Authors: Michael Jecks
Tags: #Historical, #Deckare
Belladonna at Belstone
A Winter Horarium
Programme of offices to be held during winter months taken from Archbishop Lanfranc’s schedule for the Benedictines of Canterbury. The times given are estimates only, for a small convent like St Mary’s would have had no accurate clocks.
At about 2.30 a.m. the nuns would all be roused from sleep and called to attend the choir of the church. Here they would sing psalms and offer prayers until the first of the services, the
after which the nuns would continue with
which would be followed by
Once Prime was over the nuns would go out and sit in the cloister, reading until about 8.00 a.m. when they would all return to their dorter, or bedchamber. Here they would change their shoes, then go to the laver, where they would wash in preparation for the next service.
was followed by
after which the nuns would all go to their chapterhouse for their daily meeting. At this any admissions of failings or accusations of lapses could be brought up, and apologies or penances offered or imposed.
Once the daily chapter had concluded, the nuns would spend their time either working or reading until noon. Then they would all go back to the church.
Sext, High Mass
were all celebrated, and at last the nuns could go to the frater for their only full meal of the day. This was followed by more work or studying until about 5 p.m., at which they would return for
in the church.
Vespers was the last ceremony of the active day, and afterwards the choir would change into their night slippers and go to the frater to drink. In the medieval age people depended upon a diet which included much ale or wine, because the solid diet did not provide enough essential vitamins or protein.
Finally the nuns would troop back to church to listen to a reading, and then would hear the last service:
After this, at between 6.30 and 7 p.m., the nuns should have gone to the dorter to sleep.
From the records, it seems clear that many did not.
The village of Belstone sits high on the moors overlooking the deep valley that separates it from Cosdon, the massive hill that is visible from almost anywhere in northern Devon. I have known the area for years, for my brother and I visit it each New Year’s Day, and walk with wives and families down south to the moors.
It was this year, 1999, that we went to walk down towards the stream, and while strolling among a heavy clitter, I mused it was much like so many spots where monks and nuns chose to site their convents, an idle thought that eventually gave rise to this story. I invented St Mary’s.
Nowadays we think of abbeys and priories being set in delightful places, almost invariably among trees, with lush vegetation and parkland all around. That’s because since the Dissolution, many have been converted into houses and gardens, their lands cultivated over centuries. Beforehand they were often wild, remote, cold and bleak. It’s true that in sunshine they are beautifully romantic ruins, but that is because we visit them on holidays when the summer sun warms us and the ancient nature of the wrecks can give us a comfortable sense of the passing of the years. Yet for all the delights of the larger ecclesiastical holdings at Rievaulx, Westminster, York, Fountains and Whitby, many others sprang up and disappeared, unable to support their communities with their poor and scrubby land. The two years of famine (1315-17) speeded the end of some of these, as did the two murrains or plagues, first of sheep (1313-17) and then of cattle (1319-21), which devastated the English economy. Smaller, less financially viable convents were swallowed up by wealthier ones. Some of these monastic buildings can be traced on the ground, but their walls have been ravaged by time and their stones removed by farmers who wouldn’t pay for dressed stone when it was lying nearby. Many have simply vanished without trace.
When you look back, you find that the
– the nuns or monks - had a miserable time of it. Woken for the first service at some time between midnight and 2.30 a.m., they had to go to their church in their rough woollen clothing and stand for an hour or more in the freezing cold, trying to sound musical as they went through the psalms and prayers. There was no fire nor any other means of heating, and in the winter it must have been sheer hell. Not all convents could afford glass in their windows, either.
That was part of the trouble: money. In the late 1200s there was a rapid increase in the number of men and women taking up the religious life, and many convents started to accumulate money from patrons so that they could expand, but many simply couldn’t: they didn’t have the finance behind them. That was why in the early 1300s many places, as I have outlined in this book, went to great lengths to acquire parish churches so that they could use the revenues. Some, like the convent at Polsloe, greatly increased in size, but others failed to win the money and faded away long before the Dissolution.
Nuns found it particularly difficult to support themselves. The reason was simple: when a rich man died he wanted to ensure that his soul had as smooth a passage into heaven as possible, and to this end, he would set up a
This was a chapel which was dedicated to honouring the dead man, holding services and praying for him every day. Depending on how wealthy the man was, the more prayers he could buy; the more prayers said for him, so the logic went, the faster he’d be let in through the Pearly Gates.
But there were problems for nuns: first, nunneries tended to depend upon the goodwill of their strong neighbours, and so they would sometimes agree to take in their neighbours’ daughters in exchange for benefits, such as money, which inevitably led to many of the convents having too many inmates for their means. The risk of over-filling nunneries was recognised at all levels within the Church, and not only bishops but popes too sent letters to convents forbidding them to take on any more nuns.
The second issue was still more difficult to resolve. A man wishing to set up a chantry wanted services held in his memory, but this was a time when no woman could hold a religious service, so nuns had to acquire their own priests, and what would be the point of endowing a religious Order which couldn’t even hold its own ceremonies? Men were more happy leaving their charities to male institutions: the force of monkish prayers was bound to have a greater impact than those of a bunch of women!
Some readers may be surprised to see that I have created a priory with men and women, but this was more or less the norm. As I mentioned above, there had to be priests to conduct services, but also, although nuns were supposed to be completely hidden from the outside world and although they did have lay sisters to do the more mundane work like washing and ironing, they generally had to have men about the place. Men farmed; men tended the buildings; men saw to the religious services; men guarded the gates to the precincts. It was true that most of the nuns were segregated and should never have been tempted by a male form, but that did not work for them all. For one thing, the priory’s bailiffs, reeves, receivers and other senior officials would have been men, and all had to report to the prioress. That was why it was not uncommon to hear rumours of impropriety between prioress and her chief steward. They got to meet.
Tales of nuns misbehaving are not new, and many such stories are no doubt apocryphal, but it has to be accepted that some were true.
Young girls were thrown into their nunneries without any thought for them or their needs. No doubt some would have learned obedience, and in an age when women were possessions to be used as their menfolk saw fit, perhaps some were content. Yet this does not mean that all of them would have been happy with their lot, and records prove that many nuns were not chaste and a large number ran away. The nun of Watton was not unique, and no, I didn’t make up her story. Likewise the collapsing of roofs was not unknown - at Morton the abbess allowed the church roof and the roof of the dorter to fall in. Funds which should have been used to repair them were squandered instead on Master Bryce, the vicar.
When nuns did run away, they were often sought. If found, errant nuns were sometimes treated with respect and sympathy, but once back in their convents, they would be forced to undergo a penance before being set back to work. And all too often these desperate, sad women would try to escape again. Several have been recorded as having thrown off their religious robes, committing the act of apostasy which so horrified their sisters, rejecting all the vows which made sense of their secluded lives. And yet their lives weren’t unremittingly miserable. For those who lived in a great convent, they might have been chilly, but so they would have been in any great hall; they almost certainly lived a great deal longer than their counterparts outside the nunnery; and if the quantity of food wasn’t always enough, a nun would have access to ale or wine, there would always be a good fire roaring in the calefactory, and at least there would be no fear of rape or murder by a drunk at the roadside, nor an early death from childbirth.
If any readers wish to find out more about the lives of medieval nuns, I can heartily recommend Colin Piatt’s
The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England
Medieval England - A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 AD.
It is always difficult to recreate life as it might have been, and any errors in this novel are entirely my own. All I can do is claim the best of intentions.
She was lucky not to have died.
It was a glorious day in late winter, almost early spring. The sun beamed down on the lay sisters as they hung out the washing, larking and joking. In this weather the land took on a more cheerful aspect; the moors glowed with a salmon freshness in the morning and even the drab grey of the moorstone was touched with a pink glow.
They were in the yard where the lines were strung. To get there they had to step carefully round the muddy pools with their wicker baskets on their hips, avoiding the cowpats which led to the dairy, stepping delicately over the small round pebbles of sheep excrement and the tiny deposits left by the prioress’s terrier. There were many hazards in a busy priory’s yard.
Agnes didn’t hear them at first. The novice was too busy thinking about her meeting later with the priest. It was only a short while since she had seen him with another novice, Katerine, and Agnes still wondered whether she ought to forgive him, or whether she should refuse to speak to him ever again - but that would mean cutting off her nose to spite her face, not an attractive prospect. Brightening, she reflected that Katerine would find it intolerable, should Agnes win him back; it would mean he preferred her to Kate. Agnes was persuaded. She’d go to see him as he’d begged, and provided he showed true remorse, she would forgive him. Pleased with her decision, and feeling the thrill of anticipation, she hastened her steps as she rounded the corner of the rere-dorter to come to the yard north of the cloister.
Seeing the lay sisters and their antics, she stood watching them wistfully. Lay sisters weren’t full nuns, they were women who were prepared to take their own vows, but lacked the education or intelligence to give spiritual service. Instead they offered their labour to the glory of God. As such they weren’t political or ambitious - unlike nuns - and at times like this Agnes could feel a twinge of jealousy for the simplicity of their lives.
Agnes had enough troubles with Kate, but Kate wasn’t her only problem. There was that miserable God-botherer Moll as well. The young novice was so full of cant, she wouldn’t be truly happy until she’d died; Moll’s sole pleasure appeared to be watching over the other nuns and pointing out their failings. She liked making other people miserable. No one was safe while she wandered about the place.
Katerine wasn’t much better, of course. She liked uncovering other people’s secrets too, but at least she strayed from the straight and narrow often enough herself. Agnes knew Kate was capable of blackmailing for her own benefit, but while Agnes knew so much about her, Agnes felt safe enough.
A sudden gust whisked about her. It whipped on, tearing at the clothes hanging on the lines, snatching at the linen in the lay sisters’ hands. They squealed and giggled, and Agnes grinned. It was good to see them enjoying their work. They had so much to do, it was a miracle that they found any pleasure; but some of them were simple and others were mere serfs, peasants, and Agnes was sure
wouldn’t need much to make them happy.
Then Agnes had to give a deep belly laugh. One of the girls, a tall, rather vapid creature called Cecily, missed her step while rescuing a white cloth. Trying to avoid stepping in her basket, she stumbled, and her foot landed on the rim. While she watched in horror, it flipped up. Another breeze blew past just at the moment as if maliciously determined to complete her ruin; it caught the basket and swiftly up-ended it.
Cecily raised her fists to her cheeks, wailing with dismay, while her friends roared their delight. Then Cecily let her arms fall and stamped with impotent rage. She stared heavenwards, screaming, “God’s bollocks! Damn and bugger!” as the contents of her basket soaked up the mire from the track.
She had to do the whole lot again, of course. Cecily thought it was unfair: anyone could have been unlucky and seen their basket tip, but the laundress was insistent. Cecily had let all her washing fall in the dirt, so Cecily could clean it again.
She rubbed her back, then put a pot of water over the fire. When it was boiling, she wrapped a cloth about the handle and carried it to her barrel, poured it in then dropped her linen in and began the laborious work of pounding it with the wooden club. When the worst of the muck was off, she wrung out the clothes and put them into fresh water, scrubbing the material up and down on a roughened board.