English Monastic Life – The Daily Life In A Monastery



The night Office in most monasteries began at midnight, although in some places the time varied according to the seasons of the year, from that hour till half-past two or three o’clock. Midnight, however, was so generally the time, that, in considering the daily life of a monastery, it may be assumed that the night vigils began with the first hour of each day. At some short time before the hour appointed for the commencement of the night Office the signal for rising was given in the common dormitory. Sometimes the sub-sacrist was charged with the ringing of a small bell, as he passed rapidly down the passage between the monks’ beds or cubicles. In other places it was the duty of the abbot himself, or his prior, to awaken the monks from their slumbers and invite them to come and keep their night watch in the church. In any case the sacrist and his assistant had to be up betimes and before the others, for, as has been already said, they had to see that the lights were lit on the stairs and in “le standards” in the church. It was the duty of one of the novices, however, to light candles for his fellows, and set them about the places they occupied in the choir, since they did not as yet know the psalmody by heart.

Meanwhile the monks when roused from their sleep were taught to begin the day by signing themselves with the cross and commending themselves to God’s protection. As they rose from their beds they put on those parts of their monastic habit which had been laid aside during the hours of sleep, and shod themselves with their “night-boots.” These were probably fur-lined, cloth protectors for the feet, which served the double purpose of keeping them warm during the winter nights spent in the cold church, and of rendering their footfall inaudible, during the hours of the greater silence which lasted from Compline till Prime. Each monk as he finished his simple preparation, seated himself in front of his bed and there waited in silence, with his hood drawn well over his head, till the bell began to toll. Then, preceded by a junior carrying a lighted lantern, the religious went out of the dormitory in companies of six at a time, and took their places in the choir. The juniors occupied as their normal position the stalls nearest to the altar, the youngest being next to the chancel step, the seniors being furthest away, and the superiors next to the entrance. The abbot or prior waited outside the church in the cloister, or at the entrance to the choir, until all had passed in before him and had taken their places, when he gave the signal for the tolling of the bell to cease, and then himself entered and took up his position in the stall next to the gate of the choir.

At the coming of the superior all rose from their knees, returned his salutation, and at once bowed down for what was known as the “Triple-prayer” – the Pater, Ave, and Creed – with which the night Office always commenced. Then the weekly antiphoner at a sign from the superior gave out the first of the “Fifteen,” or “Gradual” psalms. Great importance was always attached to the recitation of these psalms, and all the obedientiaries were bound to be present, except the guest-master when his duty to any stranger took him away, or the cantor on a day when any proper Lessons had to be read at Matins, and he was occupied officially in finding the places in the great chained book at the choir lectern. At the end of these psalms, by which, on all but the great feasts, the night Office was commenced, those officials who had duties to perform departed from the choir during the interval between the Psalms and the second ringing of the bells for the beginning of Matins proper.

When the second night-tolling ceased, at a sign from the superior, the hebdomadarian of the week, who had to sing the daily High Mass, began the Office with the usual Deus in adjutorium. This weekly official was bound always to be present at Matins during the time of his office when he sang the Mass; and so strict indeed was the law of connection between Matins and the Mass, that should the hebdomadarian be unable for any reason to be present at the former, he had to obtain the services of some priest who could assist at Matins, to sing the Mass for him.

After the Invitatory, which was said or sung by the weekly antiphoner, either alone or with a companion, or on the great feasts by the cantor and his assistant, the superior, or hebdomadarian priest, gave out the first antiphon, and the rest of the antiphons were taken in turns by the seniors on either side. At the conclusion of the psalms of each Nocturn, the reader appointed for the first Lesson fetched the lighted candle, bowed to either choir and to the abbot if he were present, and then ascending the steps of the reading-place, so held the candle that its light fell as he desired on the book which had been prepared by the cantor. Before beginning his reading he asked the usual blessing, bowing down from the place where he stood towards the abbot or superior, who gave it sitting in his stall. The Lesson was followed by the Responsorium, during which the reader of the Lesson made way for another, who had been appointed on the cantor’s official list for the second Lesson, and so on, till after the last Lesson had been read, when the reader carried back the light to the place whence the first reader had brought it, that it might be found ready for the Lessons of the next Nocturn. In some places the readers of the fourth, eighth, and twelfth Lessons were told to extinguish the candle, taking care that it did not smoke so as to annoy the brethren. It was to be lighted again by one of the novices appointed for the purpose during the last psalm of each Nocturn.

If the abbot was to sing the twelfth Lesson, or to take part in a Responsory, or other portion of the service, as he did on the great festivals, the cantor had to come with the abbot’s chaplain and others to his stall, bringing the necessary books with lights carried by servers, and the cantor in a low voice was to assist him in the singing. On feasts with twelve Lessons, whilst the Te Deum was being chanted, preparations were made for the solemn singing of the portion of the Gospel selected for the Office of the day. The church servants brought into the choir a portable reading-desk, which they placed at the steps leading to the presbytery. Others brought a cope of the colour of the day, with an amice, stole, and maniple. Meanwhile the sacrist had fetched the book of the Gospels with some solemnity from the altar, and had placed it on the desk, where the cantor was waiting to find the proper place. Having done so, at the indicated verse in the Te Deum, the cantor went to the stall of the hebdomadarian of the Mass, and bowing to him conducted him to the desk, assisted him to vest, and pointed out to him the place in the Holy Gospels that had to be sung or read. Meanwhile the servers had come into the choir from the sacristy with incense and lights, and when the Te Deum was concluded all turned towards the priest whilst he chanted the appointed Gospel, and finished Matins with the prayer of the day.

Immediately the bells began to ring for Lauds, and during the brief interval the priest unvested, and with the usual bow to each choir, which was slightly acknowledged by the monks on either side, he returned to his stall to wait till the cessation of the ringing gave the signal for the beginning of the next canonical Hour. Meantime the incense and lights had been taken back into the vestry, and the sacrist, having carried the Gospel-book back to the altar, the servants removed the desk out of the choir. The cantor busied himself during the interval at the great chained Antiphonary on the lectern, in order to see that all the places of Lauds were marked, and that the hanging lantern in front of the book was burning brightly enough to light up the great parchment page with its large square notes and big letters. In this interval the monks either remained sitting in their stalls with their hoods covering their heads, or they could take the opportunity of leaving the choir, to restore their circulation by a brisk turn in the cloister, or for any other purpose.


In ancient days the Office of Lauds was called Matutinae Laudes – “the morning praises” – because they were supposed to be always celebrated at dawn of day. In mediaeval monasteries, however, this canonical Hour was generally said or sung, with only a short interval between it and Matins. It would, therefore, have been probably somewhere about one o’clock in the morning that Lauds usually began.

If the feast was of sufficient rank for the hebdomadarian to be vested in a cope, he then occupied the stall next to the abbot; if not, he remained in his own place, and, when the tolling of the bell ceased and gave notice of the conclusion of the interval, he at once intoned the Deus in adjutorium for the beginning of Lauds. It was his place to give out the first antiphon, the second being taken by the abbot, or by the first religious in choir. The rest of the antiphons were given out as at Matins, by one on each side in turn. The Chapter – called the “Little Chapter” – was supposed to be known by heart, and no book or light was allowed to be used in saying it.

The hebdomadarian gave out the antiphon of the Benedictus, and if he were vested in cope he would have to incense the altar or altars during the singing of that canticle. For this purpose two thurifers, and acolytes bearing candles, came from the sacristy before the antiphon was begun, and the thurifers, after the incense had been blessed by the abbot, accompanied the hebdomadarian to the High Altar, returning whence they had come after the ceremony had been performed. On Sundays, at the conclusion of Lauds, the hebdomadarian gave the blessing to the outgoing and incoming weekly servers.

Directly the Office was over the community retired once more to the dormitory and to bed. The juniors led the way with a lighted lantern, as when they had come down to Matins. The prior, however, waited in his stall until he had seen that all had passed out of the church except the sacrist, who had to remain behind to see that the lights were safely put out, and that the Collectarium, or book of Collects, and other choir books were carefully replaced in the aumbry. Then he too retired again to his bed in the room near the church. It would have been probably some time about half-past one or two in the morning before the monks found themselves once more in bed for their second period of repose.


It is somewhat difficult to say exactly at what time the Hour of Prime was generally said in a mediaeval monastery. It is possible, however, to assume that it was not earlier than six or later than seven o’clock in the morning. One Consuetudinary, that of Saint Mary’s, York, says that the bell was to ring for that Hour at seven, “unless for some reason the time was changed; but that Prime must never be said before daybreak.”

At seven o’clock, then, or thereabouts, after the monks had been allowed five hours for the term of their second repose – making with the rest they had had previous to the midnight Office, about eight hours in all – the prior, or whoever was appointed for the duty, roused the brethren. This was done by sounding a bell for the space of a Miserere psalm, and before the ringing was finished the religious were expected to be already out of bed. They were now, at their second rising, to dress themselves in their day clothes and shoes, and to betake themselves to the church, where they were to be in their places before the bell had ceased to toll. Prime with its hymn, three psalms, and the beautiful morning prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, Who hast brought us to the beginning of this day, so assist us by Thy grace, that we may not fall this day into sin, but that our words may be spoken and our thoughts and deeds directed according to Thy just commands,” did not take very long, and concluded with the usual Benedicamus Domino. Immediately after this the great bell was rung for the Missa familiaris, or early Mass, chiefly intended for the servants and workpeople of the establishment. At this the community were not bound to be present; and so, whilst the bell was tolling, they passed into the cloister to begin their washing and complete their dressing, etc. The seniors and priests first occupied the lavatories, since they had now to say their own private Masses as soon as they were ready. Whilst the seniors were dressing, the juniors waited in their places reading or praying till their turn came. When the sign was made that the lavatories were free, the novice-master ceased his instructions, and the novices put down their psalters in their places in the cloister; the juniors returned their books to the shelves of the aumbry in the cloister, and then they went in turns to wash, going afterwards to the corner near the door of the refectory to smooth their hair.

It was during this hour after Prime that those who desired to approach the Sacrament of Penance could always be sure of finding a confessor in the chapter-room, where alone, be it remarked, the confessions of the brethren were heard. On all Sundays and feast days the early Mass was delayed until the washing was finished, when the religious who were not priests went in procession to the church to hear this Mass and to receive the Holy Eucharist. On these occasions they were sprinkled with holy water at the door of the church, and a crucifix was offered to them to kiss.

On other days during this time, except the priests who, as has already been pointed out, now said their private Masses, the monks either took their books and studied in the cloister; or, if they were obedientiaries, busied themselves in the necessary duties of their various offices.

The early Mass had to be taken in turn by all the priests, except by the infirmarian, who always celebrated for the sick in the infirmary, and by some of the other officials whose duties prevented their celebrating at this time. The priest, whose name was on the tabula to take this Mass, had to see that the altar had been prepared, and that the places were marked in the missal beforehand, so as not to cause unnecessary delays. At the same time those about to celebrate their private Masses prepared their chalices and cruets in the sacristy; and, assisted by the junior monks not in priest’s orders, went to the altars assigned to them. When two priests had their names entered on the tabula for the same altar, the senior took the first turn and the junior followed. If the former did not come, the latter was to wait till the priest saying the early Mass had got to the Epistle, and then he could himself take the altar, presuming that his senior had for some reason been unable to come.


Before the next public duty, which was the morning Mass – celebrated it would seem about half-past eight, or thereabouts – on all days but fasting days, the community were called to the refectory for what was variously called the mixtum, or breakfast. Three strokes of the bell at the church door was the signal for this slight refection which the young members, who were not priests, could take at an earlier hour, if the superior so wished or thought good. This meal – if meal it could be called – was very slight, and consisted, according to one set of directions, of a quarter of a pound of bread, and a third of a pint of wine or beer. There was, however, even in this slight refection a religious decorum and a certain amount of ceremony. The weekly reader asked a blessing, and the first religious present in the refectory gave it, saying: “May the Giver of all good gifts bless the food and drink of his servants.” Then the small portion was served out and consumed by each in silence, and standing. At the end, each monk said to himself when he had finished: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, for Thy name’s sake eternal life to all our benefactors. Amen.”

In Lent the mixtum was not taken except on Sundays. It was also omitted on the three Rogation days, on the Ember days, and on certain vigils of feasts, which by ecclesiastical law were days of fasting.


Whilst the monks were at their morning refection the first bell was kept ringing for the morning Mass. This Mass was frequently called the “Ladye Mass,” because it was usually celebrated at the altar of our Blessed Lady, and as a votive Mass in her honour, when the feast permitted it. In other places it was called the “Chapter Mass,” because it was followed immediately by the daily Chapter. When the first bell had ceased to ring, the monks took up their position in that part of the cloister known as the Statio, that is, the place where all assembled when they had to go into the church in procession. This place naturally varied in different monasteries according to circumstances. In Saint Mary’s, York, it is described as being in the western walk of the cloister, before the common parlour.

On the second tolling of the bell the community proceeded in procession to the church. At the door they were presented with a crucifix to kiss, took holy water, and bowed to the representation of the Holy Trinity, or the crucifix, at the entrance. They then stood in their ranks in choir facing the altar, till, on the entrance of the superior, the bell ceased. Sometimes the Hour of Tierce was said before the morning Mass, but in any event the seniors were now in the stalls nearest to the altar.

At a sign from the cantor the novices took the graduals from the choir cupboard, or the psalters if the Mass was de Requiem, and distributed them. The priest came in at once and the Mass was said in a low but audible voice, with more or less solemnity according to the ecclesiastical rank of the day.


Immediately after the conclusion of the morning Mass the great bell was set ringing for the daily Chapter. It would now have been somewhere about nine o’clock in the day. As long as the tolling continued the religious as a body remained sitting in their stalls in the church, “thinking,” as one Custumal says, “over any transgressions against the Rule or good discipline of which they may have been guilty.” Meanwhile the chief officials responsible for the order of the house, called generally the custodes ordinis, repaired for a few minutes to the private parlour to consult as to any matter which might need correction, or to which public attention should be called; at the same time, on the sound of the bell, all those who for any reason had not been present at the Mass, hastened to the chapter-room. During this interval one of the custodians of the cloister went round to see that all the doors were so closed and fastened, that no one could enter the monastery precincts during the time of the Chapter.

When the brief talk of the custodians was over, the junior among them went back to the door of the church to stop the bell ringing, and its cessation was the signal for the community to leave the choir and proceed to the chapter-room, the juniors walking first. Here all stood in their places till the entrance of the superior. If the abbot were present all bowed as he passed through their ranks, and as he reached his seat at the upper end of the room, the prior and one of the seniors from the abbot’s side of the choir came forward to kiss his hand, bowing to him both before and after this act of homage. By this ceremony they publicly renewed their monastic obedience on behalf of the community.

Whilst the community and superior were coming into the Chapter, the junior appointed for the office of weekly reader in the refectory, stood holding before his breast the Martyrology, or book of the names of the saints daily commemorated by the Church. When all had entered and taken their seats, the reader came forward, and placing the volume upon the lectern in the middle of the room, asked the blessing of the president in the usual form. This having been given, he read the portion of the Martyrology which gave the brief notices of the lives of the martyrs and other saints commemorated on the following day. When mention was made of any saint whose relics were possessed by the house, or who was specially connected with it as patron or otherwise, the community removed their hoods and bowed down as a mark of special reverence.

After the Martyrology all stood up and turned to the crucifix, or Majestas, during the usual morning prayers, which were said to call down God’s blessing upon the work of the day, and to ask His protection over all the words and deeds to be uttered and done in His service. With the blessing: “May the Lord Almighty regulate our days and acts according to His peace” and the short reading called the Capitulum, this portion of the daily Chapter was concluded. Then, all again sitting, the abbot or presiding superior said, Loquamur de Ordine nostro: “Let us speak about the affairs of our house.” At this point the novices retired from the chapter-room, and also any stranger religious, who was not professed for the monastery, who happened to be present. About all that was transacted in this part of the daily Chapter, the strictest silence was enjoined. Some of the Custumals even declare that they do not set forth the manner of holding the Chapter, as the secrets of the religious family are its own and all loyal sons would desire to keep them inviolate. Other regulations, whilst permitting the infirmarian to convey to the sick monks who were not present any order given, charged him on no account to relate anything else that happened in the Chapter, since no one was ever allowed to speak about such matters, not even to mention and discuss them with those who had been present.

When the room had been cleared of all but the professed monks of the monastery, the Chapter devoted itself to the correction of faults against good discipline. It was lawful for any religious, except a novice, to speak in the secrecy of Chapter about any matters that in his judgment required to be corrected. These generally resolved themselves into one of three classes relating to regular life: (1) negligences of all kinds, changes of customs, and mistakes in the divine service; (2) want of due care in the keeping of silence; and (3) neglect of the proper almsgiving on behalf of the house. As to all things in the first class it was the duty of the cantor and succentor to speak first, and to call attention to anything they had noticed amiss; concerning shortcomings in the second class, the superior and the guardians of the cloister, whose special duty it was to watch over the monastic silence, were to have the first say; and as regards the third, naturally the almoner and his assistant would have most information to give on all that regarded the monastic charities.

After the “proclamations” or “accusations,” the superior pronounced the punishment. No one was allowed to offer any defence or make any excuse, and the whole process was summary and without noise or wrangling. The penance was generally some corporal chastisement, with rod or other discipline; and this, which to our modern ideas seems so curious, and indeed somewhat repellent a feature of mediaeval monasticism, was evidently at the time regarded as quite a natural, and indeed a useful and healthy form of religious exercise; for, besides being looked on as a punishment, this form of corporal chastisement was resorted to with permission of the superior as a common means of self-mortification. Such voluntary penances were chiefly sought for on days like the Fridays of Lent, and especially on Good Friday, and when some brother specially desired to offer up penitential works for the soul of some departed brother.

When the questions of discipline had been disposed of, which ordinarily would have taken only a very brief time, the superior, if he desired to say anything, made his short address or exhortation. He then, if there was any need, consulted his community about any temporal or other matter, or asked their consent, where such consent was required. In all such temporal matters many of the Custumals advise the junior members to defer to the age and experience of their elders, although they were of course free to give their own opinions, even if contrary to that of their elders.

It was at this time in the daily Chapter that any deed or charter to which the convent seal had to be affixed, and to which the convent had already assented, was sealed in presence of all by the precentor, whose duty it was to bring the common seal to the meeting when it was needed. When this part of the Chapter was finished, all matters such as the issuing of public letters of thanks or congratulation, etc., in the name of the community, were sanctioned, and the granting of the privilege of the fraternity of the house to benefactors or people of distinction. When the actual ceremony of conferring this favour, which was both lengthy and solemn, was to be performed, it was at this point that the “confratres” and “consorores” were introduced into the Chapter. After the ceremony the “confratres” received the kiss of peace from all the religious; the “consorores” kissed the hand of each of the monks.

In the same way, on the day before a Clothing or Profession, the candidate presented himself before the abbot, at this point in the Chapter, and urged his petition. Also, before a monk was ordained priest he had to come before the Chapter; and kneeling, to beg the prayers of his brethren. The superior was charged to explain to him again carefully at this time the responsibilities of so high a calling, and to warn him of the dangers and difficulties which he would have to encounter in his sacred office. Then the superior pronounced over him a special blessing and offered up a special prayer for God’s assistance. When there were many candidates for ordination who had to go elsewhere to receive their Orders, it was at this time in the Chapter that the schedule of their names was drawn up and handed to the senior, who was to accompany them to the bishop at whose hands they were to receive ordination.

Only on rare occasions, however, would there have been any such matters of public business. Ordinarily speaking, from the superior’s address, if he made any, followed by his blessing, the Chapter passed to the commemoration of the departed. If the day was the anniversary of a benefactor whose soul ought to be remembered in the prayers of the community, the precentor, or the succentor in his absence, came forward immediately after the superior had given his blessing, and standing in front of the reading-place, said: “Today, sir, we should have the great bell rung” – or some other bell, according to the solemnity of the anniversary. “For whom?” asked the superior. “For so-and-so,” replied the precentor, naming the special claim the person whose anniversary it was, had upon the community. Then the superior, bowing, said: “May his soul and the souls of all the faithful, by the mercy of God, rest in peace.” Whereupon the precentor wrote the name of the benefactor upon the “tabula” for the day, that no one might have the excuse of absence for not knowing for whom the whole convent had to offer up their prayers that day. Then from the lectern the reader announced the usual list of the anniversaries of brethren entered in the necrology for the day; and this again was followed by the precentor reading any mortuary roll, or notice of death of some religious of another house, or of some personage of distinction, if any such had been received. After reading such a roll, it was his duty to explain to the community what were their obligations in regard to the deceased. The Chapter was then concluded with the De profundis and a prayer for the souls of all departed brethren and benefactors.

On ordinary occasions, of course, the daily Chapter would not occupy a very long time, possibly a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. At any rate, a full half-hour of the morning would be left before the High Mass, which began at ten o’clock. This time was generally spent by the monks in conversation in the cloister. On days when there was talking, the prior, or abbot if he had been present, on coming into the cloister when the Chapter was over, would sound three times the tabula sonatila, which was apparently a piece of hard wood, to which two other smaller pieces were loosely fastened, so that when shaken it gave forth a musical sound and served the purpose of our modern gong. This triple sounding of the tabula was always the signal for talking; the superior, or whoever acted for him, pronouncing the word Benedicite, without which no conversation was to be permitted in the monastery. “By the three strokes,” says one author who sees deep meanings in ordinary things, “is to be understood the signs of our mortality, representing our coming into the world, our passage through life, and our transit through the portals of death.” The special significance of this thought in regard to conversation was apparently that in view of it, a bridle should be set upon the tongue and a guard upon the heart, which was so frequently disturbed by trifling images.


After the Chapter the common business of the house was transacted. The discussion about all the many details of a great administration like that of a mediaeval monastery necessitated regular consultations between the officials and the superior, and frequent debates upon matters of policy, or matters of business, or on points of the Rule or observance. These meetings were known as “the Parliament,” or Discussions, and from them the word to signify our house of national representatives was taken.

One particular part of the cloister was selected where these monastic Parliaments were held, and thither all came who had any matter to suggest or business to transact with the officials. Here the abbot, or he who took his place, was ordered to be ever ready to hear what those had to say who sought him for guidance or direction. In another part of the cloister, during this time after Chapter, the senior monks met together to listen to devotional reading, and to discuss points that might strike them in their reading, or which had been suggested by the Divine Office. In the same way the juniors were to be in their places in the western walk of the cloister with their master, or one or more of the seniors, similarly engaged in asking questions as to observance, or seeking to know the meaning of any difficult passages in Holy Scripture. The novices, and the juniors who had been only recently professed, were together in the northern walk of the cloister, being taught the principles and practices of the monastic life. It was a precious time for the beginner, when the disciple was exhorted to question his instructor on all matters connected with the regular observance, but especially about the Rule and the Divine Office.

During this period of the Parliament the guardians of the cloister were directed to go about from group to group, to see that the laws of the regular life were observed as they should be. During this half-hour, except in the case of the officials who had to transact necessary business of the house, no conversations about worldly matters or vain tales were to be permitted. The Parliament time – between Chapter and High Mass – was devoted exclusively to spiritual matters or to the discussion of necessary business.

During this and all similar times of conversation the monks were warned to keep watch over their tongues. When asked their opinion or advice, they were to give it with modesty and moderation. No signals were to be permitted between various parts of the cloister; the conversation was to be conducted in a low tone, and it was to be considered a matter of first importance that at these meetings all should be present.


The daily “Magna Missa” – the Conventual, or High Mass – began at ten o’clock. The first signal was given by the ringing of a small bell some short time before the hour; and forthwith, on the first sound, the juniors and novices laid aside the tasks upon which they were engaged. All books were at once replaced on the shelves of the aumbry in the cloister, and then the monks waited in their places till the second signal. On this being given, talking at once ceased, and the religious made their way to the church. Meanwhile, on hearing the first signal, the hebdomadarian, or priest, who had to sing the Conventual Mass, and the other sacred ministers, after having again washed their hands “to be ready to fulfil their functions at the sacred altar with fitting purity” of body and mind, made their way to the sacristy to vest for the service.

The community having entered the choir and taken their places, the senior members nearest the altar, the prior, who was up to this time waiting outside the door of the church, gave the sign for the tolling of the bell to cease. As he did so, he himself entered the choir and took up his position in the stall nearest to the presbytery steps and opposite to that of the abbot when he was present. If Tierce had not already been said at the time of the morning Mass, after the usual silent Pater and Ave, the superior made a signal for that Hour “by rapping with his hand upon the wood of his stall.” Whilst the community were engaged in the recitation of the Office, the ministers were completing their preparation in the sacristy, and when it was over, if the day were a Sunday, the priest came into the choir for the solemn blessing of the holy water. He was preceded by the thurifer bearing the processional cross between two candle-bearers, and was accompanied by the deacon and sub-deacon in albs. Two vases of water had been prepared on the first step of the presbytery by the church servers, and thither the procession went for the weekly blessing of the holy water. The cross-bearer mounted the steps and then turning somewhat to the north, stood with his face towards the priest; the deacon assisted upon the right hand of the celebrant and the sub-deacon on his left. The solemn blessings of the salt and water were then chanted by the priest, the whole community answering and taking part in the service. When the exorcism and blessing of the salt was finished, the sub-deacon, coming forward, took a little of it on a smaller dish and handed it to the priest to mix with the water. The rest of the blessed salt was then taken by one of the church servants to the refectorian, whose duty it was to see that a small portion was every Sunday placed in every salt-cellar in the refectory.

After the blessing of the holy water came the Asperges. The priest, having given the book of the blessings to one of the servers, received the aspersorium, or sprinkler, and dipping it into the vat of water, went to the altar, and after having sprinkled the front of it thrice, passed round it, doing the same at the back. Meanwhile the vat-bearer with the holy water awaited his return and then accompanied him as he gave the Asperges to all the religious in the choir. At the abbot’s stall the priest paused, bowed, and presented the sprinkler, so that the superior might touch it and sign himself with the newly-blessed water. When the abbot had finished the sign of the cross, the priest passed down the ranks of the brethren, sprinkling them with the water, first on one side and then on the other. If a bishop were present in the choir, he was treated with the same special reverence shown to the abbot, and to him the blessed water was to be taken first. When all the brethren had received the Asperges, the priest accompanied by his ministers went to the choir gates and sprinkled those of the faithful who were in the body of the church.

After this two priests, accompanied by two of the brethren, proceeded to take the holy water round the house. One pair went through the public rooms and offices of the monastery sprinkling them and saying appropriate prayers in each. The other mounted to the dormitory and did the same for each bed and cubicle, and returning through the infirmary, gave to each of the sick brethren the same privilege of receiving the holy water, which their brethren in the church had had.

Whilst this was being done by the two priests and their associates, the community, under the direction of the precentor, passed out of the choir into the cloister for the Sunday procession. First walked the bearer of the holy water which had just been blessed. He was followed by the cross-bearer walking between two acolytes carrying lighted candles. Then came the sub-deacon by himself with the book of the Holy Gospels, and behind him the priest who was to celebrate the Mass accompanied by his deacon. These were succeeded by the community, two and two, with the abbot by himself at the close of the double line. Ordinarily the procession passed once round the cloister, the monks singing the Responsories appointed for the special Sunday. On greater feasts there was more solemnity, for then the community were all vested in copes, which had been brought into the choir by the church servers and distributed to the monks after the Asperges. On these occasions, as also on the Sundays, the Hour of Tierce followed, instead of being said before the blessing of the holy water. On the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent also, and on the Rogation days, there were processions; but these were penitential exercises, and on such occasions the community walked barefooted round the cloister.

If the day was one of the solemn feasts, upon which the abbot celebrated in pontificals, he was vested by the sacred ministers before the altar in the sacristy, whilst Tierce was being sung in the choir. At the conclusion of the Hour he entered with due solemnity, being met at the door of the choir by the prior and others, and he took his seat upon a throne erected before his stall in the upper part of the choir until the procession was formed. The abbot only celebrated at the High Altar on these great feasts; and never except with full pontifical ceremonies, if he had the right to use pontificalia at all.

In most monasteries several times a year – four or more, according to custom and circumstances – there were exceptionally solemn processions with relics and banners. On these occasions every care was taken to make the religious pageants worthy of the best traditions of the monastery. Such processions would be preceded by the vergers of the church with their maces of office; and the community, all vested in copes, walked in couples with some four feet between them and between the next couple. Every here and there a single individual walked in the middle carrying an appropriate banner; and at intervals the great shrines, which were the special pride of the house, or the chief notable relics, were borne by the requisite number of religious clad in sacred vestments. At the close of the procession came the abbot in full pontificalia, assisted by his sacred ministers. Finally, following the church servers, walked the janitor of the church, or “door-keeper,” “who,” according to one Custumal, “was to raise his rod well above his head, to warn the people who pressed on after the procession, to stand farther away.”

These were the ceremonies preliminary to the High Mass on Sundays and on the greater festivals. Ordinarily speaking, the conventual High Mass would begin either directly after Tierce, or if that Hour had been already recited at the time of the early Mass, immediately the community had entered the choir, and the cessation of the bell-ringing had given notice that the prior was in his place. The two juniors appointed by the cantor had meanwhile taken the graduals and psalters from the presses in the choir, and had distributed them to the seniors, juniors, and novices according to their needs. The cantor of the week, also, had by this time put on his cope, had chosen a book, and had taken his stand at the lectern to be ready to lead the singing. The High Mass then commenced and went on as usual till after the Blessing. At the Offertory the prior or some of the seniors brought the oblations to the altar and gave them to the celebrant. On Sundays, after the Blessing, the hebdomadarian priest gave the usual benediction to the weekly reader, who had come forward from his place in choir to the steps of the presbytery to receive it. The Gospel of Saint John was said after the priests and the ministers had reached the sacristy and were standing before the altar there, whilst the community were leaving the choir for the next conventual duty, or were unvesting, if they had that day worn copes or albs.

If the abbot celebrated, the ceremonial was somewhat more elaborate. The prior made the oblation at the Offertory, and assisted the abbot to wash his hands after the incensing of the altar, and before the Post-Communion at the end of the Mass. If the abbot had been taking part in the procession, at the end of it, when the religious returned to the choir for Tierce, the abbot retired to the sacristy, accompanied by the ministers, where he took off his cope and put on the dalmatics and chasuble for the Holy Sacrifice, waiting in the sacristy till the signal was given for beginning the Mass.


Dinner followed Mass directly, with only a brief interval for the washing of hands. As a rule, the midday meal would be served about eleven o’clock. The reader and servers were permitted to take some slight refection beforehand; and for this purpose could leave the church before the conclusion of the service with the refectorian and kitchener. On Sundays, however, the reader had to wait till after he had received the usual weekly blessing, but he might then go straight from the altar to take his bread and wine.

Just before the close of the service in the church, the prior came out into the cloister and either himself began to sound the signal for the dinner, or caused someone else, appointed for the purpose, to do so. If through any accident the meal was not quite ready, or, as one Custumal says, “if the bread be still in the oven,” it was the duty of the kitchener to wait for the coming of the prior and to inform him of the delay, so that the signal might not begin to sound before the cook was ready. In this case the community, upon coming out of the church, after they had performed their ablutions, sat as patiently as they could in the cloister till the signal was given. Ordinarily, however, the bell began to ring at their coming out of the choir, and continued to sound whilst they were preparing themselves for the meal, and, indeed, until all were in their places.

The prior, or the senior who was going to preside at the meal if he were absent, remained at the door of the refectory, and gave the sign for the bell to cease ringing when all was ready. Whilst waiting here, the various officials who had to make any communication to the prior about the meal, or ask any permission appertaining to their office, came to make their reports or proffer their requests. For example, the infirmarian had now to notify the names and number of the sick under his charge, or to ask permission for some one of the brethren to dine with them. The guest-master would do the same in regard to his guests, and, on the great feasts when the abbot had pontificated, he would frequently send his chaplain to the prior or presiding senior, when thus standing at the entrance to the refectory, to acquaint him that he had invited the sacred ministers who had assisted him in the function, to dine at his table. In some places also, on every fish-day, the cellarer acquainted the prior at this time what provision he had made for the community meal, in order that the superior presiding might judge whether there ought to be anything further supplied to the religious, by way of a caritas, or extraordinary dish.

The monks on entering the refectory were directed to pause in the middle and salute the Majestas over the high table with a profound bow. They then passed to their places to await the coming of the superior. If this was delayed they could sit down in their places till the bell, ceasing to ring, told them that the superior had given the sign for his entry. They then stood in their ranks and returned the bow he made to each side as he came into the hall. If the abbot dined in the refectory, each monk also individually saluted him as he passed up to his seat. The usual Grace was then chanted, and the prior, or whoever presided, gave the blessing to the reader, who came forward into the middle of the refectory to ask for it. Whilst the community were sitting down in their places at table, the reader mounted the pulpit and opened the book at the place he had already prepared. When all was quiet the superior sounded the small bell at his table as a sign that the reader might begin; and, when the first sentence had been read, he sounded it a second time for the commencement of the meal. That the interval between the two bells might not be over long, the reader is warned in some monastic directions to make choice in all refectory reading of a short sentence as the first.

The monk who read one week had to serve the next, and during his week of reading he was never to be absent from his duty except with grave cause. For example, if he were to be invited during his week of office to dine at the abbot’s table, he was to excuse himself and say that he was the conventual reader. The reason assigned is obvious: the reading had to be carefully prepared, and was besides a labour; so that to ask anyone to take the duty unexpectedly would mean not only that he would have a burden placed upon him, but that the community would not have proper respect paid to it, in having to listen to reading that had not been prepared previously. One common and useful direction given to the refectory reader is, that he was not to hurry. The quantity he got through was immaterial compared with distinct pronunciation and careful rendering. Any specially noteworthy passage should be repeated so as to impress its meaning upon the hearers.

When the second signal had been sounded by the president’s bell, the brethren uncovered their loaves, which had been placed under their napkins, arranged the latter, and broke their portion of bread. At the second signal, too, the servers began their ministrations. In some of the greater houses, at the beginning of the meal, two juniors, one from each side, took their goblets and spoons and came to the table of the presiding superior. Here they took up their places, standing at either end of the table, unless the superior should invite them to sit. These junior monks were to act as the special servers of the religious presiding in the refectory. They were to assist him in his wants, to anticipate them if possible, and to act as his messengers should he require them to do so. On first taking up their position, the senior of the two was directed to cut the superior’s loaf in two for him, the other was to fill his goblet with the beer or wine served to the community. These two assistants at the president’s table had to eat their meals as they stood or sat, as the case might be, at the ends of the high table, and were to be helped immediately after the president himself.

When the sign for beginning the meal had been given, two other juniors, one on each side of the refectory, rose from their places, and, receiving the jugs of beer or wine from the cellarer or his assistant, proceeded to fill the goblets set before each of the religious. When this was done they asked permission from the superior, by a sign, to fill the measure of drink intended as the convent’s charity to the poor. Meanwhile the servers had gone to the kitchen-hatch to bring in the dishes. These were taken usually first to the superior, and from this dish the two juniors serving at his table were helped; then, should there have been any one of the brethren lately dead, his portion, to be given to the poor, was served out into a special dish. Finally, in many places, two dishes were taken by the servers to the tables on each side of the refectory; one to the top and the other to the bottom and so passed along the tables, the monk who passed the dish, and he to whom it was passed, bowing to each other with ceremonial courtesy.

In some houses the method of serving was somewhat different: the portions were served separately, having been previously divided under the direction of the kitchener or refectorian. When the first dish was pottage, the serving always began with the youngest member of the community, the superior receiving his last; in other cases the first dish was always taken to the superior’s table. The servers were exhorted always to attend to their work, not to keep standing about the kitchen-hatch, and much less to stop gossiping there; but to watch carefully and even anxiously for any sign that might be made to them by the brethren.

In some Custumals there were minute directions for the serving. Those who served the brethren were not to rush about, nor stand aimlessly in one place, nor gossip with the kitchen-servers even about the dishes they received. They were to watch to supply what was wanted; they were to serve with decorum and with patience, as if, indeed, they were waiting upon our Lord Himself; and they should not attempt too much at a time, as, for example, to try to carry in more dishes, etc., than they were well able to do. As a rule, they were to be contented to use both hands to carry one dish.

During the service of the first course, the reading was to proceed uninterruptedly; but when the community had finished eating it, a pause was made until the second course had been set on the table. Meanwhile, at some religious houses at this point in the dinner, the poor man selected that day to receive the alms of the community, or as the recipient of the portion of a deceased brother during the thirty days after his death, was brought into the refectory by the almoner. His share was given to him, and one of the juniors helped him to carry his food to the door. At this point, too, that is, after the first course, if there were not many to serve, permission from the superior was to be asked by a sign for one of the two servers to sit down and begin his meal.

The second course was served in a way similar to the first. Many and curious are the directions given as to what the monks might or might not do according to the code of mediaeval monastic manners. The regular food, for example, was not to be shared with anyone, as, indeed, all had received their own portion; but if anything special or extra was given to an individual, except for sickness, then he might, and indeed would be considered wanting in courtesy if he did not, offer to share it with his two neighbours. These neighbours, however, were not to pass it on. If the superior in his discretion sent a brother some extra dish, the recipient was directed to rise and bow his thanks. If the dish came from the table of the abbot, when out of the refectory, he who received it was still to bow towards the abbot’s place as if he were present. If it came from anyone else than the superior, the recipient had to send it by the server to the senior presiding in the refectory, that he might, if he so pleased, partake of it, or even dispose of it altogether according to his pleasure. If any mistake was made in serving, or if by any accident something was dropped or spilt on the tables or ground, the delinquent had to do penance in the middle, until the prior gave a sign to him to rise, by rapping on the table with the handle of his knife.

Some of the hints as to proper decorum at table seem curious in these days. No one was to clean his cup with his fingers, nor wipe his hands, or mouth, or knife upon the tablecloths. If he had first cleaned the knife with a piece of bread, however, he might then wipe it on his own napkin. The brethren were exhorted to try and keep the tablecloths clean. Stained cloths were to be washed without delay; and to avoid stains, all soft and cooked fruit was to be served in a deep plate or bowl. Every care was to be taken not to drop crumbs upon the floor; salt was to be taken with a knife, and the drinking-cup was to be held always in both hands.

When the prior, or the senior presiding at the table in his place, saw that the monks had finished their repast, he knocked upon the table with the handle of his knife, as a sign for the collection of remnants intended for the poor. The two juniors appointed for this purpose then came forward, each carrying a basket, and bowing in the middle to the superior, passed down each side of the refectory, collecting the pieces of bread and anything else that the religious had placed in front of them as their individual alms. Whatever portion of bread any monk desired to keep for the evening meal, he guarded by covering it with his napkin. Any loaf, or part of a loaf, left uncovered after the dinner was over, was claimed by the almoner, as belonging to “the portion of the poor” at his disposal.

When the two juniors had finished their task, the prior rapping the table a second time, gave the sign for the servers to collect the spoons and knives, and take them to the kitchen hatchway to be removed for washing in the place set aside for that purpose. Meanwhile the monks folded their napkins and waited silently for a third signal, upon which they rose from their places and took up their position for Grace, facing each other on the inner sides of the tables. When they were ready in their ranks, the reader who was waiting in the pulpit, at a sign from the prior, sang the usual conclusion of all public reading: “Tu autem Domine, miserere nobis,” the community answering “Deo gratias.” Then followed the chanted Grace, which was concluded in the church, to which the community went in procession, during the singing of the Miserere or other psalm.

The officials and religious who had been occupied with serving, stood on one side at the end of the meal, and as the brethren went out from the refectory they bowed to them, to show their reverence for the community in its corporate capacity. The servers then went to the lavatory and washed their hands in preparation for their own meal. The refectorian remained behind when the community went out of the refectory, so as to see that all was ready for the second table. At this second meal the cellarer generally presided; and one of the junior monks was appointed to read whilst it was being eaten by the servers and by all those who for any reason had been prevented from dining at the first table.


The community dinner would probably have taken about half an hour; and by the time the monks came from the church after finishing their Grace, it would have been about 11.30 in the morning. The first duty of the monks on coming into the cloister was to proceed to the lavatory to wash their hands again – a not wholly unnecessary proceeding in the days when forks were unknown, and fingers supplied their place at table. At Durham a peculiar custom was observed by the monks each day after dinner on coming from the church. They betook themselves to the cemetery garth “where all the monks were buried; and they did stand all bareheaded, a certain long space, praying among the tombs and graves for their brethren’s souls being buried there.” If None had already been said in choir, the community had now several hours to devote to reading or work, or both. If that canonical Hour had yet to be said, then the religious, after their ablutions, took their books and sat in the cloister till the monks at the second table had finished their meal, when the signal was given, and all went to the church and recited None together, returning to their occupations immediately afterwards, by which time it would have been about midday.

After washing his hands on coming out from Grace, the prior, or the senior who had presided in the refectory in his place, was directed in some houses to go and satisfy himself that all was well at the second table, and that those who had served others were themselves well served. From the refectory he had to go to the infirmary to visit the sick, and to see for himself that their needs had been properly supplied. When these two duties had been fulfilled, it was the custom in some places for the prior on occasions to invite some of the seniors to his room for a glass of wine, to warm themselves in winter, and for what is called in one Custumal “the consolations of a talk.” When the prior was not present, the presiding senior was allowed to invite some of the brethren to the domus recreationis – the recreation-room. At certain times and on certain feasts the whole community joined in these innocent and harmless meetings.

At this same time the juniors and novices with their masters were permitted with leave to go out into the garden and other places to unbend in games and such-like exercises proper to their age. In this way they were assisted when young to stand the severe strain of cloister discipline. Without the rational relaxation intended by such amusements, to use the simile constantly applied to these circumstances, “as bows always bent” they would soon lose the power of “aiming straight at perfection.”

The monk, it must be remembered, was in no sense “a gloomy person.” There is hardly anything that would have interfered more with the purpose of his life than any disposition to become a misanthrope. His calling was no bar to reasonable recreation. In fact, the true religious was told to try and possess angelica hilaritas cum monastica simplicitas. Thus at Durham we read of the greensward “at the back of the house towards the water” where the younger members of the community played their games of bowls, with the novice-master as umpire. On the stone benches, too, in the cloisters at Canterbury, Westminster, Gloucester, and elsewhere, traces of the games played centuries ago by the young religious may still be seen in the holes and squares set out symmetrically, and oblongs divided by carefully-drawn cross-lines. Sometimes we read of hunting, contests of ball, and other games of chance. Archbishop Peckham was apparently somewhat shocked to find that the prior of Cokesford, in Norfolk, at times indulged in a game of chess with some of his canons. In other houses he found that dogs were kept and even stranger pets like apes, cranes, and falcons were retained in captivity by the religious. It is difficult to draw the exact line by passing which monastic gravity is supposed to be injured, and so there was, no doubt, constant need for regulation on all these matters. But some such amusements were necessary, and by them, the tension of long-continued conventual exercises was relieved. The monastic granges to which from time to time the religious went for a change of scene and life were most useful in this regard and enabled them to recreate their strength for another period of service.

In the disposition of the early part of the afternoon, some slight changes had to be made between the winter and summer observance. In summer, immediately after the dinner, the community retired to the dormitory for a sleep, or rest, of an hour’s duration. This was the rule from Easter till the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September, and all the community were bound to observe the hour for repose if not for sleep. The period of rest, thus allowed at midday, was taken in reality from the night. During the summer the times for vespers, and supper, and bed were each an hour later than they were in the winter months, when the light failed earlier. This hour, by which in summer the sleep before Matins was shortened, was made up by the rest after dinner. During the same period, except on vigils and such-like days when None was said before the dinner, that canonical Hour was recited after the midday sleep. On the signal for the termination of the hour of repose the religious came from the dormitory and, having washed, sat in the cloister till the notice was given to proceed to the church for None, which at this time of the year would have been finished some time between 12.30 and one o’clock.


The chief working hours in a mediaeval monastery, including a period for recreation and outdoor exercise, were between twelve o’clock and five in winter, and one o’clock and six in summer. It was during these five hours that the chief business and work of the house was transacted. The officials then attended to the duties of their offices; the writers and rubricators made progress in their literary and artistic compositions in the cloister or scriptorium; the juniors and novices studied with their masters, or practised public reading and singing under the precentor or his assistant; those who had work in the kitchen, or the bakehouse, or the cellar, etc., addressed themselves to their allotted tasks. In a word, whilst the morning of each monastic day was devoted mainly to prayer and the church services, the afternoon was fully occupied in many and various labours and in the general administration of the monastery. Of course manual labour, that is the working in the gardens, or fields, or workshops of the establishment, always occupied at least a part of the working hours of every monastery, and frequently a large part. This manual labour was necessary for health and exercise, and it was insisted upon in all monastic codes, not so much as an end in itself, as a means to avoid idleness, and to strengthen the constitution of individuals by regular and systematic corporal exercises. The work of a labourer in the fields and gardens was never looked upon as derogatory to the monastic profession; and Saint Benedict expressly tells his followers that they are to look upon themselves “as true monks, when they have to live by the labour of their hands.”

This manual labour was generally a conventual work, that is, undertaken in common; and the permission of the superior was always required to stay away from it. In some Orders, such as the Cistercian and Cluniac, it was performed with a certain amount of ceremonial usage. The prior, for example, rang the bell, or struck the tabula to call the brethren together, distributed the necessary tools amongst them, and then led the way to the place where they were to dig, or weed, or plant, etc. In the Cluniac houses, the abbot went with the community. When they were assembled at the door of the cloister he was to be informed, and he then came into their midst saying, “Eamus ad opus manuum” – “Let us go to our manual labour.” Upon this, the youngest leading the way, the monks went in procession to where they had to work, saying the Miserere or other psalm. Arrived at the place, they stood round the abbot till the psalm was ended, then the abbot said the Deus in adjutorium – “O God, come to my aid,” etc., with the “Our Father” and the versicle of Prime to obtain God’s blessing on the labours of the day: “Look down, O Lord, upon Thy servants and upon Thy works, and guide Thou Thy sons.” To which the community replied: “And may the glory of the Lord our God be upon us, and may He guide us in the works of our hands and direct us in our manual labour.” Then bowing to the abbot and to each other, they began the task allotted to them.

At the conclusion of their period of labour the religious returned to the cloister as they had come; the tools were gathered up and put away; and after a short time allowed for washing, they went to the refectory for an afternoon drink of some kind. After this they returned to their places in the cloister: the novices and juniors to their studies, the seniors to their reading or writing.


At five o’clock in winter and at six in summer the bell rang for Vespers. In some houses, however, as for instance at Durham, the Vespers were always sung at the fixed hour of three in the afternoon, which would divide the working hours of the day into two portions. This would probably have been the rule in all cathedral monastic churches, where, as being public places of worship, regularity of hours would have been aimed at. At the first signal for the Vesper hour the books were all replaced in the aumbry in the cloister, and the community then waited until the commencement of the tolling of the great bell, when they betook themselves to their places in choir. The Vespers were sung with varying pomp and ceremony, according to the rank of the feast celebrated, and the monks were vested for the service in cowls, albs, or copes, according to the solemnity of the occasion.


Immediately after the Vespers, at the beginning of the “Suffrages of the Saints,” or later if Vespers of the “Office of the Dead” were to be said, the cellarer and refectorian left the choir to see that all was prepared for the evening meal, should there be one. At Durham the hour of supper was always five o’clock, after which the doors of the cloister and public rooms were locked and the keys given to the sub-prior until seven o’clock the following morning. In English monasteries the general rule as to supper apparently was that during the summer half of the year – that is from Easter to the 14th September – the second meal was served on all days, except on vigils and fast days. From the feast of All Saints to Advent, supper was only granted on the great feast days, when the community were vested in copes in the choir. During Advent, and in fact till Easter, except during the short time between Christmas and the Epiphany, there was but one meal a day in most religious houses. The infirm and those who through weakness needed more food had to receive special dispensation from the superior.

On supper days the prior, or whoever was presiding in the choir, left the church at the same time as the cellarer and refectorian, and began to ring the bell or gong for the meal. The community then came out of the church and, as at dinner, went to wash their hands at the lavatory, and thence to their places in the refectory. In many monasteries it was the custom for the seniors to serve and read during this meal, which was short, consisting of one good and full dish (generale), and one pittance or light additional plate, consisting of cheese, fruit, nuts, or the like. The prior was served, as at dinner, by two juniors, who took their places at the ends of his table and had their meal there. There was a special “pittance” for this table, and from it the prior, or whoever was acting for him, was supposed to reserve something for the senior who was reading. One dish with the “pittance,” and sufficient to serve those who sat thereat, was placed at the head of each table and passed down.

The conclusion of the supper was like that of the dinner. The religious went to finish their Grace in the church, and thence passed up to the dormitory to change their day habits, girdles, and boots for those better adapted for the night. When this was done they went again into the cloister to wait there till the signal should be given for the evening Collation or reading. At Durham there was no interval between the supper and the Collation; but “Grace being said,” we are told, “the monks all departed to the chapter-house to meet the prior, every night, there to remain in prayer and devotion till six of the clock, at which time upon the ringing of a bell they went to the Salve.”


About half-past six in winter, and half-past seven in summer, a small bell was rung in the cloister to call all together for the evening reading, called the Collation, which took place in the chapter-room. Whilst the bell was ringing any of the community who desired, on days when there was no supper, could go to the refectory and obtain some kind of drink, called the potum caritatis, with which possibly was also given a small portion of bread, to sustain them till their dinner the following day. When they had finished this very modest refection, the brethren at once betook themselves to their places in the chapter-hall, where the reader was already waiting in the pulpit with the book open at the place where he left off the night before.

Meanwhile the abbot, or prior in the absence of the abbot, waited for a time in the private parlour ready to hear any petitions for exemption from rule, and grant any leave that might be necessary. When this business had been transacted he came to the Collation, at which all were bound to be present. The reading apparently only occupied a short time, and in the brief interval between this and the Hour of Compline the community could in the summer pass into the cloister, or in winter time could go to warm themselves at the fire in the common recreation-room.


At seven o’clock in the winter, and eight in the summer, the tolling of the bell called the community to Compline – the last conventual act of the monastic day. This Hour was not necessarily said in the choir of the church. At Saint Mary’s, York, for example, the brethren recited their Compline standing in the Galilee, the juniors nearest to the door. The Office began with the Confiteor, as the Collation had already taken the place of the Capitulum, with which otherwise the Hour of Compline commenced. When the anthem to the Virgin Mother of God, with which Compline always concluded, was being said or sung, all turned to the Crucifix or Majestas.

Immediately the triple-prayer of the Pater, Ave, and Creed, said at the end, was finished, the superior gave a signal, and the community rose and passed to the door of the church. Here either the superior or the junior priest who had said the prayers at Compline was ready to sprinkle each with holy water as he passed in solemn silence to the dormitory. Before half-past seven, then, in winter, and an hour later than this in summer, all would have been in bed, and the busy round of duties, which so completely filled the working day of every mediaeval monastery, would have come to an end.

MLA Citation

  • Dom Adrian Gasquet. “The Daily Life In A Monastery”. English Monastic Life, 1904. CatholicSaints.Info. 28 November 2018. Web. 14 April 2021. <>