Before the Dawn: Monks and the Night in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval Europe
By Mary W. Helms
Anthropos, Vol.99:1 (2004)
Abstract: Early European monks were preoccupied with the night. They were quintessential men of the dark, for nocturns,
by far their longest liturgical office, was conducted each night, in the blackness of virtually unlit churches. In so doing monks not only ritually anticipated the coming of the dawn but also, and especially, engaged with the primordial cosmological darkness that preceded the original creation of Genesis. Various aspects of daily monastic life prepared monks for this primary nightly labor, the emotional and psychological effects of which were probably further heightened by physiological reactions to chronic sleep deprivation.
Introduction: In early medieval Western Europe, cenobitic monasteries were very distinctive features of both town and countryside. Sheltered within the walls of these religious communities, separated both locationally and by vocational intent from the mundane earthly life outside the gates, thousands of men and women dedicated their lives to praiseful worship of and communication with the divine. The monastic environment in which they lived shaped and facilitated this religious labor with architectural features that encoded basic cosmological and theological precepts in the various special purpose spaces and places of which the monastery was composed and with formal rules and especially ritual that defined and activated fundamental tenets of faith through carefully organized liturgical office.
Foremost among these ideologically charged monastic settings and liturgical presentations were the garden or garth situated at the very heart of the cloister complex and the office of nocturns sung in the depths of the church. The garth, the only formal monastic space to stand open to the sky, in essence manifested light, not only natural light (it was the cloister’s major source of lumen) but, more significantly, supernatural light (lux), the light of heaven and of the first day of creation. As a quiet Edenic garden, the garth also stood as analogue for paradise and, more specifically, for the first three days of the hexaemeron when the newly created world was still and motionless and Adam lived alone in innocence and in full union with his God. In contrast, the office of nocturns (sometimes called vigils), by far the longest and most important of the “daily” liturgical services and the office that was chanted in the depths of every night in a virtually unlit, pitch black church, manifested darkness. It can be essentially understood asconnecting the monks with the primordial and pre-creational dark that both preceded and accompanied the original creation of the world as described in Genesis and with the power of the numinous4 that was felt to be present in its infinite depths.