The Organisation within a Monastery

The Organisation within a Monastery

Medieval monasteries had developed considerably from the very small homes lived in by some monks before medieval England. They gradually began living in small communities since each of them had the same beliefs and values. Monasteries resulted from this and included a church, refectory, toilets, running water and more.

The organisation within a medieval monastery was very disciplined and all the monastery work revolved around the ‘greater glory of God’.

The writings of St Benedict on how a medieval monastery should be run had such a big influence that all monks would take vows - in 530 AD he wrote a rule book stating appropriate behaviour for monks and vows were the focus. St Benedict was a strong believer that every monk should make a vow of poverty and choose to live like the poor; that all monks ought to always obey an abbot, should take a vow of chastity and therefore not marry, and he also felt monks should be living together as one family in a community with an abbot as the head.

Everything written by the monks was in Latin - which was the language St Benedict wrote his rules in, so medieval monks were expected to do the same.

The general working day was sectioned into three parts - the working part when monks had to perform certain tasks, the studying part where monks would read and learn and the praying part which involved prayer, listening to the abbot or reading the Bible. St Benedict believed monks should look like people who had taken a vow of poverty, so their clothes were functional - warm in the winter and cool for summer. St Benedict felt that true believers should have a lifestyle which represented simple essentials such as the habit and a cowl worn during bad weather.

Worcester cathedral
Worcester cathedral

An abbot was the monastery’s head and on significant days e.g. Saints Days, he would be wearing a similar hat to a bishop’s mitre. The abbot would often carry a crozier to show his authority within the monastery.

Medieval monasteries were blessed by a patron, and these were very wealthy men who were in a position to spare money for the expense of building a monastery. King Edward the Confessor contributed towards Westminster Abbey’s building cost and French kings were abbey patrons which was built in St. Denis’ honour. It was also expected of patrons to care for monasteries if they were threatened by an intruder, as a lot of monasteries kept valuable treasures.

Monasteries were often dedicated to a saint, for example Ely monastery was dedicated to St. Etheldreda. Towns were often named after monasteries, which was the case for St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds and Peterborough.

Days were very structured for monks but everything revolved around services. The service times were different but in a lot of monasteries the first one was named ‘vigils’ and would be held at 2am. The dawn service was known as ‘Matins’ but obviously the time for this would depend on what time of year it was. ‘Prime’ was held at 06.00; ‘Tierce’ at 09.00; ‘Sext’ at 12.00; ‘Nones’ at 15.00; ‘Vespers’ at dusk and ‘Compline’ was the final service at nightfall, which would again depend on the season for its timing.

The facilities and layout of a medieval monastery would be very unique to the whole of England and Wales. Monastery sizes would have been very large compared to homes of medieval peasants. Monks sleeping quarters would be in dormitories; studying was done in covered cloisters or a library and big monasteries had kitchens that had flowing water while toilets with running water removed waste. The church was the central point of the monastery and a chapter house would have a chapter of monastic rules read out each day - after this was done any monk thought to have not stuck to the rules would receive a punishment.

When monks were not having to carry out religious work, they had to do a lot of different work. This included working in the kitchen, taking care of farm animals which were a provision of monastery food, making beer as back then it was more healthy to drink than water, producing books or working in medieval hospitals (infirmary). Monks would not have much medical knowledge but they would have seen it as their Christian duty to show concern for the sick.

In the writings of St Benedict he also claimed that monks were expected to take care of the poor, and the monk in charge of this was called an almoner. The almonry was close to the outer monastery wall and the poor were fed leftover food from the monks’ meals. A lot of peasants would be on pilgrimages and were probably hungry from the journey. There were monks who additionally acted as hostellers to attend to guests who were not poor - they would come with a social ranking and would not be charged, though a lot of them gave the monastery gifts to show their thanks. Though when King John and his court lodged at the St. Albans monastery for 10 days, he only left 13 pence.

There were some very wealthy monasteries and medieval peasants would work on their farmland freely - since a lot of monasteries were owners of huge tracts of land, this saved them a lot. As the years went by some monasteries gathered much ‘treasure’ - gold and silver religious articles decorated with jewels. These type of boxes normally contained highly valued religious relics like the bones of saints which Harold of Wessex would have had to swear on in front of William the Conqueror just before the Battle of Hastings, or a saint’s clothes. Writings dated at that time show that the Glastonbury abbey was very well off.

See also: Positions of Responsibility in a Monastery 

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Organisation within a Monastery". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.