One of the most subtle operations of time is the tendency it has to transform the facts of one age into the phantasies of another, and to cause the dreams of the past to become the realities of the present. Far away in the remote distance of history, when a lonely monk in his cell mused of vessels going without sails and carriages without horses, it was a dream – a mere dream, produced probably by a brain disordered by over study, long vigils, and frequent fasts, but that dream of the thirteenth century has become the most incontrovertible fact of the nineteenth, a fact to whose influence all other hitherto immovable facts are giving way, even the great one, the impregnability of the Englishman’s castle; for we find that before the obstinate march of one of these railway facts a thousand Englishmen’s castles fall prostrate, and a thousand Englishmen are evicted, their avocations broken up, and themselves turned out upon the world as a new order of beings – outcasts with compensation.
The monastic life, so commonly regarded in these later times as a phantasy, was once a fact, a great universal fact; it was a fact for twelve or thirteen centuries; and when we remember that it extended its influence from the sunny heights of Palestine, across Europe, to the wild, bleak shores of western Ireland; that it did more in the world for the formation and embellishment of modern civilization than all the governments and systems of life the accompanied it in its course; that the best portions of ancient literature, the materials of history, the secrets of art, are the pearls torn from its treasure-house, we may form some idea of what a fact the monastic life must have been at one time, and may venture to assert that the history of that phase of existence, as in frock and cowl it prayed, and watched, and fasted; as in its quiet cloisters it studied, and copied, and labored; as outside its walls it mingled its influence with the web of human destiny, and as in process of time, becoming wealthy and powerful, it degenerated, and went the way of all human things – we say that the history of the development of this extinct world, however defective the execution of that history may be, will include in its review some of the most interesting portions of our national career, will furnish a clue to many of the mazes of historical speculation, or at least may be suggestive to some more able intellect of a course of investigation which has been very little followed, and a mine of truth which to a great extent still remains intact.
At a time when laws were badly administered, and the country often torn by internal contentions, and always subject to the violence of marauders, it was absolutely necessary that there should be some asylum for those thoughtful, retiring spirits who, unable or unwilling to take part in the turmoil of the times, were exposed to all its dangerous vicissitudes. In an age, too, when the country possessed no literature, the contemplative and the learned had no other means of existence than by retiring to the cloister, safe out of the reach of the jealous superstition of ignorance and the wanton barbarity of uncouth violence. The monastery then was the natural home of these beings – the deserted, the oppressed, the meek spirit who had been beaten in the world’s conflict, the untimely born son of genius, the scholar, the devotee, all found a safe shelter and a genial abode behind the friendly walls of these cities of refuge. There, too, lay garnered up, as a priceless hoarding for future ages, the sacred oracles of Christianity, and the rescued treasures of ancient lore; there science labored at her mystic problems; and there poetry, painting, and music were developed and perpetuated; in fine, all that the world holds as most excellent, all that goes toward the foundation and adornment of modern society, treasured up in the monastery as in an ark, rode in safety over the dark flood of that mediaeval deluge until the waters subsided, and a new world appearing from its depths, violent hands were laid upon those costly treasures, which were torn from their hiding-places and freely scattered abroad, whilst the representatives of those men who, in silence and with prayer, had amassed and cherished them, were branded as useless idlers, their homes broken up, and themselves dispersed, with no mercy for their errors and no gratitude for their labors, to seek the scanty charities of a hostile world. Beside being the cradle of art and science, the monastery was a great and most efficient engine for the dispensation of public charity. At its refectory kitchen the poor were always cheerfully welcomed, generously treated, and periodically relieved; in fine, the care of the poor was not only regarded as a solemn duty, but was undertaken with the most cheerful devotion and the most unremitting zeal. They were not treated like an unsightly social disease, which was to be cured if possible, but at any rate kept out of sight; they were not handed over to the tender sympathies of paid relieving officers, nor dealt with by the merciless laws of statistics, but they were treated gently and kindly in the spirit of the Great Master, who when on earth bestowed upon them the larger share of his sympathy, who, in the tenderness of his pity, dignified poverty and sanctified charity when he declared that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Whatever may have been the vices of the monastic system or the errors of its ritual, its untiring charity was its great redeeming virtue.
It will not perhaps be an unfitting introduction to our investigation into the rise and influence of this system upon our national life if we resuscitate from the grave of the past one of these great monasteries, the oldest and most powerful which sprang up in our country, and which, compared with others at the time when they fell before the great religious convulsion of the sixteenth century, had, in the midst of general corruption, maintained its purity, and suffered less from its own vices than from the degeneracy of the system to which it belonged, and of which it was the most distinguished ornament. We shall endeavor to portray the monastery as it was in all its glory, to pass through its portals, to enter reverently into its magnificent church, to listen to its gorgeous music, to watch its processions, to wander through its cloisters, to visit its domestic domains, to penetrate into the mysteries of its refectory, the ascetic simplicity of its dormitory, the industry of its schoolhouse and fratery, the stores of its treasury, the still richer stores of its library, the immortal labors of its Scriptorium, where they worked for so many centuries, uncheered and unrewarded, for a thankless posterity, who shrink even now from doing them justice; we shall visit the gloomy splendors of its crypt, wander through its grounds, and marvel at its strange magnificence. After having thus gazed, as it were, upon the machine itself in motion, we shall perhaps be the better enabled subsequently to comprehend the nature and value of its work.
In the early part of the sixteenth century the ancient abbey of Glastonbury was in the plenitude of its magnificence and power. It had been the cynosure for the devotees of all nations, who, for nearly eleven centuries, flocked in crowds to its fane – to worship at its altars, to venerate its relics, to drink in health at its sacred well, and to gaze in rapt wonder at its holy thorn. And even now, in these later days, though time has wasted it, though fierce fanaticism has played its cannon upon it, though ruthless vandalism in blind ignorance has despoiled many of its beauties, it still stands proud in its ruined grandeur, defiant alike of the ravages of decay, the devastation of the iconoclast, and the wantonness of the ignorant. Although not a single picture, but only an inventorial description, is extant of this largest abbey in the kingdom, yet, standing amidst its silent ruins, the imagination can form some faint idea of what it must have been when its aisles were vocal with the chant of its many-voiced choir, when gorgeous processions moved grandly through its cloisters, and when its altars, its chapels, its windows, its pillars, were all decorated with the myriad splendors of monastic art. Passing in at the great western entrance, through a lodge kept by a grave lay-brother, we find ourselves in a little world, shut up by a high wall which swept round its domains, inclosing an area of more than sixty acres. The eye is arrested at once by a majestic pile of building, stretching itself out in the shape of an immense cross, from the centre of whose transept there rises a high tower. The exterior of this building is profusely decorated with all the weird embellishments of medieval art. There, in sculptured niche, stands the devout monarch, sceptred and crowned; the templar knight, who had fallen under an oriental sun fighting for the cross; the mitred abbot, with his crosier; the saint with his emblem; the martyr with his palm; scenes from Sacred Writ; the apostles, the evangelists; petrified allegories and sculptured story; and then, clustering around and intertwining itself with all these scenes and representations of the world of man, were ornamental devices culled from the world of nature. A splendid monument of the genius of those mediaeval times whose mighty cathedrals stand before us now like massive poems or graven history, where men may read, as it were from a sculptured page, the chivalrous doings of departed heroes, the long tale of the history of the Church – of her woes, her triumphs, her martyrs, and her saints – a deathless picture of actual existence, as though some heaven-sent spirit had come upon the earth, and with a magic stroke petrified into the graphic stillness of stone a whole world of life and living things. The length of the nave of this church, beginning from Saint Joseph’s chapel (which we shall presently notice, and which was an additional building) up to the cross, was 220 feet, the great tower was 40 feet in breadth, and the transepts on either side of it each 45 feet in length, the choir was 150 feet; its entire length from east to west was 420 feet; and if we add the appended Saint Joseph’s chapel, we have a range of building 530 feet in length.
Turning from the contemplation of this external grandeur, we come to a structure which forms the extreme west of the abbey – a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph of Arimathea. The entrance on the north side is a masterpiece of art, being a portal consisting of four semicircular arches, receding and diminishing as they recede into the body of the wall, the four fasciae profusely decorated with sculptured representations of personages and scenes, varied by running patterns of tendrils, leaves, and other natural objects. The first thing that strikes the attention upon entering is the beautiful triarial-mullioned window at the western extremity, with its semicircular head; opposite, at the eastern end, another, corresponding in size and decoration, throws its light upon the altar. On both the north and south sides of the church are four uniform windows, rising loftily till their summits nearly touch the vaulting; underneath these are four sculptured arches, the panelling between them adorned with painted representations of the sun, moon, stars, and all the host of heaven; the flooring was a tesselated pavement of encaustic tiles, each bearing an heraldic device, or some allegorical or historical subject. Beneath this tesselated pavement is a spacious crypt, eighty-nine feet in length, twenty feet in width, and ten feet high, provided with an altar, and when used for service illuminated by lamps suspended from the ceiling. Saint Joseph’s chapel, however, with its softly-colored light, its glittering panels, its resplendent altars, and its elegant proportions, is a beautiful creation; but only a foretaste or a prelude of that full glare of splendor which bursts upon the view on ascending the flight of steps leading from its lower level up to the nave of the great abbey church itself, which was dedicated to Saint Mary. Arrived at that point, the spectator gazes upon a long vista of some four hundred feet, including the nave and choir; passing up through the nave, which has a double line of arches, whose pillars are profusely sculptured, we come to the central point in the transept, where there are four magnificent Gothic arches, which for imposing grandeur could scarcely be equalled in the world, mounting up to the height of one hundred feet, upon which rested the great tower of the church. A portion of one of these arches still exists, and though broken retains its original grandeur. In the transept running north and south from this point are four beautifully decorated chapels, Saint Mary’s, in the north aisle; Saint Andrew’s, in the south; Our Lady of Loretto’s, on the north side of the nave; and at the south angle that of the Holy Sepulchre; another stood just behind the tower, dedicated to Saint Edgar: in each of these are altars richly adorned with glittering appointments, and beautiful glass windows, stained with the figures of their patron saints, the apostles, scriptural scenes or episodes from the hagiology of the Church; then, running in a straight line with the nave, completing the gigantic parallelogram, is the choir, where the divine office is daily performed. The body is divided into stalls and seats for the abbot, the officers, and monks. At the eastern extremity stands the high altar, with its profusion of decorative splendor, whilst over it is an immense stained-glass window, with semicircular top, which pours down upon the altar, and in fact bathes the whole choir, when viewed from a distance, in a sea of softened many-colored light. The flooring of the great church, like that of Saint Joseph’s, is composed of encaustic Norman tiles, inscribed with Scripture sentences, heraldic devices, and names of kings and benefactors. Underneath the great church is the crypt – a dark vault divided into three compartments by two rows of strong massive pillars, into which, having descended from the church, the spectator enters; the light of his torch is thrown back from a hundred different points, like the eyes of serpents glittering through the darkness, reflected from the bright gold and silver nails and decorations of the coffins that lie piled on all sides, and whose ominous shapes can be just faintly distinguished. This is the weird world, which exerts a mysterious influence over the hearts of the most thoughtless – the silent world of death in life; and piled up around are the remains of whole generations long extinct of races of canonized saints, pious kings, devout queens, mitred abbots, bishops, nobles who gave all their wealth to lie here, knights who braved the dangers of foreign climes, the power of the stealthy pestilence, and the scimitar of the wild Saracen, that they might one day come back and lay their bones in this holy spot. There were the gilded coffins of renowned abbots, whose names were a mighty power in the world when they lived, and whose thoughts are still read with delight by the votaries of another creed – the silver crosiers of bishops, the purple cloth of royalty, and the crimson of the noble – all slumbering and smoldering in the dense obscurity of the tomb, but flashing up to the light once more in a temporary brilliancy, like the last ball-room effort of some aged beauty – the aristocracy of death, the coquetry of human vanity, strong even in human corruption. Amongst the denizens of this dark region are – King Arthur and his queen Guinever, Coel II., grandfather of Constantine the Great, Kentwyn, king of the West Saxons, Edmund I., Edgar and Ironsides, Saint David of Wales, and Saint Gildas, beside nine bishops, fifteen abbots, and many others of note. Reascending from this gloomy cavern to the glories of the great church, we wander amongst its aisles, and as we gaze upon the splendors of its choir, we reflect that in this gorgeous temple, embellished by everything that art and science could contribute, and sanctified by the presence of its holy altar, with its consecrated host, its cherished receptacle of saintly relics, and its sublime mysteries, did these devout men, seven times a day, for centuries, assemble for prayer and worship. As soon as the clock had tolled out the hour of midnight, when all the rest of the world was rocked in slumber, they arose, and flocked in silence to the church, where they remain in prayer and praise until the first faint streaks of dawn began to chase away the constellations of the night, and then, at stated intervals through the rest of the day, the appointed services were carried on, so that the greater portion of their lives was spent m this choir, whose very walls were vocal with psalmody and prayer. It was a grand offering to the Almighty of human work and human life. In that temple was gathered as a rich oblation everything that the united labor of ages could create and collect; strong hands had dug out its foundations in the bowels of the earth, had hewn stubborn rocks into huge blocks, and piled them up high in the heavens, had fashioned them into pillars and arches, myriads of busy fingers had labored for ages at its decoration until every column, every cornice, and every angle bore traces of patient toil; the painter, the sculptor, the poet, had all contributed to its embellishment, strength created it, genius beautified it, and the ever-ascending incense of human contrition, human adoration, and human prayer completed the gorgeous sacrifice which those devotees of mediaeval times offered up in honor of him whose mysterious presence they venerated as the actual and real inhabitant of their holy of holies.
Retracing our steps once more to the nave, we turn to take one lingering glance at the scene: and here the full beauty and magnificence of the edifice bursts upon the view, the eye wanders through a perfect stony forest whose stately trees, taken at some moment when their tops, bending toward each other and interlacing themselves, had been petrified into the natural beauty of the Gothic arch; here and there were secluded spots where the prismatic light from painted windows danced about the pillars like straggling sunbeams through the thick foliage of a forest glade. The clusters of pillars resembled the gnarled bark of old forest trees, and the grouped ornaments of their capitols were the points where the trunk itself spread off into limbs and branches; there were groves and labyrinths running far away into the interior of this sculptured wood, and towering high in the centre were those four kings of the forest, whose tops met far up in the heavens – the true heart of the scene, from which everything diverged, and, with which everything was in keeping. Then, as the spectator stands, lost in the grandeur of the spectacle, gazing in rapt wonder at the sky-painted ceiling, or at some fantastic gnarled head grinning at him from a shady nook, the passing whim of some mediaeval brain – a faint sigh, as of a distant wind, steals along those stony glades, gradually increasing in volume, until presently the full, rich tones of the choir burst forth, the organ peals out its melodious thunder, add every arch and every pillar vibrates with undulations of harmonious sound, just as in the storm-shaken forest every mighty denizen bends his massive branches to the fierce tempest-wind, and intones his deep response to the wild music of the storm. Before the power of that music-tempest everything bowed, and as the strains of some Gregorian chant or the dirge-like melody of some penitential psalm filled the whole building with its pathos, every figure seemed to be invested with life, the mysterious harmony between the building and its uses was manifested, the painted figures on the windows appeared to join in the strain, a celestial chorus of apostles, martyrs, and saints; the statues in their niches threw back the melody; the figures reclining on the tombs seemed to raise their clasped hands in silent response to its power, as though moved in their stony slumber by a dream of solemn sounds; the grotesque figures on the pillars and in nooks and corners chanted the dissonant chords, which brought out more boldly the general harmony; every arch, with its entwined branches and sculptured foliage, shook with the stormy melody: all was instinct with sympathetic life, until, the fury of the tempest dying away in fitful gusts, the last breeze was wafted, the painted forms became dumb, the statues and images grew rigid, the foliage was still, all the sympathetic vitality faded away, and the sacred grove fell into its silent magnificence.
Attached to the great church were two offices – the sacristy and church treasury. In the former were kept the sacred vestments, chalices, etc., in use daily; and in the latter were kept all the valuables, such as sacred relics, jewels and plate not in use, with mitres, crosiers, cruces, and pectorals; there was also a confessional for those who wished to use it before going to the altar. The care of these two offices was committed to a monk elected by the abbot, who was called the sacrist. Coming out of the church we arrive at the cloisters, a square place, surrounded by a corridor of pillars, and in the centre of the enclosure was a flower-garden – this was the place where the monks were accustomed to assemble at certain hours to walk up and down. In one of the alleys of the cloister stood the chapter-house, which, as it was the scene of the most important events in their monotonous lives, deserves a description. In this spot the abbots and officers of the monastery were elected, all the business of the house as a body was discussed, faults were openly confessed, openly reproved, and in some cases corporal punishment was awarded in the presence of the abbot and whole convent upon some incorrigible offender, so that, beside being an assembling room, it was a court of complaint and correction. One brother could accuse another openly, when the matter was gone into, and justice done. In all conventual institutions it was a weekly custom, and in some a daily one, to assemble in the chapter-house after one of the morning services (generally after primes), when a sentence from the rule was read, a psalm sung, and business attended to. It was also an envied burying-place; and the reader, as he stood at his desk in the chapter-house of Glastonbury Abbey, stood over the body of Abbot Chinnock, who himself perfected its building, which was commenced in 1303 by Abbot Fromont. In the interior, which was lit up by a magnificent stained-glass window, there were three rows of stone benches one above another. On the floor there was a reading-desk and bench apart; in a platform raised above the other seats was the abbot’s renowned elbow-chair, which extraordinary piece of monastic workmanship excited so much curiosity at the great Exhibition of 1851. In the middle of the hall was a platform called the Judgment, being the spot where corporal punishment, when necessary, was inflicted; and towering above all was a crucifix, to remind the brethren of the sufferings of Christ. In another alley of the cloisters stood the fratery, or apartment for the novices, which had its own refectory, common room, lavatory, and dormitory, and was governed by one of the priors. Ascending the staircase, we come to a gallery in which are the library, the wardrobe, the common house, and the common treasury. The library was the first in England, filled with choice and valuable books, which had been given to the monastery from time to time in its history by kings, scholars, and devotees of all classes; many also were transcribed by the monks. During the twelfth century, although even then of great renown in the world, it was considerably augmented by Henricus Blessensis, or Henry of Blois (nephew of Henry I. and brother of Stephen), who was abbot. This royal scholar had more books transcribed during his abbacy than any of his predecessors. A list is still extant – “De libris quos Henricus fecit transcribere,” in which are to be found such works as Pliny “De Naturali Historia,” a book in great favor at that time; “Originem super Epistolas Pauli ad Romanos,” “Vitas Caesarum,” “Augustinum de Trinitate,” etc.
Here, too, as in every monastic library in the kingdom, was that old favorite of conventual life, and still favorite with many a lonely student, “Boethius de Consolatione Philosophiae,” and many a great work from the grim solitude of a prison cell, cherished, too, as the link which connected the modern Latinists with those of the classic age. Housed up in that lonely corner of the island, the Glastonbury library was the storehouse of all the learning of the times; and as devotees bent their steps from all climes toward the Glastonbury relics and the Glastonbury shrine, so did the devotees of genius lovingly wander to the Glastonbury library. Leland, the old gossipping antiquarian, has testified to its glory, and given us an amusing account of the reverential awe with which he visited it not long before the fatal dissolution of the monastery. In the preliminary observations to his “Collectanea de Rebus Britannicis,” he has put the following upon record: – “Eram aliquot ab hinc annis Glessoburgi Somurotrigum ubi antiquissimum simul et famosissimum est totius insulaes nostrae caenobium, animumque longo studioram labore fessum, favente Ricardo Whitingo, ejusdem loci abbate, recreabam donee novus quidam cum legendi tum discendi ardor me inflammaret. Supervenit autem ardor ille citius opinione; itaque statim me contuli ad bibliothecam non omnibus perviam at sacras sanctae vetustatis reliquias quarum tantus ibi numerus quantus nollo alio facile Britanniae loco diligentissime evolverem. Vix certo limen intraveram cum antiquissimorum librorum vel solus conspectus, religionem nescio an stuporem, animo incuteret meo, eaqae de causa pedem paululum sistebam. Deinde salutato loci numine per dies aliquot onmes forulos curiosissime excussi.”
But attached to the library was a department common to all the Benedictine monasteries, where, during long centuries of ignorance, the materials of modern education were preserved and perpetuated; this office was called the scriptorium, or domus antiquariorum. Here were assembled for daily labor a class of monks selected for their superior scholarship and writing ability; they were divided into two classes, the antiquarii and the librarii: the former were occupied in making copies of valuable old books, and the latter were engaged in transcribing new ones, and works of an inferior order. The books they copied were the Scriptures, always in process of copying; missals, books for the service of the Church, works on theology, and any of the classics that fell into their hands. Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, is said to have devoted much time to this work, and at the period of his death had begun to transcribe the gospel of Saint John in letters of gold with his own hand.
The instruments used in the work of the scriptorium were pens, chalk, pumice-stone for rubbing the parchment smooth; penknives, and knives for making erasures, an awl to make dots, a ruler and inkstand. The greatest care was taken by the transcriber, the writing was always beautifully clear, omissions were most scrupulously noted in the margins, and all interlineations were mentioned and acknowledged. In an old manuscript belonging to the Carmelites, the scribe adds, “I have signed it with the sign following, and made a certain interlineation which says ‘redis’ and another which says ‘ordinis,’ and another which says ‘ordini,’ and another which says ‘circa. ‘” So great was the care they took to preserve the text accurately, and free from interpolations. In these secluded studies sprang up that art, the most charming which the middle ages have handed down to us, the art of illumination, so vainly imitated by the artists of the present day, not from want of genius, but from want of something almost indescribable in the conception and execution, a tone and preservation of color, and especially of the gilding, which was essentially peculiar to the old monks, who must have possessed some secret both of combination and fixing of colors which has been lost with them. This elaborate illumination was devoted to religious books, psalms, missals, and prayer-books; in other works the first letters of chapters were beautifully illuminated, and other leading letters in a lesser degree. The scribe generally left spaces for these, as that was the duty of another; in the spaces were what were called “leading letters,” written small to guide the illuminator; these guide-letters may still be detected in some books. So great was the love of this art, that when printing displaced the labors of the scribe, it was customary for a long time to have the leading letters left blank for illumination. Such were the peculiar labors of the scriptorium, and to encourage those who dedicated their time to it, a special benediction was attached to the office, and posterity, when satirizing the monastic life, would do well to remember that the elegance of the satire may be traced back again to these labors, which are the materials for the education and refinement of modern thought; we got our Bible from them, we got our classics from them, and had not such ruthless vandalism been exercised by those over-zealous men who effected their dispersion, it is more than probable that the learned world would not have had to lament over, the lost Decades of Livy. It is the peculiarity of ignorance to be barbarous. There is very little difference between the feeling which prompted a Caliph Omar to burn the Alexandrian Library or a Totila to destroy the achievements of Roman art; and the feeling had only degenerated into the barbarity, without the bravery, when it revived again in the person of our arch-iconoclast, Cromwell, of church-devastating memory, who, however great his love of piety many have been, must have had a thorough hatred of architecture. The care of the library and the scriptorium was intrusted to the librarian. The next department in the gallery was the lavatory, fitted up with all the appliances for washing; and adjoining this room was one arranged for shaving, a duty to which the monks paid strict attention, more especially to preserve the tonsure. The next room was the wardrobe, where their articles of clothing and bedding were stored, and in an inner chamber was the tailory, where a number of lay brethren, with a vocation for that useful craft, were continually at work, making and repairing the clothes of the community. These two rooms and the lavatory were in charge of the camerarius, or chamberlain. The last abbot who sat in the chair of Glastonbury was, as we shall see, elevated from this humble position to that princely dignity. The common room was the next office, and this was fitted up with benches and tables for the general use of the monks; a fire was also kept burning in the winter, the only one allowed for general purposes. The last chamber in the corridor was the common treasury, a strong receptacle for ready money belonging to the monastery, charters, registers, books, and accounts of the abbey, all stored up in iron chests. In addition to being the strong room of the abbey, it had another important use. In those uncertain times it was the custom for both nobles and gentry to send their deeds, family papers, and sometimes their plate and money, to the nearest monastery, where, by permission of the abbot, they were intrusted to the care of the treasurer for greater security; in the wildest hour, when the castle was given up to fire and sword, the abbey was always held in reverence; for, independently of its sacred character, it was endeared to the people by the free-handed charity of its almonry and refectory kitchen. Retracing our steps along the corridor, and ascending another flight of stairs, we come to the dormitory, or dortoir, a large passage with cells on either side; each monk had a separate chamber, very small, in which there was a window, but no chimney, a narrow bedstead, furnished with a straw bed, a mattress, a bolster of straw, a coarse blanket, and a rug; by the bedstead was a prie-Dieu, or desk, with a crucifix upon it, to kneel at for the last and private devotions; another desk and table, with shelves and drawers for books and papers; in the middle was a cresset, or stone-lantern, with a lamp in it to give them light when they arose in the middle of the night to go to matins; this department also was under the care of the chamberlain. One more chamber was called the infirmary, where the sick were immediately removed, and treated with the greatest attention; this was in the charge of an officer called the infirmarius. We now descend these two flights of stairs, issue from the cloisters, and, bending our steps to the south-west, we come to the great hall, or refectory, where the whole convent assembled at meals. At Glastonbury there were seven long tables, around which, and adjoining the walls, were benches for the monks. The table at the upper end was for the abbot, the priors, and other heads, the two next for the priests, the two next for such as were in orders, but not priests, and such as intended to enter into orders; the lower table on the right hand of the abbot was for such as were to take orders whom the other two middle tables could not hold, and the lower table on the left of the abbot was reserved for the lay brethren. In a convenient place was a pulpit, where one of the monks, at the appointment of the abbot, read portions of the Old and New Testament in Latin every day during dinner and supper. The routine of dinner, as indeed the routine of all their meals, was ordered by a system of etiquette as stringent as that which prevails in the poorest and smallest German court of the present day. The sub-prior, who generally presided at the table, or some one appointed by him, rang the bell; the monks, having previously performed their ablutions in the lavatory, then came into the great hall, and bowing to the high table, stood in their places till the sub-prior came, when they resumed their seats; a psalm was sung, and a short service followed by way of grace. The sub-prior then gave the benediction, and at the end they uncovered the food, the sub-prior beginning; the soup was then handed round, and the dinner proceeded; if anything was wanted it was brought by the cellarer, or one of his assistants, who attended, when both the bringer and receiver bowed. As soon as the meal was finished the cellarer collected the spoons; and so stringent was the etiquette, that if the abbot dined with the household (which he did occasionally) he was compelled to carry the abbot’s spoon in his right hand and the others in his left; when all was removed the sub-prior ordered the reading to conclude by a “Tu antem,” and the reply of “Dei gratias;” the reader then bowed, the remaining food was covered, the bell was rung, the monks arose, a verse of a psalm was sung, when they bowed and retired two by two, singing the “Miserere.”
A little further toward the south stood the guest-house, where all visitors, from prince to peasant, were received by the hospitaller with a kiss of peace, and entertained. They were allowed to stay two days and two nights; on the third day after dinner they were expected to depart, but if not convenient they could procure an extension of their stay by application to the abbot. This hospitality, so generously accorded, was often abused by sons of donors and descendants of benefactors, who saddled themselves and their retinues upon the monasteries frequently, and for a period commensurate with the patience of the abbot; and to so great an extent did this evil grow that statutes were enacted to relieve the abbeys so oppressed. Not far from the refectory, toward the west, stood the abbot’s private apartments, and still further to the west the great kitchen, which was one of the wonders of the day; its capacity may be imagined when we reflect that it had frequently to provide dinner for four or five hundred guests; but the arrangements and service of the kitchen deserve notice. Every monk had to serve as hebdomadary, or dispenser, whose duty it was to appoint what food was to be dressed and to keep the accounts for the week. Upon taking office he was compelled to wash the feet of the brethren, and upon yielding it up to the new hebdomadary he was obliged to see that all the utensils were clean. Saint Benedict strictly enjoined this rule upon them, in order that, as Christ their Lord washed the feet of his disciples, they might wash each others’ feet, and wait upon each others’ wants. The Glastonbury kitchen is the only building which still remains entire; it was built wholly of stone, for the better security from fire; on the outside it is a four-square, and on the inside an eight-square figure; it had four hearths, was twenty feet in height to the roof, which ran up in a figure of eight triangles; from the top hung suspended a huge lantern.
Attached to the kitchen was the almonry, or eleemosynarium, where on Wednesdays and Fridays the poor people of Glastonbury and its neighborhood were liberally relieved. This duty was committed to a grave monk, who was called the almoner, or eleemosynarius, and who had to inquire after the poor and sick. No abbots in the kingdom were more liberal in the discharge of these two duties of their office, hospitality and almsgiving, than the abbots of Glastonbury. It was not an unusual thing for them to entertain 500 guests at a sitting, some of whom were of the first rank in the country, and the loose charge of riotous feasting which has been thoughtlessly made against the monastic life by hostile historians becomes modified when we recollect that in that age there were scarcely any wayside inns in the country, and all men, when travelling, halted at the monastery and looked for refreshment and shelter as a matter of right; neither had that glorious system of union work-houses been thought of, and therefore the sick and the poor fell at once to the care of the monastery, where they were cheerfully relieved and tenderly treated. Last, but not least, was the department for boys – another little detached community, with its own school-room, dormitory, refectory, hall, etc. One of the monks presided over them. They were taught Christian doctrine, music, grammar, and, if any showed capacity, the subjects necessary for the university. They were maintained free, and had to officiate in the church as choristers; a system maintained almost to the letter up to the very present moment. William of Malmesbury records that in the churchyard of Glastonbury Abbey stood some very ancient pyramids close to the sarcophagus of King Arthur. The tallest was nearest the church, twenty-six feet in height, consisting of five stories, or courses; in the upper course was the figure of a bishop, in the second of a king, with this inscription – HER. SEXI. and BLISVVERH. In the third the names WEMCRESTE, BANTOMP, WENETHEGN. In the fourth – HATE, WVLFREDE, and EANFLEDE. In the fifth, and last, the figure of an abbot, with the following inscription – LOGVVOR, WESLIELAS and BREGDENE, SVVELVVES HVVINGENDES, and BERNE. The other pyramid was eighteen feet in height, and consisted of four stories, whereon were inscribed in large letters HEDDE Episcopus BREGORRED and BEORVVALDE. William of Malmesbury could give no satisfactory solution to the meaning of these inscriptions beyond the suggestion that the word BREGDENE must have meant a place then called “Brentacnolle,” which now exists under the name of Brent Knowle, and that BEORWALDE was Beorwald, the abbot after Hemigselus. He concludes his speculation, however, with the sentence – “Quid haec significent non temere diffinio sed ex suspicione colligo eorum interius in cavatis lapidibus contineri ossa quorum exterius leguntur nomina.”
The man who ruled over this miniature world, with a state little short of royalty, was endowed with proportionate dignities; being a member of the upper house of convocation and a parliamentary baron, he sat robed and mitred amongst the peers of the country; in addition to his residence at the abbey he had four or five rural retreats at easy distances from it, with parks, gardens, fisheries, and every luxury; his household was a sort of court, where the sons of noblemen and gentlemen were sent to be trained and educated. When at home he royally entertained his 300 guests, and when he went abroad he was attended by a guard of 100 men. The rent-roll of the monastery has been computed to amount to more than £300,000 per annum, which in these days would be equal to nearly half a million. Up to the year 1154 he ranked also as First Abbot of England, and took precedence of all others; but Adrian the Fourth, the only Englishman who ever ascended the papal chair, bestowed that honor upon the Abbot of Saint Albans, where he had received his education. The church, and different offices which clustered round it, formed a kingdom, over which he ruled with absolute power. This description of the buildings and adjuncts of the abbey may not be inaptly closed by giving a sketch of the outline of a monastic day, which will assist the reader to form a clearer idea of the monastic life. At two in the morning the bell tolled for matins, when every monk arose, and after performing his private devotions hastened to the church, and took his seat. When all were assembled fifteen psalms were sung, then came the nocturn, and more psalms; a short interval ensued, during which the chanter choir and those who needed it had permission to retire for a short time if they wished; then followed lauds, which were generally finished by six A.M., when the bell rang for prime; when this was finished the monks continued reading till seven o’clock, when the bell was rung and they returned to put on their day clothes. Afterward, the whole convent having performed their ablutions and broken their fast, proceeded again to the church, and the bell was rung for tierce at nine o’clock. After tierce came the morning mass, and as soon as that was over they marched in procession to the chapter-house for business and correction of faults. This ceremony over, the monks worked or read till sext, twelve A.M., which service concluded, they dined; then followed the hour’s sleep in their clothes in the dormitory, unless any of them preferred reading. Nones commenced at three P.M., first vespers at four, then work or reading till second vespers at seven, afterward reading till collation; then came the service of complin, confession of sins, evening prayers, and retirement to rest about nine P.M.
That was the life pursued at Glastonbury Abbey, according to the Benedictine rule, from the time of its establishment there until the dissolution of the monastery, nearly ten centuries. With our modern training and predilections, it is a marvel to us that men could be found willing to submit to such a monotonous career – ten hours a day spent in the church, beginning in the middle of the night, winter and summer. And yet the monastery was always full. We read of no breaking up of institutions for want of devotees, and we are driven to the conclusion that in the age when the monastic life was in its power and purity these men could have been actuated by none other than the motive of strong religious fervor – a fervor of which we in modern times have neither conception nor example. The operation of the influence of that life upon the history of these islands can only be contemplated by watching it in the various phases of its action upon the politics, literature, and art by which it was surrounded, and for that purpose we have selected this oldest and grandest specimen of English monasticism, so faintly described, the mother Church of our country, in whose career so brilliant, so varied, and so tragically ended, we hope to be able to show wherein was the glory, the weakness, and the ruin of the system, as it rose, flourished, and fell in England.
We have endeavored to conjure up from the shadowy realms of the past some faint representation of what Glastonbury Abbey was in the days of its glory; let us now transfer ourselves from the age of towered abbeys, wandering pilgrims, monks, cloisters, and convent bells to this noisy, riotous, busy time in the year of grace 1865 – from the Glastonbury Abbey of the sixteenth century to the Glastonbury Abbey of to-day.
It is only within the last ten years that the deep slumber of that quiet neighborhood has been disturbed by the noise and bustle of this busy life – that a railroad has gone out of its way to upset the sedate propriety of ecclesiastical Wells, or the peaceful repose of monasterial Glastonbury; hitherto the stillness and quiet of that lovely country was the same as when mass was sung in the superb cathedral of the one place, and the palmer or the penitent bent his steps to the holy well of the other. But alas! the life of the nineteenth century has broken in upon it; the railway has dashed through that beautiful valley with its sacrilegious march; and at Wells, the cathedral of Ina, with its matchless front, studded with apostles and martyrs, kings, bishops, knights, and mystic emblems, vocal as it were with history, now frowns upon the contentions of two rival companies; whilst at Glastonbury there is a railway station erected almost over the very bones of the saints. Alighting from this, we make our way to the ruins; but as we go, will just view their past history. After the dissolution of the abbey there was an effort made to restore it in the time of Mary, but unavailingly; from that period it was allowed to fall into decay. It is difficult to estimate whether the hand of man or the hand of time has been busier about its spoliation. At the period of Cromwell, who loved to worship God in the “ugliness of holiness,” it must have been nearly entire, but that hero could not pass the town without putting a shot through those unoffending ruins in the name of the Lord, which act, however appropriate as an expression of Puritan feeling, was sadly detrimental to the architecture of Glastonbury Abbey. Then in 1667, as we have already alluded to, the Quakers got possession of the kitchen, hired at a nominal rent, paid in hard Quaker money – that glorious kitchen, sanctified by so much saintly cookery – for their grim assemblies. There is a great deal of what is aptly called the “romance” of history in this fact if we only had time to think about it – that it should come to this, monasticism with its princely head, its grand religions life and ceremonies, its painting and staining, its chanting and intoning, itself in all its glory, driven from the face of the country, and modern Quakerdom sitting silent in its ruined kitchen waiting to be “moved.” It has suffered much, also, from the gross vandalism of the people themselves. Naturally a simple people, they of course knew nothing of antiquarianism, although that science is irreverently said to master many simples among its votaries. For years then it was their practice to use the materials of the abbey for building purposes, and it is not difficult to find scattered for miles around the country, in farmhouses and even in hovels, portions of sculpture over doorways and fireplaces which speak of mediaeval workmanship. But a worse degradation still befel the place, and the walls which at one time would have been regarded as invested with the odor of sanctity, and even now are sacred to us as a priceless historical monument, were actually sold as materials for mending the roads, to the lasting shame of overseerdom and the powers that were at Glastonbury. But the day for building huts or mending roads with ecclesiastical sculpture is gone, and the little that remains of Glastonbury Abbey has found its way into the hands of those who appear to know how to preserve it, and have the intention to do so. After all this decay and vandalism very little is left of the old abbey – some portions of Saint Joseph’s church with the crypt – some walls of the choir of the great church; the two east pillars of the tower, forming a grand broken arch, a lasting memento of the original splendor; there are portions, also, of some of the chapels and the abbot’s kitchen, the most complete of all. The eye is at once arrested by the portals of Saint Joseph’s church, which still remain in a tolerable state of preservation, sufficient to enable one to form an idea of what a triumph of decorative art they were. Nothing could be more profusely ornamented than the northern portal; it was composed of semi-circular arches, receding in succession and diminishing in size as they recede into the body of the building; the exterior arch being about twelve feet by eleven, and the interior nine feet by six. The four fasciae are covered with sculptured representations supposed to be commemorations of royal and noble people connected with the monastery – saints, pilgrims, and knights. The forms graven on these fasciae are interpreted in Warner’s History of Glastonbury to represent the following subjects. The uppermost fascia is almost obliterated, though still showing a running pattern of tendrils and leaves interspersed with figures of men and animals; toward the centre the sculpture is much mutilated, though something can be traced like the effigy of a person in long robes seized on the shoulder by a furious animal. Beyond him are indistinct remains of three or four upright figures, and the rest is filled up by foliage. The second fascia is made up of eighteen separate ovals, each of which contained a distinct subject; the two first are defaced; the third contains a person apparently kneeling; the fourth, a female with a head-dress sitting on a conch; the fifth, a female on horseback; the sixth, a man on horseback; the seventh, a crowned personage on horseback; the eighth, the body of a deceased person stretched on a couch, with a canopy over it, the corpse covered, and the head resting on a pillow; nine and ten the same; eleven, a knight in a coat of chain armor, with a pointed shield charged with the cross, indicative of a crusader; twelve, a regal personage with a flowing beard and in long robes, crowned, and sitting on a throne; thirteen, a knight in chain armor falling from his horse as if wounded; fourteen, a figure like the former, the right arm stretched out and holding a sword which impales an infant; fifteen, the upright figure of a female with a veil, apparently in male costume; sixteenth, another body stretched out on a couch; seventeen, unintelligible; eighteen, a figure of a pilgrim. The intervals between all these ovals are sculptured into foliage. There can be very little doubt that the subjects contained in these ovals were the representations of monarchs, knights, persons, and events connected with the history of the abbey. The fourth fascia is much mutilated; but Warner thinks it referred to some act of munificence, from the canopied couch it displays, with a figure recumbent upon it and representations of angels guarding it. The portal toward the south was on a similar plan to the northern, but with five instead of four fasciae. One, two, and five are covered with finely chiseled foliage; the third is plain; the fourth only partially worked. According to the authority already mentioned, the only two ovals which are complete represent in the first the creation of man, and in the second the eating of the fruit. In the former is to be seen an upright figure with a nimbus or glory round its head, designating the Almighty in the act of calling man into being, and at his feet is man himself. In the latter there is the tree with Satan behind it, and Adam and Eve sitting with the apples. The appearance of these two portals, independent of the interest lent them by Warner’s speculations as to their import, is very striking. In their perfection they must have been masterpieces of that exquisite taste and minute labor which the men of that age devoted to the embellishment of the church. Taking the ruins in a mass, it would be difficult to find anywhere such a specimen of broken grandeur. Standing upon the spot at the extreme east, where was the high altar of the church, the eye wanders down a grand vista of some five hundred feet, relieved in the midst by that solitary, magnificent, broken arch towering up high in the air, with rich festoons of ivy hanging about it in lavish luxuriance like the tresses of some gigantic beauty, and far down in the distance are the crumbling remains of Saint Joseph’s chapel, the gem of the whole, with its arched windows and profuse decoration, the tops of its walls covered over with straggling parasites, which curl over its brow like the scanty locks of sere old age. And as we reflect that this sacred spot was the cradle of our Christianity; that this building was the mother of our Church; that far back in the bygone ages of barbarism vagrant missionaries wandered foot-sore and worn to this very spot; planted with their own hands the cross of Christ; built up with those hands the rude rush-covered shed which served as the first temple raised to God in these islands; spent their lives here in preaching that good tidings to a benighted pagan people, laid their bones down by the side of the work of their hands, and left their mission to their successors; that in process of time this little community became a mighty power, and that rush-covered shed a splendid temple, whose history is collateral with that of the country for nearly twelve centuries, and now it lies all battered and broken, crumbling away and wasting like human life itself – the mind shrinks appalled at the thought of the vicissitude which brought about so complete a ruin.
“O who thy ruine sees, whom wonder doth not fill
With our great father’s pompe, devotion, and their skill?
Thou more than mortall power (this judgment rightly waid)
Then present to assist at that foundation laid;
On whom for this sad waste, should justice lay the crime?
Is there a power in fate? or doth it yield to time?
Or was this error such that thou could’st not protect
Those buildings which thy hands did with their zeal erect?
To whom did’st thou commit that monument to keepe?
That suffereth with the dead their memory to sleepe.
When not great Arthur’s tombe, nor Holy Joseph’s grave,
From sacrilege had power their sacred bones to save;
He who that God-in-Man to his sepulchre brought,
Or he which for the faith twelve famous battles fought;
What? did so many Kings do honour to that place
For avarice at last so vilely to deface?”
In the neighborhood of the town is a hill known all over the world by the name of Wearyall Hill, so called (according to the chronicles) because Saint Joseph and his companions sat down here to rest themselves, weary with their journey. As the legend goes Saint Joseph is said to have stuck his staff in the earth and left it there, when lo! it took root, grew, and constantly budded on Christmas Day! This was the legendary origin of the far-famed holy thorn. Up to the time of Queen Elizabeth it had two trunks or bodies, and so continued until some nasal psalm-spoiler of Cromwell’s “crew” exterminated one, leaving the other to become the wonder of all strangers, who even then began to flock to the place. The blossoms of this remaining branch of the holy thorn became such a curiosity that there was a general demand for them from all parts of the world, and the Bristol merchants, then very great people in their “line,” turned this relic of the saint into a matter of commercial speculation, and made goodly sums of money by exporting the blossoms to foreign countries. There are trees from the branches of this thorn growing at the present moment in many of the gardens and nurseries round about Glastonbury, nay, all over England, and in various parts of the Continent. The probability is, as suggested by Collinson in his “History of Somerset,” that the monks procured the tree from Palestine, where many of the same sort flourish.
In the abbey church-yard, on the north side of St Joseph’s chapel, there was also a walnut tree which, it was said, never blossomed before the feast of Saint Barnabas (the 11th June). This is gone. These two trees, the holy thorn and the sacred walnut, were held in high estimation even long after the monasteries had disappeared from the land. Queen Anne, King James, and many of the nobility of the realm are said to have given large sums of money for cuttings from them; so that the “odor of sanctity” clung about the old walls of Glastonbury long after its glory had departed; nay, even the belief in its miraculous waters lingered in the popular mind, and was even revived by a singular incident so late as the year 1751. The circumstances are somewhat as follows: – One Matthew Chancellor, of North Wootton, had been suffering from an asthma of thirty years’ standing, and on a certain night in the autumn of 1750, having had an usually violent fit of coughing, he fell asleep, and, according to the depositions taken upon his oath, dreamed that he was at Glastonbury, somewhere above the chain gate, in a horse track, and there found some of the clearest water he ever saw in his life; that he knelt down and drank of it and upon getting up, fancied he saw some one standing before him, who, pointing with his finger to the stream, thus addressed him: “If you will go to the freestone shoot, and take a clean glass, and drink a glassful fasting seven Sunday mornings following, and let no person see you, you will find a perfect cure of your disorder, and then make it public to the world.” He asked him why he should drink it only on Sunday mornings, and the person replied that “the world was made in six days, and on the seventh day God rested from his labor, and blessed it: beside, this water comes out of the holy ground where a great many saints and martyrs have been buried.” The person also told him something about Christ himself being baptized, but this he could not distinctly remember when he awoke. Impelled by this dream, the man kept the secret to himself, and went on the Sunday morning following to Glastonbury, which was three miles from the place where he lived, and found it exactly according to his dream; but being a dry time of the year, the water did not run very plentifully; however, dripping his glass three times in the pool beneath the shoot, he managed to drink a quantity equal to a glassful, giving God thanks at the same time. This he continued to do for seven times, according to the injunction of the dream, at the end of which period he had entirely lost his complaint. The effect of this story is remarkable. As soon as it was noised abroad, thousands of people of all sects came flocking to Glastonbury from every quarter of the kingdom to partake of the waters of this stream. Every inn and house in the town, and for some distance round, was filled with lodgers and guests; and it is stated upon reliable authority that during the month of May, 1751, the town contained upward of ten thousand strangers. Even to this day, there is a notion amongst the peasantry, more especially the old women of both sexes, that the water is good for the “rheumatiz.”
After the scenes of violence, the ruthless vandalism, which this old abbey has gone through, it cannot be a matter of surprise that so little remains of all its grandeur; but it is a fact much to be lamented, because, as it was in its time one of the grandest ecclesiastical edifices in the country, so, if it had been preserved intact like its old rival, the cathedral at Wells, it would have been one of the most important and valuable items in the monumental history of England; that broad page where every nation writes its own autobiography; how valuable we find it in our researches as to the life of bygone times; and yet how little do we appear to do in this way as regards our own fame; how little do we cultivate our monumental history. One of the most lasting evidences of greatness which a country can leave behind it for the admiration and instruction of posterity, is the evidence of its national architecture – its architecture in the fullest sense of the term, not its mere roofs and walls, but the acts which it writes upon those walls, its statues and monuments. There are only two agencies by which national fame can be perpetuated – literature and art. The pen of the historian or the poet may give the outline of national manners and the description of national achievements, but art, as it exists in the extant monuments of the architecture of that nation, gives the representation of the actual life as it was, fills up the outline, and presents us with something like the substance: it does not describe, but illustrate; it is, in fact, the petrified manifestation of the very life itself. We have read much about the splendor of those extinct civilizations of the Pharaohs, and of the marvels of Babylonish grandeur, but what a flood of light was thrown upon our dim conceptions by the resuscitated relics of a buried Nineveh! In Grecian poets and Grecian historians we make the acquaintance of the heroes and the heroism of that heroic existence; but in the Elgin marbles we see the men and the deeds in all their natural grandeur, petrified before us in the graphic sublimity of motionless life. To come a little nearer our own times and to the mother of our civilization, what a confirmation of the historic tradition of the Rome of our studies have we found under that hardened lava which for centuries has formed the tombstone of Herculaneum and Pompeii. What vivid illustrations of Roman life and Roman manners are continually being discovered in those buried cities; and so of every nation and time it is its history which narrates its glory, but it is its architecture alone which must illustrate and confirm it. There is no fear of the present age of our country leaving no evidence of its power behind it. That evidence is written in indelible characters deep even to the very bowels of the earth itself, through the heart of mountains, over broad rivers, across plains, its scroll has been the broad bosom of the country, upon which it has engraven its character truly with a pen of iron; but there is a danger that we shall leave very little monumental history behind us in our architecture. . . . .
Protestantism, too, was an iconoclast as regards Catholicism, but it contented itself with desecrating temples, pulling down altars, tearing away paintings, but it substituted nothing in their place; it would admit of no allurements in the Church but that of genuine piety, and supplied no attractions for the thoughtless, the careless, the unbelieving, but its bare walls and cold ministrations. This feeling is now undergoing a marked change; we are beginning to see that plainness in externals may conceal a considerable amount of pride and worldliness, and thus Quakers are leaving off their curious garb, and Methodists are building temples; it is beginning to dawn upon men’s minds, at last, that ugliness is one of the most inappropriate sacrifices man can offer to his God, that as in the olden times the patriarchs used to offer up the first-fruits of the field, so in these later times we should offer up the first-fruits of our achievements; the choicest productions of art, science, and every form of human genius should be presented to him who is the God of all humanity. As we raise up temples to his honor and glory, where we may come with our supplications for his mercy, our adoration of his power, where we may bring our purest thoughts, our noblest hopes, our highest aspirations, and our best emotions; so let us decorate that temple with the best works of our hands as we hallow it with the best feelings of our hearts. The reason given by Solomon for exerting all the power and wealth of his kingdom to decorate the temple was simply, “This house which I build is great, for great is our God above all gods;” and the approval and acceptance of it by him for whom it was built is recorded in his own words: “Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place, for now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there for ever, and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.”
And that we may not go to the other extreme, as some churches have done and do in our day, and imagine that if we decorate our temple with all the choicest offerings we can bring it is enough, and God will be satisfied with the mere offering, there is, following immediately upon his gracious acceptance and approval of Solomon’s temple, the solemn warning in his own words: “But if ye turn away and forsake my statutes and my commandments, which I have set before you, and shall go and serve other gods, and worship them, then will I pluck them up by the roots out of my land which I have given them; and this house which I have sanctified for my name will I cast out of my sight, and will make it to be a proverb and a byword among all nations. And this house which is high shall be an astonishment to every one that passeth by it, so that he shall say, ‘Why hath the Lord done this unto this land and unto this house?’ And it shall be answered, ‘Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them and served them; therefore hath he brought all this evil upon them.'”
That is the canon of church building as ordained by God himself – make the church as grand an offering as you can, but keep the ritual pure – fill the temple with all the emblems of his glory, but remember that it is he only who is to be worshipped. Such is the teaching of revelation; and now we turn to nature, that boundless temple which God has built up to himself with his own hands. Had he been a God of mere utility instead of a God of beauty and glory; had he only considered the bare convenience and accommodation of the human race, a proportionate amount of dry land in one place, and a proportionate amount of water in another, would have sufficed to meet all human wants; there was no practical need for the variegated aspect, of natural scenery, of hill and dale, mountain and valley, of rippling stream and sweet-smelling flowers; but the world of nature was built for something higher than the mere dwelling place of man. It was built as a temple in which he should honor his God, and which was therefore filled with a myriad of beauties to excite his admiration, to please his eye, to fill his soul with gratitude and joy, and to raise his heart to that God who has given him such a beautiful home, furnished not only with the means of supplying his necessities, but embellished with the choicest beauties of creative power. What is nature but a gorgeous temple, laid out and decorated by the hand of God himself, with its broad pavement tesselated with endless varieties of verdure, with mountain altars which Christ himself loved to frequent and hallow with his prayers, its long aisles fretted with luxurious foliage pillared with tall trees, which bend their tops together in the matchless symmetry of nature’s arch, all vocal with the deep-toned music of rushing waters, and melodies warbled by the unseen songsters of the air, spanned over with the boundless blue ceiling of heaven itself, lit up by day with the sunshine of his majesty, and at night by the stars placed there with his own hands?
Let us, whilst we endeavor to get at the truth of history, appeal also to revelation and nature.
The Rise of the Beneditines
As Glastonbury Abbey was one of the chief ornaments of the Benedictine Order; as that order was one of the greatest influences, next to Christianity itself, ever brought to bear upon humanity; as the founder of that order and sole compiler of the rule upon which it was based must have been a legislator, a leader, a great, wise, and good man, such as the world seldom sees, one who, unaided, without example or precedent, compiled a code which has ruled millions of beings and made them a motive-power in the history of humanity; as the work done by that order has left traces in every country in Europe – lives and acts now in the literature, arts, sciences, and social life of nearly every civilized community – it becomes imperatively necessary that we should at this point investigate these three matters – the man, the rule, and the work: – the man, Saint Benedict, from whose brain issued the idea of monastic organization; the rule by which it was worked, which contains a system of legislation as comprehensive as the gradually compiled laws of centuries of growth; and the work done by those who were subject to its power, followed out its spirit, lived under its influence, and carried it into every country where the gospel was preached.
Far away in olden times, at the close of the fifth century, when the gorgeous splendor of the Roman day was waning and the shades of that long, dark night of the middle ages were closing in upon the earth; just at that period when, as if impelled by some instinct or led by some mysterious hand, there came pouring down from the wilds of Scandinavia hordes of ferocious barbarians who threatened, as they rolled on like a dark flood, to obliterate all traces of civilization in Europe – when the martial spirit of the Roman was rapidly degenerating into the venal valor of the mercenary – when the western empire had fallen, after being the tragic theatre of scenes to which there is no parallel in the history of mankind – when men, aghast at human crime and writhing under the persecutions of those whom history has branded as the “Scourge of God,” sought in vain for some shelter against their kind – when human nature, after that struggle between refined corruption and barbarian ruthlessness, lay awaiting the night of troubles which was to fall upon it as a long penance for human crime – just at this critical period in the world’s history appeared the man who was destined to rescue from the general destruction of Roman life the elements of a future civilization; to provide an asylum to which art might flee with her choicest treasures, where science might labor in safety, where learning might perpetuate and multiplied its stores, where the oracles of religion might rest secure, and where man might retire from the woe and wickedness of a world given up to destruction, live out his life in quiet, and make his peace with his God.
That man was Saint Benedict, who was born of noble parents about the year 480, at Norcia, a town in the Duchy of Spoleto; his father’s name was Eutropius, his grandfather’s Justinian. Although the glory of Rome was on the decline, her schools were still crowded with young disciples of all nations, and to Rome the future saint was sent to study literature and science. The poets of this declining age have left behind them a graphic picture of the profligacy and dissipation of Roman life – -the nobles had given themselves up to voluptuous and enervating pleasures, the martial spirit which had once found vent in deeds with whose fame the world has ever since rung, had degenerated into the softer bravery which dares the milder dangers of a love intrigue, or into the tipsy valor loudest in the midnight brawl. The sons of those heroes who in their youth had gone out into the world, subdued kingdoms, and had been drawn by captive monarchs through the streets of Rome in triumph, now squandered the wealth and disgraced the name of their fathers over the dice-box and the drinking cup. Roman society was corrupt to its core, the leaders were sinking into the imbecility of licentiousness, the people were following their steps with that impetuosity so characteristic of a demoralized populace, whilst far up in the rude, bleak North the barbarian, with the keen instinct of the wild beast, sat watching from his lonely wilds the tottering towers of Roman glory – the decaying energies of the emasculated giant – until the moment came when he sallied forth and with one hardy blow shattered the mighty fabric and laid the victors of the world in abject slavery at his feet. Into this society came the youthful Benedict, with all the fresh innocence of rustic purity, and a soul already yearning after the great mysteries of religion; admitted into the wild revelry of student life, that prototype of modern Bohemianism, he was at once disgusted with the general profligacy around him. The instincts of his youthful purity sickened at the fetid life of Rome, but in his case time, instead of reconciling him to the ways of his fellows, and transforming, as it so often does, the trembling horror of natural innocence into the wild intrepidity of reckless license, only strengthened his disgust for what he saw, and the timid, thoughtful, pensive student shrank from the noisy revelry, and sought shelter among his books.
About this time, too, the idea of penitential seclusion was prevalent in the West, stimulated by the writings and opinions of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome. It has been suggested that the doctrine of asceticism was founded upon the words of Christ, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Saint Gregory himself dwells with peculiar emphasis upon this passage, which he expounds thus, “Let us listen to what he said in this passage – let him who will follow me deny himself; in another place it is said that we should forego our possessions; here it is said that we should deny ourselves, and perhaps it is not laborious to a man to relinquish his possessions, but it is very laborious to relinquish himself. For it is a light thing to abandon what one has, but a much greater thing to abandon what one is.” Fired by the notion of self-mortification imparted to these words of Christ by their own material interpretation, these men forsook the world and retired to caves, rocks, forests, anywhere out of sight of their fellow-mortals – lived on bitter herbs and putrid water, exposed themselves to the inclemency of the winter and the burning heats of summer.
Such was the rise and working of asceticism, which brought out so many anchorites and hermits. Few things in the history of human suffering can parallel the lives of these men.
As regards conventual life, that is, the assemblage of those who ministered in the church under one roof, sharing all things in common, that may be traced back to the apostles and their disciples, who were constrained to live in this way, and, therefore, we find that wherever they established a church, there they also established a sort of college, or common residence, for the priests of that church. This is evident from the epistles of Ignatius, nearly all, of which conclude with a salutation addressed to this congregation of disciples, dwelling together, and styled a “collegium.” His epistle to the Church at Antioch concludes thus, “I salute the sacred College of Presbyters” (Saluto Sanctum Presbyterorum Collegium). The Epistle ad Philippenses, “Saluto S. Episcopum et sacrum Presbyterorum Collegium” – so also the epistles to the Philadelphians, the Church at Smyrna, to the Ephesians, and to the Trallians.
But when Saint Benedict was sent as a lad to Rome, the inclination toward the severer form of ascetic life, that of anchorites and hermits, had received an impulse by the works of the great fathers of the church, already alluded to; and the pensive student, buried in these more congenial studies, became imbued with their spirit, and was soon fired with a romantic longing for a hermit life. At the tender age of fifteen, unable to endure any longer the dissonance between his desires and his surroundings, he flood from Rome, and took refuge in a wild, cavernous spot in the neighboring country. As he left the city he was followed by a faithful nurse, Cyrilla by name, who had brought him up from childhood, had tended him in his sojourn at Rome, and now, though lamenting his mental derangement, as she regarded it, resolved not to leave her youthful charge to himself, but to watch over him and wait upon him in his chosen seclusion. For some time this life went on, Saint Benedict becoming more and more attached to his hermitage, and the nurse, despairing of any change, begged his food from day to day, prepared it for him, and watched over him with a mother’s tenderness. A change then came over the young enthusiast, and he began to feel uneasy under her loving care. It was not the true hermit life, not the realization of that grand idea of solitude with which his soul was filled; and under the impulse of this new emotion he secretly fled from the protection of his foster-mother, and, without leaving behind him the slightest clue to his pursuit, hid himself among the rocks of Subiaco, or, as it was then called, Sublaqueum, about forty miles distant from Rome. At this spot, which was a range of bleak, rocky mountains with a river and lake below in the valley, he fell in with one Romanus, a monk, who gave him a monastic dress, with a hair shirt, led him to a part on the mountains where there was a deep, narrow cavern, into which the sun never penetrated, and here the young anchorite took up his abode, subsisting upon bread and water, or the scanty provisions which Romanus could spare him from his own frugal repasts; these provisions the monk used to let down to him by a rope, ringing a bell first to call his attention. For three years he pursued this life, unknown to his friends, and cut off from all communication with the world; but neither the darkness of his cavern nor the scantiness of his fare could preserve him from troubles. He was assailed by many sore temptations.
One day that solitude was disturbed by the appearance of a man in the garb of a priest, who approached his cave and began to address him; but Benedict would hold no conversation with the stranger until they had prayed together, after which they discoursed for a long time upon sacred subjects, when the priest told him of the cause of his coming. The day happened to be Easter Sunday, and as the priest was preparing his dinner, he heard a voice saying, “You are preparing a banquet for yourself, whilst my servant Benedict is starving;” that he thereupon set out upon his journey, found the anchorite’s cave, and then producing the dinner, begged Saint Benedict to share it with him, after which they parted. A number of shepherds, too, saw him near his cave, and as he was dressed in goat-skins, took him at first for some strange animal; but when they found he was a hermit, they paid their respects to him humbly, brought him food, and implored his blessing in return.
The fame of the recluse of Subiaco spread itself abroad from that time through the neighboring country; many left the world and followed his example; the peasantry brought their sick to him to be healed, emulated each other in their contributions to his personal necessities, and undertook long journeys simply to gaze upon his countenance and receive his benediction. Not far from his cave were gathered together in a sort of association a number of hermits, and when the fame of this youthful saint reached them they sent a deputation to ask him to come among them and take up his position as their superior. It appears that this brotherhood had become rather lax in discipline, and, knowing this, Saint Benedict at first refused, but subsequently, either from some presentiment of his future destiny, or actuated simply by the hope of reforming them, he consented, left his lonely cell, and took up his abode with them as their head.
In a very short time, however, the hermits began to tire of his discipline and to envy him for his superior godliness. An event then occurred which forms the second cognizance by which the figure of Saint Benedict may be recognized in the fine arts. Endeavors had been made to induce him to relax his discipline, but to no purpose; therefore they resolved upon getting rid of him, and on a certain day, when the saint called out for some wine to refresh himself after a long journey, one of the brethren offered him a poisoned goblet. Saint Benedict took the wine, and, as was his custom before eating or drinking anything, blessed it, when the glass suddenly fell from his hands and broke in pieces. This incident is immortalized in stained-glass windows, in paintings, and frescoes, where the saint is either made to carry a broken goblet, or it is to be seen lying at his feet. Disgusted with their obstinacy he left them, voluntarily returned to his cavern at Subiaco, and dwelt there alone. But the fates conspired against his solitude, and a change came gradually over the scene. Numbers were drawn toward the spot by the fame of his sanctity, and by-and-bye huts sprang up around him; the desert was no longer a desert, but a colony waiting only to be organized to form a strong community. Yielding at length to repeated entreaties, he divided this scattered settlement into twelve establishments, with twelve monks and a superior in each, and the monasteries were soon after recognized, talked about, and proved a sufficient attraction to draw men from all quarters, even from the riotous gaieties of declining Rome.
We will mention one or two incidents related of Saint Benedict, which claim attention, more especially as being the key to the artistic mysteries of Benedictine pictures. It was one of the customs in this early Benedictine community for the brethren not to leave the church immediately after the divine office was concluded, but to remain for some time in silent mental prayer. One of the brethren, however, took no delight in this holy exercise, and to the scandal of the whole community used to walk coolly out of the church as soon as the psalmody was over. The superior remonstrated, threatened, but to no purpose; the unruly brother persisted in his conduct. Saint Benedict was appealed to, and when he heard the circumstances of the case, said he would see the brother himself. Accordingly, he attended the church, and at the conclusion of the divine office, not only saw the brother walk out, but saw also what was invisible to every one else – a black boy leading him by the hand. The saint then struck at the phantom with his staff, and from that time the monk was no longer troubled, but remained after the service with the rest.
St. Gregory also relates an incident to the effect that one day as a Gothic monk was engaged on the border of the lake cutting down thistles, he let the iron part of his sickle, which was loose, fall into the water. Saint Maur, one of Benedict’s disciples – of whom we shall presently speak – happened to be standing by, and, taking the wooden handle from the man, he held it to the water, when the iron swam to it in miraculous obedience.
As we have said, the monasteries grew daily in number of members and reputation; people came from far and near, some belonging to the highest classes, and left their children at the monastery to be trained up under Saint Benedict’s protection. Amongst this number, in the year 522, came two wealthy Roman senators, Equitius and Tertullus, bringing with them their sons, Maurus, then twelve years of age, and Placidus, only five. They begged earnestly that Saint Benedict would take charge of them, which he did, treated them as if they had been his own sons, and ultimately they became monks under his rule, lived with him all his life, and after his death became the first missionaries of his order in foreign countries, where Placidus won the crown of martyrdom. Again, Saint Benedict nearly fell a victim to jealousy. A priest named Florentius, envying his fame, endeavored to poison him with a loaf of bread, but failed. Benedict once more left his charge in disgust; but Florentius, being killed by the sudden fall of a gallery, Maurus sent a messenger after him to beg him to return, which he did, and not only wept over the fate of his fallen enemy, but imposed a severe penance upon Maurus for testifying joy at the judgment which had befallen him. The incident of the poisoned loaf is the third artistic badge by which Saint Benedict is to be known in art, being generally painted as a loaf with a serpent coiled round it. These artistic attributes form a very important feature in monastic painting, and in some instances become the only guide to the recognition him the subject. Saint Benedict is sometimes represented with all these accompaniments – the broken goblet, the loaf with the serpent, and in the background the figure rolling in the briers. Saint Bernard, who wrote much and powerfully against heresy, is represented with the accompanying incident in the background of demons chained to a rock, or being led away captive, to indicate his triumphs over heretics for the faith. Demons placed at the feet indicate Satan and the world overcome. Great preachers generally carry the crucifix, or, if a renowned missionary, the standard and cross. Martyrs carry the palm. A king who has resigned his dignity and entered a monastery has a crown lying at his feet. A book held in the hand represents the gospel, unless it be accompanied by pen and ink-horn, when it implies that the subject was an author, as in the case of Anselm, who is represented as holding in his hands his work on the incarnation, with the title inscribed, “Cur Deus Homo,” or it may relate to an incident in the life, as the blood-stained book, which Saint Boniface holds, entitled “De Bono Mortis,” a work he was devotedly fond of, always carried about with him, and which was found after his murder in the folds of his dress stained with his blood. But the highest honor was the stigmata or wounds of Christ impressed upon the hands, feet, and side. This artistic pre-eminence is accorded to Saint Francis, the founder of the order which bears his name, and to Saint Catharine, of Siena. A whole world of history lies wrapped up in these artistic symbols, as they appear in the marvellous paintings illustrative of the hagiology of the monastic orders which are cherished in half the picture galleries and sacred edifices of Europe, and form as it were a living testimony and a splendid confirmation of the written history and traditions of the church.
Although, at the period when we left Saint Benedict reinstalled in his office as superior, Christianity was rapidly being established in the country, yet there were still lurking about in remote districts of Italy the remains of her ancient paganism. Near the spot now called Monte Cassino was a consecrated grove in which stood a temple dedicated to Apollo. Saint Benedict resolved upon clearing away this relic of heathendom, and, fired with holy seal, went amongst the people, preached the gospel of Christ to them, persuaded them at length to break the statue of the god and pull down the altar; he then burned the grove and built two chapels there – the one dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and the other to Saint Martin. Higher up upon the mountain he laid the foundation of his celebrated monastery, which still bears his name, and here he not only gathered together a powerful brotherhood, but elaborated that system which infused new vigor into the monastic life, cleared it of its impurities, established it upon a firm and healthy basis, and elevated it, as regards his own order, into a mighty power, which was to exert an influence over the destinies of humanity inferior only to that of Christianity itself. Saint Benedict, with the keen perception of genius, saw in the monasticism of his time, crude as it was, the elements of a great system. For five centuries it had existed and vainly endeavored to develop itself into something like an institution, but the grand idea had never yet been struck out – that idea which was to give it permanence and strength. Hitherto the monk had retired from the world to work out his own salvation, caring little about anything else, subsisting on what the devotion of the wealthy offered him from motives of charity; then, as time advanced, they acquired possessions and wealth, which tended only to make them more idle and selfish. Saint Benedict detected in all this the signs of decay, and resolved on revivifying its languishing existence by starting a new system, based upon a rule of life more in accordance with the dictates of reason. He was one of those who held as a belief that to live in this world a man must do something – that life which consumes, but produces not, is a morbid life, in fact, an impossible life, a life that must decay, and therefore, imbued with the importance of this fact, he made labor, continuous and daily labor, the great foundation of his rule. His vows were like those of other institutions – poverty, chastity, and obedience – but he added labor, and in that addition, as we shall endeavor presently to show, lay the whole secret of the wondrous success of the Benedictine Order. To every applicant for admission, these conditions were read, and the following words added, which were subsequently adopted as a formula: “This is the law under which thou art to live and to strive for salvation; if thou canst observe it, enter; if not, go in peace, thou art free.” No sooner was his monastery established than it was filled by men who, attracted by his fame and the charm of the new mode of life, came and eagerly implored permission to submit themselves to his rule. Maurus and Placidus, his favorite disciples, still remained with him, and the tenor of his life flowed on evenly.
After Belisarius, the emperor’s general, had been recalled, a number of men totally incapacitated for their duties were sent in his place. Totila, who had recently ascended the Gothic throne, at once invaded and plundered Italy; and in the year 542, when on his triumphant march, after defeating the Byzantine army, he was seized with a strong desire to pay a visit to the renowned Abbot Benedict, who was known amongst them as a great prophet. He therefore sent word to Monte Cassino to announce his intended visit, to which Saint Benedict replied that he would be happy to receive him. On receiving the answer he resolved to employ a stratagem to test the real prophetic powers of the abbot, and accordingly, instead of going himself, he caused the captain of the guard to dress himself in the imperial robes, and, accompanied by three lords of the court and a numerous retinue, to present himself to the abbot as the kingly visitor. However, as soon as they entered into his presence, the abbot detected the fraud, and, addressing the counterfeit king, bid him put off a dress which did not belong to him. In the utmost alarm they all fled back to Totila and related the result of their interview; the unbelieving Goth, now thoroughly convinced, went in proper person to Monte Cassino, and, on perceiving the abbot seated waiting to receive him, he was overcome with terror, could go no further, and prostrated himself to the ground. Saint Benedict bid him rise, but as he seemed unable, assisted him himself. A long conversation ensued, during which Saint Benedict reproved him for his many acts of violence, and concluded with this prophetic declaration: “You have done much evil, and continue to do so; you will enter Rome; you will cross the sea; you will reign nine years longer, but death will overtake you on the tenth, when you will be arraigned before a just God to give an account of your deeds.” Totila trembled at this sentence, besought the prayers of the abbot, and took his leave. The prediction was marvellously fulfilled; in any case the interview wrought a change in the manner of this Gothic warrior little short of miraculous, for from that time he treated those whom he had conquered with gentleness. When he took Rome, as Saint Benedict had predicted he should, he forbade all carnage, and insisted on protecting women from insult; stranger still, in the year 552, only a little beyond the time allotted him by the prediction, he fell in a battle which he fought against Narses, the eunuch general of the Greco-Roman army. Saint Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, who had become a nun, discovered the whereabouts of her lost brother, came to Monte Cassino, took up her residence near him, and founded a convent upon the principles of his rule. She was, therefore, the first Benedictine nun, and is often represented in paintings, prominent in that well-known group composed of herself, Saint Benedict, and the two disciples, Maurus and Placidus.
It appears that her brother was in the habit of paying her a visit every year, and upon one occasion stayed until late in the evening, so late that Scholastica pressed him not to leave; but he persisting, she offered a prayer that heaven might interpose and prevent his going, when suddenly a tempest came on so fierce and furious that he was compelled to remain until it was over, when he returned to his monastery. Two days after this occurrence, as he was praying in his cell, he beheld the soul of his beloved sister ascending to heaven in the form of a dove, and the same day intelligence was brought him of her death. This vision forms the subject of many of the pictures in Benedictine nunneries. One short month after the decease of this affectionate sister, Saint Benedict, through visiting and attending to the sick and poor in his neighborhood, contracted a fever which prostrated him; he immediately foretold his death, and ordered the tomb in which his sister lay in the church to be opened. On the sixth day of his illness he asked to be carried to it, where he remained for some time in silent, prayerful contemplation; he then begged to be removed to the steps of the high alter, where, having received the holy viaticum, he suddenly stretched out his arms to heaven and fell back dead. This event took place on Saturday, the 21st March, 543, in the 63d year of his age. He was buried by the side of his sister Scholastica, on the very spot, it is said, where he threw down the altar of Apollo. In the seventh century, however, some of his remains were dug up, brought to France, and placed in the Abbey of Fleury, from which circumstance it took the name of Saint Benoit, on the Loire. After his death his disciples spread themselves abroad over the continent and founded monasteries of his name and rule. Placidus became a martyr, and was canonized; Maurus founded a monastery in France, was also introduced to England, and from his canonized name, Saint Maurus, springs one of the oldest English names – St. Maur, Seymaur, or Seymour.
Divesting this narrative of its legendary accompaniments, and judging of Saint Benedict, the man, by the subsequent success of his work, and the influence of his genius upon the whole mechanism of European monasticism, and even upon the destinies of a later civilization, we are compelled to admit that he must have been a man whose intellect and character were far in advance of his age. By instituting the vow of labor, that peculiarity in his rule which we shall presently examine more fully, he struck at the root of the evils attending the monasticism of his times, an evil which would have ruined it as an institution in the fifth century had he not interposed, and an evil which in the sixteenth century alone caused its downfall in England.
Before proceeding to examine the rule upon which all the greatness of the Benedictine order was based, it will be necessary to mention the two, earliest mission efforts of the order. The first was conducted under the immediate direction of Saint Benedict himself, who in the year 534 sent Placidus, with two others, Gordian and Donatus, into Sicily, to erect a monastery upon land which Tertullus, the father of Placidus, had given to Saint Benedict. Shortly after the death of the saint, Innocent, bishop of Mans, in France, sent Flodegarde, his archdeacon, and Hardegarde, his steward, to ask for the assistance of some monks of Saint Benedict’s monastery, for the purpose of introducing the order into France. Saint Maurus was selected for the mission, and, accompanied by Simplicius, Constantinian, Antony, and Faustus, he set out from Monte Cassino, and arrived in France the latter end of the year 543; but to their great consternation, upon reaching Orleans, they were told that the Bishop of Mans was dead, and another hostile to their intentions had succeeded him. They then bent their steps toward Anjou, where they founded the monastery of Glanfeuil, from whose cloisters issued the founders of nearly all the Benedictine institutions in France. From these two centres radiated that mighty influence which we shall now proceed to examine.
As we have in a former paper sketched the internal structure of the monastery, we will before going further fill each compartment with its proper officers, people the whole monastery with its subjects, and then examine the law which kept them together.
The abbot was, of course, the head and ruler of the little kingdom, and when that officer died the interval between his death and the installation of his successor was beautifully called the “widowhood of the monastery.” The appointment was considered to rest with the king, though the Benedictine rule enjoined a previous election by the monks and then the royal sanction. This election was conducted in the chapter-house: the prior who acted as abbot daring the time the mitre was vacant summoned the monks at a certain hour, the license to elect was then read, the hymn of the Holy Ghost sung, all who were present and had no vote were ordered to leave, the license was repeated – three scrutators took the votes separately, and the chanter declared the result – the monks then lifted up the elect on their shoulders, and, chanting the Te Deum, carried him to the high altar in the church, where he lay whilst certain prayers were said over him; they then carried him to the vacant apartments of the late abbot, which were thrown open, and where he remained in strict seclusion until the formal and magnificent ceremony of installation was gone through. In the meantime the aspect of the monastery was changed, the signs of mourning were laid aside, the bells which had been silent were once more heard, the poor were again admitted and received relief, and preparations were at once commenced for the installation. Outside also there was a commotion, for the peasantry, and in fact all the neighborhood, joined in the rejoicings. The immense resources of the refectory were taxed to their utmost, for the installation of the lord abbot was a feast, and to it were invited all the nobility and gentry in the neighborhood. On the day of the ceremony the gate of the great church was thrown open to admit all who were to witness the solemn ceremony, and, as soon as the bells had ceased, the procession began to move from the cloisters, headed by the prior, who was immediately followed by the priest of the divine office, clad in their gorgeous ceremonial robes; then followed the monks, in scapulary and cowled tunic, and last of all the lay brethren and servants; the newly elect and two others who were to officiate in his installation remained behind, as they were not to appear until later. The prior then proceeded to say mass, and just before the gospel was read there was a pause, during which the organ broke out into strains of triumphant music, and the newly chosen abbot with his companions were seen to enter the church, and walk slowly up the aisle toward the altar. As they approached they were met by the prior (or the bishop, if the abbey were in the jurisdiction of one), who then read the solemn profession, to which the future abbot responded; the prior and the elect then prostrated themselves before the high altar, in which position they remained whilst litanies and prayers were chanted; after the litany the prior arose, stood on the highest step of the altar, and whilst all were kneeling in silence pronounced the words of the benediction; then all arose, and the abbot received from the hands of the prior the rule of the order and the pastoral staff, a hymn was sung, and, after the gospel, the abbot communicated, and retired with his two attendants, to appear again in the formal ceremony of introduction. During his absence the procession was re-formed by the chanter, and, at a given signal, proceeded down the choir to meet the new abbot, who reappeared at the opposite end bare-footed, in token of humility, and clad no longer in the simple habit of a monk, but with the abbot’s rich dalmatic, the ring on his finger, and a glittering mitre of silver, ornamented with gold, on his brow. As soon as he had entered he knelt for a few moments in prayer upon a carpet, spread on the upper step of the choir; when he arose he was formally introduced as the lord high abbot, led to his stall, and seated there with the pastoral staff in his hand. The monks then advanced, according to seniority, and, kneeling before him, gave him the kiss of peace, first upon the hand, and afterward, when rising, upon the month. When this ceremony was over, amid the strains of the organ and the uplifted voices of the choir, the newly proclaimed arose, marched through the choir in full robes, and, carrying the pastoral staff, entered the vestiary, and then proceeded to divest himself of the emblems of his office. The service was concluded, the abbot returned to his apartments, the monks to the cloisters, the guests to prepare for the feast, and the widowhood of the abbey was over. The sway of the abbot was unlimited – they were all sworn to obey him implicitly, and he had it in his power to punish delinquents with penances, excommunication, imprisonment, and in extreme cases with corporal punishment – he ranked as a peer, was styled “My Lord Abbot,” and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries kept an equal state and lived as well as the king on the throne: some of them had the power of conferring the honor of knighthood, and the monarch himself could not enter the monastery without permission. The next man in office to the abbot was the prior, who, in the absence of his superior, was invested with full powers; but on other occasions his jurisdiction was limited – in some monasteries he was assisted by sub-priors, in proportion to the size of the institution and number of its inmates.
After the prior in rank came the precentor or chanter, an office only given to a monk who had been brought up in the monastery from a child. He had the supervision of the choral service, the writing out the tables of divine service for the monks, the correction of mistakes in chanting, which he led off from his place in the centre of the choir; he distributed the robes at festivals, and arranged processions. The cellarer was intrusted with the food, drink, etc., of the monastery, also with the mazers or drinking cups of the monks, and all other vessels used in the cellar, kitchen, and refectory; he had to attend at the refectory table, and collect the spoons after dinner. The treasurer had charge of the documents, deeds, and moneys belonging to the monastery; he received the rents, paid all the wages and expenses, and kept the accounts. The sacristan’s duties were connected with the church; he had to attend to the altar, to carry a lantern before the priest, as he went from the altar to the lecturn, to cause the bell to be rung; he took charge of all the sacred vessels in use, prepared the host, the wine, and the altar bread. The almoner’s duty was to provide the monks with mats or hassocks for their feet in the church, also matting in the chapter-house, cloisters, and dormitory stairs; he was to attend to the poor, and distribute alms amongst them, and in the winter warm clothes and shoes. After the monks had retired from the refectory, it was his duty to go round and collect any drink left in the mazers to be given away to the poor. The kitchener was filled by a different monk every week in turn, and he had to arrange what food was to be cooked, go round to the infirmary, visit the sick and provide for them, and superintend the labors of his assistants. The infirmarer had care of the sick; it was his office to administer to their wants, to give them their meals, to sprinkle holy water on their beds every night after the service of complin. A person was generally appointed to this duty who, in case of emergency, was competent to receive the confession of a sick man. The porter was generally a grave monk of mature age; he had an assistant to keep the gate when he delivered messages, or was compelled to leave his post. The chamberlain’s business was to look after the beds, bedding, and shaving room, to attend to the dormitory windows, and to have the chambers swept, and the straw of the beds changed once every year, and under his supervision was the tailory, where clothes, etc., were made and repaired. There were other offices connected with the monastery, but these were the principal, and next to these came the monks who formed the convent with the lay brethren and novices. If a child were dedicated to God by being sent to a monastery, his parents were required to swear that he would receive no portion of fortune, directly or indirectly; if a mature man presented himself, he was required to abandon all his possessions, either to his family or to the monastery itself, and then to enter as a novitiate. In order to make this as trying as possible, the Benedictine rule enjoined that no attention should be at first paid to an applicant, that the door should not be even opened to him for four or five days, to test his perseverance. If he continued to knock, then he was to be admitted to the guests’ house, and after more delay to the novitiate, where he was submitted to instruction and examination. Two months were allowed for this test, and if satisfactory, the applicant had the rule read to him, which reading was concluded with the words used by Saint Benedict himself, and already quoted: “This is the law under which thou art to live, and to strive for salvation. If thou canst observe it, enter; if not, go in peace, thou art free.” The novitiate lasted one year, and during this time the rule was read and the question put thrice. If at the end of that time the novice remained firm, he was introduced to the community in the church, made a declaration of his vows in writing, placed it on the altar, threw himself at the feet of the brethren, and from that moment was a monk. The rule which swayed this mass of life, wherever it existed, in a Benedictine monastery, and indirectly the monasteries of other orders, which are only modifications of the Benedictine system, was sketched out by that solitary hermit of Subiaco. It consists of seventy-three chapters, which contain a code of laws regulating the duties between the abbot and his monks, the mode conducting the divine services, the administration of penalties and discipline, the duties of monks to each other, and the internal economy of the monastery, the duties of the institution toward the world outside, the distribution of charity, the kindly reception of strangers, the laws to regulate the actions of those who were compelled to be absent or to travel; in fine, everything which could pertain to the administration of an institution composed of an infinite variety of characters subjected to one absolute ruler. It has elicited the admiration of the learned and good of all subsequent ages. It begins with the simple sentence: “Listen, O son, to the precepts of the master! Do not fear to receive the counsel of a good father, and to fulfil it fully, that thy laborious obedience may lead thee back to him from whom disobedience and weakness have alienated thee. To thee, whoever thou art, who renouncest thine own will to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ, and takest in hand the valiant and glorious weapons of obedience, are my words at this moment addressed.” The first words, “Ausculta, O fili!” are often to be seen inscribed on a book placed in the hands of Saint Benedict, in paintings and stained glass. The preamble contains the injunction of the two leading principles of the rule; all the rest is detail, marvellously thorough and comprehensive. These two grand principles were obedience and labor – the former became absorbed in the latter, for he speaks of that also as a species of labor – “Obedientiae laborem;” but the latter was the genius, the master-spirit of the whole code. There was to be labor, not only of contemplation, in the shape of prayer, worship, and self-discipline, to nurture the soul, but labor of action, vigorous, healthy, bodily labor, with the pen in the scriptorium, with the spade in the fields, with the hatchet in the forest, or with the trowel on the walls. Labor of some sort there must be daily, but no idleness: that was branded as “the enemy of the soul” – “Otiositas inimica est animiae.” It was enjoined with all the earnestness of one thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the great Master, who said, “Work whilst it is yet day, for the night cometh, when no man shall work;” who would not allow the man he had restored to come and remain with him – that is, to lead the life of religious contemplation, but told him to “go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee!” That is the life of religious activity. The error of the early monasticism was the making it solely a life of contemplation. Religious contemplation and religious activity must go together. In the contemplation the Christian acquires strength, in the activity he uses that strength for others; in the activity he is made to feel his weakness and driven to seek for aid in contemplation and prayer.
But, beside being based upon divine authority and example, this injunction of labor was formed upon a clear insight into and full appreciation of one of the most subtle elements of our constitution. It is this, that without labor no man can live; exist he may, but not live. This is one of the great mysteries of life – its greatest mystery; and its most emphatic lesson, which, if men would only learn, it would be one great step toward happiness, or at least toward that highest measure of happiness attainable below. If we can only realize this fact in the profundity of its truth, we shall have at once the key to half the miseries and anomalies which beset humanity. Passed upon man, in the first instance, by the Almighty as a curse, yet it carried in it the germ of a blessing; pronounced upon him as a sentence of punishment, yet there lurked in the chastisement the Father’s love. Turn where we may, to the pages of bygone history or to the unwritten page of everyday life, from the gilded saloons of the noble to the hut of the peasant, we shall find this mysterious law working out its results with the unerring precision of a fundamental principle of nature. Where men obey that injunction of labor, no matter what their station, there is in the act the element of happiness, and wherever men avoid that injunction there is always the shadow of the unfulfilled curse darkening their path. This is the great clue to the balance of compensation between the rich and the poor. The rich man has no urgent need to labor; his wealth provides him with the means of escape from the injunction, and there is to be found in that man’s life, unless he, in some way, with his head or with his hands, works out his measure of the universal task, a dissonance and a discord, a something which, in spite of all his wealth and all his luxury, corrupts and poisons his whole existence. It is a truth which cannot be ignored – no man who has studied life closely has failed to notice it, and no merely rich man lives who has not felt it and would not confess to its truth, if the question were pressed upon him. But in the case of the man who works, there is in his daily life the element of happiness, cares flee before him, and all the little caprices and longings of the imagination – those gad-flies which torment the idle – are to him unknown. He fulfils the measure of life; and whatever his condition, even if destitute in worldly wealth, we may be assured that the poor man has great compensations, and if he sat down with the rich man to count up grievances would check off a less number than his wealthier brother. Whatever his position, man should labor diligently; if poor he should labor and he may become rich, and if rich he should labor still, that all the evils attendant upon riches may disappear. Pure health steals over the body, the mind becomes dear, and the little miseries of life, the petty grievances, the fantastic wants, the morbid jealousies, the wasting weariness, and the terrible sense of vacuity which haunt the life of one-half of the rich in the world, all flee before the talisman of active labor; nor should we be discouraged by failure, for it is better to fail in action than to do nothing. After all, what is commonly called failure we shall find to be not altogether such if we examine more closely. We set out upon some action or engagement, and after infinite toil we miss the object of that action or engagement, and they say we have failed; but there is consolation in this incontrovertible fact, that although we may have missed the particular object toward which our efforts have been directed, yet we have not altogether failed. There are many collateral advantages attendant upon exertion which may even be of greater importance than the attainment of the immediate object of that exertion, so that it is quite possible to fail wholly in achieving a certain object and yet make a glorious success. Half the achievements of life are built up on failures, and the greater the achievement, the greater evidence it is of persistent combat with failure. The student devotes his days and nights to some intellectual investigation, and though he may utterly fail in attaining to the actual object of that search, yet he may be drawn into some narrow diverging path in the wilderness of thought which may lead him gradually away from his beaten track on to the broad open light of discovery. The navigator goes out on the broad ocean in search of unknown tracts of land, and though he may return, after long and fruitless wanderings, yet in the voyages he has made he has acquired experience, and may, perchance, have learned some fact or thing which will prove the means of saving him in the hour of danger. Those great luminaries of the intellectual firmament – men who devoted their whole lives to investigate, search, study, and think for the elevation and good of their fellows – have only succeeded after a long discipline of failure, but by that discipline their powers have been developed, their capacity of thought expanded, and the experience gradually acquired which at length brought success. There is, then, no total failure to honest exertion, for he who diligently labors must in some way reap. It is a lesson often reiterated in apostolic teaching that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth;” and the truth of that lesson may be more fully appreciated by a closer contemplation of life, more especially this phenomenon of life in which we see the Father’s love following close upon the heels of his chastisement. The man who works lives, but he who works not lives but a dying and a hopeless life.
That vow of labor infused new vitality into the monks, and instead of living as they had hitherto done upon the charity of the public, they soon began not only to support themselves, but to take the poor of their neighborhood under their own especial protection. Whenever the Benedictines resolved on building a monastery, they chose the most barren, deserted spot they could find, often a piece of land long regarded as useless, and therefore frequently given without a price, then they set to work, cleared a space for their buildings, laid their foundations deep in the earth, and by gradual but unceasing toil, often with their own hands, alternating their labor with their prayers, they reared up those stately abbeys which still defy the ravages of age. In process of time the desert spot upon which they had settled underwent a complete transformation – a little world populous with busy life sprang up in its midst, and far and near in its vicinity the briers were cleared away – the hard soil broken up – gardens and fields laid out, and soon the land, cast aside by its owners as useless, bore upon its fertile bosom flowers, fruit, corn, in all the rich exuberance of heaven’s blessing upon man’s toil – plenty and peace smiled upon the whole scene – its halls were vocal with the voice of praise and the incense of charity arose to heaven from its altars. They came upon the scene poor and friendless – they made themselves rich enough to become the guardians of the poor and friendless; and the whole secret of their success, the magic by which they worked these miracles, was none other than that golden rule of labor instituted by the penetrating intellect of their great founder; simple and only secret of all success in this world, now and ever – work – absolute necessity to real life, and, united with faith, one of the elements of salvation.
Before we advance to the consideration of the achievements of the Benedictine order, we wish to call attention to a circumstance which has seldom, if ever, been dwelt upon by historians, and which will assist us in estimating the influence of monachism upon the embryo civilization of Europe.
It is a remarkable fact that two great and renowned phases of life existed in the world parallel to each other, and went out by natural decay just at the same period: chivalry and monasticism. The latter was of elder birth, but as in the reign of Henry VIII. England saw the last of monasticism, so amid some laughter, mingled with a little forced seriousness, did she see the man who was overturning that old system vainly endeavoring to revive the worn-out paraphernalia of chivalry. The jousts and tournaments of Henry’s time were the sudden flashing up of that once brilliant life, before its utter extinction. Both had been great things in the world – both had done great things, and both have left traces of their influence upon modern society and modern refinement which have not yet been obliterated, and perhaps never will be. It may then be interesting and instructive if we were to endeavor to compare the value of each by the work it did in the world. The origin of monasticism we have already traced; that of chivalry requires a few comments. Those who go to novels and romances for their history, have a notion that chivalry existed only in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, the periods chosen for the incidents of those very highly colored romances which belong to that order of writing. There is also a notion that it sprang out of the Crusades, which, instead of being its origin, were rather the result of the system itself. The real origin of chivalry may be fairly traced to that period when the great empire of the West was broken up and subdivided by the barbarians of the North. Upon the ruins of that empire chivalry arose naturally. The feudal system was introduced, each petty state had a certain number of vassals, commanded by different chiefs, on whose estates they lived, and to whom they swore fealty in return for their subsistence; these again looked up to the king as head.
By-and-bye, as the new form of life fell into working order, it became evident that these chiefs, with their vassals, were a power in themselves, and by combination might interfere with, if not overthrow, the authority of the king himself. Their continued quarrels amongst themselves were the only protection the king had against them, but gradually that ceased, and a time came when there was no occupation for the superfluous valor of the country; retainers lay about castleyards in all the mischief of idleness, drunken and clamorous; the kings not yet firmly seated on their thrones looked about for some current into which they might divert this dangerous spirit. The condition of things in the states themselves was bad enough; the laws were feebly administered; it was vain for injured innocence to appeal against the violence of power; the sword was the only lawgiver, and strength the only opinion. Women were violated with impunity, houses burned, herds stolen, and even blood shed without any possibility of redress for the injured. This state of things was the foundation of chivalry. Instinctively led, or insidiously directed to it, strong men began to take upon themselves the honor of redressing grievances, the injured woman found an armed liberator springing up in her defence, captives were rescued by superior force, injuries avenged, and the whole system – by the encouragement of the petty kings who saw in this rising feeling a vent for the idle valor they so much dreaded – soon consolidated itself, was embellished and made attractive by the charm of gallantry, and the rewards accorded to the successful by the fair ladies who graced the courts. Things went on well, and that dangerous spirit which threatened to overturn royalty now became its greatest ornament. In process of time it again outgrew its work, and with all the advantages of organization and flatteries of success, it once more became the tenor of the crowned heads of Europe. At this crisis, however, an event occurred which, in all probability, though it drained Europe of half her manhood, saved her from centuries of bloodshed and anarchy; that event was the banishment of the Christians and the taking of Jerusalem by the Saracens. Here was a grand field for the display of chivalry. Priestly influence was brought to bear upon the impetuous spirits of these chevaliers, religious fervor was aroused, and the element of religious enthusiasm infused into the whole organization; fair ladies bound the cross upon the breasts of their champions, and bid them go and fight under the banners of the Mother of God. The whole continent fired up under the preaching of Peter the Hermit; all the rampant floating chivalry of Europe was aroused, flocked to the standards of the church, and banded themselves together in favor of this Holy War; whilst the Goth, the Vandal, and the Lombard, sitting on their tottering thrones, encouraged by every means in their power this diversion of the prowess they had so much dreaded, and began to see in the troubles of Eastern Christianity a fitting point upon which to concentrate the fighting material of Europe out of their way until their own position was more thoroughly consolidated. The Crusades, however, came to an end in time, and Europe was once more deluged with bands of warriors who came trooping home from Eastern climes changed with new ideas, new traditions, and filled with martial ardor. But now the Goth, the Vandal, and the Lombard had made their position secure, and the knights and chieftains fell back naturally upon their old pursuit of chivalry, took up arms once more in defence of the weak and injured against the strong and oppressive. That valor which had fought foot to foot with the swarthy Saracen, had braved the pestilence of Eastern climes and the horrors of Eastern dungeons, soon enlisted itself in the more peaceable lists of the joust and tournament, and went forth under the inspiration of a mistress’s love-knot to do that work which we material moderns consign to the office of a magistrate and the arena of a quarter sessions.
It was in this later age of chivalry, when the religious element had blended with it, and it was dignified with the traditions of religious championship, that the deeds were supposed to be done which form the subject of those wonderful romances; – that was more properly the perfection of the institution; its origin lay, as we have seen, much further back.
As regards the difference between the work and influence of chivalry and monasticism, it is the same which always must exist between the physical and the moral – the one was a material and the other was a spiritual force. The orders of chivalry included all the physical strength of the country, its active material; but the monastery included all its spiritual power and thinking material. Chivalry was the instrument by which mighty deeds were done, but the intellect which guided, directed, and in fact used that instrument was developed and matured in the seclusion of the cloister. By the adoption of a stringent code of honor as regards the plighted word, and a gallant consideration toward the vanquished and weak, chivalry did much toward the refinement of social intercommunication and assuaging the atrocities of warfare. By the adoption, also, of a gentle bearing and respectful demeanor toward the opposite sex, it elevated woman from the obscurity in which she lay, and placed her in a position where she could exercise her softening influence upon the rude customs of a half-formed society; but we must not forget that the gallantry of chivalry was, after all, but a glossing over with the splendors of heroism the excrescences of a gross licentiousness – a licentiousness which mounted to its crisis in the polished gallantry of the court of Louis XIV. Monasticism did more for woman than chivalry. It was all very well for preux chevaliers to go out and fight for the honor of a woman’s name whom they had never seen; but we find that when they were brought into contact with woman they behaved with like ruthless violence to her whatever her station may have been – no matter whether she was the pretty daughter of the herdsman, or the wife of some neighboring baron, she was seized by violence, carried off to some remote fortress, violated and abandoned. Monasticism did something better, it provided her when she was no longer safe, either in the house of her father or her husband, with an impregnable shelter against the licentious pursuit of these preux chevaliers; it gave her a position in the church equal to their own; she might become the prioress or the lady abbess of her convent; she was no longer the sport and victim of chivalrous licentiousness, but a pure and spotless handmaiden of the Most High – a fellow-servant in the church, where she was honored with equal position and rewarded with equal dignities – a far better thing this than chivalry, which broke skulls in honor of her name, whilst it openly violated the sanctity of her person. It may be summed up in a sentence. Monasticism worked long and silently at the foundation and superstructure of society, whilst chivalry labored at its decoration.
When we mention the fact that the history of the mere literary achievements of the Benedictine order fills four large quarto volumes, printed in double columns, it will be readily understood how impossible it is to give anything like an idea of its general work in the world in the space of a short summary. That book, written by Zeigelbauer, and called “Historia Rei Literariae Ordinis Sancti Benedicti,” contains a short biography of every monk belonging to that order who had distinguished himself in the realms of literature, science, and art. Then comes Don Johannes Mabillon with his ponderous work, “Acta Sanctorum Ordinis Sancti Benedicti.” These two authorities gave a minute history of that marvellous institution, of whose glories we can only offer a faint outline.
The Benedictines, after the death of their founder, steadily prospered, and as they prospered, sent out missionaries to preach the truth amongst the nations then plunged in the depths of paganism. It has been estimated that they were the means of converting upwards of thirty countries and provinces to the Christian faith. They were the first to overturn the altars of the heathen deities in the north of Europe; they carried the cross into Gaul, into Saxony and Belgium; they placed that cross between the abject misery of serfdom and the cruelty of feudal violation; between the beasts of burden and the beasts of prey – they proclaimed the common kinship of humanity in Christ the Elder Brother.
Strange to say, some of its most distinguished missionaries were natives of our own country. It was a Scottish monk, Saint Ribanus, who first preached the gospel in Franconia – it was an English monk, Saint Wilfred, who did the same in Friesland and Holland in the year 683, but with little success – it was an Englishman, Saint Swibert, who carried the cross to Saxony, and it was from the lips of another Englishman, Saint Ulfred, that Sweden first heard the gospel – it was an Englishman and a Devonshire man, Saint Boniface, who laid aside his mitre, put on his monk’s dress, converted Germany to the truth, and then fell a victim to the fury of the heathen Frieslanders, who slaughtered him in cold blood. Four Benedictine monks carried the light of truth into Denmark, Sweden, and Gothland, sent there in the ninth century by the Emperor Ludovicus Pius. Gascony, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, Pomerania, are all emblazoned on their banners as victories won by them in the fight of faith; and it was to the devotion of five martyr monks, who fell in the work, that Poland traces the foundation of her church.
It is a remarkable fact in the history of Christianity, that in its earliest stage – the first phase of its existence – its tendency was to elevate peasants to the dignity of apostles, but in its second stage it reversed its operations and brought kings from their thrones to the seclusion of the cloister – humbled the great ones of the earth to the dust of penitential humility. Up to the fourth century Christianity was a terrible struggle against principalities and powers: then a time came when principalities and powers humbled themselves at the foot of that cross whose followers they had so cruelly persecuted. The innumerable martyrdoms of the first four centuries of its career were followed by a long succession of’ royal humiliations, for, during the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, in addition to what took place as regards other orders, no less than ten emperors and twenty kings resigned their crowns and became monks of the Benedictine order alone. Amongst this band of great ones the most conspicuous are the Emperors Anastasius, Theodosius, Michael, Theophilus, and Ludovicus Pius. Amongst the kings are Sigismund of Burgundy, Cassimir of Poland, Bamba of Spain, Childeric and Theodoric of France, Sigisbert of Northumberland, Ina of the West Saxons, Veremunde of Castille, Pepin of Italy, and Pipin of Acquitaine. Adding to these their subsequent acquisitions, the Benedictines claim up to the 14th. century the honor of enrolling amongst their number twenty emperors and forty-seven kings: twenty sons of emperors and forty-eight sons of kings – amongst whom were Drogus, Pipin, and Hugh, sons of Charlemagne; Lothair and Carlomen, sons of Charles; and Fredericq, son of Louis III. of France. As nuns of their order they have had no less than ten empresses and fifty queens, including the Empresses Zoa Euphrosyne, Saint Cunegunda, Agnes, Augusta, and Constantina; the Queens Batilda of France, Elfreda of Northumberland, Sexburga of Kent, Ethelberga of the West Saxons, Ethelreda of Mercia, Ferasia of Toledo, Maud of England. In the year 1290 the Empress Elizabeth took the veil with her daughters Agnes, queen of Hungary, and the Countess Cueba; also Anne, queen of Poland, and Cecily, her daughter. In the wake of these crowned heads follow more than one hundred princesses, daughters of kings and emperors. Five Benedictine nuns have attained literary distinction – Rosinda, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Hildegardis, whose works were approved of by the Council of Treves, Saint Hiltrudis, and Saint Metilda.
For the space of 239 years 1 month and 26 days the Benedictines governed the church in the shape of 48 popes chosen from their order, most prominent among whom was Gregory the Great, through whose means the rule was introduced into England. Four of these pontiffs came from the original monastery of Monte Cassino, and three of them quitted the throne and resumed the monastic life – Constantine II., Christopher I., and Gregory XII. Two hundred cardinals had been monks in their cloisters – they produced 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops, fifteen of whom took off their mitres, resumed their monks’ frock, and died in seclusion; 15,000 abbots; 4,000 saints. They established in different countries altogether 87,000 monasteries, which sent out into the world upwards of 15,700 monks, all of whom attained distinction as authors of books or scientific inventors. Rabanus established the first school in Germany. Alcuin founded the University of Paris, where 30,000 students were educated at one time, and whence issued, to the honor of England, Saint Thomas à Becket, Robert of Melun, Robert White, made cardinal by Celestine II., Nicholas Broakspear, the only Englishman ever made Pope, who filled the chair under the title of Adrian IV., and John of Salisbury, whose writings give us the best description of the learning both of the university and the times. Theodore and Adrian, two Benedictine monks, revived the University of Oxford, which Bede, another of the order, considerably advanced. It was in the obscurity of a Benedictine monastery that the musical scale or gamut – the very alphabet of the greatest refinement of modern life – was invented, and Guido d’Arezzo, who wrested this secret from the realms of sound, was the first to found a school of music. Sylvester invented the organ, and Dionysius Exiguus perfected the ecclesiastical computation.
England in the early periods of her history contributed upwards of a hundred sons to this band of immortals, the most distinguished of whom we will just enumerate – St. Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne, whose life Bede has written, and whose “Ordinationes” and “De Vita Monastica” have reached to our times. Saint Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monasteries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Wearmouth and Jarrow, a nobleman by birth, and a man of extraordinary learning and ability, to whom England owes the training of the father of her ecclesiastical history, the Venerable Bede. Saint Aldhelm, nephew of King Ina, Saint Wilfrid, St Brithwald, a monk of Glastonbury, elevated to the dignity of Archbishop of Canterbury, which he held over thirty-seven years. His works which have come down to us are a “Life of Saint Egwin, bishop of Worcester,” and the “Origin of the Monastery of Evesham.” Tatwin, who succeeded him in the archbishopric. Bede the Venerable, who was skilled in all the learning of the times, and; in addition to Latin and Greek, was versed in Hebrew; he wrote an immense number of works, many of which are lost, but the best known are the greater portion of the “Saxon Chronicle,” which was continued after his death as a national record; and his “Ecclesiastical History,” which gives to England a more compendious and valuable account of her early church than has fallen to the lot of any other nation. He was also one of the earliest translators of the Scriptures, and oven on his death-bed dictated to a scribe almost up to the final moment; when the last struggle came upon him he had reached as far as the words, “But what are they among so many,” in the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, and the ninth verse. Saint Boniface, already alluded to as the apostle of Germany, was a native of Devonshire. He was made Archbishop of Mentz, but being possessed with an earnest longing to convert the heathen Frieslanders, he retired from his archbishopric, and putting on his monk’s dress took with him no other treasure than a book he was very fond of reading, called “De Bono Mortis,” went amongst these people, who cruelly beat him to death in the year 755; and the book stained with his blood was cherished as a sacred relic long after. Alcuin, whom we have already mentioned as the founder of the University of Paris, was a Yorkshireman, and was educated under Bede. He lived to become the friend of Charlemagne, and next to his venerable master was the greatest scholar and divine in Europe; he died about the year 790. John Asser, a native of Pembrokeshire, is another of these worthies. It is supposed that Alfred endowed Oxford with professors, and settled stipends upon them, under his influence, he being invited to the court of that monarch for his great learning. He wrote a “Commentary” upon Boethius de Consolatione Philosophiae, the “Life of King Alfred,” and the “Annals of Great Britain.” Saint Dunstan, a monk of Glastonbury, the best known of all these great Englishmen, died Archbishop of Canterbury; but as we shall have much to say of him hereafter we pass on to Saint Ethelwold, his pupil, also a monk at Glastonbury, distinguished for his learning and piety, for which he was made abbot of the Monastery of Abingdon, where he died in the year 984. Ingulphus, a native of London, was made Abbot of Croyland, in Lincolnshire, in the year 1075. A history of the abbey over which he presided has been attributed to him, but its authenticity has been gravely disputed. Alfric, a noted grammarian. Florence, of Worcester, was another great annalist, who in his “Chronicon ex Chronici” brings the history down to the year 1119, that in which he died; his book is chiefly valuable as a key to the “Saxon Chronicle.” William, the renowned monk of Malmesbury, the most elegant of all the monastic Latinists, was born about the time of the Norman Conquest. His history consists of two parts, the “Gesta Regum Anglorum,” in five books, including the period between the arrival of the Saxons and the year 1120. The “Historia Novella,” in three books, brings it down to the year 1142. He ranks next to Bede as an historic writer, most of the others being mere compilers and selectors from extant chronicles. He also wrote a work on the history of the English bishops, called “De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum,” in which he speaks out fearlessly and without sparing: also a treatise on the antiquity of Glastonbury Abbey, “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae;” his style is most interesting, and he is supposed to have written impartially, separating the improbable from the real, and gives us what can readily be appreciated as a fair and real picture of the state of things, more especially of the influence and policy of the Norman court, and the opening of the struggle between the two races. Eadmer was another contemporaneous celebrity with William of Malmesbury; he was the author of a history of his own times, called “Historia Novorum sive Sui Secula,” which is spoken of very highly by William of Malmesbury; it contains the reigns of William the Conqueror and Rufus, and a portion of that of Henry I., embracing a period extending from 1066 to 1122. Matthew Paris, another historian who lived about the year 1259, closes our selection from the long list of British worthies who were members of the Benedictine order.
When we reflect that all the other monastic systems, not only of the past, but even of the present day, are but modifications of this same rule, and that it emanated from the brain, and is the embodiment of the genius of the solitary hermit of Monte Cassino, we are lost in astonishment at the magnitude of the results which have sprung from so simple an origin. That Saint Benedict had any presentiment of the future glory of his order, there is no sign in his rule or his life. He was a great and good man, and he produced that comprehensive rule simply for the guidance of his own immediate followers, without a thought beyond. But it was blessed, and grew and prospered mightily in the world. He has been called the Moses of a favored people; and the comparison is not inapt, for he lead his order on up to the very borders of the promised country, and after his death, which, like that of Moses, took place within sight of their goal, they fought their way through the hostile wilds of barbarism, until those men who had conquered the ancient civilizations of Europe lay at their feet, bound in the fetters of spiritual subjection to the cross of Christ. The wild races of Scandinavia came pouring down upon southern Europe in one vast march of extermination, slaying and destroying as they advanced, sending before them the terror of that doom which might be seen in the desolation which lay behind them; but they fell, vanquished by the power of the army of God, who sallied forth in turn to reconquer the world, and fighting not with the weapons of fire and sword, but, like Christian soldiers, girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, they subdued these wild races, who had crushed the conquerors of the earth, and rested not until they had stormed the stronghold, and planted the cross triumphantly upon the citadel of an ancient paganism. Time rolled on, and the gloom of a long age of darkness fell upon a world whose glory lay buried under Roman ruins. Science had gone, literature had vanished, art had flown, and men groped about in vain in that dense darkness for one ray of hope to cheer them in their sorrow. The castle of the powerful baron rose gloomily above them, and with spacious moat, dense walls, and battlemented towers, frowned ominously upon the world which lay abject at its feet. In slavery men were born, and in slavery they lived. They pandered to the licentiousness and violence of him who held their lives in his hands, and fed them only to fight and fail at his bidding. But far away from the castle there arose another building, massive, solid, and strong, not frowning with battlemented towers, nor isolated by broad moats; but with open gates, and a hearty welcome to all comers, stood the monastery, where lay the hope of humanity, as in a safe asylum. Behind its walls was the church, and clustered around it the dwelling-places of those who had left the world, and devoted their lives to the service of that church, and the salvation of their souls. Far and near in its vicinity the land bore witness to assiduous culture and diligent care, bearing on its fertile bosom the harvest hope of those who had labored, which the heavens watered, the sun smiled upon, and the winds played over, until the heart of man rejoiced, and all nature was big with the promise of increase. This was the refuge to which religion and art had fled. In the quiet seclusion of its cloisters science labored at its problems and perpetuated its results, uncheered by applause and stimulated only by the pure love of the pursuit. Art toiled in the church, and whole generations of busy fingers worked patiently at the decoration of the temple of the Most High. The pale, thoughtful monk, upon whose brow genius had set her mark, wandered into the calm retirement of the library, threw back his cowl, buried himself in the study of philosophy, history, or divinity, and transferred his thoughts to vellum, which was to moulder and waste in darkness and obscurity, like himself in his lonely monk’s grave, and be read only when the spot where he labored should be a heap of ruins, and his very name a controversy amongst scholars.
We should never lose sight of this truth, that in this building, when the world was given up to violence and darkness, was garnered up the hope of humanity; and these men who dwelt there in contemplation and obscurity were its faithful guardians – and this was more particularly the case with that great order whose foundation we have been examining. The Benedictines were the depositaries of learning and the arts; they gathered books together, and reproduced them in the silence of their cells, and they preserved in this way not only the volumes of sacred writ, but many of the works of classic lore. They started Gothic architecture – that matchless union of nature with art – they alone had the secrets of chemistry and medical science; they invented many colors; they were the first architects, artists, glass-stainers, carvers, and mosaic workers in mediaeval times. They were the original illuminators of manuscripts, and the first transcribers of books; in fine, they were the writers, thinkers, and workers of a dark age, who wrote for no applause, thought with no encouragement, and worked for no reward. Their power, too, waxed mighty; kings trembled before their denunciations of tyranny, and in the hour of danger fled to their altars for safety; and it was an English king who made a pilgrimage to their shrines, and prostrate at the feet of five Benedictine monks, bared his back, and submitted himself to be scourged as a penance to his crimes.
Nearly fourteen hundred years have rolled by since the great man who founded this noble order died; and he who in after years compiled the “Saxon Chronicle” has recorded it in a simple sentence, which, amongst the many records of that document, we may at least believe, and with which we will conclude the chapter – “This year Saint Benedict the Abbot, father of all monks, went to heaven.”
– text taken from magazines, February and May issues, 1866