The politics and economics of an English abbey

If your image of the monastic life centers on quiet and contemplation, allow me to mess with your head. 

Fountains Abbey is in York–that’s up in the north of England–and it functioned from the 12th century until 1529, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It may well have been a place of contemplation for some people, but it was also deeply involved in politics and the economy. And according to a new archeological find, it was a noisy and industrialized place, at least in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

 

Lay brothers and the social order

Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks who decided that their monastery in York was too rowdy. Idleness and guzzling get a mention. They moved some 30 miles away, to land given them by Archbishop Thurstan, and there they de-Benedictiined themselves, becoming Cistercian monks, so that–as the National Trust tells it–they could live a simple and devout life. The Cistercians were known as a more austere order than the Benedictines. 

The Cistercian goal was to be self-sufficient and live “far from the haunts of men,” and monks were expected to study and pray as well as work 30 hours a week. The problem was that 30 hours of work wasn’t enough to keep the fields plowed, the assorted works working, and the livestock–not to mention the people–fed. Since the hours spent in prayer and study were non-negotiable and even monks have to sleep, the small print in the Cistercian contract allowed them to incorporate lay brothers, who were called conversi

Everything that mattered back then happened in Latin.  

Irrelevant photo: I’ll never remember the name of this flower. A friend called it “that tall ethereal thing” and that’s blocked out the name.

The lay brothers were non-monks and they were there to do the heavy lifting. Also the skilled lifting, the stone quarrying, the horse breeding, the sheep shifting, and the–well, you get the drift here: the work that wasn’t suitable for monks. 

Lay brothers were part of the order but they weren’t full monks. Think of them as monklets. They wore a shorter version of the Cistercian habit so it wouldn’t get in their way, and they swore obedience to the abbot and followed the rules about chastity and poverty. Or they didn’t follow them–I wasn’t there and I can’t say for certain–but they were supposed to. Let’s settle for that. 

The division between lay brother and monk transferred the medieval class system directly into the abbey, which shouldn’t surprise us, really. It’s rare for people’s thinking to break the mold their society creates, and the religious groups that did quickly came into conflict with both church and state and developed a habit of getting squashed  Read the history of the Cathars if the topic interests you. I don’t claim to know it in any depth, but what I do know of it is fascinating. 

Lay brothers were from a lower class than the monks–or as a Herefordshire government post puts it, the lay brother was “often from a lower status background.”

Lay brothers lived separately from the monks, prayed a shortened form of the prayers, and were the secret ingredient that allowed the monastery to stay afloat. To the extent that the monks were able to retreat into contemplation and prayer, it was because the lay brothers were contemplating less and working more. They even had shortened prayers they could recite while working. The two groups formed separate communities within the abbey.

The order’s rules didn’t allow a lay brother to become a monk, quoting (what else) the Bible to back up the feudal structure, which was all encompassing and must have seemed inevitable: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.” 

Most lay brothers would have been illiterate, but the few that could read weren’t allowed to.  Jocelin of Furness tells a story of  a lay-brother who (as the Digital Humanities Institute tells the tale) “was influenced by the devil to learn to read, but ultimately realised the errors of his ways and repented of his sin.”  And so everyone was locked back into his slot, order was restored, and the devil took up crocheting, which was more satisfying anyway.

 

The monastery’s early years

It was winter when the original 13 monks moved to Fountains, and they brought not much more than some bread–and I’d assume some tools, although they don’t get mentioned. They slept under a tree, covering themselves with straw and anything else they could find that would keep them warm.

I mention tools because they built a chapel (the early buildings were wooden) and dug a garden. Unless you have stone-age skills, you don’t do that without a toolkit. But it makes a better story if they brought nothing but bread.

Have you ever tried felling a tree with nothing but a loaf of bread? 

The community struggled, surviving a famine year when they were driven to adding elm leaves to their pottage, making a bitter soup.

Austere living and vows of poverty are one thing, but this was a bit more poverty and austerity than they’d bargained for, and the abbot was in the process of negotiating a move to France, where they could start over on more promising land, when they were saved by the wealth of a new recruit, who’d been the dean of York Minster. He brought money, books, and furniture to the community.

Two more wealthy recruits, also from York Minster, followed. One of them, Serlo, wrote, “What perfection of life was there at Fountains! What rivalry in virtue! What zeal for the Order! What a pattern of discipline! Our early fathers departed from a wealthy monastery, but they made up for all that abundance of worldly riches by the abundance of their virtues. They became a spectacle to angels and to men and studied from the first to leave that rule of holy religion which by the favour of God remains to this day unimpaired.”

Which is ironic, coming from someone whose wealth helped save the monastery.

Money, gifts, and recruits flowed in and the abbey prospered and set up daughter houses elsewhere. Why a group of celibate males had daughter instead of son houses is anyone’s guess, but never mind. The abbey became an important force in both church and secular politics. Enough so that it got on the wrong side of an archbishop, which led to a mob attacking the monastery and burning everything except the church. 

Yes, friends, it’s a wonderful thing to sit among the powerful and piss people off.

They rebuilt, bigger and better (and in stone), and eventually made peace with the deposed and by then re-posed archbishop, who visited the abbey and died shortly afterward amid rumors of poison having been dropped into his chalice. I repeat how wonderful it is to join the games of the rich and powerful. Eat well, piss people off, and die young.

Before he died, though, the archbishop confirmed the abbey’s possessions, and he didn’t say this, so I will: The vows of poverty applied to individuals, not to the abbey itself. That business with the elm leaves in the pottage hadn’t been fun.

From there on, a lot of the abbey’s history is about more building, more recruits, and more daughter houses. Not to mention more money and more power, with breaks here and there for financial crises that it recovered from. 

When Henry VIII stomped in to dissolve it, it was the richest Cistercian abbey in Britain.

 

The abbey as a business

What was that wealth based on? Wool, which was also the base of much of England’s wealth at the time. Land, of course. The abbey’s land holdings were huge. Also lead mining, much of which was off site, and in the 15th century, the abbey came into an unseemly conflict with an Augustinian priory about mining rights.

At Fountains itself, it had an industrial-sized tannery, which has only recently been found.

The tannery was–necessarily–right on the river that runs through the abbey. Think about water pollution, if you would. Hides were tanned using lime and urine, and tanneries were known as dirty, smelly places. 

After the tannery’s discovery, archaeologist Mark Newman said, “We see now that the tannery was much closer [to the abbey] and a far cry from the idea of a quiet, tranquil abbey community.” 

The number of people working at Fountains would have been unusual for the time, making the monks “the first ones to apply themselves to these industrial scales of living and managing the landscape”.Fountains recruited hundreds of lay brothers. 

Today, Fountains Abbey is a picturesque ruin and its grounds are quiet and beautiful. But Newman said, “It is so easy with a place like Fountains to think this is exactly as the monks saw it. What we are finding is that there is a whole unrecognised history.”