Monastic Habits in Medieval Worcester

By Mason, Emma | History Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Monastic Habits in Medieval Worcester


Mason, Emma, History Today


The monastery was the focus of the local community in many medieval towns. Emma Mason describes the way of life of the monks and the young people in their care in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Information on the lives of eleventh-century monks can sometimes be gleaned from snippets in charters, but more illuminating are the Lives of bishops and abbots, usually written soon after their deaths. At this time, individuals were still proclaimed as saints by their local monastic communities. Works of hagiography were produced in order to spread the cult of such men. Priests used informal translations of these Latin Lives in homilies, or informal sermons, demonstrating to the laity the ways in which these people were examples of holy living. Although Lives followed a set pattern, each contained anecdotal material from which we can reconstruct something of the monastic environment of the eleventh century.

The monks of Worcester cathedral priory at the time have left better evidence of their daily lives than have most of their contemporaries. Worcester in the eleventh century was a major centre of cultural activity. Two surviving library lists record the books available for the use of its monks, and indicate the works which helped to shape their thoughts and values. There is also a cartulary, or charter-register, compiled around 1100 by a sub-prior called Hemming.

Hemming's Cartulary contains some anecdotal material embedded in the copied texts of charters. The manuscript also includes a brief Life of Wulfstan, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Worcester, who held office from 1062 to his death in January 1095. This is written in Latin, with an English translation. A more substantial English Life of Bishop Wulfstan was written by Coleman, who had been chancellor, or head of secretariat, to the late bishop. This work provides the most extensive evidence for life in the cathedral priory during the mid- and late-eleventh century, with its wealth of anecdotal material.

Coleman chose English to emphasise Wulfstan's embodiment of traditional values, but this rendered his text of little use by the early twelfth century, when few people could still read English. Prior Warin (c.1124-42) commissioned a Latin translation by William of Malmesbury, the leading monastic writer of the time, who enlivened the Life by omitting chunks of Coleman's solemn prose, and by including anecdotes which he had learned from Nicholas, prior of Worcester c.1114-24, and Frewine, who had been a young clerk in the bishop's familia (or secretariat) in Wulfstan's last years. Variations on some anecdotes, together with some new ones, are found in William's The Lives of the English Bishops, which was aimed at a wider readership, while the limited focus of the hagiographer is enlarged to some extent by related episodes from The Chronicle of John of Worcester, an in-house historical work which was begun in the 1090s and continued down to the 1140s.

The Rule of St Benedict, the basic code of conduct for the monks, took its name from Benedict of Nursia, who lived in Italy during the early sixth century, following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. The Rule was designed for small communities of men living in retreat from the violence around them, dividing their time between a disciplined round of prayer, or monastic offices, and the manual work, chiefly agricultural, which sustained them. Promotion of the Rule of St Benedict by Pope Gregory I (590-604) led to its spread throughout Western and Central Europe. By around 800, interpretation of the Rule at the Carolingian court, placed more emphasis on intellectual work and far less on manual activity, while more time was spent on the round of prayer.

In England, King Edgar promoted a monastic reformation which led to the production, c.970, of the Regularis Concordia (The Concordance of Rules), which drew on a range of recent Continental reforms. The English reform placed strong emphasis on prayers for the king and queen, as patrons of all those living under a Rule, and prayers for the stability of their realm.

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