The lot of a medieval monk living in one of the many abbeys across Britain was not an easy one. Men did not become monks for an easy life, they became monks to worship the lord with their work, prayer and devotion. They often perceived themselves as soldiers engaged in a spiritual war against their imperfect, fallen nature. This made for a hard life with each day was a long one, packed full of worship and work.
What follows is the basic timetable for a Cistercian choir monk living in a medieval abbey during the summer months:
2.00am – A choir monks day would start early with the first of 8 services, Matins. The monks would gather in the church and stand in the choir stalls. Here they would celebrate the night office with singing. Two monks, the precentor and succentor, lead the singing and keep their eyes on the other monks to make sure no one nods off.
2.45am – Matins ends and the monks can rest in the cloister for a time. Sadly they aren’t allowed back to bed.
3.00am – Monks return to church for Lauds, the second service of the day. This one is to celebrated daybreak.
3.15am – Lauds ends and the monks can return to the cloister to read for 45 minutes.
4.00am – At sunrise it’s time for Prime to mark the first hour of the day. Another short service lasting only 15 minutes.
4.15am – It is now time for the chapter meeting. Monks would meet in the chapter house daily. They would sit on benches around the walls while they watch and listen to the Abbot as he says a prayer and reads a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict.
Following this all the monks must confess there faults and sins. They would then be punished accordingly often having to lie flat on the ground in front of the others, a practice known as prostration. In some cases some may have to fladulate, in other words whip, themselves.
Announcements follow this and the meeting ends with Psalm 129 and prayers before tasks are given out to all the monks.
4.45am – The monks leave the chapter house to go about their daily tasks for around 2 and a half hours
7.30am – Time for the monks to return to the cloister for half an hour of reading.
8.00am – Terce, the third service of the day. The monks return to the church to take up position in the choir stalls. Mass is this time spoken for the monks to listen too and once a week wine and bread are taken to symbolize the body and blood of Christ.
9.00am – Monks return to the cloister for further reading although priests stay in church for private mass.
11.00 am – Church again for the forth service of the day, Sext. The name sext comes from latin for six and it is so called because it was originally celebrated on the sixth hour of the day.
11.30am – Time for dinner. All the monks gather in the refectory, or frater, where the main meal of the day is served. They stand for blessings before sitting down to eat. Beans covered in vegetable juice is often popular at this time and each monk has a serving of bread for the day, their daily bread. Over the course of the meal a monk stands in a large pulpit and reads from scripture.
12.00pm – Following dinner the monks join the procession of thanksgiving in the church before being allowed to take a nap in the dormitories or read.
2.00pm - Now comes the time for None which involves more singing in the church.
2.30pm – Following None the monks return to their work, be that in the kitchen, out in the herb gardens or working the land with the lay brother. This last for around 3 and a half hours.
6.00pm – A return to church for Vespers, the seventh service of the day.
6.30pm - During the summer months monks are allowed two meals a day and now is the time for the second, although it isn’t as big as the first. They are given vegetables and fruit to eat with whatever is left of their daily bread.
7.15pm – The collation reading. Monks gather in the north cloister walk and listen to a reading by the reader of the week.
7.30pm – Back to church for Compline, the last service of the day. At the end of this services the abbot sprinkles the monks with Holy Water.
8.00pm – Bed time. After a long and tiring day of work, reading and singing the monks are allowed to return to bed for six hours of sleep. Then it’s time for Vigils again and the start of another day.
As you can see there is a lot for a monk to fit into his day and it certainly isn’t an easy life for them. The days were long with out much rest, meals were scarce and not the most delicious. Nearly every day was spent in the same way never leaving the precinct wall of their monastery. Is it a life you would want to lead?