The arrival of the monks and the growth of monasticism.
THIS little pamphlet is not a history of the monastic system in England or even in Nottinghamshire, but is an attempt to provide a brief account of the religious houses in this county and of their dissolution in the sixteenth century.
When studying the history of the monastic system in England we must endeavour to be unbiased, as the subject is one on which many men still feel deeply and for which some of their forefathers shed their blood. Writers on this matter fall into three main groups: those who drop tears on every page; those who find nothing good to say about it; those who base their opinions on contemporary records so far as available. The truth, as usual, lies between the extremes.
The system was initiated to enable men to attain with greater security the higher ideals of the Christian life proposed to them in the Gospel. If we accept this ideal we shall see in due course how and when the declension set in. The movement was certainly one of the great forces of European civilisation, and at times the greatest, although there are those who say the greatest contribution the monks made to England was the erection of so many stately edifices, some of which still remain more or less intact.
There were only eleven monasteries and two nunneries in this county, two friaries in Nottingham, and one in Newark-on-Trent. Monasticism reached Italy from Egypt about the year 339 A.D. and had spread to these islands via Gaul by the early sixth century. St. Augustine and his monks settled at Canterbury in 597 A.D. and Benedictinism then became the English system except for a few instances in north-east England, till the Danish invasion brought all forms of religious worship to an end, and its revival about the middle of the tenth century was due to St. Dunstan. The Benedictine Rule was followed in principle by the Cluniacs, Cistercians, and to some extent by the Carthusians, while the Canons Regular followed the Rule of St. Augustine of Hippo. There were, of course, other Orders besides those represented in this county. Members of the monastic Orders took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The movement had its revivals like most movements of this type, and the first two revivals were the Cluniac revival in 912 and the Cistercian revival of the late eleventh century, and both were due to a desire on the part of devout men to follow more closely the Rule laid down by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the sixth century. Then came the friars in the thirteenth century and they initiated a third revival actuated by almost the same motive.
It will be noticed that of thirteen religious houses only Broadholme Priory stood east of the Trent, and only Shelford Priory south of that river—and Shelford was nearly on the south bank. The other eleven houses stood north of the River Trent and west of a line drawn through the middle of the county from Mattersey Priory in the north to the Trent in the south. This excludes the two friaries in Nottingham and the one in Newark. Friaries were almost invariably erected in towns. It is difficult to understand why no monasteries were built in the Vale of Belvoir or in the Rush-cliffe area just south of Nottingham, as some of the best land in our county lies in these two areas. The Cistercians especially would have found those areas much more suitable for their farming operations than RufTord. No doubt the choice of site depended to some extent on the gift of the land by a generous donor. Broadholme Priory in particular was built on low, damp land, very liable to floods.
It is unwise to generalize about the types of men who followed the monastic calling, but Dr. Jessop thinks that the thirteenth century monks were drawn from the gentry classes as distinguished from the aristocratic or artisan classes. When the movement was in its heyday about 1,000 religious houses owned from a quarter to a third of the land. Their other wealth was in proportion, as by the end of the thirteenth century half the parish churches had been appropriated by them. This was very unfair to those who had endowed those churches, especially as at first the monks put in lowly paid hired clerics to serve them, although later on they put in vicars, but the Austin Canons served their churches themselves. By the middle of the fourteenth century the monastic movement had become almost static and after 1350 only twenty new houses were founded. None the less the number of clerics about that time is estimated to have been about 60,000, or two per cent, of a total population of about 3,000,000. But the whole system being based on claustration, the number of monks to be seen about the countryside would be but a small percentage of the real total.
The houses of all the monastic Orders were ruled by an abbot or prior whose power was absolute in all matters of discipline, although he was required to consult with his brethren on matters of internal management and of a business nature. Similarly, the nunneries were ruled by an abbess or prioress and the friaries by a warden or similar head. The alien priories, so called because they were at first subject to the Mother House in France, were usually taken over by the king when England and France were at war, but most of them took out naturalization papers. The Commons had vainly petitioned the Crown in the fourteenth century to take over all alien priories.
The abbot was a great feudal lord till the Middle Ages at least, and after the first hundred years or so, had his own house, servants, and retinue, and lived in great style and pomp. The abbots of the larger monasteries were assisted by experienced monks placed in charge of certain departments, but as these monks usually had a separate income for their departments, proper supervision of monastic expenditure as a whole was impossible, and the result was often chaos and sometimes virtual bankruptcy.
The principal inmates of the monasteries were the monks and lay brothers or conversi, together with paid servants who varied in number according to the total number of the two first-named classes. The increased time devoted to the liturgical side of the monks' day rendered physical and manual work almost impossible in the thirteenth century, but towards the end of that century the excessive length of the services was reduced but manual labour was not reintroduced to any considerable extent. From about the thirteenth century the monks ceased to do much manual work, hence the need for the lay brothers to do it, although they were also needed for skilled craftwork which the monks may not have been competent to do, but they had almost ceased by 1350. The numbers of conversi were never large, especially in the Black Monk houses, although larger in the Cistercian and Gilbertine houses. There does not seem to be any record of conversi at any Black Monk house at the Dissolution. The paid servants in the large houses included inter alios, the porter, butler, cook, caterer, larderer, store-keeper, scullion, brewer, baker, laundrymen, or women.
The larderer kept the keys of certain rooms containing food and was also responsible for the killing, skinning and preparation of all animals needed for the table. The cook was allowed the choppings from the joints, two joints from every other chine of pork, and in common with some of his modern successors claimed half the dripping. The salter saw to the salting down of all the meat needed for winter consumption, and was also responsible for maintaining an adequate supply of condiments, e.g., mustard, spices and the like, of which almost unbelievable quantities were used in most monasteries, partly no doubt to disguise the taste of meat killed months before it was eaten, in days long before refrigeration.
At one monastery they employed a plumber and his mate, and at another two washerwomen, but before being engaged these women had to satisfy the abbot that they were over sixty years of age. The outside employees included farmhands, gardeners, woodmen, stablemen and others, according to the acreage and nature of the land under cultivation. Opinions vary as to the number of servants employed in relation to the number of other inmates, but it seems that only from one third to half the total inmates were monks. The lay brothers took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but were excused from attending some of the church services, and in some cases precluded from learning to read or write. The monks seem to have hung on to their serfs with great tenacity. The principal officers other than the Abbot or Prior were the Claustral Prior and the sub-Prior ; the Cellerar, who was the food purveyor, engaged the servants, and was responsible for the fuel, repairs and household goods, and therefore held an important post; the Chamberlain, who was responsible for the wardrobe, laundry and tailoring, and was in effect a kind of house steward; the Refectorian, who had charge of the refectory and also had its floor spread with rushes three or four times each year—he also had charge of the lavatory and toilet requisites; the Kitchener had charge of the kitchen and cooking, and he, too, had an important job; the Infirmarian, who had charge of the sick and infirm; the Guest Master, who saw to the entertainment of guests and visitors; the Almoner, who distributed alms, food and clothing. There were also a Cantor or Precentor in charge of the singing and reading, and a Sacrista in charge of the church, its ornaments, bells and sacred vessels. These monks were styled Obedientiaries. A barber was paid to shave the monks, the seniors having first turn while the razors were sharp and the towels dry.
Till about the fifteenth century the monks bought Flemish cloth for making their habits, but from that date it could be bought in England. By the middle of the thirteenth century the monks had fires in their cells, dormitories and elsewhere. And why not? As the monasteries were usually surrounded by a high, strong wall, the monks were often called on to take charge of money and valuables, and at Westminster, for example, they kept the Royal Treasury at one period.
Some idea of the wealth of the larger monasteries may be gathered from the fact that some of them had incomes of at least a £1,000 per monk per annum in terms of modern money, part of which would, of course, be expended on the general cost of maintenance, and at Canterbury each monk had for his own personal use plate worth several hundred pounds. It appears to be impossible to obtain a list of the plate handed into the King's Jewel House when the religious houses were dissolved. There is good ground for thinking that the monasteries hid or otherwise disposed of much of their plate when they saw the red light about 1535 indicating that the smaller monasteries were likely to be dissolved in the near future, and human nature being what it is, we cannot be surprised at their action. It is, for example, difficult to believe that Worksop possessed only the few items included in the list on page 28. The net general income (temporal and spiritual) of the eleven monasteries and two nunneries in Nottinghamshire, based on the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 (not accepted as thoroughly reliable by some authorities but accepted by others) was £1,956 10s. 103/4d. per annum, and the number of monks and nuns in those houses when they were dissolved a year or two later was about 164. This income, therefore, provided well over £11 per head per annum for maintenance, which sum is equal to nearly £600 a year at present-day values, and ought to have been adequate if wisely expended, especially as the monastery properties no doubt provided food and other commodities not taken into account in arriving at the cash income.
Most monasteries and nunneries admitted a few corrody holders who in return for a lump sum paid on entry became entitled to free board and lodging for life, and the king often sent old servants to end their days in a monastery founded by him or his ancestors. The monks at Bath awarded a corrody to a plumber in order that he might do the monastery plumbing, while Canterbury awarded one to a lawyer, his squire, three grooms and three horses, in order, presumably, that the lawyer might live on the premises and undertake all the legal work in return for his corrody.
All the great monasteries had the right of civil and criminal jurisdiction within their bounds, including as a rule the power of life and death. They also had freedom in most cases from taxes, tolls and tithes, and some had the right to mint money.
The monastic libraries are believed to have contained on an average 1,000 books but unfortunately we have no record for this county; most of these libraries were dispersed at the Dissolution, and some of the contents went to Germany.
Architectural engineering, sculpture, metal and woodwork, wall and panel painting were usually in the hands of professionals. The thirteenth century saw the production of many of the manuscript paintings which were done to illustrate those books and other documents which came from the monasteries in considerable numbers in that century, although simultaneously with the monastery output, lay illuminators were also at work in this branch of art. Illumination and calligraphy were, however, about to decline. A notable example of this type of work is the Tickhill Psalter, written by John Tickhill, Prior of the Augustinian house at Worksop, but illuminated by a group of travelling professional artists, now in the New York Public Library. Many such documents were connected with the Austin Priories of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Church music continued to be the prerogative of the monasteries and remained free from the incursions of laymen to a much greater extent than the other arts. By the early thirteenth century the monastic chroniclers, biographers and letter writers had died out, and the monasteries were losing the leadership in culture to the young universities and other centres of learning.
Some monasteries educated a few poor children, and a few wealthy parents sent their sons as paying pupils. The monks educated their own novices in church doctrine and practice. The novice was required to learn by heart practically all the services and hymns in use in the monastery because of the fact that, save for the candles on the altar, the choir was in darkness except on great feasts, till early in the fourteenth century when lights were provided in the choir.
It is impossible to arrive accurately at the percentage of their income which the monks bestowed as alms, but some investigators place it between three and four per cent., although at some large monasteries it was much less. In addition to the alms bestowed in cash the monks distributed surplus food and clothing and provided free meals and accommodation for a limited number of days for casual callers, but if the monastery was well off the main road the demands under this last head would not be heavy. Bequests for almsgiving in this county produced about twenty shillings per week, half of this sum being distributable by Worksop (Radford) Priory.
A good deal has been written about the standard of living in the monasteries and much of it is an exaggeration. In the early years of the movement the monks ate little meat but as time passed this rule was relaxed, as well it might be in this northern climate. Fish and fowl were not meat "within the terms of the Act". By the late thirteenth century Rome had allowed the eating of meat on three days a week, although for years prior thereto it had been eaten in several places, including the infirmary, where it was permitted by Rule. It seems clear, however, that the normal allowance of beer for monks and nuns was one gallon each per day. There was, of course, no tea or coffee in those days. The monks ate at long tables, and the superior (unless dining in his own house) sat at a high table, possibly with one or two of the seniors, and while the meal was in progress suitable extracts from an approved book were read by one of the juniors from the pulpit or lectern on the south side of the frater or dining-room.
The first service of the day began in church about 2 a.m., and the monks continued at worship or recreation till the last service about 7 p.m., but adequate time for sleep was provided. Their recreation consisted mainly of fishing, gardening, hunting in Sherwood Forest (perhaps surreptitiously), music, visits from travelling actors, bear-wards, jugglers, and in the case of the novices, Fox and Goose and Blind Men's Morris. It must be remembered that in every monastery there would be a percentage of young, lusty men in their early prime.
The provision of baths was not very liberal by modern standards, even bearing in mind the difficulty of getting hot water. At some monasteries they were restricted to three or four per annum, while at others they were compulsory at Christmas but optional the rest of the year. We may therefore surmise that the monk's habit often hid more than met the eye. The drinking water and sewage disposal arrangements were usually good.
Most monasteries owned a good deal of land adjoining or near the monastery, and also in most cases some land at a great distance from it. The farming or letting of their land together with the proceeds from impropriated churches constituted their main source of income. The appointment of vicars to impropriated churches sometimes brought trouble. About the year 1500, Lady Worsley quarrelled with the Vicar of Godshill in the Isle of Wight, as he had just been appointed by the local monastery and she disliked him. She is reported to have said of this vicar "If I can't drive him out by trouble and vexation I will cause a villain to murder him privily and if the villain is hanged it will only mean the loss of a knave worth some three halfpence". The king heard of this threat and scotched the lady's felonious intention.
The Black Death of 1349 hit the monasteries a hard blow in this county as in that year eight of the eleven Abbots or Priors died from that awful affliction.
The Charters and other surviving documents relating to the Nottinghamshire convents consist mainly of schedules of land and other possessions, accounts of disputes as to the ownership of monastery properties, and of benefactions by pious donors. There is a limited amount of contemporary history in these documents, especially as to the genealogy of the benefactors. Records of insubordination and worse also occur, as well as old place names, accounts about impropriated churches, food and clothing. Visitations by the Archbishop or Bishop or by the Visitor appointed by the Order are also included. But it is a pity that so little has survived about agriculture and livestock, especially in the case of those great farmers the Cistercians. The monastic accounts are of comparatively little value.
Much has been written about the wealth of the monasteries, most of which had been acquired by the year 1400. The founder was, of course, the first benefactor, and his descendants and later donors gradually made most of the monasteries so wealthy that their incomes should have sufficed for all ordinary purposes, provided they were properly managed. Unfortunately, however, the monks were not very good business men and, as we shall shortly see, were frequently in debt. When the great financier Aaron of Lincoln died in 1189, Rufford Abbey owed him money. Richard I was Aaron's universal legatee and let the borrowers off very lightly. The rate of interest charged by the Jews ranged from fifteen per cent, upwards, but it was not charged as interest, but as expenses, as usury was illegal. As there are few contemporary monastic records of receipts and expenditure it is difficult to make any general statements about these matters.
Apart from land, whether farmed by the monks or let on lease, the main source of income was derived from appropriated churches and, as already stated, it is estimated that in the thirteenth century about fifty per cent, of the churches were appropriated. In addition there were the incomes from tithes, voluntary offerings, relics, oblations, shrines, corrodies, fisheries, fairs, tolls, mills, coal, wood and other minor sources. The Cistercians derived a great deal of wealth from the sale of their wool.
During the thirteenth century the monks became active landlords and commercial farmers on a large scale. The continuity of administration of the monastic landlords enabled them to farm their lands to much greater advantage than was possible in the case of lay landlords whose families died out from time to time. Till the middle of the twelfth century the monks rarely exploited their farms, except in the case of lands adjoining the monastery, preferring to farm their distant estates out to farmers. By the late twelfth century, however, owing to economic changes taking place throughout the country, the monks began to pool and organize the resources of groups of their manors. In 1322 Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, owned just over 13,000 sheep and had 8,000 acres of land under crops. More than one monastery owned some 20,000 acres. The early years of the fourteenth century were the period of monastic high farming. Most of the monastic land was let for higher rents after the Dissolution, although the author of the article on this matter in the Cambridge Modern History doubts if the monks were easy landlords.
The wages of servants formed a heavy item and the monks often seem to have had too many. Hospitality also cost them a good deal; at St. Albans, for example, they had stabling for 300 horses, while at Christ Church, Canterbury, when the Duke of Buckingham stayed there in 1504, he brought 124 servants and 240 horses. The cost of visitations by Bishops and the cost of electing and getting confirmation of the election of an abbot were also heavy.
We are, therefore, forced to the conclusion that bad management was one of the main causes of the frequent debts we read of, though extravagance as a contributory cause cannot be ruled out.
From the thirteenth century there remains no record of the life of a saintly abbot comparable to the records of the lives of some of the great abbots of earlier days. There is, however, evidence that there were abbots who before all else endeavoured to adhere rigidly to the three vows they had taken on being received into the Order to which they belonged.