The Monastic Life; notes for Ars Magica

Becuase of the importance of the great Benedictine House of Bury St. Edmunds in my saga I include here some detailed notes on the organisation, rule and lifestyle of medieval monks in Catholic Europe. Scottish and Irish monasticism is detailed in Lion of the North, and Orthodox and Russian onasticism are also substantially different. Please note that while these are notes for a roleplaying game they are relatively historically accurate!

Becoming a Monk or Nun

Monks were expected to obey three vows made on formal admission to a monastery. However after applying to join it was necessary for a monk to spend one year serving as a Novice or junior monk before the vows were sworn, and during that year they could choose to leave the monastery if they so wished.

The three chief vows which were then sworn were chastity, poverty and obedience. These are common to almost all monks and nuns.

The Vow of Obedience meant observing the Rule of St. Benedict, detailed below, and at all times the will of the Abbott, without question.
The Vow of Humility was a central part of the life of a monk, and if they erred they must demonstrate their penitence by laying flat on the floor before all the monks, arms spread out in a cross form, and confessing their sins. Poverty meant renouncing any hope of inheritance and handing over all existing worldly goods to the monastery. Everything the monk used, even his habit (the robe he wore) belonged to the monastery not him, and personal possessions were banned.
The Vow of Chastity meant effectively celibacy - no relationships whatsoever with the opposite sex, and a breaking of relationships with friends and families as well - the monk entered in to a completely new life and discarded the old.

The monk on admission had his head shaved leaving a ring of hair called a tonsure, while Nuns were shaved completely bald. Clad in their new habits they became full members of the community. Most monks live under a Rule, which is the monasteries equivalent of a Covenant's Charter, laying down a complex set of ground rules by which that community functions. The most famous and most widespread rule in Mythic Europe is that of St. Benedict, which is detailed below for the benefit of storyguides, and which allows an accurate depiction of the rules by which monks lived their life. Of particular interest are Chapters 53 and 54 which deal with guests staying at the monastery, and of gifts being given to monks who the Magi may befriend. It is readily available in full from libraries or the internet if Storyguides wish to consult it in full, but here I have given a brief précis of points of interest from the rule. The Rule also sets out in some detail the day to day cycle of life in the monastery, and unlike most folk in the period monks live by hours and are deeply aware of the passage of time. Use the following table to reflect the activity of a monastery visited by your troupe

Life in a monastery was extremely regulated, and unusually for Mythic Europe controlled by time. The day begins here at midnight when the service called Matins is held. The exact daily routine varied slightly based on the Rule observed and the region, but the following table gives a fairly standard (the Benedictine) routine which can be taken as a model for storytellers dealing with Catholic houses of any Order. While the Rule may seem very severe to us it in fact was very attractive as an escape from the uncertainties of life in dangerous times, and offered food, shelter, education, certainty and comradeship and also the chance to learn and develop spiritually. In many ways it was an extremely attractive lifestyle, and it produced a flowering of deep and fulfilling devotion.

Monks were often very happy in their lot, and compared to those outside the monastery extremely privileged.


12 midnight Matins Roused from sleep by the Sacristan with a bell the monks attend the first service of the day.In the summer months this is held an hour or so before dawn in the original Rule
12.30am A break Monks pray or walk in Cloisters, and according to the rule 'may go out for the necessities of nature'.
1am Lauds Another service, after which the monks returned to bed. In the Summer it might be held at Dawn.
7am Prime Monks raised from bed for another service 8am Mass & Ablutions and Breakfast. Mass said for servants and lay folk, while it is going on the Monks 'break their fast' with their morning meal and wash. During breakfast a passage from a hagiography or other devotional book is read - breakfast is bread or gruel plus beer or in watered wine.
9am Terce A morning service is now sung, and today's designated Chapter from the Scriptures is read. After his there is a meeting of the Community in the Chapel, where duties are assigned, disciplinary proceedings conducted and other matters settled.
11am Dinner Very little meat is eaten by monks, though Abbott's may enjoy it and good wine rather than the vegetables and beer of the monks. The meal is eaten while scriptures are read.
12 noon Sext Back to the Chapel for this service.
afternoon (work) Monks perform labours
3pm Nones A service breaks the afternoons tasks up.
afternoon (work) Monks return to tasks of various natures
5pm Vespers The service marking the end of the days labours…
5.40pm Evening meal More eating while read to.
6pm Chapterhouse Readings The monks gather in the Chapterhouse to hear today's readings from the Scriptures
7pm Compline The evening service, after which monks retired to...
bed by 7.30pm  

While lengthy, it is worth the storyguide familiarising herself with this material as it gives an accurate reflection on how the monastery functioned. Remember this is an ideal, not necessarily the practice, and some houses doubtless did grow lax, but the average monastery can be assumed to be faithful in it's observance of the Rule.


The Rule of St. Benedict

Chapter 1: Of the Kinds of Monks -
Here Benedict defines four types of monks -
Cenobites, who live under a rule and Abbott
Anchorites, who have gone forth in to the wilderness as hermits
Sarabaites (
despised and unholy), who live in small communities of isolated cells but except no rule (as was common in the Celtic Church), and equally bad in his eyes Landlopers who travel from monastery to monastery staying briefly and accepting hospitality but not submitting to any Houses' discipline.

Chapter 2: What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be -
A paragon of virtue, the Abbott is called to a Father to his charges, a Shepherd leading his flock, able in teaching and accountable to the Lord at Judgement for how he performed. The order is also egalitarian

' Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let him not love one more than another, unless it be one whom he findeth more exemplary in good works and obedience. Let not a free-born be preferred to a freedman, unless there be some other reasonable cause…'

He must keep his eyes on heavenly things, and set an example to those in his care.

Chapter 3: Of Calling the Brethren for Counsel -
When a decision is to be made the Abbott should call all the monks before him in the Chapterhouse and explain the situation, and listen to their advice, even the youngest. The Abbott then makes the final decision which everyone must abide by.

Chapter 4: The Instruments of Good Works -
the 73 Instruments of Good Works are the core of the Benedictine Rule, 73 commandments which define how to line a Good and Holy Life. Because of their centrality they appear in a box immediately after the Rule.

Chapter 5: Of Obedience -
a monk is expected to obey his superiors without hesitation, delay or mumbling, as a sign of his obedience also to God.

Chapter 6: Of Silence -
'But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his lips.' - so says the rule, and long silences are used to teach discipline in speech, with the right to speak conferred by the Abbott as a privilege. Speech may be used a great deal when working, and is allowed at various times for the monks to talk, and at other times they use a series of hand gestures to communicate with one another. This sign language is effectively a silent Benedictine language which is not understood by outsiders.

Chapter 7: Of Humility -
there are twelve degrees of humility to be embraced, and Pride is a deadly snare. Humility includes humbly submitting to God's will and renouncing all worldly desires.

Chapters 8-20 deal with details of services and readings.

Chapter 21: Of the Deans of the Monastery -
Deans and a Prior may be appointed from the best monks in the Monastery. If they commit disciplinary offences they may be warned twice but on a third offence they are removed. The Abbott chooses them and appoints them to this office.

Chapter 22: How the Monks Are to Sleep - 'Let the brethren sleep singly, each in a separate bed. Let them receive the bedding befitting their mode of life, according to the direction of their Abbot. If it can be done, let all sleep in one apartment; but if the number doth not allow it, let them sleep in tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. Let a light be kept burning constantly in the cell till morning. Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams; and the sign having been given, rising without delay, let them hasten to outstrip each other to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum. Let the younger brethren not have their beds beside each other, but intermingled with the older ones; and rising to the Work of God, let them gently encourage one another on account of the excuses of the drowsy.'

Chapters 23 -30: Disciplinary Procedures. If a monk breaks the rules he is to be spoken to in private by the Abbott; if he does not amend his ways he is to be taken to task in front of the whole monastery, and if he continues he is to be punished. The usual mode is first exclusion from meals - the monk is forced to eat on his own, at a later time, and as meals were social occasions this was a severe penalty. If further offences occur or a graver offence must be punished, then he is 'sent to Coventry' as the English phrase has it - that is he is totally debarred from speaking to or being spoken to or communicating in anyway with any of the other monks, who all ignore him. If this fails he may be beaten for his own good and if that is not sufficient he is expelled from the monastery. Younger boys receive more merciful sentences, including enforced fasting. If an expelled monk or one who has left returns and makes amends for his faults he is to be readmitted, even up to the third time, but thereafter he is to be refused entry.

Chapter 31: The Kind of Man the Cellarer of the Monastery Ought to Be - the cellarer and his assistants are appointed from the monks and are to be humble men, who do everything in accordance with the wishes of the Abbott, yet kind to the monks, and not egotistical or conceited by their position.

Chapter 32: Of the Tools and Goods of the Monastery - the Abbott must appoint an honest monk, and also keep an inventory himself to ensure everything is handled properly.

Chapter 33: Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own - the rule speaks clearly on this - ' The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root, so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the command of the Abbot; nor to have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a pen, nor anything else whatsoever, since monks are allowed to have neither their bodies nor their wills in their own power.'

Chapter 34: Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary -As in Acts Chapter 4 each was given from the common store in accordance with his needs.

Chapter 35: Of the Weekly Servers in the Kitchen - those who serve in the kitchen are rotated each week so only the sick do not have to do it. It appears to have been an unpopular job, but was rewarded with a little extra food and drink.

Chapter 36: Of the Sick Brethren - sick monks are given a room of their own, meat, baths as desired and have another monk appointed to look after them, and everything possible is to be done to restore them to full health.

Chapter 37: Of the Aged and Children - in accordance with their weakness they may eat earlier if they wish, and more.

Chapter 38: Of the Weekly Reader - appointed each week to read at meals, starting on Sunday.

Chapter 39: Of the Quantity of Food - Two different types of meal are to be prepared, in case one meal is not liked by some of the monks, so they may choose. A pound of bread is given a day, and three meals in total, with fruits and vegetables that are in season.

Chapter 40: Of the Quantity of Drink - excess and drunkenness are to be avoided!

Chapters 41-43 deal with other mealtime arrangements in detail

Chapters 44-46 deal with discipline and penance

Chapter 47: Of Giving the Signal for the Time of the Work of God

Chapter 48: Of the Daily Work - requires that monks should engage in manual labour, household duties or reading. On Sunday there is no manual labour, only reading and duties.

Chapter 49: On the Keeping of Lent - abstinence and self denial are expected, but in Lent every monk goes to the Abbott and swears to give up one additional thing for forty days. Only the sick and very young or old are exempt.

Chapter 50: Of the Brethren Who Work a Long Distance form the Oratory or Are on a Journey - if on a journey or working too far away to get back for one of the seven divine offices, they must perform it reverently on their knees where they are.

Chapter 51: Of the Brethren Who Do Not Go Very Far Away - Monks sent out on business should always try and return the same day if at all possible, and should eat nothing outside unless specifically allowed by their Abbott.

Chapter 52: Of the Oratory of the Monastery - nothing should be stored here, and it is a place for silent prayer. Ostentatious prayer must be avoided.

Chapter 53 Of the Reception of Guests -Guests should be received well - none should be turned away. They should be met in humility by all the brethren, and the Abbott should pray with them then exchange the kiss of peace. They should be led to prayer, and then the Abbott should dine with them, unless it is a solemn fast, when they should be fed. The monks should then pour water on their hands and wash their feet with humility, and the poor are to be treated as the rich. The guest quarters should be away from the monks, so that they do not interfere in the smooth running of the monastery, and certain monks are assigned to look after them. Other monks may not speak to guests, but may offer if a blessing if spoken to and may inform them politely of the rule.

Chapter 54 Whether a Monk Should Receive Letters or Anything Else - the monks may not give or receive gifts or letters except with the permission of the Abbott, and all such gifts are given to the Abbott on arrival, who may distribute them to their intended recipient or any other as he sees fit.

Chapter 55 Of the Clothing and the Footgear of the Brethren -Monks are to be clothed appropriately for the local climate, with two woollen robes and cowls and sandals. The rule goes on to say ' For their bedding, let a straw mattress, a blanket, a coverlet, and a pillow be sufficient. These beds must, however, be frequently examined by the Abbot, to prevent personal goods from being found. And if anything should be found with anyone that he did not receive from the Abbot, let him fall under the severest discipline. And that this vice of private ownership may be cut off by the root, let everything necessary be given by the Abbot; namely, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife, pen, needle, towel, writing tablet; that all pretence of want may be removed.'

Chapter 56 The Abbott's Table - the Abbott always dines with guests and travellers alone in his lodgings. If there are none he may invite some of the brethren to eat with him, and they may have the privilege of meat and superior wine.

Chapter 57: Of the Artists of the Monastery - any with artistic talent may be encouraged to put his art to the glory of God providing it does not make him proud or conceited, in which case he may no longer practice it.

Chapter 58 Of the Manner of Admitting Brethren - those who come to try and join the Order are to be actively discouraged and treated harshly for four or five days to ensure they are truly committed. If they persist they are admitted, and become Novice Monks. Their clothes are kept however in case they should be expelled, and put in storage.

Chapters 59 -60 deal with Secular Priests and Nobles Children who wish to be admitted - parents may hand over their children, and Priests may receive no special favour if they choose to become monks. All are equal.

Chapter 60 How Stranger Monks Are to Be Received - they are to be treated as guests, and may join the monastery as long as their previous Abbott gives written permission if they so wish and the Abbott consents.

Chapter 62 Of the Priests of the Monastery - the Abbott may choose to have suitable monks ordained if he wishes to serve the community, but they retain their ordinary monkish status.

Chapter 63: Of the Order in the Monastery - Disorder is to avoided. Younger monks are addressed by their elders as Monk, as in 'Monk Thomas, fetch the hoe' and Older monks are addressed as Elder, as in 'Elder John please tell me the way to the village.' The Abbott is referred to by the title Lord and Abbott, as in 'Lord Abbott Samson'. Age is however not chronological age but the time spent since joining the monastery. This is used for order of precedence at all times.

Chapter 64: Of the Election of the Abbott - the Abbott is chosen by the whole community of monks. Electoral disputes were common, and the Pope was often called upon as final arbiter. King John of England notoriously intervened in the election of the Abbott of Bury St Edmunds in 1210, refusing to accept the elected Abbott and claiming the right to appoint to the position himself, and such problems are not uncommon. Nobles try to influence the decision, and it often proves disruptive to the order of the monastery. Sometimes Bishops had the right to appoint, and this could be unpopular as well.

Chapter 65: Of the Prior of the Monastery - the rule is very clear on the problems of Priors - 'It often happens that grave scandals arise in monasteries out of the appointment of the Prior; since there are some who, puffed up with the wicked spirit of pride and thinking themselves to be second Abbots, set up a despotic rule, foster scandals, and excite quarrels in the community, and especially in those places where also the Prior is appointed by the same Bishop or the same Abbots who appointed his Abbot.' The Abbott and the Prior could fall out, but the rule is clear that the Abbott is the superior, and can give the Prior four warnings after which he can be disciplined, then deposed and finally expelled. However Priors sometimes managed to keep the struggles going for years with enough support to paralyse the Abbott and preventing him doing this.

Chapter 66: Of the Porter - his job was to answer the door, at any time, and the Rule is worth quoting here -' Let a wise old man be placed at the door of the monastery, one who knows how to take and give an answer, and whose mature age doth not permit him to stray about.'

Chapter 67: Of the Brethren Who Are Sent on a Journey - the other monks are to pray for them, and on their return they must go to the Oratory, prostrate themselves and give account of their sins. They may not speak of anything they saw or heard outside of the monastery to other monks, though one assumes they report to the Abbott.

Chapter 68 If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things - he may meekly state his case as to why it is beyond his powers. If the Abbott insists he must endeavour to succeed and trust in God to help him.

Chapter 69: That in the Monastery No One Presume to Defend Another - in short, no monk may intercede on another's behalf, even if they are blood relatives, against the Abbott's rulings.

Chapter 70: That No One Presume to Strike Another.

Chapter 71: That the Brethren Be Obedient to One Another

Chapter 72: Of the Virtuous Zeal Which the Monks Ought to Have

Chapter 73: Of This, That Not the Whole Observance of Righteousness Is Laid Down in this Rule -observance of the rule in itself is not sufficient to ensure salvation.


Monastic Roles and Positions

The Monastery was a complex and completely self supporting community, at least in theory. However by the thirteenth century the Benedictine Houses often ruled large estates which they had gained through inheritance, and some Abbots were also lords of manors and even had knights owning them feudal dues and military service. It was by this time common for monasteries to possess servants and also considerable numbers of peasants who worked the fields for them, giving them more time to work on copying books, prayer and good works at best, and in moral laxity and luxury at worst…

Monasteries were very complex in their organisation, and the exact titles and roles of the senior monks varies from monastery to monastery depending on local conditions. All monasteries however shared certain roles, like Abbott, and other positions generally varied depending on needs. In some large monasteries even the most minor roles were comparatively powerful.

A Note on Convents -We tend to use the word convent today to refer to an establishment where nuns live. Technically this is a Nunnery - in the 13th Century the word convent applies to the body of monks (or nuns) who comprise the monastery (or nunnery). It is used in this sense here.

Positions to be found in a Monastery

Abbott/Abbess - the Abbott was the Head of a Monastery, and effectively it's ruler, it's spiritual father and responsible for the spiritual and physical well being of all monks. It was a position of great responsibility, and Abbott's were often extremely powerful even in national politics, though this varied with the wealth and influence of their monastery. The Abbott was elected from among the monks, on the death of his predecessor, and election disputes were common. The Abbott effectively left the community of monks, and was welcomed in to his new house, or even Palace, where he was expected to live in considerable style, wining and dining not only all guests but also with the local nobility whom he often equalled in status. Great Abbotts (of powerful 'houses' as monasteries were often referred to) were princes of the Church, often as powerfully locally as a Cardinal or Baron or Earl. The shock of the change in lifestyle from one of obedience and extreme temperance to fine wines, meat and lavish entertaining must have been unsettling for many, especially as they now also had to cope with a new role in power politics of the world which they had probably left many years before. There are obvious possibilities for a story here. The equivalent in a nunnery was an Abbess, and they too could and did intervene significantly in local affairs, though their influence was usually less.
Prior/Prioress Priors functions can be hard to define. Second in command to the Abbott, (except in a Priory, where they are the Head and there is no Abbott) they deal with many issues of administration and supervising the running of the Abbey. Often were in dispute with the Abbott, which led to factions and power struggles. In a Priory there is no Abbott - these smaller houses were ruled by a Prior instead
SubPrior - the Priors Assistant
Third Prior - A third assistant Prior, sometimes junior to, sometimes equal to the Sub Prior.
Precentor - the monk who was responsible for the provision of the church music, and chants.
Chancellor - oversees library and Secretarial functions.
Deans of Order - responsible for ensuring monks behave in disciplined manner and attend to duties
Cellarer - in charge of food and drink (usually beer or watered wine). Most Abbeys included their own vineyards or brew houses, plus a mill. Locals would often be expected to grind their corn here and pay fees, and persecuted for possession of querns (hand mills). This was a major source of disputes in the period, as was diversion of rivers to drive water mills…
Bursar - the individual responsible for all monetary payments, stores and accounts.
Sacrist - responsible for vestments, candles incense and other aspects of Church ceremonies
Sub-Sacrist - the Sacrist's assistant
Refectorian - In charge of Refectory and ensuring meals are provided and run smoothly.
Hostillar - the monk in charge of the Guest House and guest's welfare.
Infirmarer - in charge of the sick and medical care.
Almoner - responsible for distributing alms (charity) to the poor.
Terrar - the land agent, responsible for estates and lands.

Other posts could and did exist, depending on circumstances, and in many smaller houses many of the above were dealt with by the Abbott or Prior in person. The power, privileges (if any) and responsibility of a position also depended on circumstances.