Academic journal article Magistra

Ritual and Ceremony at Barking Abbey

Academic journal article Magistra

Ritual and Ceremony at Barking Abbey

Article excerpt

The early fifteenth century Ordinale and Customary of the Benedictine Nuns of Barking Abbey bears witness to a liturgical tradition which dates from c. 666, when St. Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey, brought St. Hildelith from Faremoutier to train his sister, St. Ethelburga, first abbess of Barking, in proper liturgical practice.1 In addition to directions for liturgical usages, the Ordinale and Customary provides much information concerning the religious practice of the abbey.2 Of particular interest are the descriptions of liturgies conducted by the nuns on major feast days such as Easter, and on the days of saints especially venerated at Barking. It is the purpose of this article to examine the directions provided in the Ordinale and Customary for these important ceremonies in order to gain insight into the ritual and liturgy of an important English house of nuns of the Benedictine order.

The Benedictine abbeys of St. Mary of Barking and St. Peter of Chertsey were founded in or about the year 666 CE. by St. Erkenwald, who was named bishop of London somewhat later.3 According to Bede:

Before he became bishop, Earconwald had built two well-known monasteries, one for himself and the other for his sister Ethelburga, and had established an excellent regular discipline in both houses. His own monastery stood by the river Thames at Cerotaesei [Chertsey] - meaning Cerot's island - in the district of Surrey. The convent where his sister was to rule as mother and instructress of women devoted to God was at a place called In-Berecingum [Barking] in the province of the East Saxons. Entrusted with the affairs of this convent, she always bore herself in a manner worthy of her brother the bishop, upright of life and constantly planning for the needs of her community, as heavenly miracles attest.4

Bede did not discuss the daily life and organization of the monasteries, but focused instead upon the miracles observed at Barking. It is possible, however, to ascertain from his comments some aspects of the structure. His narrative makes clear that Barking was a double monastery, with men living separately from the women, and that the grounds contained an oratory and graveyards for the monks and nuns. One of the miracles concerns a young boy who was "being brought up and taught his lessons in the cell of the virgins," a reference which indicates that the nuns were involved with education from the earliest days of the monastery.5

Further, Bede makes clear that Ethelburga and her sisters were devoted to strict observance of the liturgical ritual, naming a nun Tortgyth who "helped the Mother to maintain the regular observances by instructing and correcting the younger sisters."6 According to Bede, Ethleberga was "succeeded in the office of abbess by a devout servant of God named Hildilid, who ruled the convent with great energy until extreme old age, promoting observance of the regular discipline and making provision for the needs of the Community."7

The diligence of the early abbesses with regard to both monastic rigor and intellectual activity is reflected in another source from the seventh century, De Virginitate by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne, which was written for the nuns of Barking Abbey.8 Naming several of the nuns in his dedication, Aldhelm praised Abbess Hildlith, "teacher of the regular discipline and of the monastic way of life," saying that her letters made clear the "ecclesiastical compacts" of her sworn vows and that "the mellifluous studies of the Holy Scriptures were manifest in the extremely subtle sequence of [her] discourse."9

He expressed his admiration for her "extremely rich verbal eloquence," and praised the nuns, who were "growing learned in divine doctrine through the Church's maternal care."10 Aldhelm continued by praising their diligence, comparing them to bees gathering "honeyed moisture," and remarked that they were learned in the "four- fold" method of scriptural interpretation. …

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