A Day in the Life of a Medieval Nun

A Day in the Life of a Medieval Nun

Why become a nun? 

A girl usually became a nun in the Middle Ages for one of two reasons: 

1) these were the wishes of her family and the girl would have no say in the matter. Sometimes this was the family’s only option if they wanted to educate the girl, but could not afford it. 

2) the girl genuinely wanted to devote her life to God in a retreat with like-minded women.

There were of course other less common reasons, and these included women seeking solace after becoming widows and the Cult of the Virgin. The Cult of the Virgin was the belief (propagated by St Augustine) that everyone was born guilty of the original sin, thanks to Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden. Eve was therefore guilty of the general sinfulness of all mankind, culminating in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.  In Medieval times, women were very much regarded as responsible for this and their subservience to men, and often degrading life, can be attributed to this sentiment.  However a view took root in the 12th and 13th centuries that the Virgin Mary was the Intercessor for mankind’s salvation as she gave birth to Jesus Christ. This attitude began to improve women’s esteem in the eyes of men. This was particularly so for those women who remained chaste, which of course included nuns. 

What becoming a nun meant in Medieval England

Becoming a nun was a serious life-long commitment and usually meant continuous hard work, and that work was almost certainly manual for those that did not come from wealthy families. The better-off women were more likely to be given tasks including embroidery and spinning.  Having said that,  there were numerous convents that were relatively prosperous, and part of this wealth stemmed from their policies of only accepting women from affluent backgrounds. Often the parents of these girls gave the convent a dowry upon admission, and the girls would often give their jewelry to the convent. 

The diversity of jobs within the nunnery or convent was due to the fact these were self-supporting communities. Their independence from the outside world meant that nuns had little need to go outside the walls of the nunnery for supplies. It also meant that nearly everything required to sustain their lives had to be produced internally, from food to clothes. 

A day in the life of a nun during medieval England followed very strict guidelines, similar to monks. This revolved around chapel services as once a nun had entered a convent/nunnery, they decided to honour God with their life.

Millais - Das Tal der Stille - nuns working in a convent
Millais - Das Tal der Stille - nuns working in a convent

Individual convents would have their own timetables for the nuns but many would follow the same routine below:

02.00: Matins Laud, the first service of the day.

Once a nun had attended Matins Laud, she would return to bed and then rise again upon first light. Then she washed and had bread and beer for breakfast - drinking beer was much safer than water due to its boiling process.

07.00: Prime the second service of the day.

After Prime, nuns gathered together in the chapter house to hear Bible chapters or writings of saints.

09.00: Tierce, the third service of the day.

Nuns busied themselves with convent work after Tierce, which was similar to the work monks did such as working in the fields, kitchen, washroom or workshops.

12.00: Sext None, the fourth service of the day.

Dinner would follow Sext None and the nuns would eat in silence whilst one of them read from a book. They would then continue working once they had finished.

17.00: Vespers, the fifth service of the day.

After Vespers, the nuns would eat a light supper.

19.00: Compline, the last service of the day.

After Compline, the nuns would go straight to bed.

This is only a general guide, but many convents would have had a similar routine. An abbess or mother superior was head of a convent. The life of a nun served as a dedication to God; therefore none of them could marry or have children.

See also:

Medieval Monasteries

The Organisation within a Monastery

Positions of Responsibility in a Monastery

Women in Medieval England

MLA Citation/Reference

"A Day in the Life of a Medieval Nun". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.