The Rule of St Benedict
The monks at St Benet’s Abbey lived by The Rule of St Benedict, written in the 6th century – Benet is a shortening of Benedict.
The Rule sets out in detail how a monk
should conduct his life. Three vows had to be sworn: poverty, chastity and obedience. The aim was, ‘to become a stranger to the world’s ways’, and the main thing monks were supposed to spend their time on was praising God, and praying for souls.
Influence on medieval society
Although The Rule might not normally be thought of as a literary work, it is a piece of writing which had a profound influence on medieval society in England and across the western world.
The Rule formed the framework of monastic life which influenced society at all levels: through development of study in areas such as philosophy, agriculture and medicine; through land management, local justice, and through charitable support for the poor through alms and caring for the sick. A chapter of the Rule was read every day by the community, from which the name of the Chapter House comes.
Here’s an excerpt from prologue to the Rule, which starts out something like a children’s tale:
Listen carefully, my child,
to your master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20)
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice,
that by the labour of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
And first of all,
whatever good work you begin to do,
beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
that He who has now deigned to count us among His children
may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
For we must always so serve Him
with the good things He has given us,
that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children,
nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions,
deliver us to everlasting punishment
as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.
Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
‘Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep’ (Rom. 13:11)
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
Let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
‘Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts’ (Ps. 94:8)
‘Whoever has ears to hear,
hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7)
And what does He say?
"Come, My children, listen to Me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Ps. 33:12)
‘Run while you have the light of life,
lest the darkness of death overtake you’ (John 12:35)
Struggling with wealth
The trouble was that many monasteries found it difficult to stay poor and chaste. Donations of money and property were given to monasteries by wealthy people, to ensure that their souls would not be trapped in purgatory but would go straight to heaven. These massive donations made it quite difficult for monasteries to adhere to their vows.
As part of the effort to monitor and stop such corruption, all monasteries were regularly inspected - to check that a religious lifestyle was being maintained.
There are some surviving examples of these ‘visitations’ to St Benet’s Abbey which were reported back to the Bishop of Norwich - and these give us a fascinating insight into the lives being lived at St Benet’s in the middle ages.
In 1494 some of the monks reported that they were ‘overburdened with recitals of the psalms, hymns and canticles’ which left them too little time for study. This was made more annoying because the prior did not attend any of these services. Not only this, but it was reported that the monks in the choir did not remain silent and that many of the young monks were ‘impudent’ to the elders.
In 1514 Bishop Nicke visited and heard that 11 of the 23 monks reported that ‘all was well’. But another monk, John Rising, reported that there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ to cover up problems at the Abbey.
In 1526 and 1532 it was recorded that too many dogs were kept at the Abbey and were being fed the left over food that should have been given to the poor. It turned out that the prior, Thomas Stonham, was obsessed with hunting and rode out with his pack every afternoon after Matins all through the year!
From these snippets it is easy to see why by the 1530s monasteries were widely discredited and Henry VIII could justifiably argue that they were failing miserably in their religious duties and should be closed down.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
For a literary glimpse into a visitation, try reading The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Warner wrote a number of very diverse novels during the first half of the 20th century. The best known is Lolly Willowes about a respectable middle-aged spinster who makes a pact with the devil and becomes a witch. The Corner That Held Them is about a nunnery in north-east Norfolk. Warner lived in Winterton, Sloley and at Salthouse, so knew the county well. The place names in the book – Oby, Waxelby and Lintoft are clear references to local places – Oby, Waxham and Lowerstoft - and it seems likely that the book is partly based on her knowledge of St Benet’s Abbey. Even though it tells the life of nuns rather than monks, it is still a brilliant evocation of medieval religious life.
Outside fell the rain, a persistent small rain. Inside, the bishop asked questions in a voice of persistent sweetness. His two secretaries sat beside him, writing steadily, and in addition he took notes himself. His questions went into the minutest detail, and covered everything: the number of vestments, their age, and state of repair; the number of cows, and how many were in milk; the number of household servants, their wages and perquisites; the state of the quire books and of the brewing tubs; what became of the nun’s old clothes, how often the nuns were let blood, how often their heads were shorn; how many fires were lit during the year, how many doles given at the wicket, who mended the casks, what precautions were taken against fire…
…When Dame Philippa entered after Dame Lilias the bishop was still abstractedly smiling, so much lost in contemplation that he did not appear to notice her. Dame Phillippa, a nun of considerable shrewdness immediately said to herself: No one looks like that for nothing. I must not be led away into criticising anything.
Says all is well, noted the bishop. Obstinate and a liar. His handwriting grew neater as his mistrust and indignation grew. Even before that worthy honest nun, Dame Alice, gave him her report he had suspected that he was in the midst of a conspiracy to pull wool over his eyes. No nunnery could be so pleased to welcome a bishop on a Visitation as this nunnery pretended to be.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1948) Chatto & Windus pp178 - 180
One of the greatest benefactor’s of St Benet’s Abbey was Sir John Fastolf – whom Shakespeare later parodied as Falstaff, the bawdy companion to the young prince Hal who became Henry IV.
In reality, he was one of England’s most famous knights and military commanders, born in 1380 not far from St Benet’s on the coast at Caister [see History section]. He made his name - and fortune - during the Hundred Years War.
Falstaff by Robert Nye
Robert Nye’s novel Falstaff, published in 1976, was described by Michael Ratcliffe, in The Times as ‘one of the most ambitious and seductive novels of the decade’.
The book won both The Hawthornden Prize and Guardian Fiction Prize and was included in Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939.
The book is a fictional version of Falstaff’s auto-biography. Nye took up Shakespeare’s theme of Falstaff as a libidinous old man and the book has been described as a ‘roaring romp of a novel’. It is certainly adult fiction – not suitable for children!
But it is very well researched and set in a framework of the known events of Fastolf’s life. It includes a chapter where Fastolf as a fifteen year old boy is sent to St Benet’s abbey to be an ‘oblate’ – a trainee monk. There is no evidence that this actually happened but even so the extract evokes well the rather grim and boring life of a trainee monk in the middle ages.
So it was, in the winter of my fifteenth year, that I found myself a nightly grasshopper ad monasterium Hulme ordinis Sancti Benedicti dioceses Norwicensis – that’s to say, at the abbey of Hulme, of the order of St Benedict, in the diocese of Norwich. I mean that I had to stridulate prayer all night long. I had also to fast daily – a terrible combination. To lift up my soul to God. To adore. To be contrite. To give thanks. To supplicate. My fare was black bread and little beans and potherbs. Cabbage without salt. O my throat. O those anthems. All I had to drink was slops and water…
…The oblates had one other litany, all our own, which we sometimes sang under our breath to the traditional tunes:
Olus sine sale
And so on, all about Hulme abbey of course, for in good English this would go something like:
This filthy stable!
Lord have mercy…
Falstaff by Robert Nye (1976, 2001) London pp 83 -85