In The Footsteps Of The White Monks

WhereGreat Broughton Village HallType of EventTalk
WhenMonday 19th June 2017 at 7.30pmTutor Jan Cooper

Jan introduced the evening by explaining that the White Monks are the Cistercians, a reforming Order of Monks. Since white was the colour of reform they chose to wear habits of coarse undyed wool and therefore became known as White Monks. 

In 1098 a group of Cluniac monks broke away from their Order, determined to follow a simpler life style and follow more strictly the Rule of St. Benedict. They founded Citeaux Abbey near Dijon, France. The main impetus for the new Order came when Bernard of Clairvaulx became leader of the Order in 1134. In the century following, the Order had spread across Europe. By the 1150s there were over eighty Cistercian monasteries in England. That number finally rose to around two hundred.

The Cistercians were an austere Order. They built their abbeys in remote, often hostile, places. The monks were given just two habits, one blanket and some woollen stockings. They followed a meagre vegetarian diet. The original emphasis was on seclusion, prayer, manual labour and self-sufficiency. They did, however, introduce lay brothers to undertake more menial tasks. Jan Cooper pointed to an increasing irony: although the Cistercians valued a simple life, through sheep and the wool trade the Order became wealthy.

The Order in England did suffer set-backs. In 1280 sheep scab had a devastating effect, resulting in some abbeys being bankrupted. After the Black Death numbers of monks and lay brothers were seriously affected and the Order was compelled to employ outside labour. This increased involvement with the outside world eventually resulted in a gradual decline in the strictness of their regime.

With the Reformation in the 1530s some abbeys were destroyed, some converted into houses.

Jan then introduced her choice of Cistercian Abbeys, treating us, through a slide show, to the history and architecture of each.

Rievaulx Abbey.

Founded in 1132 and in its heyday consisting of 91 acres and with 150 choir monks and 500 lay brothers. Jan talked about its origins and the sequence of partial and new re-builds; also the transition from rounded to Gothic windows.

She identified some key buildings.

The Chapter House, with its unique outside aisle.

The Great Refectory, re-built three times to accommodate increasing numbers.

The Lavatorium where they washed before meals. The Mandatum (ritual foot washing) was also carried out here every Saturday.

The 140-foot square Cloister, the largest of its time.

The warming house.

Fountains Abbey.

Founded by a group of monks who had been expelled from St. Mary’s Abbey, York, the abbey became one of the largest in England. 

Key buildings were:

The Guest House, containing washing facilities and water-flushed latrines.

The partially reconstructed Galilee Porch – a feature of all Cistercian abbeys.

The Mill, the best-preserved in Europe, operating until 1937.

Byland Abbey.

The monks who founded Byland were originally of the Savignac Order at Furness Abbey. They first founded a daughter house at Calder but after repeated attacks by the Scots they fled back to Furness and eventually travelled east into Yorkshire. Byland is the first abbey in the English Gothic style, very different from the simple, unadorned French style. At Byland there is rich carving and decoration picked out in colour.

The Rose Window, 333 feet long; at the time the largest in Europe.

The floor tiles: an exceptional feature.

Roche Abbey. The “Abbey of the Rock”, South Yorkshire.

Roche is a very small abbey but unusual in that, spanning a river, it has two patrons and two land-owners. All that remains, apart from the Great Gate House, are buildings at low level: a result of a decision by Capability Brown to reduce their height to open up the vista!

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire.

This is an example of an abbey converted into a house, following the Reformation. It originally was an Elizabethan house and subsequently a Georgian mansion.

Mount St. Bernard, Leicestershire.

This is the only “working” Cistercian monastery in England, founded by re-formed Cistercians of the Strict Observance, sometimes known as Trappist Monks.

The church was designed by Pugin and is unadorned, very like the early abbeys before the adornments introduced at Byland.

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