An abbey is a Catholic monastery or convent that is ruled under the authority of an Abbot or an Abbess. The earliest monasteries originated in Egypt and were places where wandering hermits gathered, with the first monks living on their own but meeting up in a common chapel.
By the fifth century, the monastic movement had spread as far as Ireland and St. Patrick set out on his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity. The Irish monks then spread the word of Christianity as far south as Cornwall, to Wales and as far north as Scotland.
The medieval period, known as “The Middle Ages” lasted from the 5th century through to the 15th and it was during this period that the monasteries and abbeys were established – the first being a Benedictine monastery begun by St. Benedict in 529AD. St. Benedict’s vision was of a community of people who would live and work in prayer and in isolation from the rest of the outside world and he did this through the introduction of the Benedictine Rule, which was brought to the British Isles with St. Augustine when he landed in Kent in 597AD.
Over the next one hundred years a wide variety of orders of monks and nuns were introduced into many communities throughout Britain, the only difference being the religious specifics of each Order and how strictly the rules themselves were applied.
Those who occupied the medieval monasteries and convents were the wealthiest land owners of the time- often wealthier than the Kings and Queens themselves. Such wealth was accumulated through the beliefs of the existence of Heaven and Hell. People were taught from childhood that the only way to be sure of securing a place in heaven was through the Church hence they would willingly work for the Church and its land for no pay. Every family also had to pay an annual tithe which was one tenth of their yearly income and whenever a marriage, funeral or baptism was held the Church would receive fees from those attending.
As the monks and nuns who lived and worked in the medieval monasteries were considered to be exceptionally holy, abbeys dominated the Church of the time. Denny Bradbury, author of Borvo, her soon to be released second novel, writes of a time when the introduction and influence of Christianity began to play an important part in England’s history, with King Alfred himself founding a number of monasteries such as Athelney Abbey in celebration of his regaining the kingdom and one at Shaftesbury for his daughter Princess Aethelgirtha. Borvo tackles the subject of the battle between Paganism and Christianity, with the main character himself attending a monastery. It is to be noted that it was a monastery that was the first place the Pagan Vikings attacked Britain in 793 – the monastery at Lindisfarne, a holy island situated off of the Northumberland coast in the North East of England.
The Vikings continuously raided and pillaged the monasteries and as these buildings were the main locations of basic education at the time this meant that such educational standards were gradually eroded. To counteract this, Alfred founded a court school to educate the nobles, encouraging the great scholars of the day to take up residence in England. Christian teachings encouraged the idea that Kings were God’s representatives on earth and King Alfred was one who always managed to use this to his advantage.
When Alfred died in 899 his body was initially buried at the Old Minster in Winchester but at a later date was transferred to the New Minister which Alfred himself had founded – called Hyde Abbey.
Abbeys had many functions – they existed to serve God through worship and prayer; to help the poor, the elderly, the sick and the travellers; offered a certain number of places to teaching people the elements of reading, writing and Latin and were virtually the only sources of education in the Middle Ages.
Medieval Abbeys played a large part in alleviating the suffering of poverty and ignorance that existed during the days of war and hardship and in Part II we will discuss further the role and hierarchy of those who lived and worked in the abbeys and the devastating effect of the dissolution of the monasteries.
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