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Monastic Space and the Use of Books in Anglo-Norman England

Canterbury - Eadwine Psalter

Canterbury - Eadwine Psalter

Monastic Space and the Use of Books in Anglo-Norman England

Tessa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge)

Yesterday’s paper at the Institute of Historical Research examined the eleventh and twelfth century use and placement of books in the monastic community. Weber provided an insightful understanding into monastic reading by comparing various abbeys and traditionsin Anglo-Norman England.

Christchurch Canterbury

Webber began by showing a page for the Eadwine Psalter that details the location of the books rooms and the eventual emergence of a designated library during the later Middle Ages. She wanted to draw our attention to the wide variety of books used for public reading which have gone relatively unreported. Although the information is a bit piecemeal, there were some definite consistencies: there was a broad similarity of practice existing at this time and a significant number of books survived from the twelfth century.


Books used for Mass and Office of Matins

Books were usually recited from memory, however, the focus of this paper was on Matins readings that weren’t memorised. By the eleventh century, Monks attended mass twice daily. They also celebrated private and votive masses on their own or in groups. Missals were widespread by the twelfth century as they were practical not only for masses but as works of reference. Reading Abbey had seventeen missals. Three were used for the high altar, and one was encased in plain binding for the Morrow Mass, however, missals did not entirely replace other books for Mass. Material for the books is uneven in survival, with epistle readings being very rare. Twelfth century sources record an abundance of gospel books but not all gospel books were used in mass, they were used in important processions, weekly Sunday processions, when meeting dignitaries, for various rituals and some were reserved for special occasions and functions.

Readings for the office of Matins were far more complex. Matins was comprised of twelve readings including three on regular week days and one for summer. The readings contained medieval exegesis, narratives prayers and chants. Attempts were made by the eleventh and twelfth centuries to make compilations of matins readings. These compilations of matins readings were referred to as “Brevaries”, however this was misleading; they should be viewed as individual compendiums. Readings became much later in the period and Brevaries became portable. Readers for Matins often made use of the full text from which the readings were derived. These were often marked with instruction in Roman numerals and occurred mainly in Saint’s Lives. Such markings were intended as directions to the reader. Combinations of Saint’s Lives and miracles known as Legenda were not regularly used for liturgical study but they could see use by the choir at Matins.

Refectory -_Life_of_St_Benedict,_Scene_31_-_Benedict_Feeds_the_Monk

The Chapter House and The Refectory

“The importance of the chapter house should not detract from the spiritual significance of the refectory”. The image of the Last Supper was not used commonly until the later Middle Ages. By the late eleventh century, the mealtime reading was extensive and the second most extensive outside the mass. “Readings will always accompany the meals of the brothers”. 


Several large format English bibles survived and were produced specifically for the purpose of public reading. By the late eleventh century, the community gathered twice per day, once for the for morning office and in the evening for Collation (meal time). The Chapter House, often used for such gatherings, was an administrative space that reinforced the corporate identity of the monastic community. Meetings were devoted to disciplinary matters and administrative issues, as well as a reading, and a reminder of the rule and events occurring for that day of observance. These Chapter House texts were often combined in one book for ordering liturgical and commemorative practice. The books were annotated to direct the reader where to stress certain words or phrases and acted as a sort of handbook.

The lists of Collatio readings were comprised of patristic and early medieval texts, such as those by the desert fathers. The Abbeys followed Benedict’s strict rules on what should be read at evening Collation. Cistercian observance differed slightly from other Benedictine traditions by the location at which Collation took place; not in the Chapter House, but in the Cloister. The Cistercians chose this location in order to make an association between the weekly Mandatum and the Collation.

Beaulieu Abbey of readers pulpit

Pulpits were monastic mainstays and many have survived. Meals were held during daylight hours and pulpits were placed in Refectories for the mealtime reading. Refectory readings dovetailed with those of Matins but complimented and amplified the office readings. Lists of books have survived that were used in Refectories.


Each setting in the Cloister had its own programme for reading. The relationship was closest in the readings of Matins and the Refectory. Texts that were read aloud regularly for such occasions would have become familiar to the reader year after year.

Vernacular Books 

For this period, there isn’t any positive use for the vernacular; there are no specific references to it but it doesn’t mean that it was never used. It’s intriguing but very hard to find specific evidence. Texts like this were more common in the later Middle Ages.  Most of the evidence for this period is normative and Weber would like to find anecdotal or non-normative evidence in usage.

Medieval Cistercian Nuns

What About Nuns? 

Were there differences in what the groups heard? For the most part, the same range of texts were followed in female houses. At this point, only deacons could read and nuns couldn’t be deacons, however, a recent study has found examples of nuns doing the readings. The evidence is difficult to gauge but there was an overlap with the Refectory readings the monks received.


Book restrictions? 

What were poorer monasteries permitted to posses? For smaller houses or those in remote locations, compendium and plenaries were common. They were viewed as being more useful for places that didn’t have ready access to many resources. Smaller abbeys didn’t have many individual volumes and relied more heavily on compilations.

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~Sandra Alvarez

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