This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Much has been written about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, but less is said about what is often referred to as the ‘monastic revolution’ – a period of reform that began in Italy and France in the 11th century, and reached the British Isles in the c1120s.
Andrew Jotischky, professor of history at Lancaster University, says: “Monastic reform in the British Isles during the 12th century came about as an indirect consequence of the Norman conquest, which allowed greater exposure to developments – religious and otherwise – on the continent.
“By the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Italian religious reforms were already exerting influence on Norman monasticism. Indeed, one of the reasons given by William the Conqueror for invading England in the first place was to reform the English church, which was generally viewed as being out of line with reforming trends in the church in Rome.” Many continental reformers believed that, despite monastic reforms introduced under Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester in the 10th century, English monasteries were not following the rule of St Benedict as they should. This took the form of a set of guidelines written by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, outlining how monks residing communally under the authority of an abbot should live.
What also troubled reformers was the fact that there was no consistency in the way that monasteries in the British Isles were run. These establishments were often affiliated with saints that were unknown outside of the country. But, as Jotischky explains, things began to change rapidly after 1066. “By the 1080s the majority of abbots in existing monasteries across the British Isles had been replaced by Normans,” he says. “Monks would also have experienced liturgical changes (mainly in the prayers they recited), as well as adjustments to other established customs and traditions.”
The extent of these changes, however, depended a great deal on the attitudes of the incoming abbots. Some, like Anselm (appointed abbot of Christchurch and archbishop of Canterbury in 1093) were sympathetic to English traditions. Others were not so sensitive.
“It is the Cistercian order that is probably the best known and important of the reforming groups active in France in the late 11th century,” says Jotischky. “But they were not alone in their quest for religious change. All the reforming orders had the same aim: for monasteries to follow the rule of St Benedict and observe a more simple way of life.”
The Cistercian order was especially eloquent when it came to extolling the virtues of good land management and manual labour, as set out by St Benedict: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading… When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”
Most monasteries during the 12th century were great land owners – mostly thanks to bequests by local aristocrats. However, the tradition of monasteries directly cultivating their land – as Benedict advocated – had all but died out by the 11th century. “By this time,” says Jotischky “monasteries commonly rented out land to local tenant farmers, and collected rent in kind or in cash. This was something the Cistercians sought to change.
“The Cistercian order issued its first set of statutes in 1134; among them one instructing the abbey church of Cistercian monasteries to display no form of decoration save a wooden cross. This was introduced as a move against what was seen as the ‘excessive’ amounts of sculpture and art often found in monastic buildings.
Another criticism that the Cistercians levelled against Benedictine monasteries was that the monks ate too much, and too well. A monastic diet, they said, should consist of plain foods such as vegetables, beans and bread.
That the Cistercians made great strides in transforming the way that monasteries on these islands operated is beyond doubt. According to Jotischky, the order’s success can, to a large degree, be traced to its uniformity. Unlike some of their predecessors, these monasteries boasted the same structure and adhered to the same principles.
Other notable reforming orders included the Gilbertines, the only uniquely English contribution to the monastic reforms; the Carthusians, who combined communal and individual styles of monastic life in their monasteries; the Tironensians, an order founded in northern France; and another French order, the Savignacs.
Yet the new status quo wasn’t to last for long. “Cycles of reform were characteristic of religious life in the medieval church,” says Jotischky, “and by around 1200 the continental reforming orders were seen to be in need of reform themselves.
“Although monasticism did continue through the 13th century, relatively few new monasteries were founded after 1200. The 13th and 14th centuries are generally viewed by historians as the ‘age of the friars’ – who spent more time working among lay people than their monastic predecessors. The final death knell for monasticism in the British Isles was, of course, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s.”
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