Life in the Abbey

Stained glass from the Abbey - Yorkshire Museum

St Mary's Abbey in York was Benedictine, which means that it was run according to the rules laid down by St  Benedict.

It was run by the Abbot, assisted by a Prior.  There were typically between 40 and 60 monks living in St Mary's, plus up to 50 scholars - boys who attended the minster school, plus a number of servants.

In the daytime there would be many other people regularly on the site - more servants, craftsmen and tradesmen, as well as other boys from poorer families who attended classes within the abbey.

Benedictine life wasn't as strict as it would be in some other orders, there wasn't a vow of silence, for example.  The main requirement was for regular prayer - there were eight prayer sessions every day, with the first commencing at around 2 a.m.  One monk had the job of waking the others and keeping them awake during mass, hitting them with a stick if necessary.

There was also an expectation that the monks would read and meditate.

They would attend the Chapter House to hear the daily reading and to discuss the business of the abbey.

Other than that, a monk's working life at the abbey probably consisted mainly of managerial or administrative functions.  Records were destroyed when the abbey was dissolved but it seems likely that as the abbey's property grew manual tasks were carried out by servants.  And there would have been plenty of them, we know that the abbey was independent of the city for many of its functions, within the precinct there were:

  • granaries and barns
  • a mill
  • a bakehouse
  • a fish house
  • a tailor's workshop
  • a brewery

An important role was the cellarer who provided many of the supplies - St Benedict expected him to be 'Prudent...not a great eater, not proud, not headstrong...not lazy, not wasteful'.

A clue to the abbey's way of life is contained in one important documented event.  In 1132 Richard, the prior at the time, led a group of 13 monks in a dispute with the abbey.  It appears that they were demanding a return to a simpler, poorer life and advocated giving away much of the abbey's money.  After what is referred to as a 'riot' the 13 left York.  They went on to found a much stricter Cistercian abbey at Fountains in north Yorkshire.

The York abbey continued to enjoy a reputation for decadence and it featured in the early medieval ballads of Robin Hood.  Robin's arch-enemy is one 'ryche abbot here besyde Of  Seynt Mari Abbey'.



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