Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Poverty and the Rule of St Augustine

The community at Harrold was originally an Arroaisian house, a French order of priests and nuns who lived by the Rule of St Augustine.  A generation later Harrold was able to gain its independence from Arrouaise, and instead became subject to the Bishop of Lincoln.  However, it still continued to live by the Augustinian Rule, although by this stage there were only women in the community.

In practical terms this meant a life of poverty and charity.  Most of the nuns entering Harrold would have been from the higher levels of medieval society, the landowning elite.  Although some would have joined as young novices, many nuns would have been widows and would previously have enjoyed a privileged life style. Becoming a nun would have meant turning their backs on an active social life and instead embracing a life of contemplation and prayer.  Harrold's nuns would have had to give up their jewellery and fine clothes in favour of the plain habit of Augustinians.

Fish was a major part of the monastic diet
(source http://cookit.e2bn.org)
Meals were to be eaten without conversation, the only voice breaking the silence being one of the sisters reading from devotional books.  Even the meals would have seemed plain to many as the Rule encouraged moderation as well as regular fasting and abstinence.  Meat would have been rare, particularly in the winter months when the nuns would have subsisted mostly on vegetables and fish.  No meat would have been eaten during Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) and on Fridays.  Many monastic communities had fishponds which were stocked with carp and other fish, and the archaeological evidence of these is still visible.  In Harrold's case it is known that there were numerous fisheries close by in the Great Ouse.

Despite mostly being well-bred women from the upper levels of medieval society, most of the nuns of Harrold would have been involved in growing food for the community as well as preparing it.  They would have grown fruit and vegetables, kept chickens and bees and possibly other small livestock.  The nuns would also have brewed beer (this was safer to drink than water), being helped in all these tasks by (paid) lay servants (unpaid) lay sisters.  The nuns. when times were hard, may have resorted to spinning thread and even weaving their own cloth.

For the later years at Harrold, at least, poverty was a reality rather than just a virtue.  The nuns were rebuked during a visitation (inspection) by Bishop Alnwick of Lincoln in 1442-1443 as he found that they could only afford a 'common washerwoman' four times a year: he was scandalized that at other times they were forced to wash their own clothes on the bank of the river Great Ouse (Spear 2005).

The Rule of St Augustine allow some leniency in regard to diet and creature comforts.  The elderly and sick were provided with better food and more of it, and were permitted warm clothing.  This flexibility in the application of monastic rules probably allowed widows and other new entrants to places like Harrold Priory a lifestyle that was not as austere as one might imagine.  In the later middle ages it was often felt that this flexibility had turned to licence, and that monks and nuns were often leading lives of debauchery.  There is no evidence for this at Harrold although in 1442-1443 Prioress Dame Alice Decun complained to Bishop Alnwick that the nuns 'all wear their veils spread up to the top of their foreheads', and Hodges (2005) wonders if the Bishop was "being worn down by the collective disobedience of the nuns".  At nearby Elstow the Bishop of Lincoln was forced to remind the community of their duties in terms of meals, clothing and other comforts.

By avoiding the excesses of consumption - both food, clothes and other material goods - it was believed that religious communities could focus better on the contemplative life. But at Harrold poverty at times meant that the nuns had to forgo their spiritual duties, simply to be able to feed and clothe themselves.

  • Hodges, Laura Fulkerson (2005), Chaucer and clothing: Clerical and academic costume in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, DS Brewer
  • Power, Eileen (2010), Medieval English Nunneries: C1275 to 1535, Cambridge University Press
  • Spear, Valerie (2005), Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries, Boydell Press.

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