Saturday, 23 August 2014

Daily life for the nuns of Harrold

Harrold Priory was a small community of nuns, probably never numbering more than 12 plus the prioress.  We know very little about them, as the few surviving records tend to be legal documents and rarely concern themselves with individuals and the everyday work of the Priory.  However, most orders of nuns, whether following the Rules of Benedict (as nearby Elstow did) or Augustine (as Harrold did), followed a similar routine.  Richard Chipchase has written the following general description of daily life, which would probably have applied to Harrold Priory in most respects:

"[The nuns] would rise at 2am for Matins Laud, the first service of the day. After this they would return to bed and rise again with the sun. At this point [they] would wash and have breakfast. Nuns usually drank beer with their meals due to it being cleaner than the water. At 7am they would go to Prime, the second service of the day. After this the nuns would meet in the chapter house where readings from the Bible would be heard [and the business of the day discussed]. The third service was Tierce at 9am and following this the nuns would occupy themselves with work in the convent until midday and the fourth service, Sext None. After this, they would eat before returning to their work until Vespers, the fifth service of the day which started at 5pm. This would be followed by a light supper and later the final service of the day, Compline, which took place at 7pm. The nuns went to bed after this, ready for the process to start again at two the next morning. This format varied through the different orders with some splitting Matins and Lauds, having an extra service at 5am. Others would split Sext None with a service at noon and another at 3pm."

Modern-day nuns at prayer: source
All of these services would be marked with the ringing of bells, and Harrold folk would in turn be measuring the day by reference to these.  The reports of local courts contain references to the time of day related to the hours of the office.  In a flat landscape like north Bedfordshire the sounds of the bells would carry great distances.  Today in Harrold the bells of St Peter's church still ring the hours and the quarter hours - but not the offices of the day.

Chipchase goes on:

"The nuns did various types of work while in the convent, they also received an education with many learning to read and write. Often, the convent was the only source of education for women during the middle ages. The nuns had also various tasks to do including washing and cooking, farming, brewing, bee-keeping, medical care, teaching, spinning, weaving and embroidery and illuminating manuscripts. It was usual for nuns from wealthy families to be given the lighter tasks and very often the convent had its own lay sisters who carried out a lot of the manual work. These were members of the convent who were not bound to the various services of the day. The nuns themselves had various roles within the convent, the head of which was the Abbess, a position which was for life. Other titles were the Almoner, any nun who dispensed alms to the sick and needy. Other roles were the Cellarer, who was basically the convent housekeeper and the Infirmarian who looked after the infirmary."

This latter point is important in Harrold, as the nuns cited the needs of the poor and travelers in appeals for charity right up to the late middle ages, stating that providing these was stretching the community's resources. But as Chipchase notes, the life of the nuns centred on the spiritual.  At Harrold the nuns would take part in the main sacraments (for example holy mass) through St Peter's church where they may have had an adjoining chapel, separated from the main congregation.  They also had their own chaplain who may have provided other sacraments (for example confession) in the Priory itself.  The daily services would probably have been held in the Priory, and nuns were put in charge of this, as Chipchase goes on to say:

The Sacrist was an educated nun who would be in charge of all books, vestments and vessels and was also a medieval property manager being responsible for maintenance. Finally, there was the Prioress. This role was taken by a senior nun and in an Abbey she was the Abbess’ deputy and in a convent without the status of an abbey, she would be in charge... "The most important part of the nun’s day were the services, the day was entirely structured around these and any work ceased immediately at times of prayer."


  • Richard Chipchase, The Daily Life of a Nun in Medieval England, published: June 14, 2011 on
  • Hull, Robert – Nun (Medieval Lives) – Franklin Watts (2008)
  • Goldberg, P.J.P. – Medieval England: A Social History 1250-1550 – Bloomsbury (2004)
  • Kerr, Julie – Life in the Medieval Cloister – Hambledon (2009)

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