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Monkish life minus its peaks

06 October 2009

This evocative studyleaves something more to be said, G. R. Evans suggests


Life in the Medieval Cloister
Julie Kerr
Continuum £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

LIFE in the Medieval Cloister sets out to answer the question “What was it like to be a medieval monk?” This is a lively and readable study of an area sometimes neglected by historians of monasticism, falling as it does between the concerns of the intellectual historian and those of the economic and social historian.

It uses texts as well as the statis­t­ical and physical information that survives in some abundance from the monastic houses of medieval Europe.

The book does not concern itself with the friars or the military orders (the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, which had their origins in the Crusades), although it does include a glance at the orders of Regular Canons. Nor does it go far into the rivalries among orders which emerged in the later Middle Ages. This is a pity, because the quiet inwardness of enclosed lives was challenged, even threatened, by such disputes; and the whole community of communities of the “religious” was blacklisted by John Wyclif. There is some reference to women religious, but the monks bulk larger in this study than the nuns.

The first chapter sets the scene. It covers “the precinct, the people, the daily regime”. There follow two chapters discussing “the severity of monastic life”, first from the point of view of “diet, sleep, clothing and bathing”, and second with respect to “family ties, health and sickness”.

Then come two chapters on “the sound of silence”. The first explores the practicalities of maintaining silence in the cloister. Were monks allowed to talk, and what did they talk about? Special friendships were both encouraged and discouraged, and conversation-time was limited. Monks heard readings at mealtimes, and were called to worship by bells; so the small pleasure of a word in passing might be in short supply.

Yet monks were expected to practise hospitality, and that meant talking to visitors from time to time. They were also surrounded by the animals that the house was obliged to keep for food, and there is evidence of af­fection for these beasts.

The second chapter on silence con­centrates on night and sleep, and the problems monks could experience when the round of required worship, including a “night office”, left them chronically short of sleep.

The remaining chapters look at the implications of the requirement of total obedience, and what the community did about monkish mis­behaviours. Last come two chapters on “The Work of God” (opus dei).

A monk’s “work” consisted in the round of worship. These chapters stray far beyond this theme, con­tras­ting the features of a common or communal life with those of the eremitical life that was attempted (up to a point) by the Carthusians. For the “monk alone” there was meditation; for some there was also the burden of office in the com­munity.

These themes are treated in a way that will whet the appetite of the reader interested in what it was like to be a medieval religious, and the book will form a useful resource. It does not, however, go deeply into the literature of stress and anxiety and effort and occasional supreme joy and satisfaction. More from such sources would have rounded out the picture.

Dr G. R. Evans is Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

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