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DAILY LIFE IN A MEDIÆVAL
It may be assumed as a fact which scarcely requires to be more than stated that there are few subjects which the great mass of Englishmen are so curiously ignorant of as the History of Monasticism, of the constitution of the various Orders, of the fortunes of any single religious house, or the discipline to which its members were, in theory at least, compelled to submit. The assumption being granted, it may naturally be asked, How is such ignorance to be accounted for ?. It is due to more causes than one, but chiefly and primarily to the vastness of the subject itself.
When the monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIII. there was an utter obliteration of an order of things which had existed in our island certainly for more than a thousand years, and how much longer it is impossible to say. The names of religious houses which are known to have existed before the Norman Conquest count by hundreds; the names of men and women who presided over such houses during the centuries preceding that event count by thousands. Some of these religious houses had passed through the strangest vicissitudes; they had been pillaged again and again; they had been burnt by Danish marauders; their inmates driven out into the wilderness or ruthlessly put to the sword; their lands given over to the spoiler or gone out of cultivation ; their very existence in some cases almost forgotten; yet they had revived again and again from their ashes. When William the Conqueror came among us, and that awful rule of his began, there was scarcely a county in England and Wales in which one or more religious houses were not to be found, and during his reign of twenty-one years about thirty new monasteries of one sort or another were added to those already existing.
To begin with, the very word monastery is a misnomer: the word is a Greek word, and means the dwelling-place of a solitary person,
living in seclusion. But, misnomer though it be, the employment of the word in a sense so widely different from that which it first bore, until it got to designate the dwelling-place of a corporate body, among whom no solitude was allowed and privacy was almost impossible, is of itself very significant as indicating the stages through which the original idea of monasticism passed.
It was natural enough, when society was in a condition of profound disorganisation, and sensuality and violence were in the ascendant, that men and women of gentle nature should become convinced that the higher life could only be lived in lonely retirement, far from the sound of human voices and the contact of human creatures, whose very nearness almost implies sin. . But what a vast step from this to that other conviction which the developed form of monasticism expresses, when experience has convinced the devout searcher after God that no great work can be done in improving the world, or raising the tone of society, or in battling with our own weaknesses and vices, except by earnest, resolute, and disciplined co-operation. It is when we draw together that we are strong, and strongest when we are labouring shoulder to shoulder for some common object, and that no mean and sordid one; it is then that we best find deliverance from our self-deception and most inveterate delusions, whilst living in the light of others' eyes, and subjected to the influence and control of a healthy and well-instructed public opinion.
In the thirteenth century and I shall as much as possible confine myself to the limits of that period), a monastery meant what we now understand it to mean-viz. the abode of a society of men or women who lived together in common-who were supposed to partake of common meals; to sleep together in the common dormitory; to attend certain services together in the common church; to transact certain business or pursue certain employments in the sight and hearing of each other in the common cloister; and, when the end came, to be laid side by side in the common graveyard, where in theory none but members of the order could find a resting-place for their bones. When I say “societies of men and women'I am again reminded that the other term, convent,' has somehow got to be used commonly in a mistaken sense. People use the word as if it signified a religious house tenanted exclusively by women. The truth is that a convent is nothing more than a Latin name for an association of persons
who have come together with a view to live for a common object and to submit to certain rules in the conduct of their daily lives. The monastery was the common dwelling-place : the convent was the society of persons inhabiting it; and the ordinary formula used when a body of monks or nuns execute any corporate act-such as buying or selling land-by any legal instrument is, The Prior and Convent of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Norwich ;' the Abbot and Convent of the Monastery of St. Peter's, Westminster;' the Abbess and Convent of the Monastery of St. Mary and St. Bernard at Lacock,' and so on.
Bearing in mind, then, that the term convent has to do with a corporation of men or women united into an organised society, and that the term monastery can strictly be applied only to the buildings —the domus-in which that society had its home, it will be well at starting that we should endeavour to gain some notion of the general plan of these buildings first, and when we have done that, that we should proceed to deal with the constitution of the society itself and the daily routine of conventual life.?
A monastery in theory, then, was, as it was called, a Religious House. It was supposed to be the home of people whose lives were passed in the worship of God, and in taking care of their own souls, and making themselves fit for a better world than this hereafter. As for this world, it was lying in wickedness; if men remained in this wicked world tbey would most certainly become contaminated by all its pollutions; the only chance of ever attaining to holiness lay in a man's turning his back upon the world and running away from it. It was no part of a monk's duty to reform the world ; all he had to do was to look after himself, and to save himself from the wrath to come. It is hardly overstating the case if I say that a monastery was not intended to be a benevolent institution ; and if a great religious house became, as it almost inevitably did become, the centre of civilisation and refinement, from which radiated light and warmth and incalculable blessings far and wide, these results flowed naturally from that growth and development which the original founders had never looked forward to or could have foreseen, but it was never contemplated as an end to be aimed at in the beginning. Being a home for religious men, whose main business was to spend their days and nights in worshipping God, the first requisite, the first and foremost, the sine quâ non was, that there should be a church.
On the church of a monastery, as a rule, no amount of money spent, no amount of lavish ornament or splendour of decoration, was grudged. Sculpture and painting, jewels and gold, gorgeous hangings, and stained-glass that the moderns vainly attempt to imitate, the purple and fine linen of the priestly vestments, embroidery that to this hour remains unapproachable in its delicacy of finish and in the perfect harmony of colours—all these were to be found in almost incredible profusion in our monastic churches. You hear some people
1 The ground plan here given is that of the Cluniac Priory of Castleacre, in Norfolk. It has been constructed by Mr. C. P. Willins, architect of Norwich, from careful measurements made upon the spot. The identification of the various buildings must be taken on trust..