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Britain’s monasteries were influential institutions for a millennium

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, History, Religion on Thursday, 28 March 2013

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This edited article about Britain’s monasteries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.

Monastery, picture, image, illustration

Life in the Monasteries by Michael Godfrey

For about a thousand years, the monasteries of Britain were centres upon which the welfare of great numbers of people depended.

From their beginnings at Iona in the north, and Canterbury in the south, these monasteries increased in number as they opened what were called “daughter houses” in different parts of the country. Long before the Norman conquest, they were to be found in every corner of the land.

The people who lived in them were called monks. Not all of them were priests; there were also “lay-brothers” who saw to different parts of the work such as the monastery farm, the care of the buildings, and the preparation of meals. In fact, each monastery was a self-supporting establishment, in and around which hundreds of people gained a livelihood.

The monks themselves had many duties, but regarded the worship of God as first among these. Prayer was offered seven times daily in the monastery chapel, which was also the place where the whole community joined in Sunday worship. For those who lived a long way from the monasteries, monks would travel to little buildings which were known as “Chapels-of-ease,” where even the most distant parishioners could meet for occasional services and instruction in the faith.

When they were not in church, the monks divided their time according to a fixed rule. This gave time for sleep, meals and recreation, but also required many hours of work.

A monk’s work varied with his ability, but made it possible for a great variety of needs to be served from every monastery. Some monks copied manuscripts – there were no printing presses before the fifteenth century – and their beautifully-decorated pages may still be seen in our cathedral libraries. Others taught the children – mostly boys – who attended the schools attached to every monastery, and which were the only means of education available till the sixteenth century. Some of the pupils would later enter a monastery as monks, or become lay-brothers in its service.

Other monks took care of sick and aged people, orphans and travellers. Apart from the accommodation the monasteries provided, there were no hospitals or inns. From the herbs grown in their own garden, those monks who had gained such medical knowledge as existed would make up remedies, or “simples” as they were called, for common ailments, and take them to people in need. In fact most of what today we call the “social services” – education, care of the needy and the sick – were carried on through the work of the monasteries for a thousand years after the arrival of Christianity in Britain.

In the Middle Ages, many monasteries became slack and idle, and in need of reform. But many of them still did a tremendous amount of good, and when, in the 1530s, they were all closed down, the change in English social life must have been the greatest in our social history since Christianity reached these shores.

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