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August 03, 2007

A Glimpse of Medieval Life

Mausi and the Monk went adventuring and paid a visit to the remains of Tintern Abbey in South Wales. It was once part of a Cistercian monastry, founded here in 1131 by Walter fitz Richard of Clare, Lord of Chepstow. The Cistercian movement started in 1098 when the abbot Robert of Molesme, who was dissatisfied like many others with the way The Rule of Benedict (a practical plan for the way of life and organisation of a monastic community) was observed in European monastries, left his prosperous Burgundian abbey set out with some like-minded to search for a physically austere location where they could 'live more strictly and perfectly according to the Rule of the most blessed Benedict'. They found the ideal spot near Dijon and founded the Novum Monasterium (the New Monastry) which later became known as Cistercium. Today the place is named Citeaux. During the 12th and 13th centuries the Cistercian movement spread over Europe and in Britain alone some 86 monastries were founded.

Tintern was the perfect place to apply to the Cistercians' idea of an existence in poverty and seclusion. It is situated in the narrow Wye valley, surrounded by steep hills covered in thick forest. We've seen the place in broad sunlight but I bet most of the year it was damp and foggy.

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Tintern Abbey (seen from the South East) and the East window

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South Transept and a view towards the South West part of the abbey

The Cistercians strike me as a very strange order and not a very Christian one either. At least not in the sense that I understand Christianity which is rather to live and work among the people. But the Cistercians had no interest in the outside world. They led a secluded live inside the monastry. Work on the outside fields was done by lay brothers who were kept separately from the monks. The lay brothers were illiterate and had to stay that way. Their way of serving God was doing manual labour. Other orders had lay brothers as well but none as many as the Cistercians.

The abbey looks very grand now, even if it is in ruins. Especially the east window must have looked stunning. But it was never intended to be used as one big room. A stone screen separated the monks' choir from the nave where the lay brothers were allowed to be. The monks even had a separate entrance from their living quarters into the choir, which is the staircase at the south transept. So they really could keep themselves to themselves.

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The Warm House (right entrance) and a view of the Chapter House (front) with the Infirmary Cloister behind it

Life for the Monks must have incredibly hard when they started out at Tintern. The Warm House was the only room apart from the kitchen and the infirmary where a fire was allowed. And you can just see the Monks huddling in there for warmth. Their clothing was made of undyed coarse wool and they denied themselves any kind of underwear! No wonder they needed quite a big infirmary bits of which can just be seen on the right side of the infirmary cloister. The infirmary was used to look after sick and dying monks.

The Cistercian Monks have lived at Tintern for about 400 years until the monastry was dissolved. Most of the time they must literally have lived at a construction site. It took at least 10 years to build the first church. The cloister and other buildings were added. From then on a constant rebuilding and adding-on process followed. In the 13th century the church was completely rebuilt. This time the head mason was obviously given a free hand and in contrast to the very austere and simple architecture of the first church elaborate stone carvings and ornaments were introduced into the building.

Over the centuries the abbots also sat themselves apart from the community of the ordinary Monks. Their living quarters became much more spacious enabling them to receive and entertain benefactors of the monastry. This is quite in contrast to the original Cistercian idea of poverty which also forbid to accept gifts or money from outside. As it is with all societies that start out as a community of equals - after some time a few members become more equal than others.

Anyway, Tintern Abbey is well worth a visit and Mausi and the Monk had a most interesting time there. Mausi, however, is still trying to figure out what kind of mindset is needed to shut yourself off from the world in the middle of nowhere and lead a life of incredible hardships in God's name.

Posted by Mausi at August 3, 2007 09:54 AM

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Ooooo. I've been there. One of my pictures is taken at the same angle as yours (but not as professionally)....

Posted by: Ozguru at August 6, 2007 03:23 AM