Sunday, 23 July 2017

Tintern Abbey: a guided tour by "Brother Thomas"

If, like me, you have formed your image of a monk from Chaucer's satirical account, you imagine a jolly, rounded, shiny lover of the luxurious life, particularly fond of roast swan. The Cistercians had formed their order much earlier in order to distance themselves from such laxity and lived very simply, dressed in white (or off-white) garments of undyed sheep's wool with no trappings. In the 12th century they set up in remote, wild Tintern, far from the temptations of rich living and were intent on following strictly the Rule of St. Benedict.

"Brother Thomas" who led us round the Abbey with his helper, Sister Mary, was authentically clad as a White Monk and was pleased that the weather was cooler and dry as his habit becomes unduly warm in the heat and smells of Labrador in the rain. He was tall and appropriately ascetic-looking but had a good sense of humour which did not detract from his informative and evocative talk. We followed him as he explained the history in the various parts of the Abbey and the daily life of the monks, bringing it all to life with details. One such was the fact that a monk did a circuit with a candle at the 1:30 a.m. service, holding it near each face to check that the cold, sleepy worshipper had not nodded off.

His black scapular indicates a senior monk
The history was given in palatable portions and we learned that there had been an earlier church before the present ruined one, the first endowed by Walter de Clare and the second by the Earl of Norfolk, Lord of Chepstow, Roger Bigod, and we ended with the Dissolution and later Romantic interest in this picturesque site.
Daily life
  Brother Thomas was in his role as Cellerer who would have looked after the supplies of beer and wine (the water was not safe to drink) conducting his business in the large open square of the main cloister. Here, too, would have taken place other activities: any dentistry; attention to minor wounds by the barber-surgeon (the red and white striped pole signifies blood and bandages); tonsure shaving; regular bleeding to balance the 4 humours of the body; some study and reflection and the financial dealings connected with the wealth arising from the 3000 sheep and 3 granges. Money was collected in buckets and the monks served generally as accountants and writers of contracts because they were literate. There was a vegetable garden here also.
   Time was measured at mid-day and from then on by water or candle clocks. There was no warmth except in the Warming House (a huge fire was lit on 31st October and extinguished on Good Friday regardless of the weather) where monks could pass through but not linger, and in the Infirmary, Parlour and Abbot's house. This was a silent order to prevent gossip as a distraction but conversation was allowed in the Parlour and speech permitted if a monk were learning from a superior.

The 3rd service began the day and all would come to the Chapter House to be given daily duties and small punishments. They would study lessons from the Bible and might be required to do some writing or D.I.Y. repairs. The library contained very few books by modern standards as they were all hand-written on vellum or parchment and the monastery's wealth was assessed by its holdings. Brother Thomas had an example for us to handle carefully. Windows were glazed and Sister Mary showed us some high-up remnants which she had devoted much time to finding. (If you can spot them you can have extra CAKE!)
Every stone was brought by river, unloaded at Tintern Quay and cut by hand. The only coloured glass was over the High Altar and we were shown where it had been with the arms of Roger Bigod who hoped to smooth his way to heaven.
The flooring would have been tiled and the masons were probably the same as those who built Chepstow Castle. We paused to look at the arrow-head marks which indicated individual mason's work and putlog holes which were - you've guessed it - where they put logs as joists.

   Food was consumed in 2 main meals: a breakfast and large mid-day lunch consisting of fish, cheese, eggs, bread and vegetables, a healthy diet which enabled many monks to live into old age. (I wickedly wondered if they sometimes poached a tasty mutton chop from one of those sheep.)  A light supper was allowed in case of illness but meat was otherwise considered to inflame unwanted passions. Cats and dogs as pets were forbidden but this rule was broken because of the need to keep down rodents and also because such animals afforded much-needed comfort in austerity. They were hidden away in a room when the Abbey was inspected as there was always warning of such a visit. Imagine the moment when they were all let out again!
   It was believed that illness was transmitted by impure air and there was a medicinal herb garden in the rear cloister near the Infirmary. In the later stages of the Abbey's history paying guests were admitted to be cared for and cured and the monks would also pray for their souls.

   Henry VIII dissolved the monastery as part of his huge programme of destruction: the monks did receive a pension and the Abbot a large allowance. The many lay brothers who did the agricultural labour were evicted and the building fell into ruin - to be much admired by Victorian seekers of the picturesque.
   I can thoroughly recommend this tour, particularly for its sense of immediacy: it happens almost every month and details are on the Cadw website. For my earlier post on Tintern Abbey, click here. There is a brief discussion of the Victorian notion of the picturesque. I have also written an account of Chepstow Castle with internal links to aspects of its history. Tintern is easy to reach by the hourly 69 bus from Monmouth through beautiful scenery: some of these conveniently become the 63 at Chepstow and take you on to Usk, where there is another fascinating castle and the burial church of Adam of Usk. CAKE is available in the nearby cafĂ© at Tintern

No comments:

Post a Comment