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10 Fascinating Facts about Life as a Medieval Monk

Imagine the scene. It is the year 1348 AD. C. You are a rural peasant born into a life of unimaginable hardship. All around you, serfs do backbreaking work from dawn to dusk, working their liege lord’s land to pay his hefty dues.

The best he can hope for is that his small business as a basket weaver prospers enough to secure him a small piece of land of his own, which can sustain him in old age. The worst you can expect is a life of crippling physical labor, a diet severely lacking in meat, and possibly an early death from childbirth or plague.

Under these circumstances, might you be tempted to take holy vows and become a monk? If so, he reads on, because there was so much more to life as a monk than the silly haircut!

Related: 10 Misconceptions About Medieval City Life

10 The silly haircut

Yes, you know which one. The cut bowl with the circular bald spot on top? This unique style was achieved by shaving the middle section of the hair and trimming the rest. It had great spiritual significance for the monks who wore it.

The style is called “tonsure” and was used to represent a monk’s devotion to Christ. There are some conflicting theories as to why only a section of the head was shaved. Some believe that the remaining circle of hair symbolizes the crown of thorns that Jesus wore during his crucifixion. Others think that the practice developed during the Crusades when Christians wanted to differentiate themselves from Muslims who ritually shaved off all their hair after visiting Mecca.

Either way, the haircut was rocked by many generations of monks for centuries until 1973, when Pope Paul VI abolished the tonsure ceremony, and its popularity waned. [1]

9 home Sweet Home

Monks fared much better than peasants and serfs when it came to the standard of their accommodation. Yes, his bedroom was essentially a cell with some straw in it. Technically, they didn’t own much at all, but they did have a roof over their head and regular meals in their stomachs, which was more than could be said for the general population!

Many monasteries were huge, sprawling, ornate complexes built in the Gothic style and designed to display the wealth of the church and reflect the glory of God to the filthy masses. It wouldn’t have been a bad place to hang out.

In England, settlements of monks dating back to AD 406 have been found. C. Monasteries in England got off to a rocky start in the 1530s during the reign of King Henry VIII, who became so frustrated that he had to ask the Pope’s permission. to obtain a divorce he cleared the land of all traces of Catholicism and instead declared the country Protestant. The monasteries were looted and the booty was divided among the rich.[2]

The end of an era!

8 Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

Hmm. Not the most attractive of lifestyles, is it? A medieval monastery was a community of men who had renounced earthly possessions and chosen to live apart from society among other like-minded companions. They engaged in spiritual pleasures, rather than physical ones. As such, they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and were expected to live free from physical possessions and emotional attachment to the outside world. These vows were based on the writings of Saint Benedict, who laid down the rules for an ideal monastic life as far back as the 6th century.

Of course, chastity was easily avoided if a) you were attracted to men and b) you could find a willing (and discreet) partner within the monastery. For those lucky guys, life was probably pretty sweet.[3]

7 The icon

An important aspect of monastic life was the possession of an icon or holy relic. The icon could be anything people reverence and come to see: a piece of the original cross on which Christ was crucified, for example, or the bones of a saint. Or, in the case of the city of Turin in Italy, the shroud that Jesus used at his tomb.

If he were lucky, his monastery’s relic would become famous and Christians everywhere would embark on a pilgrimage to see it, bringing with it much-needed business for the local area and a massive increase in donations to his church.[4]

6 Shhhhh!

If a monk found himself suffering from a bit of boredom after joining a monastic order, he would not have been able to spend the time enjoying good gossip with his new co-workers. Monasteries were places of peace, and as such, most of the duties performed by the monks were carried out in complete silence. They were not even allowed to chat during dinner!

Some monks got around the rule of silence by communicating in other ways. Sign language was used during meals when a monk wanted to ask for food or drink. Some also secretly communicated by whistling! These methods were often taught to young “novices” (adolescent recruits learning the ways of monastic life) and “oblates” (children entrusted to the care of monks). In this way, the silent languages ​​were transmitted from generation to generation.[5]

5 Stand, sit, kneel… and repeat

Starting to think that life as a monk might have been a bit boring? Well, you’re probably right! Fortunately, the tedium of charitable acts and perpetual silence was regularly broken by long and complicated religious services.

The monks attended a whopping eight services each day. They woke up with the sun (so summer was probably much more painful than winter!) and participated in various choral services such as Matins, Lauds and Mass. They also held a daily Chapter, which was a formal meeting to discuss monastic matters. . In total, a monk could expect to participate in a religious service for up to 10 hours per day. That’s a lot of singing![6]

4 More than Friday without meat

Medieval life was strictly regulated. The “sumptuary laws” of England dictated behavior in all sorts of areas, and not just for monks. There were laws about what clothes and colors people were allowed to wear based on their social status, for example, and how much restaurants could charge for food.

Monasteries were generally very prosperous institutions, and despite all the inconveniences of monastic life, monks could generally count on enjoying regular and high-standard food. However, by law, medieval people were required to observe three “fast” days a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They observed many more during times of religious celebrations, such as Lent.

The word “fast” here does not apply in the modern sense. During these specific days, people were only required to abstain from meat and dairy products. The fish and vegetables were good. Surprisingly, some monks missed meat so much during fasting days that they devised a way to beat the system: they reclassified some meat products as fish! There is evidence that beaver tails and rabbit fetuses were eaten during times of fasting. A group of monks in France even started gobbling up the local puffins![7]

3 The arts

We have much to thank our robed brothers for. Monasteries were incredible places of learning, and the monks (as well as their sisters in the nunneries) spent a lot of time and effort preserving, copying, and writing books and manuscripts. Thanks to them many classics by Cicero, Aristotle and Virgil survive. Freed from the constant struggle to find food and with the great advantage of being literate, these men had the time and tools to create great art. We can still see his imaginative style in surviving illuminated manuscripts and choral music composed during the Middle Ages.

In fact, monasteries were often the only places that housed books. Books were highly prized and expensive items. It is no coincidence that monasteries were a primary target during Viking raids that took place in Europe up until the 11th century. The monks may have taken a vow of poverty, but the institutions themselves were filthy rich and many seem to have known it.[8]

2 Jobs

In addition to your daily commitments to church services, learning, and acts of charity, you may also be assigned a specific area of ​​responsibility in the monastery. The “big cheese”, of course, was the abbot, and you probably wouldn’t get that job unless you were very, very lucky.

The abbot related primarily to the outside world and was the “face” of the institution to the community at large. Next in the chain of command was the prior, who led the monks in line. He appointed a steward, who looked after the monastery’s finances, and a grocer who oversaw the food and drink stores. The beggar was responsible for caring for the poor and needy in the community, and the cantor led the choir. The sacristan made sure the church was in order and the services ran smoothly.[9]

Sounds exhausting!

1 stylish dress

When you imagine a monk, you probably imagine a man dressed in brown robes, with sandals on his feet and a rosary in his hand. In fact, the robes came in many different colors and depended on which order you belonged to.

The Benedictine Order wore black and eventually became known as “the black monks”. The Carthusian Order wore white. Capuchin friars in Italy wore brown robes with a long, pointed hood. It is from these monks that the word cappuccino is derived![10]

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