Relaxation of the Rule

Colin Platt on the Architecture of late Medieval Monastic Houses

A widespread relaxation of the Rule in the religious communities of late-medieval Britain is evident enough in their buildings. There are the divided dormitories and private chambers that overturned St Benedict's original urging: 'let them all sleep in one place'. There are the similarly partitioned infirmaries, the refectories abandoned for more comfortable and relaxing heated parlours, the ambitiously extended superiors' lodgings, and the cloister alleys glazed against the cold. The privacy of the individual, in too many cases, had risen above the ideal of a discipline shared in common, while private property – that vice which, in Benedict's view, 'ought utterly to be rooted out of the monastery' – was everywhere accepted as routine. But such a softening of the Rule could, in certain circumstances, prove expensive. At precisely the time when monastic incomes were either fixed or registering a decline, the expectations of men and women of religion were rising. In the lifeboat analogy so commonly used today, only a limited number might be taken aboard or the vessel would be swamped and all perish. Establishments must be trimmed. Property, at whatever cost, must be protected.

Of course, the greater houses, even in difficult times, were well enough insulated against recession. And there were always special conditions – the possession of a famous relic or the happy choice of an able and long-living prior – that might protect the individual lesser house in years of hardship. But the poorly endowed community in frontier lands became truly a barometer of change: nowhere more so than in the troubled scene of Ireland.

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