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Survivals of Monastic Days

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The term monastery, meaning a house for monks, seems at first to have been applied to all religious houses of retirement, whether for men or women, but in course of time, while monks and nuns were housed in abbeys and priories, the former under abbots and priors, and the latter under abbesses and prioresses, it became the custom to call the house for nuns nunneries or convents, and those for monks monasteries. The monastic system has been incidentally referred to in the chapters dealing with Cathedrals, Abbeys and Priories, and the present chapter is a general outline of the life and existing remains of monk and friar and their ancient buildings respectively.

If the part played by monks and friars in the life of medieval Britain were cut out of our rough island story what is left would be very much like the play of Hamlet with the role of the Prince of Denmark omitted.

It is difficult to-day to realize how these monks and friars dominated contemporary affairs. The remains of the great abbeys, like Fountains and Glastonbury, Melrose and Whitby, give some hint of the magnificent institutions they kept up. But these silent witnesses to power give little evidence as to the manner of men who lived in them, what were their thoughts.

To grasp what the monks and friars really were we have first to remember that at that time the great bulk of the nation lived by tilling the soil. You can plough a straight furrow without any knowledge of Euclid, and not only were the villeins and farmers illiterate, but also many of the nobility.

It was the monks, therefore, masters of those mysteries, reading, writing and arithmetic, who became the natural advisers of the people, as the nobles became their oppressors. They took upon them the surveillance of such matters as law and order.

The abbey became, as it were, the headquarters of civil life in its district. The king and the great barons were usually far away in London, or fighting in the Crusades or the French wars. So the farmer with a serious doubt or a very grave grievance took it to the local abbey. "The shirt," he used to say, "is nearer than the coat."

Thus these abbeys, being so useful to the plain people, became more and more plentiful, and waxed exceedingly rich. Pious persons left them lands and money, and royally the abbots spent this wealth. They kept open house. There were no hotels in those days.

In the reign of Alfred the Great it was a proud boast that a man with a girdle of gold on his person could pass in safety from one end of the land to another. It was the triumph and justification of the monastic system that a wayfarer could find bed and board wherever he went, travelling on his lawful occasions. It is true that there were not many travellers. But for those who had to pass from place to place, the abbey was their hotel - and there was no bill. One could sleep at one monastery, dine at a second, and sleep again at a third. To some extent, no doubt, this accounts for the exceeding popularity, among the ordinary folk, of abbot and monk.

The explanation of Friar Tuck's popularity is the clue to the entire position. The monks were a community, men of possessions, and great landlords. The friars, as their name, frere, or brother, implies, were poor, belonging not to a rich abbey or monastery, but to an Order. They wandered from place to place, sleeping sometimes in a castle and sometimes in a hut, but always welcome. They brought to hamlet or hall the news of the great world beyond. They were, in fact, the journalists of the Middle Ages. The monks were feared, the friars loved. Hence the popularity of Friar Tuck and his like.

Their intimate touch with the life of the people has left its trace in our place-names. The friars were popular idols. London, considered historically, is a suburb of London Bridge, where the aboriginal Britons had found a ford, crossing the Thames from stone to stone at low water. The Romans, whose inspiration it was to drive the road and build the bridge, made a safe crossing where previously there was only a ford. Centuries later, another bridge was made. It was called Blackfriars, because the Dominicans, or preaching friars, had their headquarters at its northern end.

As a matter of fact, this headquarters was the place which is now known as Printing-House Square, where "The Times" newspaper is printed. So is continued the ancient tradition of the news gatherers and distributors, and of the lay preachers, the first journalists, the abstract and brief chroniclers of the times.

Nor is that the only link between past and present in this neighbourhood. Within a stone's throw of Blackfriars Bridge is Carmelite Street. The Carmelites were known as the White Friars, because they wore a white band on their black robes. Whitefriars Street, which perpetuates their memory, is within a few yards of Carmelite Street.

No order has a tradition more ancient than that of the Carmelites. If we are to believe the accounts that descended by word of mouth from father to son, the Carmelites began their history - and took their name - from an old Jewish monastery settled at Mount Carmel long before Rome was. The Carmelites inaugurated a very severe rule. They wore sandals, as a sign of humility, and gave themselves up to constant prayer, as a sign of grace. But it was probabry the Order of S. Benedict that made more impression on medieval life than any other. The Benedictine Order spread, like a fiery cross, over Europe. Founded in the sixth century, by the time it reached the twelfth it had established a brilliant and startling record. It had given the world twenty-four popes and two hundred cardinals.

There were many other orders, each appealing to a different section of the populace. The Dominicans or Black Friars, who gave their name to Blackfriars Bridge, were a severe order of preachers. They were abstemious, they practised fasts and imposed penances on themselves, and they left their beds at midnight to say their prayers. And they sold all that they had to give to the poor and lived on charity, begging their bread from door to door.

In this respect, of indifference to money, they were as like the Franciscans, or Friars of Orders Grey, as they were unlike the wealthy landlord Benedictine monks. The Franciscans were largely recruited from the poor. But they gave England one of its greatest men in Roger Bacon.

The Carthusians, who gave us the Charterhouse, now perhaps the only hermitage left in London - in the shape of an almshouse - were like the Benedictines, famous for a liqueur, Chartreuse. In the reign of terror, when the monasteries were suppressed, they had three priors executed and nine monks starved to death at Smithfield. Their tradition remains. At Horsham, in the county of Sussex, there is to-day a Carthusian priory, where visitors can see the ancient monastic life lived now as it was centuries ago.

Alcuin, who lived in the eighth century, was probably one of the ideal monks of the Anglo-Saxon period. He was a scholar, and Charlemagne invited him to his court. He told wine-bibbing priests that they would do better to study the Scriptures, and he allowed others to hunt, if they brought back enough skins to make parchment for more pious brothers to use in copying good books and histories.

But the bad monks ultimately brought the good into disfavour. The populace, which loved the good monk and wandering friar when they were poor, began to hate them when they became rich and dissolute. The scandal stories passed by word of mouth, and King Henry VIII took advantage of this feeling when he suppressed the monasteries. By promising some of the spoils to the barons he got them easily on his side.

But before we agree with the finding that corruption stained the religious orders - in monasteries and nunneries - -we may well reflect that the good fathers who gave us the noble monasteries like Glastonbury and Melrose and Fountains could not all have been irretrievably bad. They built their monuments to the glory of God.

Brief reference only can be made to surviving monastic buildings. Most cathedrals have their ancient remnants, as the west walk cloisters at Wells. Interesting survivals are the banqueting hall of Cleeve Abbey, Greyfriars monastery at Canterbury, Prior Candon's chapel at Castle Acre, Mount Grace Priory, established in 1397 and regarded as the most perfect Carthusian monastery in England, S. Andrew's Hall at Norwich, originally the nave of a Dominican priory church of the fifteenth century, the remains of the Cistercian nunnery of Whiteladies. The last-mentioned, in Worcestershire, is near Shifnal, and was founded towards the close of the twelfth century. It was called Whiteladies to distinguish it from the Blackladies convent in Staffordshire. The Priory Park at Chichester is a field containing the Early English remains of a Grey Friars monastery, afterwards used as the guildhall. There is a fine east window of five graded lancets.

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