A Benedictine monk’s way of life

Monks gave their lives – and therefore their time – to the service of God and his Church, undertaking to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience according to the rule of St Benedict. Central to their lives was prayer and worship in the church. Throughout the day and night, the monks assembled in the choir to hold services consisting mainly of hymns, psalms and readings. One of the longest of these began at midnight, when the monks left their beds in the dormitory for the service of Matins followed by Lauds, which might last anything from an hour to an hour and a half. Then they would return to the dormitory and sleep until about daybreak, when Prime was sung, (about half an hour). After this they would eat a light breakfast of bread and ale, after which the monks took it in turn to celebrate masses at the minor altars in various parts of the church; many of these were `chantry' masses for the repose of the souls of those who were buried there, as for example in the south transept where there are three recessed tombs and two altars.

At nine o'clock the first mass would be celebrated at the High Altar in the presbytery, followed by the chapter meeting at ten. After prayers and a reading a chapter of the Rule, the business of the house was transacted: announcements were made, duties assigned to individual monks, complaints were heard and penances assigned for misbehaviour, discussions took place about finance and anything else which concerned the priory and its responsibilities. They were also the occasion when the prior or sub-prior could publicly rebuke monks who disobeyed the rules. Punishments included such things as bread and water only on one or two days of the week, having to stay silent all day, or sitting in the lowest place in the choir and chapter. There must have been two prisons or cells in the priory; one for monks - we know that prior Langley of Wymondham (another priory of St Alban's Abbey) was incarcerated here until his death having gone mad through over-study. As lord of the manor of Binham, the prior would also have to dispense justice at the manor court and hold people accused of major crimes. It is thought that this cell was in the gatehouse.

The chapter meeting was followed by High Mass in the presbytery at eleven o'clock. This was a very solemn ceremony, especially on the great festivals.

Although the two morning masses formed an important part of the monastic day, they were not part of the timetable originally prescribed by St. Benedict. St. Benedict's Rule did, however, provide for two morning services, Terce and Sext, and these were fitted in either before or after the masses, depending upon whether or not it was a Sunday or a major festival.

Shortly before noon the bell rang for dinner; the monks gathered in the cloister, and washed in the laver where there was flowing water. On either side of the refectory door were cupboards with clean towels for the monks to dry their hands. (For the monks' diet and eating habits see under Refectory.)

After dinner the monks walked in procession through the slype to the monks' cemetery and there said prayers for their dead brethren. They then had some free time to rest on their beds or read in the carrels provided in the cloister.

The rest of the afternoon was broken up by the services of None at two o'clock and Vespers at four, each taking about half an hour. In between monks would attended to their various responsibilities in the church and in the other priory buildingsas there was always much to be done in keeping the priory in good order and the community running smoothly and properly fed and clothed. Between six and seven o'clock the monks assembled in the chapter house to listen to passages read from some monastic writer, after which they had a light meal followed by Compline sung in the church. The monks then went to bed, and it was one of the duties of the sub-prior to take the roll-call in the dormitory at night so as to be sure that all the monks were present. How much the monks at Binham actually used the dormitory for sleeping in is not known- it was in ruins by 1454!

In a priory of 8 monks each one could not attend services regularly. Some might be in the infirmary and were excused; there was an infirmary chapel where they could attend services instead if possible. People staying in the infirmary were not all desperately ill. Because there was it was believed that a sedentary life was unhealthy, all monks were subjected to periodical blood-letting by opening a vein in the arm - it was supposed to keep them healthy, but for a few days after it was done they were allowed to stay in the infirmary where they could rest and receive especially good food. Elderly monks might also be given rooms in the infirmary in which to end their days in relative comfort, for besides having individual apartments there, they were allowed fires and a preferential diet.

When a monk died, his body lay for one night in the infirmary chapel, attended by two best monks, who prayed for his soul, and the next day, after a funeral in the chapter house, he was borne through the slype to be buried in his monk's habit in the monastic cemetery east of the high altar. Money was distributed to the poor as alms for the good of his soul, and as an earnest to pray for him.

Other monks who were excused some of the services were certain of those who held offices within the priory. With so few monks in the priory, these offices would have to be combined and some of the lesser ones deputed to laymen under their supervision. There would have to be a bursar who handled most of the money and managed a large part of the estates of the priory; A cellarer who brought in the stores of food and drink; a chamberlain who saw to the buying of cloth and making of clothes for the monks; a sacrist who had charge of the church building and furnishings; the master of the infirmary; a hostiller who looked after the guest-house, and an almoner who supervised the giving of charity to the poor and who provided almshouses at the gate of the monastery and elsewhere. Each of these monks would have a lot to do, not only in the performance of their duties, but also seeing that sufficient money for expenses was collected in rents and tithes from a particular manor or property belonging to the priory.

At Binham, the nave of the priory was the parish church – divided from the choir and presbytery by the pulpitum, a stone screen (about a third of the height of the arch) with two doors in it - one each side of the altar. At any time during the week villagers might come and listen in the nave to the monks chanting on the other side of the stone screen, and attend mass at the altar in the nave. In such cases, the ringing of bells, processions and masses said at the same time in the two different parts of the same building, could become contentious issues. It came to a head in Binham in an agreement of 1432 between the Priory and the people of Binham about these and other matters.

The monks were not always within the priory boundaries; estates had to be visited, markets attended for food and cloth. Some were sent on errands to the mother house of St Albans in Hertfordshire; some to London to argue a case in court; some travelled abroad. They were also entitled to a holiday, and this would be spent on one of the estates owned by the priory.