Monastery Religious Offices and Work

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Monastery Religious Offices and Work


Monastic Hours. Medieval monks kept time in the same way that all other people in the Middle Ages did: according to the positions of the sun and the moon. The time from daylight to sunset was divided into twelve equal parts. The twelve hours of the monastic day had more than just an organizational purpose. They structured a series of religious devotions that occurred approximately every three hours during the day and that were central to monastic life. The monastic day began in the middle of the night, around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., when the monks rose from their beds and recited the prayers known as Matins and Lauds. These prayers lasted for an hour to an hour and a half, unless it was a high holy day when the service might be even more elaborate and longer. The monks then went back to bed until first light, when they rose again to say Prime after they had washed their faces and hands and combed their hair. Between Prime and Tierce (the third hour since sunrise, approximately 9:00 a.m.) a monk had time for prayer or work. After the short service of Tierce, there was morning mass, then a meeting of the monks at which the abbot led discussion and disciplinary matters were handled. Between the end of the meeting and the office of Sext (the sixth hour after daylight, around noon) a monk had time to attend to various personal chores and activities. During this time of the day he was allowed to speak, but for most of his day he was supposed to be silent. After Sext, the main meal was served, and then there was another period for work or reflection, which lasted until None (the ninth hour of the day, around 2:00–3:00 p.m.). At None there was another, brief religious service, which might be followed by a second, light meal. More work or rest took place for another three “hours,” until Vespers, which was a longer and more complicated service than most. The evening meal followed, and monks were enjoined to keep silent for the rest of the day. The final service of the day was Compline, which occurred at sunset. After this service, the monks were sprinkled with holy water and went to their dormitory, where they prepared for bed and for the cycle to resume about midnight.

Gregorian Chants. Most of the earliest surviving examples of medieval music were used in religious services, in particular the daily offices. Although there were various forms of church music in the Middle Ages, probably the best known and most widespread were the Gregorian chants. These songs ranged from simple melodies in which each syllable of a word was assigned one note to complex polyphonic (many-voiced) songs with elaborate equations of notes to syllables. Most medieval religious services were chanted, and the number of songs that monks and other clergy might need to learn could be staggering. It has been estimated that by the ninth century almost four thousand chants were part of every church year, and every new feast day meant new songs. In order to make some sense of this huge collection and to ensure that future generations of monks learned the proper chants, the song leaders of medieval churches (cantors) developed one of the first musical notation systems and recorded their songs in huge books. These books were frequently two to three feet tall, almost two feet wide, and at least six inches thick. Although it appears that some monastic communities might have had monks whose vocation was composing new chants, the songs of certain individuals circulated widely. One of the most renowned composers of the twelfth century was Hildegard of Bingen, who during her lifetime was also the abbess of Bingen, a mystic, and an author of theological and medical treatises. Her songs were even approved by the Pope.

Vestments. Medieval clergy wore special clothing when celebrating mass and conducting other religious services, and monks were no exception. While the average monk reciting the office remained in his cowl and tunic, the monks officiating at the ceremony often wore elaborately decorated garments called vestments. Vestments followed patterns of other medieval clothing, but the craftsmanship

was infinitely more detailed and the fabrics more valuable than that in the clothing of most laypeople. An important monastery such as Cluny in France, St. Gall, or Westminster had capes for celebrants (called copes) made from thick silks or other luxury fabrics and worked in embroidery that depicted, for example, the life of Christ as a series of fifteen to twenty separate scenes. As with clothing for wealthy nobles, jewels and threads made of precious metals were worked into the fabric. Moreover, the altar cloth and other linens used while serving mass were made of similar fabrics and were also elaborately embroidered. Monks could do such work as part of the labor they were required to perform, but generally these works of art were the product of years of work by professional craftsmen. Sometimes the abbot commissioned them, while at other times they were gifts from wealthy, aristocratic patrons of the monastery. A great religious house that had existed for centuries might have a veritable treasure trove of liturgical clothing. Such clothes were seen as paying honor to God, who was present at the mass, and as testaments to the holiness of the religious services.

Vessels for the Mass. Among the most beautiful examples of the medieval goldsmiths’ art are the hundreds of surviving cups, goblets, platters, and other vessels used for mass and other religious offices. Like vestments, these vessels were obtained as gifts, fabricated by professionals, and used to emphasize the sacred nature of the ceremony. A goldsmith might have his own workshop on the monastery grounds. Such shops were equipped with a large number of specialized metal tools; the money needed to purchase them, as well as a basic stock of raw materials, made the capital outlay for such a shop substantial. Goldsmiths did not just fabricate the basic structure of objects needed for mass. They were responsible for their decoration and, at times, for their design. Thus, the medieval goldsmith needed to be a designer, and many subjects were available to him for decorating objects for religious service. For example, the crosses that decorated the altar table and held relics might be inlaid with jewels, embossed with plants or geometric patterns, and filigreed. At the base, miniature sculptures of saints set inside miniature cathedral doorways might support the cross. Like a noble’s jewelry and plate, a monastery’s collection of sacred vessels formed its treasury, and if necessary an object could be melted down and converted to ready cash.

Work and Prayer. As the schedule set by the monastic hours suggests, a monk’s life was more than just prayer. St. Benedict had directed monks to perform some physical labor during the day as well, arguing against classical and early medieval prejudices when he wrote that God had instituted such work, and it was therefore equally divine. For several hours of the day monks had to perform some sort of “manual” labor. This work could range from supervising the monastic infirmary to working in the gardens,

helping in the stables, or instructing novices or lay pupils. During the course of the Middle Ages, monastic reformers had to repeat Benedict’s injunction again and again, and the activities considered appropriate for monks were modified over time in response to social pressures. Lay brothers and craftsmen supplied skills that the monks did not have and performed some of the onerous labor, such as harvesting the fields or digging ditches. How much physical labor medieval monks did depended greatly on the religious order to which they belonged, the strictness of their abbot, and personal preference or conviction.

Illumination and Writing. One labor of medieval monks resulted in both beautiful objects of art and the preservation of classical knowledge: writing and illuminating medieval books. A large monastery had a scriptorum, a room reserved for books and for writing them. The preparation of a book began with the gathering of materials: the text that was to be copied, quills and ink of various colors, and the vellum on which it was to be written. Vellum was made of animal hides, preferably sheep, scraped, stretched, and treated so that it could be written on without the ink blurring. Slight imperfections in a hide could make it useless for forming the pages of a book, and it has been estimated that the average medieval Bible took the hides of a hundred sheep. Once the vellum was selected and cut to a uniform, rectangular size, the page was designed. Someone looking closely at a medieval manuscript might see fine, straight lines drawn on the center of the page like the lines in modern binder paper. Generally the text filled only half the page, leaving the margins for decoration. The text was usually written in black ink with the first letter of the page or of a significant word written in different colors and sometimes even designed with a small scene in it. Charlemagne’s court developed the standard handwriting used in ecclesiastical documents for centuries—the Carolingian miniscule—but by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries handwriting had evolved into a distinctive Gothic script with definite regional variations. After the text was written a monk was free to exercise his imagination, at least to some extent. The margins of medieval manuscripts are filled with miniatures depicting not only Bible stories and scenes from saints’ lives, but pictures of daily life, elaborate floral patterns, and even fantastic animals. Copying and illuminating a book such as the Bible could take decades and involve a whole workshop of monks. Done by candlelight or the light of a window and in rooms with almost no heat, these manuscripts are testimony to the dedication, piety, and artistry of medieval monks.


Patricia Basing, Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts (London: British Library, 1990).

John Cherry, Medieval Craftsmen: Goldsmiths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (Boston: Godine, 1986).

Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Musk (New York: Norton, 1978).