Monasticism in England
To mediaeval man and women all life was a struggle, during which mankind fitted itself by suffering and a long fight with sinful desires to return once more to that Paradise from which its first parents had been expelled. To conquer sin and win eternal bliss was an object not easily to be attained in a world where delights of all kinds constantly enticed men and women to wickedness. That it was an impossible task no one asserted; but it s extreme difficulty induced many of both sexes to cut themselves off from the world and shut themselves up in monasteries, where, within a ring fence, they lived a life of prayer, praise, labour and study, which occupied body and mind to the full during every hour of the day, and left no room for “idleness, the enemy of the soul.”
The great founder of the monastic system, as it was known in the west, was St. Benedict of Nursia (480 to 543 A.D.) There were monasteries in western Europe before this time, the inmates of which had considerable freedom in the ordering of their lives and in the choice of methods by which they sought after holiness. But Benedict drew up a Regula or “Rule,” showing how he thought a monk’s life could best be led. It did not allow the same freedom which monks had previously enjoyed. Benedict put his rule into practice in the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, where he lived as abbot or head. From that spot the rule spread into many other monasteries of the west, the inmates of which were attracted by its excellence and common sense as compared with earlier monastic methods. Those monks who adopted it as their guide of life were called Benedictines after its author. (The Celtic Church obtain their monasticism from the deserts of Egypt with Anthony the Great who became known as both the founder and father of desert monasticism in the third and fourth century in the desert of Egypt, the Celtic Church was linked to this and copied this with their island monasteries set in the desert of the sea, which the Vikings found later places of easy pickings).
Monks who followed the Rule of St. Benedict were allowed but little personal liberty. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and lived like soldiers under discipline. They ate their meals together in the refectory or dining-hall of the monastery, slept in the same dormitories, worshipped together in the same church, fasted and feasted together at appointed seasons, wore the same kind of clothes, ate the same kind of food, went to bed and rose together at the same time, studied together in the cloisters, and look leisure together. In short, they lived a common life, continually in one another’s company, and were therefore known as “coenobites” from two Greek words, bois (life) and koinos (common). At their head was a ruler called an Abbot or Father. “Let the Abbot know,” says St. Benedict in his Rule, “that any lack of goodness which the master of the family (God) shall find in his flock wil be accounted the shepherd’s fault.”
The Rule contains many commandments for monks, beginning with the greatest of all, “to love the Lord God with all our soul, with all our strength, and then to love our neighbour as ourself.”
St. Benedict says in his rule that “any one first coming to the religious should not find the entrance made easy.” A man who persisted in asking permission to become a monk was to be received as a guest for a few days.
“After that let him be in the novitiate (i.e. under the novice master), and let a senior watch over him. Let all the rigour and austerity of our journey to God be put clearly before him.”
For twelve months he served in the novitiate, and only when he perfectly understood life according to the Rule was his desire to become a monk gratified.
The arrangement of the monk’s day, according to St. Benedict’s Rule, varied somewhat with the season of the year. In the winter-time monks rose about two or half-past two in the morning, and went into the church for their first service, called the Night Office, or Vigils. This probably lasted for about one and half hours, and thus ended about half-past three or four o’clock. Between Vigils and the next service, Lauds, there was in winter-time an interval of about one and a half hours, for Lauds were said at dawn, which in Italy during the winter-time comes about five or a quarter to six. This interval was spent in learning the Psalms and in lessons, and in study. Lauds lasted for a half or three-quarters of an hour, and were followed by a service called Prime, which was said at sunrise, about half-past six or half-past seven according to the existing winter month. At some time between eight and nine Tierce was said. Then the monks worked in the garden, fields, barns or offices of the monastery till about half-past two, breaking off about midday for about fifteen minutes, during which a service called Sext was said. At half-past two, when work was done, came another service called None. Then followed dinner, the only meal of the day in winter-time. The interval between dinner and Vespers was devoted to reading. Vespers were sung in winter about four or a quarter-past four, and finished at sunset, and then, Compline, was said. Before daylight had quite disappeared, that is, about five o’clock or a quarter-past five in winter, the monks were in bed, and could get about nine hours’ rest. (In summer the arrangement of the services differed somewhat. Vigils began at one o’clock in the morning, and lasted only for an hour. Lauds began at a quarter-past two, Prime at half-past four. at five o’clock the monks were at work in the fields and elsewhere. At a quarter-past nine Tierce was said. From half-past nine to half-past elven the monks read. Then came Sext followed by dinner, and a siesta or afternoon sleep. At two o’clock None was said. Then followed field work and other occupations till nearly half-past six. Vespers came at half-past six, supper at seven, Compline at half-past seven, and bedtime at eight. It will be noted that a siesta was necessary in summer owing to the shortness of the summer night, that a second meal was allowed owing to the length of the day, and that outdoor work was divided into two spells. It is calculated that on a normal day of summer the monk, who strictly followed St. Benedict’s Rule, spent three and a half hours in prayer and praise, six and a half in work, one in meals, and eight and a half in sleep.)
On Sunday and Saint’s days Mass was celebrated, and the monks received Holy Communion. Daily Mass and daily communion were unknown in the earliest Benedictine monastery on Monte Cassino and in those that imitated it.
By way of illustration some passages from the Rule are quoted below:-
“Idleness is an enemy of the soul. Because this is so, the brethren ought to be occupied at specified times in manual labour, and at other times in holy reading. . . . It is of much importance that one or two seniors be appointed to go about the monastery at such times as the brethren are free to read, in order to see that no one is slothful, given to idleness or foolish talking instead of reading, and so not only makes no profit himself but distracts others.” “The brethren are so to serve each other that no one be excused from the work of the kitchen except on the score of health. Let the weaker brethren have help, that they may not do their work in sadness. On Saturday he who ends his weekly service must clean up everything. He must wash the towels with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet; and he who finishes his service and he who enters on it are to wash the feet of all.”
The brother ending his term of duty was to give back all the vessels used in his ministry cleaned and unbroken, and they were to be handed formally over to the one entering office, that it might be clearly known what was given and received.
“. . . There ought always to be reading, when the brethren are at table. The greatest silence shall be kept, so that no whispering nor noise save the voice of the reader he heard there.”
So any monk wanting anything at meal-times was to ask for it by signs, and no one was to ask questions about the passage read. The reader was to get his meal afterwards with the weekly servers and kitchen helpers.
“We believe that it is enough to satisfy just requirements, if in the daily meals there be at all seasons of the year two cooked dishes, so that he who cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other. Therefore two dishes of cooked food must suffice for all the brethren, and if there be any fruit or young vegetables, these may be added to the meal as a third dish. Let a pound of bread suffice for each day.”
In times of excessive labour the rations could be increased.
“Monks should practice silence at all times, but especially during the night hours. . . . On coming out from Compline no one shall be permitted to speak at all.
“Let clothing suitable to the locality and the temperature be given to the brethren, for in cold regions more is needed, and less in warm. The determination of all these things is in the hands of the abbot. We believe, however, that in ordinary places it will be enough for each monk to have a cowl and tunic, in winter the cowl being of thicker stuff, in summer of finer or old cloth. He should also have a scapular for working purposes and shoes and stockings.”
A tunic was a shirt; a cowl was a long cloak with a hood attached; a scapular was a short of lighter material; it also had a hood.
“Monks must not grumble at the coarseness of these things. . . .
It is sufficient that a monk have two tunics and two cowls, as well for night wear as for the convenience of washing. . .
A mattress, blanket, coverlet and pillow are to suffice for bedding. The beds shall be frequently searched by the abbot to guard against the vice of hoarding. To guard against this vice let all that is necessary be furnished by the abbot, that is cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief and tablets. By this every pretext of necessity will be taken away. “All shall sleep in separate beds, and each shall receive bed clothes fitted to the condition of his life. If it be possible, let all sleep in a common dormitory. . . . let a candle be constantly burning in the room till morning, and let the monks sleep clothed and girt with girdles or cords. . . . In this way they shall always be ready to rise quickly when the signal is given. When the younger brethren rise for worship let them encourage one another gently, because of the excuses made by those who are drowsy. . .
“Let there be stationed at the gate of the monastery some wise old man , who knows how to give and receive an answer, and whose age will not allow him to wander from his post. . . . “The monastery ought if possible to be so constructed as to contain within it all necessaries, that is water, mill, garden and places for the various crafts, which are exercised within the monastery, so that there be no occasion for monks to wander abroad, since this is in no wise expedient for their souls.”
Any brother, who is sent on a journey must “not relate to another what he has seen and heard outside the monastery, because this is most detrimental.” the man shall be punished “who shall presume to break the enclosure of the monastery, or go anywhere or do anything, however trifling, without the abbot’s permission.”
Any perusal of the rule leaves upon the mind a strong impression of the quarantined life of the monk. In it we catch a glimpse of a community hedged about with a wall, having exit to the world only by a gate guarded by “some wise old man,” who was never to be absent from his post. But no man can doff the world as he doffs a garment; no lodge with monastic porter can prevent the flesh and the devil slipping past with every novice that enters the precincts. It was, therefore, to hold at bay the baser forces which inter-penetrate a man’s being that St. Benedict insisted on community of life. In dormitory, refectory, church, cloister and field monk was ever in the company of other monks; continual society, continual occupation for mind and body, continual supervision by seniors and other brethren assisted him to keep his heel upon the many-headed monster within himself, which in loneliness would have entered into battle with him for his soul.
By this adoption of a common rule of life St. Benedict was enabled to dispense with other methods by which man had endeavoured to win the day against the flesh. The people of his time did not shrink from the most dreadful torments of hunger, thirst, heat and cold, which might help them to reduce their bodies to nought, and purify their souls from fleshly instincts. Religious men in their ardour had endeavoured to out-do their friends in endurance, and victory was often only attained with death. St. Benedict revolted against such austerities that lowered rather then increased that lowered rather than increased a man’s spiritual vision, and begat an overweening pride in their exponents. He forbade monks to conduct their warfare against the flesh in their own way; in future their prayers, fasts and feasts were all appointed for them; competition with one another was forbidden. “In the monastery,” said he, “no one is to be led by the desires of his own heart, “but must follow the rule, and he said that in the rule he had laid down “nothing hard nor burdensome.” He could afford to be gentle, for he had compassed each monk about with the support of his own fellows and of a common life, and self-imposed cruelty was no longer necessary.
It must not be supposed, however, that this Benedictine system universal in England during the period of the conversion. When monastic arrangements become visible to us in the pages of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History,” or in his “Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth,” or in the chronicle of the Abbey of Abingdon, the system barely disclosed is certainly not closely related to Benedictinism. It seems probable that many English monasteries had no encircling walls, but stood open to the moors, unless it were for a hedge like that of thorn-bushes, of which we read at Oundle, which was possibly designed to keep out wild beasts from monastic crops and gardens. The English gateways cannot have been jealously watched, for from them issued a continual stream of missionaries, eager to get into closer contact with the world. diving into villages, leaving the road, like Aidan, to head off parties of workers or travellers, and to beseech them to accept salvation, and sleeping and eating in peasants’ huts.
We should be wrong, also, if we assumed that everywhere in England monastic life had that same community of existence which is set out so clearly in the Rule. For instance, at Abingdon monastery there were in the seventh century apparently twelve monks, twelve cells in which they ate, slept and studied, and twelve chapels in which they prayed. Only on Sundays and festivals did they worship together in a church or meet for a meal round a common board. In Glastonbury, also, the monks lived in separate huts, and there were several chapels. it is probable enough that in individual existence like this was led in other monasteries; certainly separate sleeping cells were common, as on Lindisfarne. And we have seen that Cuthbert as a monk sought to surpass his brother monks “by observing stricter discipline, and in reading, working, watching and praying he fairly outdid them all.” He set himself special penances, as when he spent the night in prayer, standing up to his neck in the sea. Allthis was very different to the monastic life as regulated by the Rule of St. Benedict.
The fact is that monasticism in this country was in its origins Celtic rather than Roman, and followed the rule of St. Columba rather than that of St. Benedict. It is said that Columba himself, the abbot and founder of the monastery of Iona )521 to 597), used to stand at night up to the neck in the cold seas of the north until he had repeated the Psalms from end to end. A Scottish monk, Drycthelm by name, who lived at the monastery of Old Melrose, was in the habit of entering the river even in winter-time to say his prayers. While he stood at his devotions the ice bobbed about his shoulders. On coming out “he never removed the cold and frozen garments till they grew warm and dry about his body. Thus he continued, through an indefatigable desire of heavenly bliss, to subdue his aged body with daily fasting.”
A change, however, in the direction of the more restrained Benedictine system began after the Synod of Whitby/Streaneshalch (this is the name of the town at the time, Whitby came later with the Viking invasion), which united England to the Roman Church “Western Rite” being Orthodox in 664. The chief leaders in the movement on behalf of Benedictinism in England were Benedict Biscop and Wilfred, both of them members of noble Northumbrian houses. The former visited Rome on six occasions, and the latter on three, and both, by their residence in continental monasteries, were thoroughlt acquainted with all the ecclesiastical practices of the time. Benedict Biscop received from King Ecgfirth of Northumbria (671 to 685) as estate at the mouth of the river Wear, whereon to build a monastery to be ruled on the Benedictine plan. So pleased was the king with the result that a few years later he presented the monk with another estate for a second monastery at Jarrow, seven miles/11.2km distant. To equip these two institutions Benedict made four journeys to Rome, and brought home with him not merely masons and glaziers, but John the Precentor of the Church of St. Peter and Abbot of St. Martin, who was skilled in reading and in the art of singing church music after the Roman manner, and was able to teach the English all the rules as to the due solemnisation of divine service, the celebration of yearly festivals, and the proper administration of a monastery according to St. Benedict’s Rule. Wilfrid was also active in the same work. After being consecrated Bishop of York in 664 he bent all his restless energy of mind and body set up Roman and Benedictine practice in his great diocese. Cuthbert accepted the new rules, and taught them when he lived as bishop on Lindisfarne. With his last breath he said: “Practice with zeal those institutes of the monastic life, which ht has pleased God to deliver to you through my ministry.” (It is possible that Cuthbert, Wilfrid and Benedict did not adopt the Benedictine Rule in its entirety. Those English leaders who had studied the Rule as practised in continental monasteries probably drew up a modification of it which they thought would suit England).
In order to maintain the Rule, its study and explain to unlearned monks in the common language were constantly advised. Alcuin, an English monk, resident in France, wrote in the communities of Wearmouth and Jarrow in the following manner, when in the late eighth century signs of decay were appearing in English abbeys:-
“Let the Rule of St. Benedict be often read in gatherings of the brethren, and let it be explained in the native tongue, so that it may be understood by all.”
In 747 all English monasteries were ordered to accept the Benedictine Rule.
Clearly it would be wrong to suppose that the Rule was completely established in England during the lifetime of Benedict Biscop or Wilfred. The decree of 747 and Alcuin’s letter are proof to the contrary. Nor are there wanting in Eddius’ “life of Wilfrid,” or in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical history,” or in his “Lives of the Abbots” clear indications that while the decisions of Whitby regarding the date of Easter were honourable followed, there was some opposition to the establishment of a common Benedictine life in monasteries. Cuthbert himself was faced with it on Lindisfarne. Bede says:-
“There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat, with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortation as before, until he converted them to his own views.”
Among the hills Celtic observances were maintained for many years. In the early ninth century even the monks of the Cathedral Monastery at Canterbury had separate cells in which they slept and ate, preferring them to the monastic dormitory and refectory. The innate desire which exists in every man to secure some privacy of life and independence of action, fought hard against complete submission to a rule code. Private cells, private chapels, private fasts and private penances lingered on.
Even in monasteries which accepted the Benedictine Rule there were cases of individual resistance. Bede himself a story of a stubborn monk:-
“I knew a brother myself, would to God I had not known him, whose name I could mention if it were necessary, and who resided in a noble monastery, but lived ignobly. He was frequently reproved by the brethren and elders of the place, and admonished to adopt a more regular life; and though he would not give ear to them, he was patiently borne with by them, for he was an excellent carpenter. He was much addicted to drunkenness and other pleasures of a lawless life, and used rather to stop in his workshop day and night than to go to church to sing and pray and hear the word of life with the brethren. For which reason it happened to him according to the saying, that he who will not willingly and humbly enter the gate of the church, will certainly be damned, and enter the gate of hell, whether he will or no.”
Having been granted a vision of hell, and of the place prepared there for him, he died without having time for repentance, and was buried in the remotest part of the monastery, no one daring to say a prayer or sing a mass on his behalf.
The first impulse to study came from the Scottish missionaries. Bede, in his “Ecclesiastical history,” tells how many Englishmen, both nobles and commoners, crossed over to Ireland – the source of all Scottish learning – for the sake of study, how they travelled from teacher to teacher, and how the Irish “willingly received them all and took care to supply them with food, and to furnish them with books to read and with instruction for nothing.” Many of these wandering English scholars must have brought their knowledge home.
After the year 664 there began to flow towards England another current of knowledge. From the continent Wilfrid and Benedictine Biscop brought manuscripts and teachers. With his last breath the latter commended the previous books to the care of the brethren. Abbot Ceolfrid doubled the number of volumes at Wearmouth and Jarrow by assiduous collection, copying and purchase. To each institution he gave a copy of that Latin translation of the Bible, which later came to be called the Vulgate. He had a third copy of this work. but he took it with him to Rome, when he left his monasteries in 716, intending it as a present to the Pope. He died on the journey, but his gift has survived him to lie today in a library at Florence, where it has been much visited and examined by scholars, who are interested in the history of the Bible. (Sir Henry H. Howorth argues that this copy of the Vulgate and the other two copies, which were presented to Wearmouth and Jarrow, were made in Italy, and brought there by Ceolfrid and Benedict Biscop in 678 A.D. In that case they formed part of the “innumerable quantities of books of every kind,” which Bede says the latter brought home to Northumbria. See Howorth’s “Golden Days of the Early English Church,” vol. iii, pp. 321-337. Professor Baldwin Brown, however, maintains that the manuscripts were written at Jarrow. See “the Arts in Early England,” vol. v, p. 396. Fragments of vellum that once must have belonged to the Jarrow and Wearmouth copies have been discovered elsewhere. Ten leaves were found in the library of Lord Middleton at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire. They had been used about the middle of the sixteenth century to form bindings for collections of manuscripts which deal with the estates of Lord Middleton’s ancestors. See “Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission on Lord Middleton’s Papers,” published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1911. In 1889 a clergyman “picked up in a bookseller’s shop at Newcastle a solitary vellum leaf, which had been folded in two to form a cover for an account book about 1780.” This leaf also belonged either to the Jarrow or to the Wearmouth manuscripts. See “Journal of Theological Studies,” vol. x (1990), p. 540.)
Another famous manuscript which has come down to us from that time is the “Lindisfarne Gospels.” These were written for St. Cuthbert between 678 and 687 A.D., in the island of Lindisfarne by Bishop Eadfrith, and were destined to have a stirring history by land and sea before they reached their present home in the British Museum.
The finest flower of English learning in the seventh and eighth centuries was Bede (673 to 735). All his life he lived either at Wearmouth or Jarrow. He was born in the neighbourhood; at the age of seven he was given to Benedict Biscop to be educated. In his “Ecclesiastical History” he writes:-
“I have spent all my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures; and amidst the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the church, it has ever been my delight to learn or teach or write.”
He says that his instructor in the Scriptures was Trumberht, who in his turn had been educated by Chad, once a pilgrim and a student in Ireland. Possibly he had himself as a boy of seven heard John the Precentor instruct the monks in singing; certainly he followed John’s rules. All the knowledge that pilgrim students brought from Ireland and that Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid brought from Rome was united in Bede. Perhaps he used the very Vulgate Bible which Ceolfrid took away in 716 to present to the Pope. Eadfrith, the writer of the Lindisfarne Gospels was his friend, so he may also have seen and touched that precious volume. to us, of course, his most interesting writings are his “Ecclesiastical History,” his “Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow,” and his “Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert.”
It was not only monks that enjoyed a reputation for holiness and study in the seventh century. king’s daughters and sisters raised nunneries to shelter women, who refused to content themselves with domestic life, and desired, like monks to escape from the world. Within such institutions lived women whose nobility, holiness, sweetness and knowledge were fit to be compared with Bede’s, and who raised their nunneries to a fame comparable with that of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Upon the cliffs at Whitby/Streaneshalch stood a convent for monks and nuns alike, which was ruled over by Hilda, a great abbess of royal family. At first she followed the Scottish plan, as taught her by Aidan and his friends. But, after 664, Hilda, like Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop, turned towards the Benedictine Rule. It is of her monastery that Bede tells one of his incomparable tales, that concerning the gift of song-making to the stable hand, Caedmon:
“Others of the English nation attempted after him to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men but from God.”
Among other famous monasteries of men and women ruled by an abbess was that of Barking in Essex, which was founded in 666. It is from a letter written by Eadhelm, a great scholar of the seventh century, to the Abbess Hildelith, “a devout servant of God,” that we learn something of the intellectual attainments of the nuns. He compares them to bees, because they collected matter for study from every source. Sometimes they read the Prophets, sometimes the Books of the Law, sometimes the Gospel, sometimes works of history and collections of chronicles, and sometimes rules of grammerians about versification in various metres. He commends the Psalms in particular to their study, for they prevent unhappiness. It appears that as wide as a range of study was open to women as to men. But Ealdhelm had an eye for their faults also, such as pride, conceit, insolence and stupidity, and declares that declares that they act contrary to the Rule by adorning their bodies with many-coloured raiment; but he hastens to add that he uses no names. In conclusion. he calls the nuns “flowers of the Church, sisters of monastic life, scholarly students, pearls of Christ, jewels of Paradise and partners in the eternal home.”