Medieval monasteries were a major development from the tiny, hermit-like isolated homes that some monks had lived in prior to Medieval England. Gradually monks started to live in small communities as each shared the same beliefs and values. Monasteries developed as a result and they were to include a church, refectory, toilets, running water etc. The way medieval monasteries were run was based on the writings of St. Benedict.
Medieval monasteries were strictly structured and all work within a monastery was structured around the ‘greater glory of God’. The influence of St. Benedict was such that all monks took vows. St. Benedict, in around 530 AD, wrote a book of rules on how monks should behave. These rules revolved around vows. St. Benedict believed that all monks should make a vow of poverty and live the life of a poor person; he believed that all monks should vow to obey an abbot at all times; he also believed that monks should make a vow of chastity and that they should not marry. St. Benedict also believed that monks should live as a family and within a community with an abbot at the head of that community.
All the written work of monks was in Latin. St. Benedict wrote out his rules in Latin and monks in Medieval England followed his example. The working day was divided into three: a working part when monks were expected to carry out certain duties; a studying part when monks took part in reading and learning and a praying part when a monk prayed, listened to the abbot or read the Bible. St Benedict did not believe that monks should look anything other than someone who had taken a vow of poverty. Therefore, the habit was meant to be seen as part of the vow of poverty – as was a cowl worn when the weather was poor. Clothes were meant to be functional; therefore they were warm in winter and comfortable in the summer. St. Benedict did not believe that a true believer had to lead a severe life in terms of dress etc but that the lifestyle should replicate poverty.
The head of a monastery was an abbot. On special days, such as Saints Days, he would wear a hat similar to a bishop’s mitre. An abbot would also usually carry a crozier as a sign of his authority within the monastery.
Medieval monasteries needed a patron to endow them. The patrons were men who were very rich and could afford to give money towards the cost of building a monastery. Edward the Confessor paid towards the building of Westminster Abbey and the kings of France were patrons to the abbey built in honour of St. Denis. Patrons were also expected to look after a monastery if an invader threatened one as many monasteries contained valuable treasures.
It was common for a monastery to be dedicated to a saint. The monastery at Ely was dedicated to St. Etheldreda. It was also not unusual for a town to be named after a monastery – as happened at St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds and Peterborough.
Monks had a very structured day but everything was centred on services. The timing of services did vary but in many monasteries the first service was called ‘vigils’ and it was held at 02.00. ‘Matins’ was held at dawn though this would vary depending on the time of the year; ‘Prime’ was held at 06.00; ‘Tierce’ at 09.00; ‘Sext’ at 12.00; ‘Nones’ at 15.00; ‘Vespers’ at dusk and ‘Compline’ was held at nightfall – again this would vary depending on the time of year.
The layout and facilities found in a medieval monastery would not have been found anywhere else in England and Wales. Compared to the homes of the medieval poor, monasteries would have been huge. Monks usually slept in a dormitory; studying could be done in covered cloisters or in a library; large monasteries had dedicated kitchens with flowing water; toilets with running water that got rid of the waste produced in a monastery while the heart of the monastery was the church. A chapter house was where a chapter of rules for the monasteries were read out each day; once this was completed any monk who was deemed not have kept the rules was punished.
Monks did a variety of work when they were not involved in religious work. Some worked in the kitchen; others would be involved in looking after farm animals that provided the monastery with food; others made beer as beer was healthier than drinking water then; others would be involved in the production of books; some monks worked in medieval hospitals – usually known as an infirmary. Their medical knowledge would have been minimal but it would have been seen as part of their Christian duty to help those who were ill.
St. Benedict had stated in his writings that it was the duty of a monk to look after the poor. The monk put in charge of this was known as an almoner. The almonry was near to the outer wall of the monastery – so that when the poor visited the monastery the important business of worship was not disturbed. The poor were fed food that was left over from the meals eaten by monks. Many of the poor would have been on pilgrimages and hunger must have been a problem on the journey. Some monks also acted as hostellers to look after guests who would not have been classed as poor. Guests of the hosteller would have had some sort of social ranking and were not charged. However, many would have left gifts for the monastery as a token of their gratitude. However, when King John and his court stayed at the monastery at St. Albans for ten days, all he left was thirteen pence.
Some monasteries were extremely rich. Medieval peasants would have had to work on their farmland for free and as many monasteries owned vast tracts of land, such free labour was a great saving for the abbot. Over the years, some monasteries accumulated a great deal of what would be considered treasure – religious articles made out of gold, silver etc and encrusted with jewels. Boxes made in such a manner usually contained important religious relics, such as the bones of saints (as Harold of Wessex would have sworn on in front of William before the Battle of Hastings) or clothing worn by a saint. Writings from the time clearly indicate that the abbey at Glastonbury was a very wealthy institution.