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Durham: Typical English Mediaeval Monastery

The foregoing account of Benedictine history in early and mediaeval times touches only what we may call external affairs, or the politics of the Monastic Institute, and it would be quite incomplete without some description of the daily life led by the monks themselves. That this varied not only in the different countries, but also in the several monasteries of the same nationality, is only to be expected, but at the same time these differences were never more than accidental.

Hence, the following picture of mediaeval monastic life in England may be taken as giving a fair specimen of daily life in a Benedictine house during the century or so preceding the Reformation. The description, too, of an English monastery must necessarily have more interest for the reader of English.

By great good fortune just such an account of monastic life at Durham in pre-Reformation times has been preserved (Rites of Durham : Surtees Society, 1842). The document here quoted is clearly the work of a person who had intimate knowledge of the facts he narrates, and was anxious to chronicle things exactly as he saw them.

Making due allowance therefore for differences of detail, the Durham account may safely be taken as providing a comparatively accurate picture of Benedictine life in England in the early sixteenth century.

Night Office

Beginning then with the first duty of the monastic day, it seems the monks were called up for the night office sometime between midnight and two in the morning. Repairing at once to the church the solemn chanting of Matins and Lauds occupied them for two whole hours, after which the brethren retired again to their dormitory for a second period of rest. At five (?) came the office of Prime, which was generally followed by the Chapter; at this, faults were confessed and corrected, an exhortation was given by the superior, the work of the day assigned, and when the necessity arose, matters of common interest were explained and discussed. At six the Chapter Mass was sung, and at its conclusion the monks occupied themselves in study or exercise till eight o'clock, the hour for Terce and the daily High Mass. Two hours were allotted to these solemn functions, and somewhere between ten and eleven came the chief meal of the day, though this was later during Lent and other times of fasting.

In the refectory the monks sat in strict order of seniority, and took it in turns, by weeks, to wait on each other, and read aloud the Sacred Scriptures, those who performed these duties being allowed some refreshment before the meal began, to prevent the task becoming too great a burden.


Dinner finished, the brethren at Durham "were accustomed," says the writer, "to go through the cloister . . . into the center garth where all the monks were buried. And they did stand all bareheaded a certain long space praying among the tombs for their brethren's souls being buried there. And when they had done their prayers, then they returned to the cloister, and there did study their books until three o'clock when they went to Vespers. This was their daily exercise and study every day after they had dined."

Each monk, it must be remarked, appears to have had a little carrel, or pew, to himself with a desk to place his books on. These little alcoves were in the windows of the cloister, while on the opposite side stood "certain great cupboards of wainscot all full of books, with a great store of ancient manuscripts . . . so that everyone studied what doctor pleased each best."


From their studies the monks went, at three in the afternoon, to the church for Vespers, which were always sung with as great solemnity as the High Mass in the Morning.

Study in the cloister again occupied the time between Vespers and the evening meal, which was always finished by five o'clock. At that hour the monks proceeded to the chapter house "to meet the Prior [i.e., the superior] there every night, there to remain in prayer and devotion till six o'clock." Compline was then chanted, and a short space being allowed for private devotions, the brethren all retired to the dormitory till the bells rang for the night office, and the daily round of prayer and labor commenced once more.

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