Valle Crucis Abbey #5 – The monastic community

This follows on directly from Part 4, which looked at what is known about the patrons, abbots and priors at the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen.  Parts 4, 5 and 6 were originally written as a single piece, but grew to excessive proportions and had to be split into three (the third part, looking at how life was lived on a daily basis, will be Part 6).  At the same time, this post looks a little different from its predecessors.  When I was writing this Valle Crucis remained closed.  As I have been unable to take any new photographs to accompany this post,  I have mainly used artists’ reconstructions, showing visual interpretations of various monastic sites, all similar to Valle Crucis in terms of basic operations.

Introduction

Modern view of Valle Crucis by J.Banbury. Source: Medieval Heritage website

Because patrons and abbots were important people, not merely locally but sometimes with wide-ranging national and international duties, historical records often mention them.  For Valle Crucis details can be pieced together to create a narrative, admittedly fragmentary, about those individuals and their roles both within the abbey and beyond its walls.  This was attempted in part 4.  For the wider monastic community, however, matters are rather more difficult to piece together.  It is probably a measure of the success of a monastery that a community was sufficiently stable not to draw attention to itself.  When nothing happened, there was nothing to report.  When trouble occurred, records might be preserved.  For example, under Abbot Robert of Lancaster there were clearly ructions within the Valle Crucis community, because a papal letter to the abbey stressed that the monks must obey the abbot.  It can also be inferred that under the disastrous Abbot Robert Salusbury there was profound discontent, as over half of the remaining community abandoned Valle Crucis in favour of other monasteries.  A good illustration of a Cistercian community that came to light rather too often for the Order’s comfort was Hailes Abbey near Cheltenham, where many misdemeanours were recorded.

In spite of the limitations of surviving records from Valle Crucis, the rules governing life in Cistercian abbeys, which were enforced throughout the Cistercian network, indicate how life should have been lived. During an annual meeting at Cîteaux (the General Chapter), which most of the Cistercian abbots attended, some existing rules were reinforced, others were changed as the world in which the Cistercian Order existed changed, and the outcomes were recorded.  These documents, combined with the telling architectural changes to the abbey itself, help to capture some of the details about how life would have been lived at Valle Crucis by the greater part of the community.

Valle Crucis in 1800. Source: Wikipedia

Although the founder, patrons, and the abbot and prior were ultimately the drivers of financial security and good management, it was the role of the monastic community as a whole that enabled monastic orders to flourish and proliferate.  The spread of monastic houses throughout Britain provided an ecclesiastical footprint that was itself a measure of the importance of prayer to the secular community.  The prayers of monks were the key to secular salvation.  In a sin-obsessed world, one way of mitigating the unenviable outcomes of personal sin in the afterlife was to invest in prayer.   Richard Southern sums up the situation beautifully:

Founders and benefactors saw in the ‘cowled champions’ of the monasteries the spiritual equivalent of secular soldiers.  The monks fought battles quite as real, and more important, than the battles of the natural world; they fought to cleanse the land from supernatural enemies.  To say that they prayed for the well-being of the king and kingdom is to put the matter altogether too feebly.  They fought as a disciplined elite, and the safety of the kingdom depended on their efforts. (R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, 1970)

This provides the essence of monastic value to the living.  Even though the Valle Crucis monks were isolated within their cloisters, and only certain of its community interacted with the outside world for practical reasons, their prayers were an essential part of the profit and loss equations of spiritual life.  Cistercian houses, once founded, might benefit from donations, gifts and sources of regular income from those who wished to purchase a better quality life after death, but essentially they were committed to maintaining themselves by economic endeavour, and this meant that the monastery was part of an economic network of production, markets and re-investment of revenue that defined much of life in the Middle ages.

Choir monks

Cloister and lavatorium of Tintern Abbey in south Wales. Reconstruction by Terry Ball. Source: Medieval History website

The main body of the monastic establishment was made up of choir monks, who were supervised by the abbot and the prior.  St Benedict’s Rule required an initial twelve monks for the founding of a new abbey, equating to the number of Christ’s apostles, and these monks and the abbot were provided from Strata Marcella. All the monks in Valle Crucis appear to have been of Welsh origin at this time, and probably were for most of its duration.

The main body of the monastic establishment was made up of choir monks, who were supervised by the abbot and the prior.  St Benedict’s Rule required an initial twelve monks for the founding of a new abbey, equating to the number of Christ’s apostles, and these monks and the abbot were provided from Strata Marcella. All the monks in Valle Crucis appear to have been of Welsh origin at this time, and probably were for most of its duration.

Cymer Abbey. Source: Cadw signage at Cymer

Politically and culturally, if not linguistically, it would have been difficult to incorporate English monks into a Welsh community.  In so far as language was concerned, Latin, required for membership of the Cistercian Order, could have been used as a lingua franca, but politically and culturally matters might have been rather more difficult.  Before the conquest of Edward I, the Welsh monasteries had a strong sense of Welsh identity and at different times Valle Crucis contributed to contemporary Welsh histories and hosted Welsh poets. Politically, even though the Cistercians as an Order had provided Edward I with financial support, and even though Welsh monastic patrons changed sides from time to time, at least in the 13th century the Welsh Cistercian monasteries of mid and North Wales were solidly behind Llywelyn ap Gruffudd  of Gwynedd (c.1223 – 1282).  In a letter to the pope in 1275, the Cistercian abbeys Aberconwy, Whitland, Strata Florida, Cwmhir, Strata Marcella, Cymer and Valle Crucis all supported Llywelyn against charges made by the Bishop of St Asaph.  This emphasis on Welsh personnel may, from time to time, have resulted in recruitment difficulties, particularly after the succession of plagues that followed the arrival of the Black Death in the mid 14th Century.  Even following Edward I’s conquest of Wales, the close association of Valle Crucis with Welsh poets in the 14th and 15th centuries argues that a Welsh outlook was never fully diluted at Valle Crucis.

14th century psalter (book of psalms) of Sir Geoffrey Luttrel.  Sou8rce: British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, MS Additional 42130, via Wikipedia

The Cistercians did not accept children as novices into their community, a practice that had once been common in the Benedictine order where children were accepted as “oblates” (offerings) by their parents at least until the practice was abolished by the 4th Lateran Council of 1215 of Pope Innocent III in Rome.  The term can be confusing today because it survives in the Benedictine order, but now refers to laity who, outside a monastic house, are affiliated to it and supportive of it.  St Benedictine himself had supported the practice of accepting child oblates, but the Cistercians believed that choice was an essential factor in the moral standing and ongoing stability of the Order.  New entrants had to be at least 15 years of age, with a year’s novitiate before making their vows at the age of 16.  After the Black Death of the 14th century, when many brethren had been lost and new recruits were harder to find, the minimum age was dropped to 14 years by the General Chapter of 1349, and the year’s novitiate could be shortened providing that the novice could recite the psalms by heart.

Although in theory the monks all had equal status, reflected in shared dormitories and communal refectories, and all were subject to the same rules and disciplinary action, there were inevitably complex layers of experience and interaction within the abbey walls, based on  age, seniority, skills, experiences, roles and personality.  Although some of a monastery’s monks may have entered as novices, others much later in life either in response to a calling, or as a form of retirement.  Senior monks might act as guides to novices and younger brethren, whilst patrolling the cloister to maintain silence, and minimize social contact.

Manual work beyond the cloister might include working with crops in the fields, or with livestock, employment in crafts, gardening, and general DIY, essential to the maintenance of abbey and abbey precinct buildings and fittings.  This work took place once or twice a day depending on the time of year, and was envisaged by St Benedict not merely as a good discipline, but an aspect of daily living that would prevent boredom.  During the harvest it was all hands on deck, and many of the monks were excused at least some of the offices in order to participate.

Cistercian monks gathered daily in the chapter house, as an artist’s reconstruction shows here at Shap Abbey. Source: English Heritage

Life within the cloister was by no means a uniform, undifferentiated existence, and it was by no means unknown for disagreements and conflicts, which the senior monks, the prior and the abbot were required to resolve.  Daily meetings in the chapter house were part of the system of maintaining harmony and discipline within the monastery, at which time disciplinary issues were discussed and punishments for any infringements were handed out.

There are very few details about the monks at Valle Crucis.  What few references to them suggest that at various times, if not always, the community of monks was Welsh.  During the tenure of Abbot Robert Lancaster in the early 15th century papal correspondence to the monastery reminded the monks of their vows of obedience to the abbot, implying that there were difficulties within the Valle Crucis community, perhaps because the abbot was dividing his attentions between the abbacy and the bishopric of St Asaph, which he held simultaneously.

Although Cistercians were only supposed to leave the monastery on important business, and only abbots ever travelled very far afield, very few monks ventured far afield.  They were not permitted to go on pilgrimage or seek cures at holy shrines, but there is one record of a monk from Valle Crucis called Richard Bromley arriving in Rome in 1504, towards the end of the abbey’s life, as a pilgrim.

Obedientiaries

Although no two abbeys were exactly alike, and a lot depended upon the financial resources available to the community, as well as the individual talents of the abbot and the brethren, there is a commonality of community organization between them, including the allocation of roles, obediences, to individual monks, called obedientiaries.  This was a Benedictine tradition, not unique to the Cistercians, but which was formalized within the Cistercian’s own rules.

Benedictine monks in the cellar at Dunfermline. Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Obedientiaries were monks within the abbey who were allocated particular roles in order to assist with the smooth running of the community.  Although some tasks were rotated amongst the brethren, it made sense for the abbot to ensure that some continuity was adhered to for important tasks, particularly in positions where contact with the outside world might be required, and particularly high standards of self-discipline might be depended upon.  The use of obedientiaries was not a Cistercian invention, and although there were differences from order to order, many of the same functions inevitably overlapped, and they changed over time as the demands of individual abbeys changed.  Some of the key positions are as follows:

  • Cellarer  A key official who was responsible for the community’s centralized stores, both food and drink.  Of all the obedientiaries, this individual is likely to have had regular contact with the lay brethren and, when they were no longer employed, the outside world.  the cellarer was also responsible for interacting with the abbey granges, the farms that supplied the monastery with its food for consumption and its surplus.  It is notable that in 1212, when the Cisterican Order asked for senior staff to be exempt from outside obligations to the Pope Innocent III’s crusades and missionary activities, the cellarer was singled out amongst the senior staff, together with priors and sub-priors, that the Cistercians wished to retain
  • Precentor.  In charge of church services, the hymns, chants, prayers and antiphons (the latter song alternating between two parts of the choir). He might be supported by an assistant, the succentor
  • Sacrist, responsible for the church, its maintenance, as well as the care of the vessels and implements used in the liturgies and the vestments that were kept in the sacristy.  He was also responsible for time-keeping, using a bell or tabula (the latter a wooden board) to mark the offices and draw the monks to the abbey church.  As mechanical clocks were not invented until the late 13th century, and were even then very expensive, monastic time-keeping relied mainly on the sun, stars, and occasionally water clocks.
  • Guestmaster, responsible for welcoming and taking care of any guests, from dignitaries to pilgrims.  Hospitality was an important part of the Benedictine vision, and separate quarters were usually provided within the abbey precinct but beyond the cloister until the 14th century, when VIPs might be accommodated within special apartments within the east range of the cloister.
  • Infirmerer.  Where an infirmary was one of the monastic buildings, the infirmerer was in charge, overseeing the care of unwell and ailing monks.  Although they were standard components of Cistercian abbey complexes, there is some question about whether Valle Crucis included one or not.
  • Novicemaster.  The brother who oversaw the induction, ongoing care and overall wellbeing of the novices who entered the abbey, prior to taking their vows.
  • Refectorer. The brother in charge of the refectory, or dining hall, responsible for laying and clearing the tables, usually assisted by other brethren.
  • Kitchener. The brother who oversaw the kitchen, working closely with the refectorer and the cellarer to ensure that the monastery was fed according either to Cistercian guidelines or the abbot’s preferences.  Meals prepared for the abbot’s table, guests, the choir and lay brethren and for the infirm might be rather different for one another. There was also a safety element, as all meals were cooked over a fire, and it is thought distinctly possible that the mid 13th century fire at Valle Crucis originated in the monastic kitchen in the south range
  • Porter, who managed the gatehouse, responsible for permitting or barring entry to the monastic precinct.  The porter would also have been the first point of interaction with the monastic precinct for visitors, before they were handed over to the guest-master.  In the Benedictine Order there was also an almoner, who was responsible for allocating alms to the poor, but in Cistercian establishments, the porter doubled up as almoner. Quite how many visitors of this type would have been in the neighbourhood of Valle Crucis is yet to be determined.

Peter Dunn reconstruction of a kitchen in full swing at Rievaulx. Source: English Heritage

There is an assumption in the above that sufficient monks would have been required to complete all the daily tasks, and also that there were sufficient brethren available to fulfil these and other roles when required.  In the case of Valle Crucis, which may never have exceeded 12 choir monks,  life would have been less complex even when working together with the lay brethren; after the 14th century, when the lay brethren had vanished and the abbey leased out rather than working its lands, life was probably even less complicated.

Although the abbey was essentially silent whenever possible, the interaction required between these different roles would have sat outside that guideline, meaning that realistically, different levels of negotiation, conversation and silence would have been the daily norm, with strict silence only practised at certain times in specific places.

A chunk of the abbey’s budget was traditionally divided between each the obedientiaries to cover the costs of their activities, each given what was deemed to be an appropriate amount to manage their monastic duties.  It is not known  if all of these roles would have been fulfilled at Valle Crucis.  Although it is assumed that there was probably a gatehouse, nothing of it survives.  Similarly, if there was an infirmary at the abbey, no trace of it has been found.

Stairs built into the relocated pulpitum, perhaps once leading to an organ loft. Source: RCHAMW

The governing body of the Cistercians resisted musical instruments until 1486, when the General Chapter at Cîteaux decided that the organ was an acceptable adjunct to an abbey church.  It is thought that there was an organ loft late in the abbey’s history in the vicinity of the pulpitum, so an organist would evidently have been a member of the community, answerable to the precentor.

Even without a full-sized organ, beautiful musical accompaniment could be achieved by a portable “portative” organ, which is one of a number of instruments that could be used when an abbey could not afford an organ.  A portative organ can be seen in use by virtuosa Catalina Vicens in the YouTube video at the end of this post, producing the most unexpectedly rich, and enchanting sound, truly fabulous, slightly raw.  I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

Some monks were also given particular roles of responsibility within the monastery, known as obediences, each representing an aspect of monastic life, discussed below.

What is interesting is the degree to which the monastic organization formalizes functions, with both internal and external interactions formalized just as job descriptions are today.  Knowing what someone should be doing and how they should be doing it would have helped the abbot to monitor both the performance of the monastery as a whole and the effectiveness of the individual monks that contributed to its smooth running.   By ensuring that those with particular skillsets were put into suitable roles, the abbot could allocate his resources efficiently.  The founding monks were presumably chosen from the mother abbey with a view to fulfilling at least some of these roles from day one.  Young novice monks would have learned from their elders, and those who entered the community later in life might have brought other relevant experience and skills with them.  Balancing the books must have been a constant headache for the abbot, his prior and the cellarer.

Ordained priest-monks

Artist’s impression of one of the chapel pairs at Valle Crucis, based on the existing architecture, in the north and south transepts. By C. Jones-Jenkins

The two pairs of chapels in the Valle Crucis transepts were completed in the late 13th century, and were for the performance of mass by ordained priests.  The trend in abbey life for monks began to be ordained as priests met the specific need of conducting masses for the dead.  Although this was originally strictly forbidden by the early Cistercians, it became one of the important income streams of abbeys.  Donation of funds were made by those wishing to have masses said for themselves and their families in perpetuity.  Masses could only be conducted by those who had been trained and received the sacrament of Holy Orders, ordained by a bishop.  As masses were usually held daily, separate chapels became increasingly important within the abbey church to prevent interruption of other monastic activities, and were at first usually located in the transepts.  Valle Crucis only ever had four, but other monasteries might extend their abbey churches to add more.

Lay brothers (conversi)

Hailes Abbey showing the nave of the abbey church with conversi (lay brethren) divided from the more rarefied area occupied by choir monks.  By Peter Urmston. Source: English Heritage

The Cistercians were faced with a dilemma when the order was established.  Although the reforming order wanted to engage in both work and prayer (ora et labora) in good balance they also knew how much physical work was required to work the lands required to support a monastic house.   An early Cistercian document (Exordium Parvum XV, translated in Waddell’s Narrative and Legislative Texts, p. 435) expresses this dilemma very clearly:

Having spurned this world’s riches, behold! The new soldiers of Christ, poor with the poor Christ, began discussing by what planning, by what device, by what management they would be able to support themselves in this life, as well as their guests who came, both rich and poor, whom the Rule commands to welcome as Christ. It was then that they enacted a definition to receive, with their bishop’s permission, bearded lay-brothers, and to treat them as themselves in life and death – except that they might not become monks – and also hired hands; for without the assistance of these they did not understand how they could fully observe the precepts of the Rule day and night.

The lay brethren, conversi, were given a year, as novices, to make up their minds before they took the vows that bound them to the abbey and its estates.  The coversi were were not literate and were therefore not qualified to enter the abbey as fully fledged choir monks, but were an essential part of the Cistercian vision of economic self-sufficiency, and lived in a dormitory opposite that of the choir monks on the first floor of the west range.  They were not tonsured (the top of the head shaved), and were usually bearded.  They usually outnumbered the choir monks, particularly in abbeys with large land-holdings.  This model, based on the traditional manorial management of land, allowed the choir monks to remain within the monastic precinct, whilst the lay members of the community farmed and otherwise worked the monastic estates, and undertook general repairs of the monastery itself as well as related buildings and granges.  Of great importance, some of them were also the interface between the cloister and the outside world for matters concerning grange management, the replenishment of the monastery’s stores and the sale of any surplus at market.  Both choir and lay brethren were considered to be integral to Cistercian monasticism.

Artist’s impression of conversi in their refectory, showing lack of tonsure and beards. Source: Cistercians in Yorkshire

The conversi were apparently attracted by a number of features that were preferable to the alternative of working for a secular manor.  For one thing, they were members of a community that not only valued them, fed them and clothed them, but looked to their spiritual well-being.  For hard-working farming labourers who had little time to worry about such matters, this may have been a real draw.  In addition, in the face of poverty, the monastery provided security and stability.  Although their commitment to the abbey was directed towards sustaining it physically and economically rather than spiritually, the commitment of the lay brethren to the monastery’s lands was fundamental to the spiritual well-being of the monastery.

The use of conversi as farmers and herdsmen had gone into decline by the end of the 13th century.  There is some debate as to why this should have occurred.  The usual view is that the Black Death of 1349 largely wiped out the lay brethren, and this may well have been the case, but there is also an argument that lay brethren were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their lot, and that some of the abbeys were already moving towards leasing out their lands  by the mid 14th century, meaning that it was possible that the role of the conversi was already being undermined before the arrival of the plague.

Corrodians 

Corrodians seem like something of an anomaly in terms of the general running of a Cistercian establishment.  In return for a financial contribution or property, including land, a man might  buy a corrody, a type of pension, and retire within the monastic community.  They were common within the Benedictine order, a convention adopted by the Cistercians.  In return for corrodies, the corrodian would receive specified amounts of food, drink and clothing. It was not a glamorous way to see out life, but it offered safety, stability, some degree of company, the care of the monks during illness, and, immediately to hand, the provision of the last rites.  Proximity to all that monastic activity was also, as death approached, a step closer to salvation, as was burial within the monastic precinct. 

An example from 1530 is one John Howe who, in return for £20.00 (in modern terms £8,825.54 /4 horses /16 cows, according to the National Archives Currency Convertor) was entitled to a bed chamber, candles, food and drink twice daily, and items of clothing which were laundered at the monastery.  Given the date, only six years before Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in 1536, if John Howe was still alive at the time, he must have felt seriously aggrieved and may not have had the funds to find himself a new care home, unless he was able to persuade the authorities to compensate him.  Even then, it is unclear where he could have gone.

Final Comments on Parts 4 and 5

Monks in procession through Rievaulx Abbey in the 14th century (artist’s impression). Source: English Heritage

The religious life in an early Cistercian abbey was a combination of church services (liturgical offices and masses for the souls of the dead), scholarly activity and some manual labour.  Monks were generally not allowed to leave the monastic precinct, and unless they left to form a new monastery, might spend their entire lives in the company of their brethren.  It was important, therefore, that life in a Cistercian abbey was highly regulated, because rules and routines held the community together and allowed for transgressions and disputes to be resolved, usually by a mixture of encouragement, punishment and an awful lot of prayer.  In spite of attempts to maintain the standards of the Cistercian Order, there was a slow erosion of standards.

Although Valle Crucis was designed as a closed unit, like other Cistercian monasteries, there were limits to the extent to which this could be achieved.  Abbots and their seconds-in-command, priors, had rather more freedom because they were required to venture into the outside world on abbey business.  At least two abbots at Valle Crucis combined the job with the bishopric of St Asaph, a strange division between the cloistered life of the monastery and the more public life of the diocese.  This must have had an impact on the community as a whole, which must have been more dependent on the prior than was usual.  In so far as the rest of the community was concerned, individual monks might be thoroughly cloistered within the abbey, but others would have to interact with the outside world in order to maintain the abbey’s economic self-sufficiency. 

The combination of being withdrawn from the world, but simultaneously enmeshed in its political, economic and social complexities required dedicated interfaces between the monastery and the world beyond, not always a comfortable idea for monastic houses.  This apparent conflict between a mandate for seclusion and necessary connections with the world beyond the cloister was a defining feature of Cistercian abbeys.  Initially resolved by the incorporation of conversi into the monastic community, difficulties were presented when the conversi were no longer available.
fasfsadf

Next 

Part 6 will take a look at everyday activities at the monastery, to give an idea of how the monks lived their lives from day to day and year to year.

All parts of this Valle Crucis series of posts are available, as they are written by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/.

Sources for all parts

The bibliography for all of the Valle Crucis posts are in Part 1.
adsfsdfsd

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s