Thursday, 14 August 2014

Men or women? Priests, nuns and monks at Harrold

At the time of the forced closure of Harrold Priory (1536), it was was an all-woman community headed by a prioress. However, this was not the case in its early days. The documents relating to the foundation mention only 'canons', lay priests rather than monks and make no reference to women.  These men would have been responsible for the religious life of Harrold, centering on St Peter's Church.  According to the chronicles it was Hilbert Pelice, one of founder Samson le Fort's kinsmen, who persuaded him to found the priory, and who was early on given care of the church and new community.
A Gilbertine nun

The first prior, Guy, may have been brother to Abbot Gervase of Arrouaise, and he seems to have set up house with a monk referred to as 'B' in the chronicles.  The burgeoning community appears several times in historical documents in its first 30 years or so, where there are references to lay priests (canons), to brothers and to sisters (monks and nuns).  The names of two French nuns in Harrold, Jelita and Gila, appear early on, although it is made clear that the women's role is subservient to the men in the community.  It is not known if they were nuns (ordained) or lay sisters, although both went on in later years to become prioress at Harrold, so presumably would have become ordained.

By about 1188, though, when Harrold was fighting Arrouaise for its independence, the references are to the nuns of the community: canons and monks are no longer in the picture.  A mixed community would have been unusual, but by no means unique.  Indeed, Chicksands Priory which was both close by and a contemporary of Harrold, housed monks and nuns right up to the dissolution.  Chicksands was part of the Gilbertine order with many houses across England and Wales, mostly mixed sex.

The Arrouasian order, by contrast, all but disappeared in the later middle ages, and seems to have tolerated mixed houses at the time of Gervase.  The norm in religious life, though, was for strict segregation: it was felt that by having men and women together it created distractions which would impact poorly on contemplation and prayer.  Mixed sex communities also had the potential for scandal: it was reported that a Gilbertine nun at Watton in East Yorkshire in the mid 12th century was made pregnant by one of the community's lay brothers.
Porch at nearby Oakley church: the priest(s)
would originally live in the room above

In Harrold, meanwhile, the canons serving the churches of St Peters and the smaller church at Brayfield, seem to have moved out some time before 1188.  Often the priests would have been housed in a room over the church porch, but in Harrold there is no evidence of this as no porch survives.  There was a small thatched house which in the later middle ages came to be known as the vicarage, and which remains to this day in Church Walk.  This only starts to appear in the records in the 17th century, after the Priory had been dissolved.

  • Thompson, Sally (1991), Women religious: The founding of English nunneries after the Norman Conquest, Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

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