Denny Bradbury’s latest book ‘Borvo’ looks at an important period of Anglo-Saxon history. It’s a pivotal period where paganism and Christianity ‘clash’ – out with the old beliefs of polytheism and in with the new monotheism.
Denny’s titular character, brought up with multiple deities, combines the two beliefs when he attends a Catholic monastery in Winchester (see the earlier article on Winchester Cathedral).
Today we start our exploration of monastic life – the communities and the route from postulant to monk.
Monasteries were communities where people would go to dedicate their lives to God. In the early years, both men and woman could attend within the same walls, but lived separate lives within the enclave.
Over time, practices changed and separate communities were formed; abbeys and priories, nunneries and convents.
Within the boundary walls (the enclave) you would find several buildings – a church, workshops, kitchen and cells (the monks’ individual rooms for sleep and prayer).
The Abbott would be in charge of the Abbey (having been elected by his brethren) and the Prior would oversee the running of a Priory (smaller community). Others within the community were ‘choir monks’ and ‘lay brothers’. Tasks between them differed and very often it was due to their ‘status’ and ‘abilities’ gained in existence outside the walls before the move into the monastery.
When Denny’s character Borvo turned up at the doors of the monastery in Winchester, he would not have entered strict rule immediately.
He would have been known as a ‘postulant’ – someone living within the walls on a ‘trial basis’. Not making any vows, he would have been free to leave at any time.
The trial would only have given him an insight into the life, the sacrifices and the rewards of monastic teaching, usually over a few months. To truly access the lifestyle, a postulant would request permission to stay. If the rest of the brethren agreed, he would be given his ‘habit’ (clothing) and be known as a ‘novice’. The novice would now dress appropriately and participate in monastic life (the structure and duties of which we will examine in a later article).
When the ‘novice’ feels ready, which can be about a year after they begin their training, they can take their ‘solemn vows’: poverty, obedience and chastity. These can be renewed annually until such time as they are prepared to make their ‘permanent vows’ which, as the name suggests, ties them for life to the rule of their order.
Within the Benedictine order, ‘religious vows’ were also taken which were similar to the solemn vows – obedience, conversion of life, and stability (the latter ensuring the monk would be buried within the walls).
Once basic training was complete (of course, life was one continuous training event), they could either be ‘regular’ or ‘secular’ clergy.
‘Regular’ came from the latin ‘regula’ meaning ‘rule’ – in this instance meaning the strict lifestyle they would lead within the monastery walls.
‘Secular’ is from the latin ‘saecularis’ meaning ‘of the world’ – and this related to priests who would leave the safety of the monastery and visit the people (not just to spread the word but to trade/sell produce).
We shall explore the clothing and routines of those within the monastery next time, and look at why people chose to leave their families and villages, choosing to sacrifice their independent life for one of servitude and hard labour.
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