Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000-1300

This is the history of the advance of Christianity in England, Wales, and Scotland. Companies of missionary monks made this advance possible. Without the missionaries it is not possible to imagine how the age of Christianity would begin in England. Monasticism reached Anglo-Saxon England with the mission sent by Pope Gregory from Rome in 597 to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. They were invited by the queen in the Kent region, Bertha. Its leader was Augustine, and its base which he established was a monastery in Canterbury. It is important for the reader to remember that before monasteries or churches can come into existence, an open-minded governing authority must give its permission. On Christmas Day in 597 10000 men and women came to the Medway river for baptism. In this way Christianity began and expanded in the south of England. (The north of England, was evangelized by the Irish monks, who established a monastery in Iona in 563 AD.)

In Britain, most monasteries were established by lay men and most nunneries were established by lay women. They were carried by the wind of the Spirit and ablaze with the zeal of the Lord. They founded monasteries and nunneries on lands given by the pious and sustained by property as well as endowments provided by kings and queens, barons and countesses, members of knightly families, archbishops and bishops. Religious houses were corporations which owned land, administered estates, and enjoyed rights and privileges which needed ratifying and defending.[1]. In time, new monasteries were sponsored by local kings and queens who wanted to be baptized. [2] Sadly, Viking raids from the 790s onwards had wiped out the monasteries in the north England so completely that Asser, the biographer of King Alfred of Wessex (871-99), could remark on the complete absence of monastic life. Although this was probably exaggerated, there can be little doubt that Anglo-Saxon monasticism was in a moribund state.[3] Revival of the monastic houses came from King Edgar and princes who endowed them. “The monastic revival thus gave the king not only a series of religious houses whose occupants would pray for his soul, but powerful ecclesiastical support for his unique position as monarch.”[4] With the death of Edgar (975) and his generation of rulers royal support declined; “on the eve of the Norman Conquest there were probably only six houses with over forty monks.”[5]

Monasteries: Places for Community prayers. Corporate prayer was the backbone of the monastic timetable, and although manual work was a part of the daily routine prescribed by St. Benedict [“to labor is to pray”] it was not intended to make the religious hose economically self-supporting. The religious communities needed to be sustained by the gifts and the work of others.[6]

Monasteries: Centers for Educaton. Monasteries were not only centres of worship, but centres of education. The monasteries provided the king with scribes, men who could keep the royal records.[7] Within the cloister only two of the three components of the Trivium, grammar and rhetoric, were pursued, and of the Quadrivium, only music was really appropriate to the cloister.[8] The tools of learning were books. Recruits might bring their collections of books with them. Benefactors sometimes bequeathed books in their wills. Other volumes were copied in the monastic scriptorium, either as duplicates from books already in the library, or from ones borrowed from other religious houses for this purpose. Not only sacred books were copied; in many cases vernacular texts are preserved for us only in monastic copies. Most Welsh vernacular poetry from the Middle Ages survives from these manuscripts.[9] The Old English monasteries produced, or were patrons of, artistic treasures of the highest quality. The manuscripts of the last century of the Anglo-Saxon monasteries have been recognized for the superiority both of their script and illumination. A particular school, the ‘Westminster School,’ has been identified. Christ Church, Canterbury, produced a large number of manuscripts of the gospels, while the other Canterbury house, St. Augustine’s was responsible for the illustrated versions, in the vernacular, of the beginning of the Old Testament. Other types of art flourished. Evesham under Abbot Mannit (1044-58) was famous for its goldsmith work, sculpture, painting and calligraphy. Documentary evidence suggests that English metalwork was highly regarded in the eleventh century, and certainly the Normans were impressed by the wealth and splendour and ornament of English abbey churches. Monasteries and nunneries had to be equipped to provide education for children (offered by their parents to later become monks and nuns).[10]

Monasteries in North England, Wales and Scotland. In contrast to England south of the Trent, the North, Wales and Scotland knew little or nothing of Benedictine monasticism. In the North the celebrated centres of both male and female monasticism life had long gone. The main reason for the failure of the reform movement to reach the north is explained by the absence of royal authority there.[11]

Monasteries as Examples of Christian Community. A central theme throughout the monastic history has been an appeal to the apostolic life, the vita apostolica. Men and women have looked to the Bible to discover how the apostles and early Christian community in Jerusalem lived; and they found one key text in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, which described how “all who believed were together and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men as every man had need” (2:44-45). There was no private property or possessions. Texts like these inspired early writers of the monastic life such as St. Basil and St. Jerome. Augustine adopted this practice in his own cathedral church.[12] Revival in England along these lines emerged in the 11th century with the Gregorian reform movement. Perhaps the most striking feature of medieval monastic history is the proliferation of ne religious groups and orders in the late 11thn and early 12th centuries. These were the product of a search for the purest, indeed the perfect, form of monasticism: the desire to return to primitive monastic observances, and the appeal of apostolic poverty.[13]

The Cistercian Order and the Carthusian Order. All of a sudden, monks from Europe arriving in York caused a great stir. They were the so-called “Black Monks” on account of their dark robes. They unwilling to pay the extravagant cost of having the wool dyed white. They were the Cistercians. Bernard was founder of the Cistercian Order. It expanded internationally partly because Bernard made the plan to reproduce straightforward. First, the founders laid down the basis of their observances in legislation, to be followed by all houses. Second, they enforced the observance of their statues through a system of visitation and the annual general chapter.[14] The ties of love and discipline were to be maintained by the annual visitation of each daughter house by the abbot of the mother house. Furthermore, each year the abbots of every Cistercian house were to gather for the general chapter at Cîteaux. In time, far away abbots such as in Scotland only had to attend the general chapter once every four years.[15] By contrast, the Carthusian custom strictly limited the numbers admitted into each community: there were to be no more than the apostolic number of twelve monks, a prior and a limited number (about 16) lay brothers. There was accordingly, and quite deliberately, no possibility of a repetition of the Cistercian experience of abbeys of hundreds of monks and lay brothers. By 1200 there were only thirty-nine Carthusian priories in Europe.[16]

The Mendicant Orders. In the third decade of the 13th century, a new, radical religious movement—the friars—engulfed Britain. The friars did not live within the cloister; they did not own property. They were itinerant and they were mendicant, that is, they wandered from place to place and were allowed to beg for their livelihood. These were the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Carmelites.[17]

Francis of Assisi was not the only one going out to preach the renouncement of the world. Some twelfth century groups, which renounced ownership of property and followed the apostolic life ended up on the wrong side of that sometimes very thin line that separates orthodoxy from heresy. What was distinctive about Francis was that he received papal support for his way of life.

Dominic had a difference conception. He was not a layman like Francis, but an Augustinian canon who, in 1204, began to undertake a mission among the Cathar heretics in southern France. His wandering friars received university training. In 1229 the Carmelites (White Friars) were recognized by the pope as mendicants. The mendicant orders in Britain have left us with scant remains, both physical and documentary. Their houses were not intended to be landowning corporations. This chronic lack of sources hampers any attempt to reconstruct the history of the mendicants in Britain.[18]

The friars began to move into towns a generation after wandering—their wandering days drew to a close. King Henry III and other sponsors donated land to the friars, including Cambridge and Oxford in the late 13th century.[19] But the preaching friars brought an enormous change to the other structure (than church as we usually think of church): No longer was the goal of Christian perfection to be sought only within the walls of a cloister. It was open to merchants, to masters and apprentices, to married people and unmarried. Not only in England, but throughout Europe informal religious groups sprang up, the Waldensians of Lyons, the Humiliati of northern Italy and the Beguines of Flanders.[20]

Abbots and Friars: Conflict with the Bishops. The danger of the development of the preaching functions of the mendicants, as perceived by the secular clergy, lay in an escalation of their parochial and pastoral activities; and these had financial implications. The friars would draw away revenues in the form of burial dues and other offerings. The bishop of London, who seems not to have known what to do with the friars, claimed jurisdiction over all of them. The mendicants reacted quickly and obtained a papal bull allowing them power to govern their own activities.[21]

Sources of Income. Land was by far the most important economic resource enjoyed by the religious orders. Arable land supplied food for consumption and any surplus could bel sold to buy goods. The keeping of cows, sheep and other animals added to the economy. As keepers of sheet, the Cistercians have become most famed, and wool was the main cash crop of twelfth century Britain. Clearance of the forests created more opportunities for production, as did drainage of marshes and the conversion of waste and scrub lands. Fisheries along rivers and coasts supplied a vital element of the monastic diet. Peat was an important source of fuel. Some houses engaged in production of iron ore and charcoal for forging. Mills too provided a valuable source of income.[22]

1300: On the Brink of Change. By 1300 the impulse which led to the proliferation of monastic houses was in many ways spent, and religious houses could no longer count on streams of recruits on the one hand, and seemingly endless endowments on the other. From the 13th century there emerged a new target for a man or woman’s generosity which offered a more individual form of intercessory prayer: the chantry (a chapel where the Mass is sung or chanted). Monasteries lost many members during the plagues. The economy was contracting. A rethinking of the economic basis of the monasteries had to sought.

Blincoe: We close with Eugene Teselle’s important observation, that “Before there was a “church” there was an “itinerant” ministry by which churches were founded and by which they were edified in an ongoing way. During the first and second centuries there seems to have been the standard formula ‘apostles, prophets, teachers,’ always in that order (I Cor. 12:28; cf. Eph. 4:11). Therefore, mission has an original authority in the Christian church.”[23]

Burton, Janet E. Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000-1300. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

TeSelle, Eugene. “Church and Parachurch: Christian Freedom, Ecclesiastical Order, and the Problem of Voluntary Organizations (Unpublished).” Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1994.

[1] Janet E. Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000-1300, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). x

[2] Ibid. 1

[3] Ibid. 3

[4] Ibid. 4

[5] Ibid. 7

[6] Ibid. 8

[7] Ibid. 13

[8] Ibid. 189

[9] Ibid. 192

[10] Ibid. 15

[11] Ibid. 18

[12] Ibid. 43

[13] Ibid. 63

[14] Ibid. 65

[15] Ibid. 66

[16] Ibid. 80

[17] Ibid. 110

[18] Ibid. 112

[19] Ibid. 115

[20] Ibid. 125

[21] Ibid. 126-127

[22] Ibid. 239-242

[23] Eugene TeSelle, “Church and Parachurch: Christian Freedom, Ecclesiastical Order, and the Problem of Voluntary Organizations (Unpublished),” (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1994)