Medieval Monasticism compared with the site of Fountains Abbey

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Last updated: November 17, 2019

Medieval Monasticism refers to the reflection of the way of life that monks lead in an extremely religious time where the influence of the church was great and was incredibly stronger than the power that the church consists of today. The concept of self-imposed hard-ship was taken up in the 4th century, where under the guidance of St. Anthony, the first Christian monks lived in the Egyptian desert. After many objections that Christ’s true teaching could not be entirely followed whilst on your own, solemn bishops and hermits created monastic rules.

The most influential of these rules being that of St Benedict of Nursia, written around 530 which had an enormous impact upon western monks, including the Cistercians. Benedict’s rule of living such an austere lifestyle was reformed in 1132 where Cistercians simplified liturgy, art and architecture and built a building as a place to introduce others to living in such a modified way and an area to practise their worship of the Opus Dei under demanding regulations. The erection of timber buildings began not long after a simple hut beneath an elm tree.

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There are four specific areas covering the general abbey and the actions that took place from when it was founded to the time of the suppression of the abbey in 1539. The development and regression of the abbey can be summarised under these areas: Religion, economics, social and political. Religion considers the worship that took place and anything that is related to the beliefs of those involved with the abbey. Fountains was thought of as a solely religious institute when it originated, however, as time progressed, this was modified, and it has been these three other factors that have influenced its alteration.Economics reflects on the income of the abbey and what its wealth did for it. Anything trade-related is covered under economics and what the effects of this were. Social elements of the abbey include things that involve people outside of the abbey and its society.

This may incorporate a variety of individuals such as royalty, possibly travellers or the homeless, these were all a part of the abbey and its purpose at some point. Political comprehends anything about the power of the abbey, which grew intensely through centuries.This too may involve royalty or the government. After visiting the site of Fountains Abbey and studying the source booklet we were provided with I have been able to define Medieval Monasticism. Source A of the booklet, gives material referring to various churches in general, which can be used to understand particular monastic churches. The majority of the source concentrates on the architecture of these abbeys. It allows us to be able to verify the alternate styles of building, which gives us the ability to understand when particular parts of the abbey were constructed.We can say that source A is useful in terms of identifying the evidence of the simple architecture when the abbey was founded.

We see that they were prepared to build the area they were to live in with such simplicity, because they wanted no distractions in their life outside of religion. This allows us to see that the underpinning focus of the abbey was religion. One of the economic aspects of source A linking to medieval monasticism is the alteration of the style of building, which became more elaborate as time progressed.

This allows us to understand that the abbey became a lot wealthier later on because the embellished versions of the buildings would have been a lot more expensive and would have taken more effort and assistance. The different styles of church presented in the source help us to understand that medieval monasticism continued over a very long period of time, even though the original way of life had altered. The source gives a brief statement, mentioning the memorials built; this allows us to see that the church had social aspects as it included those outside of the church.Due to the distinctive development of the building work, we are able to make the claim that because the architecture was grander and more magnificent than it had been, (this was possible because of the higher wealth income), the power of the church was great at this time.

However, there are limitations to source A. For example, in the brief layout of the church, it is just a simple diagram of a parish church and gives me limited details that would help me when considering Medieval Monasticism.It does not show the divide between the Lay brothers and the Choir Monks, which from my own knowledge, is an important part of what went on in the Abbey as it organised the church and had an influence on how the monks lived religiously. The majority of source A describes medieval churches, where most of the examples are from churches in towns and villages. There is not a specific example of a monastery, which is what I need to study to find out more about medieval monasticism, as this is where it was practised. This reduces the utility of Source A. Source B presents us with useful information concerning religion within the abbey.

It has illustrations of the monks worshipping god in the church and helping others by looking after the sick in the infirmary and giving shelter to travellers in the guesthouse. This is thought to be due to their religious beliefs, these pictures enable me to grasp the idea that these were important parts of the monk’s life, which is backed up by my own knowledge. It also allows me to understand that these particular parts of an abbey (infirmary, guesthouse) were used in part of the monk’s life, which was backed up when I visited the site and studied these areas for myself.The detailed plan of the abbey is useful because it gives evidence of the religious building areas that are apart of it. It can be related to medieval monasticism because from my own knowledge I can confirm that Fountains abbey was an area that practised medieval monasticism and I know that around this time, a lot of the Benedictine Monasteries (as shown here) were the same structure and build.

This allows me to understand the building work, and living area of those who practised this idea.The simplistic drawing illustrates where specific monks should be whilst doing certain things, such as giving advice to the king, helping the poor and teaching in schools. Although the information is very un-detailed, the basic idea is still useful. We are able to understand that as an abbey increased in power the monk’s routine of worshipping God and going to church services all the time was disrupted and their routine became somewhat different. This is complimented by source D as it gives an example of what their original routine of was like, when a church first began.

It gives a description of the monk’s daily routine involving numerous church services. It agrees that the monk’s usual day involved working, and praying to God, however unlike source B, it does not give any detail as to what happened to the monk’s standard routine when their wealth and power grew (for example help the sick in the infirmary etc). Source D also shows a small illustration of an abbey, and due to the similarities to the one presented in source B, the reliability of both sources are increased. We can distinguish particular ways in which the abbey received its wealth, since there’s a drawing about new ways of farming.This verifies one way they received their income, and so were able to afford the developments that the abbey under-went through time; examples of these developments are shown later on in the source. Farming also suggests trade, this means that they must have been in contact with people around the area, which demonstrates social points of the abbey.

Social aspects included in this source are again, presented in the basic drawings, which show those of the abbey helping those more unfortunate and caring for others outside of the church.By giving shelter to travellers proves that they must have had space for them to stay, this is backed-up by the picture of the abbey later on in the source, which displays the guesthouse. This is useful to be aware of in understanding their way of life, because this was obviously a major part (welcoming others) for them to have actually spent money and effort to provide this building for them.

Having a guesthouse also suggests that they had significant individuals going to stay in the abbey, which proves that it had power. Source B shows the people of the church giving advice to the King.This explains to a historian that the abbey had a lot of power and political importance, if the King was willing to accept advice from them. Source B does have its limitations, it does not hold detailed information. It seems to have been written for those whom wish not to go into medieval monasticism in such depth, and desire to understand the basics of the idea. There is limited use for historians studying this subject and there is no detailed description. Source C gives description of medieval church buildings. We are able to understand that religious beliefs were spread across the nation.

Being a “dominating building” we are able to realise that religion was an extremely popular way of life during these times. This could be an explanation to many monasteries being able to come into such wealth later on. The source demonstrates Norman stonework, this is simple and quite plain, and from my own knowledge I understand that this is due to the focus being on religion. This reflects the earlier period of the churches. Although we see that later on, they were spending a lot of money on their surroundings, rather than keeping it so austere, it may have been looked upon that their focal point was moving away from religion.However, they continued constructing on religious buildings, such as the cathedral, and as described in the source, these were “immense prayers in stone”. This suggests that even if they were elaborated for any other reason, it was religion that they built constantly kept in mind.

The incredible development of the building-work proves that they were becoming wealthier, and the fact that they were able to afford so many craftsmen and labourers, explains their economic state; this I already understand from my own knowledge and previous sources.The way in which the builders were more interested in beauty rather than safety is an important issue, because they were so concerned with how the abbey should look, and what its image, they were ignoring things that wouldn’t have been missed in previous years. Having so many builders and craftsmen, relates the churches to being social, as it was bringing people together to do a job, and religion wasn’t thought about as intensely.The church being classed as dominating, also proves that it held a lot of power during this time, and the elaborate building work, added later on, agrees with this as it was evidently trying to impress and so we can see that it had a significance.

Source D is incredibly useful in understanding Medieval Monasticism. It shows the typical daily routine of a monk. Giving a description of the ceremony that was held gives us perfect understanding of what they did.

The repetitive praying in their routine shows us that religion was important during this time.The monks following strict Christian rules is shown here, and my own knowledge reinforces this. The economic state of the monastery is hard to establish in this source, although it does state that the priest was often poor; This leads us to believe that this source was written quite a while before the monastery became wealthy. This source suggests that the abbey didn’t have many social aspects included in it. When many priests in England were married, against regulations, the Pope disliked the idea of them being aloud so much freedom, and he desired a stricter way of life for these people.There were communities, however, where nuns and monks lived together, and this was seen as a form of socialising.

Nevertheless, their lives were still centred about worship and as a result, it wasn’t socialising that held a lot of importance to them, but their religion. The source holds use in understanding political importance at this time. The stricter timetable of the nun and monk’s day was introduced after the Norman Conquest. This is supported by my own knowledge, as I believe this to be true from other sources outside of the booklet.However, the source has limitations; It gives no evidence of how it things were in monasteries after or before this time. It doesn’t have a wide time-spectrum and really concentrates on a short period.

If I were to find it more useful, it would need to include information considering times before, and particularly after this duration, so that I am able to compare the different ways in which they lived. A visit to the site revealed confirmation of many of these ideas. There are several aspects in the church that show medieval monasticism being religious.For example the piscinas, which contained holy water, was observed at the site of the abbey. It appears to have not been altered since the origin of the building.

This suggests that this particular aspect of the site was important to the monks and those at the abbey and so there was no need to change it. This is useful in relation to being aware that although the church altered so drastically as time progressed, particular religious features remained the same. The reliability of the site is questioned when it is established that the chapel of the nine altars, which was religious, wasn’t added until a while after the origin of the monastery.There are obvious parts of the abbey that have been added later on; for example, an alter that had platform tiles added from the Victorian times. There was also the supervisor’s office which was the centre of industry which had Victorian tiles on the floor.

To define medieval monasticism from this area of the monastery isn’t really that easy because it’s not from one definite period of time. This could mean that there are other undetected areas that have been interfered with in later years and we are making incorrect judgements about.So when considering the question, we must be aware of this concept and make allowances for any mistakes. It also proves the site to be partially unreliable because we can’t be exact when predicting the times that particular parts of the building were constructed, due to At the site, I was able to see that the rood screen that separated the nave from the aisle was there in place to stop distractions. The lay brothers, who dealt with the economic area of the abbey would have been seen to take the choir monk’s minds off of their worship that they carried out in their daily routine.This shows that they were serious about how they lived their austere lifestyle, which is backed-up by the secondary sources. There were many economic aspects presented at Fountains Abbey when visiting the site.

There is a mill situated at the site, which was used to grind oats, barley and wheat to feed the abbey community. This is useful for us in understanding that the monks diet was simple although wholesome. However, the mill did not only have one purpose, it also brought in income to the abbey, by selling its products.The grange located on the site provided me with a lot of information about other granges that were outposts of the Abbey as well as information about its own use. There was a map displayed in this particular grange which showed where granges at various places outside of Fountains Abbey were. These retrieved a lot of the income for the abbey. At Fountains they would keep sheep at the grange and sell the wool and meat. Knowing that it provided so much income for the abbey suggests incredible amounts of information about the monk’s way of life.

They would have had to spend a lot of time working in this area for it to have produced so much money (which I know to be true from my own knowledge), which means less time was spent on religion and worship. They lay brothers spent a lot of their time doing manual labour and this was a definite stray from religion. When visiting the site, it was clear that the importance of the cellarium was great (due to the grooves in the window frames where bars used to be, and from my own knowledge I understand that those working here had the very important job of protecting incredibly important valuables.This meant that concentration on religion was affected and money and trade was diluting the importance of worshipping God. Although Monasticism concentrates on religion, it also considers the architecture of the building. We can tell that due to the developments in the architecture, that the wealth improved later on, and the abbey was worked upon architecturally in order to present a good image and make it more grand. These improvements would have cost considerable amounts and so we can come to the judgement that as it got more money, it moved away from the simpler life-style and became more beauteous.As its income grew, the trade became intense.

This opened up a social concept as movement and sharing of ideas would now be more frequent. This would have had an impact on the abbey in various ways. Some may rebel; others possibly outside of the abbey progressed to their way of thinking.

There was an infirmary at the site that agreed the abbey was a place for social happenings to take place because an infirmary isn’t entirely a place of worship. The choir monks were beginning to be given more freedom and it is this, which enables us to get more use from the site, by understanding such buildings and their uses.The guesthouses at the site provide the means for historians to see that the idea of social aspects was advancing. There is evidence of the guesthouses in the secondary sources also, but to be able to recognise the constant improvements to the architecture at the actual site was very useful. An image of the guesthouse is shown on the next page.

With the window filled-in for a chimney, (as can be seen in the photo above) leads us to believe that there were extremely significant people who would be staying there as there would have been no way for the choir monks to ever be given such a facility.In the Galilee Porch, people outside of the church were buried, this was a social aspect as it involved others that weren’t so religious and the monastery was prepared to open its grounds to others. This idea of higher-class people staying at the abbey, would move us on to think about the political side of the monastery.

It obviously had power, and it was the biggest abbey in Europe by the 15th Century. I understand that very important goods were kept in this area, which increases the significance of the building.I also know that the bars were there in order to protect the abbey from the Scottish invaders, which is another example of the monks moving away from their usual routine, and allowing war to become a factor in their lives. The chapter house was a business centre, which gives us a clue to the political aspects of medieval monasticism because it proves that trade was an important part of their lives.

The chapter house was also a centre for punishing the young and undoubtedly undisciplined lay brothers. This possibly represents reason as to why the abbey continued for such a long while, remaining with demanding religious aspects.The reason is this strong discipline factor and the fear of rebelling out of their regular ways.

I have compared both the secondary sources and the site of Fountains Abbey whilst considering their utility on understanding Medieval Monasticism. I believe that each reference is useful in some manner, and whilst trying to deliberate the four main factors of medieval monasticism I believe that none of the individual secondary sources are able to provide me with the detailed information I need to understand it entirely.However, when I contemplate all of them, their utility is very much increased, as is when I consider the whole of the site of Fountains Abbey.

On visiting the site, I am able to apply the knowledge gained through the secondary sources, and so in turn, they have helped me considerably in understanding Medieval Monasticism, and comprehending the way of life that monk’s lead in the duration of this time.

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