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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 23 - Interior of Abbey-Routine of daily services; Benefit to Society?


Let us go inside the abbey, and survey the arrangements and order of the house, and in particular, let us note how the monks pass the hours of the day. A pious and bounteous patron has done all in his power to exempt them from every mundane anxiety, and leave them at liberty to devote their every minute and their every thought to the performance of their spiritual duties. The lilies of the field which "toil not neither do they spin," are not more free from care than are the inhabitants of this little Eden. The primeval curse, which dooms man to eat his bread in the sweat of his face, is here unknown. Lands, tenements, immunities, heritages of every kind has David lavished upon them. Now comes the important question, as to what the men for whom so much has been done do for others? What are the services rendered to the world by those who possess such stores of wealth and such boundless leisure? This question we shall be better able to answer when we have seen the interior of the abbey and its routine of duties.

The monastic day was divided into seven times or periods. At each division the abbey bell was rung, the monks were assembled, and the service appointed for the hour was duly performed. The first division was PRIME, or six o’clock in the morning, the time being taken from the abbey dial, for clocks had not yet been invented. The monks rose at this hour, and after prayers said mass for the soul of the founder and benefactors. Breakfast of course followed. This meal dispatched, it might happen that a "chapter" required to be held. If a brother had transgressed the rules of the convent, or fallen into other fault, his case was brought under the consideration of the chapter, and he was dealt with as his offence was found to deserve. The discipline of the convent was very little spiritual. The peccant monk might have to undergo a flogging. This chastisement was administered with more or less severity. There was a rule, doubtless, regulating the number of stripes, but their intensity as well as number has to be taken into account in estimating the pain of the infliction; and seeing they were administered by sympathetic brethren who themselves might one day be overtaken in a fault, we may safely conclude that those whose duty it was to administer this discipline leaned to the side of leniency. Or the offender was arrayed in an old sack, or he had to walk bare-foot in his drawers, or perambulate the precincts of the convent carrying the lantern of penance. There was a touch of humour in this discipline, bet we may doubt whether it did much to convince of sin, or aid in the cultivation of holiness.

At nine O’clock of the forenoon came TIERCE, which was marked by no special duty. The forenoon was spent by the fathers in the occupation or amusement which was most congenial to the taste of each. Some betook them to study, others to the copying of manuscripts, especially the writings of the fathers and the legends of the saints, or the embellishing of missals. These last were executed with a rare skill, an amazing accuracy, and a rich and brilliant beauty. Others of the fathers have a taste for gardening, spent the hours in this delightful occupation.

 

At noon came SEXT. The monks, throwing down book, and pen, and spade, crowded into the refectory, and sat down to dinner. One and all dined at the same table. They ate in silence, while one of their number read to them. The topics of conversation were not then numerous, and the members of the brotherhood had many other opportunities of exchanging ideas, and the book at meal-time was the more endurable inasmuch as no one was compelled to listen. The good monks, engrossed in their dish, might even be altogether oblivious of what was being read.

The NONES were from two to three, when the monks, having dined, walked in the garden or strolled outside the grounds of the abbey, or chatted with the burghers of the Canongate, with whom they commonly lived in good neighbourhood. At four O’clock, or it might be later, came Vespers. At seven all were expected to be within doors to sing COMPLINE. After this supper was served, and this last meal of the day ended, the fathers retired to their several dormitories and laid them down on a straw or chaff mattress, beneath a single coverlet with a taper which burned in their cells all night through. At midnight they were again summoned from their beds to mattins and laud. These duly performed, they went back to their dormitories and slept till PRIME. They then arose to go through the same routine. So passed the day, so passed all the days of the year, and passed all the years of life. The conventual brotherhood, like a clock wound up, went on day after day and year after year, striking prime, and tierce, and sext, and compline, till death came and rang the great final compline, and the poor monk fell into a deeper sleep and a profounder silence than even that of the convent, from which, let us fondly hope, not a few awoke to sing mattins and laud in the morning light of the eternal day.1

Let us enumerate the officers of the abbey, with their several functions. Our description is not restricted to a particular abbey, it applies to that whole class of institutions. An abbey was not much of a church, and though coming under the category of a religious establishment, the spirit dominant in it was not religious, but secular and worldly. It was a kingdom in miniature.

First came the abbot. He was the monarch of the little kingdom. He exercised autocratic sway. He must obey the rule of the abbey: it was his first duty, even as the first duty of the inmates was to obey the abbot. A high and mighty lord was the abbot. His state and magnificence were regal. When he rode out all must show him obeisance, and in order to this he was preceded by his chaplains carrying the ensigns of his dignity. When he visited a church or a monastery the bells were rung, the priests and monks came forth, and forming in procession, welcomed him with every mark of honour and token of reverence. The mitred abbots took precedence of the others. In virtue of the temporal barony attached to their office they sat in Parliament, road to battle in a coat of mail, appeared on the hunting-field with a hawk on their wrist, or went the circuit as judges. The abbot could bestow investiture of knighthood, and sometimes he stood sponsor for the children of the blood royal.

After the abbot came the prior. He was in the priory what the abbot was in the abbey, its head and chief. When the prior resided in the abbey he was of course the subordinate of the abbot, his vice-gerent. In the absence of the abbot he exercised his authority, which, of course, he demitted on the abbot's return. The prior too was a very worshipful personage, and was waited on with every mark of respect and reverence. He had horses and servants for his use, and when he showed himself in public his train was nearly as imposing as that of the abbot, to whom he was held to be not greatly inferior in wisdom and holiness. He had the power of imprisoning refractory canons, though not of expelling them from the community. There was a prior for every ten canons.

The functionary next in rank was the precentor or chanter. This office could be filled only by a monk who had been educated in the monastery from a child. He presided over the psalmody, an office of great importance, seeing monastic worship consisted largely of choral services. The precentor was charged with the care of other things besides the chants. He was keeper of the sacred robes; he distributed to each the dress in which he was to appear at the public festivals, and when the procession marched out he took his place at the head of it. He was, moreover, custodier of the archives, in other words chief librarian, an office not very onerous in those days.

Next came the cellarer. He was chief of the commissariat of the abbey or priory. He was to see to the proper victualling of the establishment, and mete out daily provision for the inmates. He must take care that there was no scarcity in the abbey barn, and no stint or pinch at the refectory table. He must permit no one to sit down to dinner till first the abbot and prior have taken their seats, and when the repast has ended, he must collect the spoons and other vessels and carry them to the kitchen, where they were to remain under his charge. He was to do special honour to the abbot’s spoon, by carrying it in his right hand and the spoons of the canons in his left.

Next came the Treasurer or bursar. He collected the rents of the abbey estates, discharged the wages of the servants, and paid all moneys due for work done for the abbey. The Sacristan was to uncover the altar after the gospel, and carry a lantern before the priest as he went from the altar to the lectern. He had the charge of the sacred vestments, bells, banners, cups, candles, altar-cloths, and wafers for communion. He had the privilege of sleeping in the church, which was allowed to no one else, without special permission from the abbot. Another officer was the Almoner. Among other duties proper to his office, the almoner had to buy cloth and shoes, and distribute them to widows and orphans at Christmas. He had to collect the wine left at table after dinner, and bestow it in alms. The Cook presided in the kitchen, with a staff of assistants. The office was never conferred on any but such as had made the art their study. The Infirmarer, as his name imports, had charge of the sick, taking care of their meals, and every day, after compline, sprinkling their beds with holy water. He was to see that no one remained in bed on pretence of being ill when mattins and laud were being sung, and before midnight he went round the wards of his infirmary, lantern in hand, to ascertain who were really ill and who were only lazy. In cases of sudden death he was empowered to hear confession and administer absolution. Next came the Porter. He held a responsible trust, seeing the safety of the community depended on his fidelity. A monk of middle age and of established character was commonly selected for this post. He slept at the gate, and when the bell was rung for compline he locked the outer doors and carried the keys to the abbot.

The Refectioner, as the name implies, had charge of all that appertained to the refectory table—its cups, pots, dishes, towels; he must see that all are clean. He was bound to provide fresh rushes five times a year wherewith to strew the floor of the refectory, and also to deal out the wine to the monks which was fetched from the abbot’s cellar. The Chamberlain had charge of the apartments. He was responsible for the bedding, clothes, combs, and other necessaries of the monks. He was "once a year to have the dormitory swept, and the straw of the beds changed." "The monks were to go to the baths when he saw it necessary."2 Last of all came the Hospitaller. His duty was to receive the stranger pr the wayfaring poor, and conduct them to the hospice of guest-chamber.

Such was the internal arrangement of the abbey and priory. It was perfect. From its head, the abbot, who sat in solemn state in his sumptuously furnished chamber, down to the porter and hospitaller, who waited at the gate to receive the pilgrim, every one had his place and his work, and the establishment went on with the steadiness and regularity of a skilfully constructed machine. Duly the abbey bell was rung. Duly the monks come forth at its summons from their cells, with psalm and chant. Duly the festivals of the church were observed. Duly candle was lighted on the tomb of the founder and mass said for his soul. Duly the fathers sat down to dine and retired to sleep. The order, the punctuality, and the obedience of the little community are admirable; but we are tempted to say, "go forward, you but march in a circle." You have chanted, meditated, and prayed long enough within the abbey walls, open the gates and let all this pent-up devotion have vent in work undertaken in the outside world. Of what use are all these pious acts and holy thoughts if they perish on the spot where they had birth, and do not bear fruit for the well-being of men? The country which has made over the best of its broad acres for your use, expects some such service at your hands, and if it is not rendered there is no reason why the abbey should exist at all; for surely the abbey is here for the country, and not the country for the abbey.

In closing the chapter we turn for a m moment to the question, how far did the abbeys and monasteries contribute to the enlightenment of their age and the progress of civilization? Some have landed these institutions as inestimable, and bewailed their overthrow as an irreparable loss to the cause of knowledge and religion. We have no wish to depreciate their services; on the contrary, we are willing to estimate them at the very highest; still we are unable to see that the world owes them much, or had any great cause to regret their extinction. We may admit that few of their inmates, despite the inherent vitiousness of the system, were worthy persons; that they were better informed than the majority of layme4n of their time; that some of the showed equal diligence and skill in transcribing manuscripts and illuminating missals; that they knew a little surgery, gave alms out of their abundance, and were always ready with their welcome to the palmer, from whom, in return for the good cheer of the monastery, they hoped to hear the news of the country from which he had come. We may also grant that their estates and farms were better cultivated than the lands of their neighbours, their richer capital and more numerous serfs enabling them to practice an advanced husbandry. And we are delighted also to think that in the monastery there were a few truly pious souls who had come to the knowledge and love of the Saviour from some page of Augustine or some verse of the Bible, and who cherished the divine life in that ungenial air, by drinking at secret springs, nor drinking alone, for sometimes they would succeed in leading others to the same living waters; but when we have enumerated all this, we have given the sum of all that monasteries did for their age.

On the other side, what, we ask, was their religion? What power could it possibly have in expanding the understanding or purifying the heart? It cannot be evident to all that it lay mainly in meats and drinks, in the wearing of a certain habit, in the practice of fasts and penances, in the regular performance of certain ceremonies, in the repetition of certain chants and prayers, in burning tapers and singing masses. But where is the record of their labours in planting schools, in instructing the young, in consoling the sick and dying, or in carrying the light of Christianity to pagan lands. We possess the splendid record of the Church of Columbia; we see her missionaries hastening across seas with the tidings of life to nations sitting in darkness. But where have we such record of the Roman Church in Scotland? So far from dispelling the night she permitted the darkness to grow deeper, century after century, till Scotland, once the school of Europe, had become well-nigh as barbarous a land as before its great apostle stepped upon its shore.

It is often pleaded that the monastic institutions of Rome were the best arrangements for the public good which the age admitted of. There is not a particle of truth or force in this plea. It is effectually rebutted by the fact that at an earlier age, and in times still more unpropitious, it was found possible to set up and keep working a class of institutions, of a far higher order both intellectually and religiously. No age could be darker, and no country more barbarous than was Scotland when Columba crossed the sea to plant it with schools of the evangelical faith. The Columban institutions, instead of succumbing to the darkness around them, grappled with it and conquered it. If the abbey had a particle of spiritual power in it would have triumphed in like manner. The fact is, it never made the attempt. As the abbey system developed the degeneracy of the age increased; the darkness thickened ; arts and letters had risen with Iona, and they fell with Iona. The expert scribe and the cunning artificer disappeared from Scotland. The refinement of past centuries had given place to semi-barbarism; while the abbey, rich in broad acres, in holy chimes and rosy monks, looked complacently down on a dying land which its grandeur mocked. In truth, the "abbey" created the age, and what some make its defence is its strongest condemnation. The Piety of the abbey was pantomime, its learning was dilletanteism, and its civilization lacquered barbarism. In order to save the last vestiges of enlightenment and religion it was found necessary at least to clear away the system altogether. It was fit only for children and dotards, and if ever again the world shall fall back into dotage it will restore the monastic system.


FOOTNOTES

1. See Monasticon, i. 8, 9, 10.

2. Monasticon, i. 15.


 

 


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