A Day at the Abbey
In this article we are going to travel back in time, and become a ghost that can walk at will around the abbey, observing all that is going on.
Travelling along the road towards the abbey or monastery we see mostly agricultural land and woodland, homes are small and most buildings have small windows.
Abbeys were secure places, so we arrive at a large walled area, and enter by a gate, inside we can see a number of granges, these are very similar to small farms, and a monastery complex. The most striking feature of the monastery complex is a spectacular cathedral like building, with large windows. This is completely different to the other buildings we saw on the way here, while others were small by our standards, the monastery buildings and particularly the church is gigantic, and most likely more spectacular than any building complex that we see in our time. In their time only palaces and major castles would be on the same scale and then usually not as fine or as light.
A monastery complex is a complete self contained village, having all types of workshops, we find the monastery is split into areas, most areas coming off a square covered in walk way, allowing the monks to move from one area to another in any weather. This square area, is known as the cloisters, one part of the cloisters contains the lavatorium, this is an area where the monks washed before having meals, or going into services if they had been working.
An Abbot is the head of this house and has his own rooms, the rest of the inhabitants break into three groups, choir monks, these are the principle monks, lay brothers, these are male converts and the largest in number, and monastery servants, we know far less about these, but when the monasteries were closed down the numbers of monastery servants were often quoted. Early on there were probably few of these with the monks and lay brothers doing everything, but later with more wealth and as occupants became older, and numbers of lay brothers fell away, they would have been needed to keep everything running.
There are three warm places, the kitchens, the infirmary and the warming room. No other heating exists within the remainder of the monastery used by the monks. In the warming room and infirmary, fires are in place between the 1st of November and Good Friday. There may be some heating with guest apartments.
The infirmary is a miniature version of the monastery with its own facilities, cloister and most likely a chapel or smaller church. This housed both the sick and older less fit monks.
Beside the church there were two other extra fine rooms, the refractory, where the monks ate and the chapter house where they met to discuss monastic matters, and deal with any failings. The monks day room may also have been impressive and was used for some types of work.
Building and expansion work on the abbey would be undertaken in phases, and when this was not being done, then work would be in hand developing other parts of their estate.
While the monastery is mostly self sufficient and sells surpluses, plus has rental income from estate tenants, there is some interaction, some items will be bought in, some aid given to the poor, people passing given shelter for the night and VIP sponsors looked after well on their visits. Some monies may be sent to a parent monastery or have to be paid to the crown. Financially things could become tight, and some monasteries became pilgrimage centres with 'saints bones' part of the cross, vials of blood and other items on display. Other income came from probating wills and mortuary expenses for burial in hallowed ground. Perhaps also granting sanctuary to those being sought by others.
Monastery life is structured so that everyone is occupied for all the daylight hours and sleep when its dark, to achieve this they have two major timetables, but would also vary this on feast and fasting days and other special days. These timetables have variety so boredom is not a problem and keep the monks busy, as busy people are usually happy people. Monasteries had just men and nunneries just women, and they live and work within the walled in monasteries so there is no competitive nature or distraction brought out by contact with the opposite sex.
There were many abbeys and rules existed so that the bells from one did not disturb others. The spread occurred through new houses being formed from existing ones. A group of 13 monks and 10 lay brothers would be sent out to find a site and establish a new house. One of the monks becoming the Prior or Abbot.
Later as it grew and took in more, a hierarchy of officials, and benefits developed, you had the Abbot, Prior, cellarer who looked after feeding the community, almoner to look after guests, infirmarian to look after the sick, sacrist to look after church equipment, percentor looking after the music, novice master looking after new recruits. A treasurer also came in at some point looking after the silver plate.
Abbey and Religious Buildings Section for all articles, lists and location guides on Abbey's, Cathedrals, Churches, Holy Wells etc.