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