more accurate sense, and employ it only as signifying the corporate body of persons occupying those buildings of which I have been speaking, and which in their aggregate were called a monastery.
Once more I think it necessary to start with a caution. Not only do 1 propose to take no account here of that large class of conventuals which comprehended the mendicant orders, or friars as they are called, but 1 must needs pass by with little or no notice the various orders of regular canons — i.e. canons living under a rule. The friars came into England first in 1220. During the thirteenth century they were, so to speak, upon their trial; but from the first the monks and the friars were almost essentially opposed in the ideal of their daily lives ; the monk’s ideal was that he must live to save his own soul: the friar’s ideal was that he must live to save the soul of others. So with the very numerous houses of canons regular up and down the land. They and the monks did not love one another, and when I speak of monks and their houses it will be advisable to exclude from our consideration the friars on the one hand and the canons on the other, and, in fact, to limit ourselves to that view of conventual life which the great English monasteries under the rule of St. Benedict afford.
At the time of the Norman Conquest it may be said that all English monks were professedly under one and the same rule — the famous Benedictine rule. The rule of a monastery was the constitution or code of laws, which regulated the discipline of the house, and the rule of St. Benedict dates back as far as the sixth century, though it was not introduced into England for more than a hundred years after it had been adopted elsewhere. Four hundred years is a very long time for any constitution or code of law to last unchanged, and though the English monasteries professedly were living according to the Benedictine rule during all the Saxon and the Danish times, yet there is too much reason to believe that if St. Benedict could have risen from the dead in the days of Edward the Confessor and made a visitation of many an English house, he would have been rather astonished to be told that the monks were living according to his rule.
About one hundred and fifty years before the Conquest, a great reformation had been attempted of the French monasteries, which it was said had fallen into a state of great decay so far as discipline and fervor were concerned, and a revision of the old rule had been found necessary, the reformers breaking away from the old Benedictines and subjecting themselves to a new and improved rule. These first reformers were called Cluniac monks, from the great Abbey of Clugni, in Burgundy, in which the new order of things had begun. The first English house of reformed or Cluniac monks was founded at Lewes, in Sussex, eleven years after the Conquest, by Gundrada, a step-daughter of William the Conqueror, and her
husband, William, Earl of Warrene and Surrey. The Cluniacs were at first famous for the simplicity of their lives and the strictness of their discipline, but as time went on they became too rich and so too luxurious, and at last they too needed reforming, and a new reformer arose. In this case the real moving spirit of reformation was an Englishman, one Stephen Harding, probably a Dorsetshire man, who was brought up at the Benedictine monastery of Sherborne, but in the course of events chosen abbot of the Monastery of Citeaux, where St. Bernard became his ardent disciple, and where the two enthusiasts, working cordially together, brought about that second reform of the Benedictines which resulted in the founding of the great Cistercian order.
Thus, without looking too minutely into the matter, we find that when the thirteenth century opens, or, if you will, when Henry III. came to the throne, in 1216, there were three great orders of monks in England — the old Benedictines, who had held houses and lands for centuries; the Cluniacs, who were the reformed Benedictines; and the Cistercians, who may be styled the reformed Cluniacs. But inasmuch as the architectural and other reforms among the Cistercians were many and peculiar, it will again be advisable to pass by these peculiarities for the present without remark.
The constitution of every convent, great or small, was monarchical. The head of the house was almost an absolute sovereign, and was called the abbot. His dominions often extended, even in England, over a very wide tract of country, and sometimes over several minor monasteries which were called cells. Thus the abbot of St. Alban’s had under himself the cell of Tynemouth in Northumberland and two others in Norfolk — viz., Binham and Wymondham, the latter of which eventually became an independent abbey — and the heads of these cells or subject houses were called priors. An abbey was. a monastery which was independent. A priory was a monastery which in theory or in fact was subject to an abbey. All the Cluniac monasteries in England were thus said to be alien priories, because they were mere cells of the great Abbey of Clugni in France, to which each priory paid heavy tribute; while the priors were almost always foreigners, and always appointed by the abbot of Clugni, and responsible to him much in the same way as a pacha is to his suzerain the sultan. On the other hand, the Cistercian houses were all abbeys, and their abbots sovereigns in alliance or confederation with one another, and exercising over their several convents supreme jurisdiction, though recognizing the abbot of Citeaux as their over-lord. The abbot not only had a separate residence within the monastery and lived apart from his monks, but he had his separate estate for the maintenance of his dignity, and to bear the very heavy expenses which that dignity necessitated, and he had the patronage of every office in the convent. The officers were numerous. The first of them was the prior, who was the abbot’s prime minister and head of the executive and the abbot’s representative in his absence. Under him was the sub-prior, sometimes a third prior, and then a number of functionaries, to whom, as in the case of the abbot, separate estates were assigned out of which they were bound to provide for certain charges which they were called upon to meet as best they could, and a complicated system of finance provided for the surplus of one office being applied when necessary for the deficiency of another.
In the great Abbey of Evesham a very elaborate constitution was drawn up and agreed to in the year 1214, after a long dispute between the abbot and convent which had lasted for several years, and this scheme has come down to us.
From it we find that certain officers (obedientiaries was their technical name) were charged with providing certain articles out of the revenue of the office. The prior, to whom no mean share of the revenues was assigned, had to provide the Earchment that might be required for usiness purposes or for legal instruments and all other materials for the scriptorium, except ink. The manciple was to provide all wine and mead, the keeping up the stock of earthenware cups, jugs, basins, and other vessels, together with the lamps and oil. The precentor had to find all the ink used, and all color required for illumination, the materials for book-binding, and the keeping the organ in repair. To the chamberlain were assigned certain revenues for providing all the clothing of the monks, it being stipulated that the abbot’s dress was not to be paid for out of the fund. In the same way certain small tithes were apportioned for buying basins, jugs, and towels for the guests’ chamber; while all rents levied from the various tenants paid not in money, but in kind — as, e.g., capons, eggs, salmon, eels,
herrings, etc. — were to be passed to the account of the kitchener. Every monk bearing office was bound to present his accounts for audit at regular intervals, and the rolls on which these accounts were inscribed exist in very large numbers, and may still be consulted by those who are able to read them.
It looks as if it were the policy of the Benedictines to give as many monks as possible some special duty and responsibility— to give each, in fact, a personal interest in the prosperity of the house to which he belonged — and the vacancies occurring from time to time in the various offices gave everybody something to look forward to. There was room for ambition, and, I am bound to add, room for a good deal of petty scheming, on the one hand, and truckling to the abbot, on the other; but it all went towards relieving the monotony of the life in the cloister — a monotony which has been very much overstated by those who have never studied the subject. To begin with, it does not follow that what would be very dull to us would be dull and insipid to the men of the thirteenth century. Before a man offered himself for admission to a monastery, he must have had a taste for a quiet life, and in many instances he had grown tired of the bustle, the struggle, and all the anxious wear of the work-day world. He wanted to be rid of bothers, in fact; he was pretty sure to have had a fair education, and he was presumably a religious man, with a taste for religious exercises; sometimes, and not unfrequently, he was a disappointed man, who had been left wifeless and childless ; sometimes, too, he was one whose career had been cut short suddenly by some accident which incapacitated him for active exertion and made him long only for repose and obscurity. Moreover, in those distant times the instinct of devotion was incomparably stronger than it is now, and people found a real and intense delight in the services of the sanctuary, to say nothing of their entire belief in the spiritual advantages to be derived from taking part in those services. Add to this that a monk had to pass through rather a long training before he was regularly admitted to full membership. He had to submit to a term of probation, during which he was subject to a somewhat rigorous ordeal. A novice had the pride taken out of him in a very effectual way during his novitiate — he was pretty much in the position of afag at a great school nowadays, and by the time that he had passed through his novitiate he was usually very well broken in, and in harmony with the spirit of the place in which he found himself. It was something to have a higher place assigned him at last in the church and the dormitory, to have some petty office given him, and to have a chance of being promoted byandby. There was Brother So-and-So, who was getting infirm, and he could not do the pitanciar’s work much longer; the precentor was getting as hoarse as a raven, and the sacrist was gouty, or the cellarer was showing signs of breaking up. Nay, the prior’s cough gave unmistakable signs of his lungs being wrong, and if he were to drop off, which we should of course all of us deplore — there would be a general move up, it might be; unless, indeed. Father Abbot should promote his chaplain over the heads of all of us — for such things have been!
But, when we come to look a little closer, we find that the monotony of monastic life was almost confined to the frequent services in the church. There were six services every day, of one kind or another, at which the whole convent was supposed to be present, and one service at midnight. The lay brethren among the Cistercians, and the servants engaged in field labor, were excused attendance at the nocturnal service, and those officials of the convent whose business required them to be absent from the precincts were also excused. Indeed, it would have been simply impossible for the whole brotherhood to assemble at all these services; there would have been a dead-lock in twenty-four hours if the attempt had ever been made in any of the large monasteries, where the inmates sometimes counted by hundreds, who all expected their meals punctually, and for whom even the simplest cookery necessitated that fires should be kept up, the porridge boiled, the beer drawn, and the bread baked. Hence, they whose hands were full and their engagements many really had no time to put in an appearance at church seven times in twenty-four hours. While, on the other hand, the monk out of office, with nothing particular to do, was all the better for having his time broken up; going to church kept him out of mischief, and singing of psalms saved him from idle talk, and if it did him no good certainly did him very little harm.
The ordinary life of the monastery began at six o’clock in the morning, and when the small beil, called the skilla, rang, all rose, washed themselves at the latrines, put on their day habit, and then presented
themselves at the matin mass. Miriam, or breakfast, followed, and that over, the convent assembled in chapter for consultation. After chapter the officials dispersed: the kitchener to arrange for the meals, and not unfrequentlv to provide hospitality for distinguished guests and their retinue; the precentor to drill his choir-boys, to tune the organ, to look after the music, or to arrange for some procession in the church, or some extraordinary function : the infirmarer to take his rounds in the hospital ; the cellarer to inspect the brewhouse and bakeries; and each or all of these officers might find it necessary to go far afield in looking after some bailiff or tenant who could not safely be left alone. At Evesham the sacristan, the chamberlain, and the infirmarer were allowed forage and the keep of one horse. Meanwhile in the cloister all was stir and movement without noise. In the west alley the schoolmaster was teaching his little pupils the rudiments of Latin, or it might be the elements of singing; in the south alley, where the light was best, a monk with a taste for art was trying his hand at illuminating a MS. or rubricating the initial letters ; while on the other side, in the north alley, some were painfully getting by heart the psalms, or practising meditation—alone in a crowd. Within the retirement of that cloister, fenced all round, as I have said, with the high walls and the great buildings, there the monks were working, there the real conventual life was going on ; but outside the cloister, though yet within the precincts, it is difficult for us now to realize what a vast hive of industry a great monastery in some of the lonely and thinly populated parts of England was. Everything that was eaten or drunk or worn, almost everything that was made or used in a monastery, was produced upon the spot. The grain grew on their own land; the corn was ground in their own mill; their clothes were made from the wool of their own sheep; they had their own tailors and shoemakers, and carpenters and blacksmiths, almost within call; they kept their own bees; they grew their own garden stuff and their own fruit; I suspect they knew more of fish-culture than, until very lately, we moderns could boast of knowing; nay, they had their own vineyards and made their own wine. The commissariat of a large abbey must have required administrative ability of a very high order, and the cost of hospitality was enormous. No traveller, whatever his degree, was refused food and shelter, and every monastery was a vast hotel, where nobody need pay more than he chose for his board and lodging. The mere keeping the accounts must have employed no small number of clerks, for the minuteness with which every transaction was recorded almost passes belief. Those rolls I spoke of, the sacrist’s, cellarer’s, and so on, were, it must be remembered, periodical balance-sheets handed in at audit day. They deal, not only with pence and halfpence, but with farthings and half-farthings, and were compiled from the tablets or small account-books posted up from day to day and hour to hour. They give the price of every nail hammered into a wall, and rarely omit the cost of the parchment on which the roll itself is written. The men must have been very busy, or, if you prefer it, very fussy — certainly they could not have been idle to have kept their accounts in this painfully minute manner, even to the fraction of a farthing.
In the natural course of events, as a monastery grew in wealth and importance, there was one element of interest which added great zest to the conventual life, in the quarrels that were sure to arise.
First and foremost, the most desirable person to quarrel with was a bishop. In its original idea, a monastery was not necessarily an ecclesiastical institution. It was not necessary that an abbot should be an ecclesiastic, and not essentially necessary that any one of his monks should be in holy orders. Long before the thirteenth century, however, a monk was almost invariably ordained, and being an ordained person, and having his local habitation in a bishop’s diocese, it was only natural that the bishop should claim jurisdiction over him and over the church in which he and the fraternity ministered j but to allow a power of visitation to any one outside the close corporation of the convent was fraught with infinite peril to the community. Confessing their faults one to another, and asking pardon of the lord abbot or his representative, the prior, was one thing; but to have a querulous or inquisitive or even hostile bishop coming and intruding into their secrets, blurting them out to the world and actually pronouncing sentence upon them — that seemed to the monks an absolutely intolerable and shocking condition of affairs. Hence it seemed supremely desirable to a convent to get for itself, by fair means or foul — and I am afraid the means were not always fair means, as we should consider them — the exemption of
their house from episcopal visitation or control. I believe that the earliest instance of such an exemption being granted in England was that of the Conqueror’s Abbey of Battle. The precedent was a bad one, and led to all sorts of attempts by other houses to procure for themselves the like privilege. Such attempts were stoutly resisted by the bishops, who foresaw the evils that would inevitably follow, and which, in fact, did follow; and, of course, bishop and abbey went to law. Going to law in this case meant usually, first, a certain amount of preliminary litigation before the Archbishop of Canterbury; but sooner or later it was sure to end in an appeal to the pope’s court, or, as the phrase was, an appeal to Rome.
Without wishing for a moment to defend or excuse a state of things which was always vexatious, and at last became intolerable, it is impossible to deny that a great deal of nonsense has been talked and written about these appeals. Almost exactly the same state of things exists in the present day both in civil and ecclesiastical matters. Parsee merchants fall to loggerheads in Bombay or Calcutta, and bring their disputes before the courts in India; one side feels aggrieved by the sentence, and straightway he removes the case to a court of appeal in London. Or some heretical person in Asia or Africa or somewhere else gets into hot water with an orthodox society for the promotion of religious persecution, and sooner or later the archbishop is appealed to, and the ecclesiastical lawyers have a most delightful time of it. It all costs a great deal of money nowadays, and leading advocates on this side or that are actually so extortionate that they will not do anything for nothing, and insist on receiving the most exorbitant fees. So it was in the old days. The final court of appeal in all matters ecclesiastical was before the pope at Rome or Avignon, and the proctors and doctors, and all the canonists and officials, actually required to be paid for their work.
When a monastery was in for a great fight with a bishop, it was a serious matter for both parties. But it was much more serious for the bishop than for the convent. The bishop had always his state to keep up and his many houses to maintain, and his establishment was enormously costly. His margin for law expenses was small; and I suspect that a bishop in England during the thirteenth century who had no private fortune outside of his mere episcopal revenues would
have been likely sooner or later to find himself in serious difficulties. On the other hand, in a great monastery all sorts of expedients could be resorted to in order to effect a salutary retrenchment — as when the monks of St. Albans agreed to give up the use of wine for fifteen years, and actually did so, that they might be able to rebuild their refectory and dormitory in the days of John the twenty-first abbot. Moreover, inasmuch as a corporation never dies, the convent could raise very heavy sums on the security of its estates, and take its own time to repay the loans. A bishop could not pledge his episcopal estates beyond his own lifetime, and the result was that, in the days when life assurance was unknown, a bishop who had to raise money for a costly lawsuit would have to pay a rate of interest which would make our blood run cold if we had to pay it, or our hearts leap for joy if we could get it in these days of two and three per cent. The bishop was always at a disadvantage in these appeal cases; he stood to lose everything, and he stood to win nothing at all except the satisfaction of his conscience that he was struggling for principle and right. And thus it came to pass that the monks enjoyed this kind of warfare, and rarely shrank from engaging in it. Indeed, an appeal to Rome meant sending a deputation from the convent to watch the case as.it was going on, and there was all the delight of a foreign tour and a sight of the world — a trip, in fact, to the Continent at the expense of the establishment. But when there was no appeal case going on — and they were too expensive an amusement to be indulged in often — there was always a good deal of exciting litigation to keep up the interest of the convent, and to give them something to think about and gossip about nearer home. We have the best authority — the authority of the great pope Innocent III. — for believing that Englishmen in the thirteenth century were extremely fond of beer; but there was something else that they were even fonder of, and that was law. Monastic history is almost made up of the stories of this everlasting litigation; nothing was too trifling to be made into an occasion for a lawsuit. Some neighboring landowner had committed a trespass or withheld a tithe pig. Some audacious townsman had claimed the right of catching eels in a pond. Some brawling knight pretended he was in some sense patron of a cell, and demanded a trumpery allowance of bread and ale, or an equivalent. As we
read about these things we exclaim, “Why in the world did they make such a fuss about a trifle?” Not so thought the monks. They knew well enough what the thin end of the wedge meant, and, being in a far better position than we are to judge of the significance and importance of many a casus belli which now seems but trivial, they never dreamed of giving an inch for the other side to take an ell. So they went to law, and enjoyed it amazingly! Sometimes, however, there were disputes which were not to be settled peaceably; and then came what university men in the old days used to know as a ” town and gown row.”
Let it be remembered that a Benedictine monastery, in the early times, was invariably set down in a lonely wilderness. As time went on, and the monks brought the swamp into cultivation, and wealth flowed in, and the monastery became a centre of culture, there would be sure to gather round the walls a number of hangers-on, who gradually grew into a community, the tendency of which was to assert itself, and to become less and less dependent upon the abbey for support. These towns (for they became such; were, as a rule, built on the abbey land, and paid dues to the monastery. Of course, on the one side, there was an inclination to raise the dues; on the other, a desire to repudiate them altogether. Hence bad blood was sure to arise between the monks and the townsmen, and sooner or later serious conflicts between the servants of the monasteries and the people outside. Thus in 1223 there was a serious collision between the Londoners and the Westminster monks, the mob rushed into the monastery, and the abbot escaped their violence with difficulty by slipping out at a back door and getting into a boat on the Thames. On another occasion there was a very serious fray between the citizens of Norwich and the priory there, in 1272, when the prior slew one man with his own hands, and many lives were lost. At a later time there was a similar disturbance at Bury St. Edmunds, and in the year 1314 the great abbey of St. Albans was kept in a state of siege for more than ten days by the townsmen, who were driven to frenzy by not being allowed to grind their own corn in their own handmills, but compelled to get it ground by the abbey millers, and, of course, pay the fee.
Thirty years later, again, that man of sin, Sir Philip de Lymbury, lifttd up his heel’against the Abbey of St. Alban’s, and actually laid hands upon brother John Moote, the cellarer; and on Monday, being market day at Luton in Beds, did actually clap the said cellarer in the pillory, and kept him there, exposed to the jeers and contempt of the rude populace, who, we may be sure, were in ecstasies at this precursor of Mr. Pickwick in the pound. But the holy martyr St. Alban was not likely to let such an outrage pass; and when the rollicking knight came to the abbey to make it up, and was for presenting a peace-offering at the shrine, lo, the knightly nose began to bleed profusely, and, to the consternation of the beholders, the offering could not be made, and Sir Philip had to retire, holding his nose, and shortly after he died — and, adds the chronicler, was speedily forgotten, he and his.
Such milling of the peace and quiet of conventual life was, there is reason to believe, not uncommon. But inside the cloister itself there was not always a holy calm. When the abbot died there came all the canvassing and excitement of a contested election, and sometimes a convent might be turned for years into a house divided against itself, the two parties among the monks fighting like cat and dog. Nor did it at all follow because the convent had elected their abbot or prior unanimously that therefore the election was allowed by the king, to whom the elect was presented.* King John kept monasteries without any abbot for years, sequestrating the estates in the mean time, and leaving the monks to make the best of it. Sometimes an abbot was forced upon a monastery in spite of the convent, as in the case of Abbot Roger Norreys at Evesham, in 1191 — a man whom the monks not only detested because of his gross mismanagement, but whom they denounced as actually immoral. Sometimes, too, the misconduct of a prior was so abominable that it could not be borne, and then came the very difficult and very delicate business of getting him deposed: a process which was by no means easily managed, as appeared in the instance of Simon Pumice, prior of Worcester, in 1319, and in many another case.
Such hopes and fears and provocations as these all contributed to relieve the monotony which it has been too readily assumed was the characteristic of the cloister life. The monks had a world of their
* See a notable instance in Carlyle’a Past and Present .
own within the precincts, but they were not so shut in but that their relations with the greater world outside were very real. Moreover, that confinement to the monastery itself, which was necessarily very greatly relaxed in the case of the officers or obedientiaries, as they were called, was almost as easily relaxed if one of the brethren could manage to get the right side of the abbot or prior. When Archbishop Peckham was holding his visitations in 1282 he more than once remarks with asperity upon a monk farming a manor of his convent, and declares that the practice must stop. The outlying manors must have somebody to look after them, it was assumed, and if one of the brethren was willing to undertake the management for the convent, why should he not? Nor, again, must we suppose that the monks were debarred all amusements. On August 29, 1283, there was a great wrestling-match at Hockliffe, in Beds, and a huge concourse of people of all sorts were there to see the fun. The roughs and the “fancy” were present in great force, and somehow it came to pass that a free fight ensued. I am sorry to say that the canons of Dunstable were largely represented upon the occasion. We are left to infer that the representatives were chiefly the servants of the canons, but I am afraid that some at least of their masters were there too. In the fight one Simon Mustard, who appears to have been something like a professional prize-fighter, “a bully exceeding fierce,” says the annalist, got killed; but thereon ensued much inquiry and much litigation, and Dunstable and its ” religious ” had to suffer vexations not a few. In fairness it should be remembered that these Dunstable people were not monks but canons — regular or irregular — and those canons, we all know, would do anything. We protest against being confounded with canons!
The amusements of monks were more innocent. The garden was always a great place of resort, and gardening a favorite pastime. We may be sure there was much lamentation and grumbling at St. Alban’s when Abbot John de Maryns forbade any monk, who from infirmity could only be carried on a litter, from entering the garden at all. Poor old fellows! had their bearers been disorderly and trodden upon the flower-beds? Bowls was the favorite and a very common diversion among them; but in the opinion of Archbishop Peckham, as appears by his letters, there were other diversions of a far more reprehensible character. Actually at the small priory of Coxford, in Norfolk, the prior and his canons were wholly given over to chess-playing. It was dreadful! In other monasteries the monks actually hunted ; not only the abbots, but the common domestic monks! Nay, such things were to be found as monks keeping dogs, or even birds, in the cloister. Peckham denounces these breaches of decorum as grave offences, which were not to be passed over and not to be allowed. What! a black monk stalking along with a bullpup at his heels, and a jackdaw, worse than the jackdaw of Rheims, using bad words in the garth, and showing an evil example to the chorister boys, with his head on one side!
But, after all, it must be confessed that the greatest of all delights to the thirteenth-century monks was eating and drinking. “Sir, I like my dinner!” said Dr. Johnson, and I don’t think any one thought the worse of him for his honest outspokenness. The dinner in a great abbey was clearly a very important event in the day — I will not say it was the important event, but it was a iiery important one. It must strike anyone who knows much of the literature of this age that the weak point in the monastic life of the thirteenth century was the gormandizing. It was exactly as, I am told, it is on board ship on a long voyage, where people have little or nothing to do, they are always looking forward to the next meal, and the sound of the dinner-bell is the most exciting sound that greets the ear in the twenty-four hours. And so with the monks in a great monastery which had grown rich, and in point of fact had more money than it knew what to do with: the dinner was the event of the day. It is not that we hear much of drunkenness, for we really hear very little of it, and where it is spoken of it is always with reprobation. Nor is it that we hear of anything like the loathsome and disgusting gluttony of the Romans of the empire, but eating and drinking, and especially eating, are always cropping up; one is perpetually being reminded of them in one way or another, and it is significant that when the Cistercian revival began, one of the chief reforms aimed at was the rigorous simplification of the meals and the curtailing the luxury of the refectory. But the monks were not the only people in those times who had a high appreciation of good cheer. When a man of high degree took up his quarters in a monastery he by no means wished to be put off with salt-fish
and-toast-and-water cheer. Richard de Marisco, one of King John’s profligate councillors, who was eventually foisted into the see of Durham, gave the Abbey of St. Alban’s the tithes of Eglingham, in Northumberland, to help them to make their ale better — “taking compassion upon the weakness of the convent’s drink,” as the chronicler tells us. The small beer of St. Alban’s, it seems, was not as much improved as was to be desired, notwithstanding this appropriation of Church property, for twice after this the abbey had the same delicate hint given to it that its brewing was not up to the mark, when the rectory of Norton, in Hertfordshire, and two-thirds of the tithes of Hartburn, in Northumberland, were given to the monastery that no excuse might remain for the bad quality of the malt liquor.
And here let me remark in passing that another widespread delusion needs to be removed from the popular mind with regard to the relations between the monks and the clergy. We have again and again heard people say, ” Wonderfully devoted men, those monks! Look at the churches all over the land! If it had not been for the monks how could all the village churches have been built? The monks built them all!” Monks build parish churches! Why, the monks were the greatest church-robbers that the world has ever known; they were always robbing the country parsons, and the town parsons, too, for that matter. Every vicarage in England represents a spoliation of the church, whose rectorial tithes had been appropriated by a religious house, the parson being left with the vicarial tithes, and often not even with them, but thrown for his daily bread upon the voluntary offerings of his parishioners. The monks build churches! I could not from my own knowledge bring forward a single instance in all the history of England of a monastery contributing a shilling of money or a load of stone for the repair, let alone the erection of any parish church in the land. So far from it, they pulled down the churches when they had a chance, and they were always on the look-out to steal the rectory houses and substitute for them any cheap-and-nasty vicarage unless the bishop kept a sharp look-out upon them and came to the help of his clergy. Of all the sins that the monks had to answer for, this greedy grasping at Church property, this shameless robbery of the seculars, was beyond compare the most inexcusable and the most mischievous. To the credit of the Cistercians it must be told that they at first set themselves against the wholesale pillage of the parochial clergy. I am not prepared to say they were true to their first principles — no corporate society ever was, and least of all a religious corporation — but at starting the Cistercians were decidedly opposed to the alienating of tithes and appropriating them to the endowment of their abbeys, and this was probably one among other causes why the Cistercians prospered so wonderfully as they did during the first hundred years or so after their first coming here; people believed that the new order was not going to live by robbing parsons, as the older orders had done without remorse. The swindler always thinks his victim a fool, and the victim never forgives the smarter man who has taken him in. Accordingly the monks always pretended to think scorn of the clergy, and when the monasteries fell the clergy were the very last people to lament their fall.
And this brings us to the question of the moral condition of the monasteries. Professor Stubbs has called the thirteenth century “the golden age of English Churchmanship.” Subject to correction from that greatest of England’s great historians — and subject to correction too from others, who, standing in a rank below his unapproachable eminence, are yet very much my superiors in their knowledge of this subject—I venture to express my belief that the thirteenth century was also the golden age of English monachism. Certainly we know much more about the monasteries and their inner life during this period than at any other time. The materials ready to our hand are very voluminous, and the evidence accessible to the inquirer is very various. I do not believe that any man of common fairness and candor who should give some years to the careful study of those materials and that evidence could rise from his examination with any other impression than that, as a body, the monks of the thirteenth century were better than their age. Vicious and profligate, drunken and unchaste, as a class, they certainly were not. Of course there were scandalous brethren. Here and there — but rarely, very rarely — there was a wicked abbot or prior. Of course there were instances of abominations on which one cannot dwell; of course there are stories which are bad to read; stories which find their way into the chronicles because they were strange or startling; but these stories are always told with hor
ror, and commented upon with severity and scorn. Excuse for wickedness or any palliation of it you simply never find.
On the other hand, the intense espritde corps of a convent of monks went beyond anything that we can now realize, and led to grave sins against truth and honesty. The forgeries of charters, bulls, and legal instruments of all kinds for the glorification of a monastery by its members was at least condoned only too frequently. It can hardly be doubted that the scriptorium of many a religious house must have been turned to very discreditable uses by unscrupulous and clever scribes, with the connivance if not with the actual knowledge of the convent, for such things were not done in a corner. If the forgeries succeeded—and that they often did succeed we know — the monastery got all the advantage of the rascality; no inquiry was made, and it was tacitly assumed that where so much was gained, and the pride of ” our house ” was gratified, the end justified the means.
There remains one question which may suggest itself to our minds as it has often suggested itself to others. From what class or classes in society were the monks for the most part taken? This is one of the most difficult questions to answer. The late Dr. Maitland, who perhaps knew more, and had read more, about monks and monasteries than any Englishman of his time, professed himself unable to answer it; and my friend Dr. Luard — whose labors in this field of research have gained for him a European reputation, and whose wonderful industry, carefulness, and profound knowledge qualify him to speak with authority on such a point, if anyone might pronounce upon it — hesitates to give a decided opinion. The impression that is left upon my own mind is, that the thirteenth-century monk, as a rule, was drawn from the gentry class, as distinguished from the aristocracy on the one hand, or the artisans on the other — in fact, mutatis mutandis, that the representatives of the monks of the thirteenth century were the fellows of colleges of the nineteenth before the recent alteration of university and college statutes came into force. An ignorant monk was certainly a rarity, an absolutely unlettered or uneducated one was an impossibility, and an abbot or prior who could not talk and write Latin with facility, who could not preach with tolerable fluency on occasion, and hold his own as a debater and man of business, would have found himself sooner or later in a very ridiculous and very uncomfortable position, from which he might be glad to escape by resignation.
Three centuries after the time we have been considering, the religious houses were suppressed — to use that euphonious term which has become universally accepted— only after they had existed in these islands in one form or another for at least a thousand years. Century after century monasteries continued to spring up, and there never was much difficulty in finding devout people who were ready to befriend a new order, to endow it with lands, and to give it a fair start. In other words, there was always a demand for new monasteries, and the first sure sign that that demand had been met, and more than met, was when the supply of monks began to fall short, and when, as was the case before the end of the fifteenth century, the religious houses could not fill up their full complement of brethren. Is it conceivable that this constant demand could have gone on, if the common sense of the nation had not been profoundly convinced, and continuously convinced, that the religious orders gave back some great equivalent for all the immense surrenders of wealth which generation after generation of Englishmen had made—some equivalent for all the vast stream of benefactions which flowed on from age to age so strongly that kings and statesmen had to interfere and check, if it might be, the dangerous prodigality of lavish benefactors? What that equivalent was, what the real work of the monasteries was, what great functions they discharged in the body politic, what the nation at large gained by their continuance and lost by their fall — these are questions which on this occasion I am not concerned with, and with which I scrupulously forbear from dealing. But there are moments when a great horror comes upon some men’s minds, and a vision of a lonely and childless old age rises before them in the gloom of a dreary twilight, or when the mists of autumn hide the sunbeams, and they think, ” If desolation were to come upon our homes, where could we hide the stricken head and broken heart?” To that question — a morbid question if you will—1 have never found an answer. The answer was possible once, but it was in an age which has passed away.
Yes, that age has passed away forever. History repeats itself, it is true, but history will not bear mimicry. In every melody that wakes the echoes there is repetition of this note and that, the same
single sound is heard again and again; but the glorious intertwinings of the several parts, the subtle fingers and merry peals of laughter that “flash along the chords and go,” the wail of the minor, as if crying for the theme that has vanished and yet will reappear — “like armies whispering where great echoes be”—these things are not mere repetition; they are messages from the Eternal Father to the sons of men, reminding them that the world moves on. Merely to ape the past, and to attempt to reproduce in the nineteenth century the tree that had taken a millennium to grow into its maturity in the thirteenth and was rudely cut down root and branch in the sixteenth, is about as wise as it would be to try and make us sing the Hallelujah Chorus in unison! Let the dead bury their dead. Meanwhile the successors of the thirteenth-century monasteries are rising up around us each after their kind; Pall Mall swarms with them, hardly less splendid than their progenitors, certainly not less luxurious. Our modern monks look out of the windows of the Carlton and the Athenaeum with no suspicion that they are at all like the monks of old. Nor are they. They lack the old faith, the old loyalty to their order, and with the old picturesqueness something else that we can less afford to miss — the old enthusiasm. We look back upon the men of the thirteenth century with much complacency. A supercilious glance at the past seems to give the moderns an excellent opinion of themselves. But suppose the men of the thirteenth century could turn the tables upon us, and, from their point of view, pass their judgment upon the daily life of the conventuals of St. James’s, who are, after all, only survivals, but just conceivably not quite survivals of the fittest; would the monks of old find all things quite up to the highest ideal? or would they hide their heads in shame and confusion of face compelled to acknowledge that the new was in all things so much better than the old? Augustus Jessop.