The daily routine of a Benedictine Monk

There was just one more piece I wanted to plug into the story of the Fenland monasteries – the daily life of the monks – but Hallowe’en got in the way!  It’s gone now so… the following represents a typical day in the life of the monks in a monastery such as that in Peterborough after the Norman Conquest.
The monk’s life was based around a sequence of prayers interspersed with other duties. Looking back on this we see that their life in general had many variations but all were based around a strict structure – if that makes sense! What I have tried to do in this posting is to put monastic life in Peterborough into a formal sequence that is called the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’. This is attributed by many to Saint Benedict. However some pre-date it to Saint John Cassian (c. 360 – 435 AD) – a Christian monk celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings and noted for bringing the ideas and practices of Egyptian monasticism to the early medieval West.

What I am going to do is start the sequence with a wake-up call at:-
05.45 am – in time for the first service of the day which begins at – 06.00 amPrime[Latin: Prima “first”] is quite a brief service that consisted of a hymn, three psalms, a Scripture reading, versicles and responses and a concluding prayer.

06.30 am – breakfast is taken – but there is NO TALKING during meals. Communication was via a sign language.  For instance – if you needed someone to pass you a knife you would indicate it by sliding one finger over another as if you were  carving.; if you wanted some porridge you moved you fist back and forward as if you were stirring. If you saw the Prior coming you could warn the rest by raising your fore-finger over your head!

07.00 am – With breakfast is over all the monks would be required to gather in the Chapter House – a building or room in the monastery – where the whole community could meet on a daily basis. After the Monks had said Mass they confessed their sins. Then followed readings and, often, hearing the abbot or senior monks talk. They would also be given their tasks for the day and have time for private reading and prayer.

When the Chapter House was part of a monastery it was generally located on the eastern wing of the cloister, next to the church. Since many cathedrals in England were originally monastic foundations, it’s quite common to see the old arrangement still there. The chapter house was usually a large space that could hold all the monks of the monastery; it was often highly ornamented. Typically there was seating around all the walls of the room, often in stone and built into the walls, with the central space left open. The seats for the senior members were often larger than the others, and raised on a dais. There was usually only one doorway, and though the room was well-lit where the location allows, the windows were often too high to allow a view in from outside (or eavesdropping). The shape of the room was usually designed to allow good audibility for speakers from all parts of the room. 

09.00 am – the 2nd Church service of the day – Terce, including High Mass. Terce, or Third Hour (after dawn), is a fixed time of prayer of the Devine Office in almost all the Christian liturgies and consists mainly of psalms.
09.30 am – This is the time to start work, In the main the monks worked on the abbey farms but a significant number would be involved in the specialised work and tasks of the abbey such as copying manuscripts in the scriptorium and looking after the sick in the infirmary.

12.00 noon – the 3rd Church service – Sext. Sext, or Sixth Hour (after Dawn), is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the traditional Christian liturgies and consists mainly of psalms.

1.00 pm – The main meal of the day – normally vegetables or fish – in the Refectory. Meat was only allowed for monks who were ill. The term refectory – also sometimes called the frater/frater house/fratery – is derived from the Latin reficere – “to remake or restore” via Late Latin refectorium, which means “a place one goes to be restored.”

1.30 pm – Following their meal the monks had a number of options open to them. They could choose to sleep but they also had the chance to read from the many documents held by the great abbeys. The reading would normally be done in the Refectory or, in the summer in the Cloisters. Whichever of these choices the monk made he would also find time for prayer.

3.00 pm – was time for the 4th church service of the day – that of None, (from nōn – Latin nōna (hōra) ninth hour after dawn). a brief service with little variation in text and song.

3.30 pm – was the time to start work again, continuing that of the morning.

6.00 pm – was the time for the 5th service – Vespers [Latin meaning “evening” or “evening star”]. This was celebrated in the early evening as daylight ended and lamps were lit.  It usually included a hymn, two psalms, a canticle, a Scripture reading, a proper responsorial, the Magnificat with its antiphon, a litany of intercessory prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and a concluding blessing.

7.00 pm – gave the monks and priests 2 hours for their own private reading and prayers. This could, though, sometimes become a group based time called Collatio. For this a group would gathered, a Scripture would be read aloud, then each participant would tell how the Scripture just read was speaking to them.

9.00 pm – was time for the 6th service of the day – Compline [Latin “to complete”] – the night service that signalled the end of the day. This consisted of a short lesson, confession, three psalms and responses, hymn, canticle and Marian Antiphon [songs focused on the Virgin Mary].

9.30 pm – with Compline over it was time for bed.

But – all members could be required to wake up at Midnight and return to their church to celebrate the services of Nocturns [“by night”]. Also called Matins or Vigils or, in monastic usage, the Night Office.   However this could be ‘held over’ until Lauds – the Dawn Prayer [at Dawn, or 3 am] or Matins [Latin: Matutinus “morning”] Chanted or recited in choir at the end of the night, before dawn, and which was followed by Lauds.


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