Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Regularis Concordia - the Rule Book for Anglo-Saxon Monks

In the tenth-century, three men worked hard to restore the monasteries to their former glory. All these men were subsequently venerated as saints: Dunstan, Oswald, and Æthelwold.

In particular, Æthelwold of Abingdon, later bishop of Winchester, was determined that the monks and nuns of England should follow the Rule of St Benedict.

Æthelwold was the author of the Monastic Agreement of the Monks and Nuns of the English Nation, or Regularis Concordia, a document with which I'm familiar because of the wording of its preface, and the fact that, in it, Æthelwold acknowledges the status of Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar, and a leading character in my book, Alvar the Kingmaker.

A page from Regularis Concordia

However, having finished my latest piece of research, for an upcoming publication for Pen & Sword Books, I thought I would study the content of this rule book in a little more detail, to find out what those tenth-century monks and nuns could expect of their daily routines.

Some of the rules are very specific: 

"[during Lent] Whenever the subdeacon wears a chasuble he shall take it off when reading the epistle, and put it on again as soon as he has finished. The deacon, too, before coming forward to read the gospel, shall take off his chasuble, fold it and then adjust it crosswise about his left shoulder, making the lower end thereof fast to the girdle of his alb."

"On those same days of Lent when the Mass is ended, the bell shall be rung for Vespers and there shall be a space for prayer. Then, in the interval while the bells are ringing, those ministers who wish to shall partake of the mixtum; those who do not wish to shall have permission to forego it."

Such detail is the stuff one imagines being drawn up by committee, and there are sections of the Rule where one can hear the provisos echoing down the centuries:

"The brethren, vested in albs, if this can be done and the weather permits, shall go to the church."
If wet, in the village hall?

Much of the Rule is taken up with such ritual - the order of service for every part of the day, and the canonical year, is laid out. "None shall be recited when the second bell has rung. After None, they shall say for the King, Queen and benefactors the psalms Qui regis Israel and De profundis...rising up from the meal, they shall give themselves to reading or to the psalms...Vespers shall be celebrated punctually..."

However, there are also rules which cater for the basic human needs: "Thus in winter, when storms are harsh and bitter, a suitable room shall be set aside for the brethren wherein, by the fireside, they may take refuge from the cold and bad weather."

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

There is a chapter dedicated to the care of the sick within the monastic community: "Let there be therefore in that house brethren...who shall furnish the sick brother with everything he wants; if indeed it is necessary, let the help of servants be employed under a careful brother." Later, it states that "If the sickness improves, the visiting shall be discontinued, but if not, it shall be kept up until the death of that brother." There are further instructions for the washing and laying out of the deceased's body. 

This rule book is so much more than a prescription for the litany. Every aspect of daily conduct is considered. Were they a silent order? It seems not:

"The auditorium is excepted from the rule of silence; indeed, it is called by that name chiefly because it is there that whatever is commanded by the master be heard; neither is it right that tales of gossip should go on there or anywhere else." 

Now, as a teacher and a parent, I know that rules aren't laid down for no good reason. It makes me smile to think that these monks must occasionally have been prone to tittle-tattle.

Safe-guarding is also evidently nothing new: "Not even on the excuse of some spiritual matter shall any monk presume to take with him a young boy alone for any private purpose but, as the Rule commands, let the children always remain under the care of their master. Nor shall the master himself be allowed to be in company with a boy without a third person as witness."

Much is said about confession, and those who are "conscious of the guilt of sin or of weakness of the flesh shall not hesitate, in their fervent practice of the exercises of the monastic state, to receive the Eucharist daily...let those who are invited to the Lord's Supper beware lest, stained with the filth of sin, they dare to draw nigh to it unconfessed  and unrepentant."

But it was not all prayer, confession and hard work:
"On Saturdays, the brethren shall wash their feet, for which purpose each shall have a suitable basin. Having washed their feet, those who need to shall wash their shoes also."

Then "the prior shall strike the little bell and all shall assemble with thanksgiving to draw their measure of drink."

Alas, this was only a precursor to more prayer and only then could they file into the refectory.

Reading this document, one gets a sense not only of the seriousness with which the Rule was supposed to be observed, but of the daily rituals and concerns of those who led the cloistered life. Hitherto, I had only known of the historic and political importance of this document, its place in the timeline of the great monastic reform of the tenth-century, its bold statement affirming the status of the King's wife, and its enjoining of her to become the "fearless guardian of the communities of nuns" and its role in placing Æthelwold of Abingdon in the history books as one of the leading lights of the reform movement.

Now I feel I know a little of those anonymous black-robed monks, who lived behind the monastery walls, who were free to "give themselves voluntarily to private prayer" but who must not "dare to enter and frequent the places set apart for nuns." 

When they were on a journey, they were not to "waste time in idle talk," but when receiving visitors they had to be "most zealous in providing every kind service in the guesthouse." Indeed, it was laid down that "wayfarers, shall on their departure be provided with a supply of victuals according to the means of the house."

I can see them now, bustling about their daily business. This little rule book meant much to the reformers, and to the monks. It's also been invaluable to me.

Older Anglo-Saxon blog posts:
Anglo-Saxon Names
Wulfric Spott: A Mercian Man of Means


  1. Fascinating stuff - interesting that even then the monks had to safeguard the children.

    1. Yes indeed. Glad you enjoyed it. I've never sat down and read the whole thing before, as its political significance for the queen's status is immense and oft-quoted. But delving into the daily lives of the monks was a real eye-opener.