Augustinian Daily Life: Celebrating the Heritage


Bridlington Priory in its Historical Context, 1113 – 2013

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© The copyright of each paper from the Priory 900 Celebrating the Heritage Conference belongs to its respective author. Published by Bridlington Priory, Bridlington.


David Weston

In approaching this subject, I am influenced by two personal factors . The first is my longstanding link with Carlisle Cathedral which, like Bridlington Priory, was an Augustinian foundation . I was a residentiary canon and canon librarian there for 11 years, and since my retirement I have remained responsible for the cathedral library .

The second factor is my own monastic experience, having been an Anglican Benedictine monk for 24 years from 1960 to 1984 . The relevance of this is that the monastic day that I was experiencing in south Buckinghamshire in the early 1960s is in many respects similar to what we find in a late 13th century Augustinian timetable, apart from getting up at midnight . So, my reactions to what I read about the medieval period are filtered through my own 20th century experience . When I first came across the Barnwell Customary, the first of the two sources about I am speaking, I spent much of the time laughing as I juxtaposed what we were trying to do in a 20th century English monastery with what they were doing at the end of the 13th century .

Carlisle Cathedral is relevant in this context because it was created as an Augustinian priory in 1122, and became the cathedral of the new diocese of Carlisle when it was created in 1133 . It was the last diocese to be created in medieval England and the Augustinians had only arrived in England in about 1100, it is no surprise that there were no other medieval Augustinian cathedrals in England; some other Augustinian churches did subsequently become cathedrals in the post-Reformation period . All other monastic cathedrals were Benedictine . We have already heard that the Augustinians tended to be looked upon with greater favour by founders as cheaper to set up, and also by bishops to whom Augustinian houses gave their loyalty, whereas a Benedictine house tended to owe its allegiance to a mother house in Scotland or on the continent . There was an allusion to that when we were talking earlier about the suppression of alien monasteries which later occurred, when English kings tried to prevent monastic revenues going to France . King Henry I’s Augustinian foundation in Carlisle, unlike Bridlington Priory Augustinian, was poorly endowed from the outset and remained impoverished . From a Carlisle perspective, we look with amazement at the magnificent surviving nave of your priory church here in Bridlington . We see there the fruits of being a great centre of pilgrimage after the canonisation of St . John of Bridlington, but we look also with amazement at the remarkable remains of the Romanesque cloister displayed in that northwest corner of the your priory church . If they were doing work of that high quality in the cloister, what was the quality of the Romanesque church? The townspeople of Bridlington must have been astonished and proud as they saw the priory building go from strength to strength .

So that is the background . The subject of this paper was something that I was very ready to take on, because I had been looking for a while at the Barnwell Customary and had become totally absorbed in the detail and fascinated by the unwitting humour of it all . So that is the document that I intend to use in talking about the monastic day, to which it lends itself very readily . However, I could not come to Bridlington without also talking about the Bridlington Dialogue which is an extremely important and much earlier manuscript about which we have been hearing . In needs to be borne in mind that the Dialogue dates from the middle of the 12th century, whereas the Barnwell Customary is from the end of the 13th century, and much had changed in that time . As Professor Mayr-Harting was mentioning, there are references to meals, private prayer and the office in the Bridlington Dialogue, but if one is looking to reconstruct details of the daily life of the priory the Dialogue is not helpful, because that is not what it sets out to do .

The Dialogue is a sophisticated theological, spiritual and formalised presentation of Augustinian life and an extremely necessary and urgent one for its time . This was because it was written at a very early stage, only fifty years after the Augustinians had arrived in England . They had to undergo a massive transformation to adjust Augustinian teaching, first to northern Europe and then to the Norman English context . So they were having to thrash out where they stood, not least because they were under considerable pressure from the Benedictines who disparaged their religious life, because they saw the Augustinians as serious rivals . The Benedictines asserted their own superiority by maintaining that theirs was a monastic order, whereas the Augustinians were not a monastic order, but rather canons regular . To set against Benedictine pretentions, there was the prestige of St Augustine, as theologian, doctor of the Church, bishop, monk, and author of an excellent monastic rule . In the light of subsequent events, it is clear that the Rule of St Augustine was one of the most important contributions of the canons regular to the western Church .

Returning to the character of the Bridlington Dialogue, the following extract will serve to illustrate the theological character of its treatment of the monastic day . Concerning the liturgical offices it states:

Since therefore we who have our being from the four elements offend God night and day, it is fitting that we seek to placate his omnipotence with psalms and prayers four times by day and four by night in pursuance of the example of the ancients

The reason why these particular times are appointed for the performance of the hours is this, that if you happen to be busy with some work, the time itself might remind you of the office, which times are found determined in the Holy Scriptures, not unassociated with the grace of a particular mystery . Thus the first hour [Prime] takes place at dawn because at daybreak when the sun appears in the East, it behoves us to implore the Sun of Righteousness to rise for us that we, in his light, may escape the darkness .

The office of the third hour [Terce] takes place then because at the third hour Christ entered on his Passion and the cry for his crucifixion went up… and on the day of Pentecost at the third hour the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles…

At the sixth hour Christ ascended the altar of the Cross offering himself to the Father that he might deliver us from the power of the enemy and from everlasting death .

In a handout provided at the conference (see appendix II) I have very briefly sketched out some details concerning the two documents we are considering . The Barnwell Customary was published under the title The Customary of Augustinian Canons by J . Willis Clark (Cambridge, Macmillan and Bowes, 1897) . Helpfully is it set out in parallel Latin and English texts, making it easy to study . On the sheet I provide information about its date of composition, the circumstances of its production and some idea of its length; usefully the volume also gives in parallel two versions of the Rule of St Augustine in Latin and English . This is the source I depend upon for this presentation of Augustinian daily life . The second document, the Bridlington Dialogue, is a supremely important work and one of Bridlington Priory’s claims to fame, demonstrating the priory’s high academic and literary quality . Robert the Scribe, to whom the Dialogue is attributed, became the Prior at some stage before or after it was written . It addresses the task of representing Augustinian life in the context of northern England where Benedictines were powerful players, so that getting the Augustinian way of life suitably presented and expounded was to be a matter of considerable importance . Undoubtedly, this work contributed to the considerable success that Augustinians enjoyed throughout the medieval period .

I have used the handout to set out, in simplified form, Augustinian daily life as based on the Barnwell Customary . Augustinian monasteries will have differed from one another in practice, but the rare survival of this customary from Barnwell is too important to ignore . We will begin with the start of the monastic day:

How the brethren ought to rise for Matins: brethren ought to rise for matins at midnight, hence the sub-sacrist whose duty it is to regulate the clock ought before that to ring the little bell in the dorter [dormitory] to awaken the convent [the canons] . When the brethren have been roused by the sound they ought to fortify themselves with the sign of the cross, rise and say their private prayers while they noiselessly get themselves ready . They may go to the rere-dorter [toilets] if they choose and then sit down again before their beds and wait for the warden [or prior] of the order to give the signal for them to leave the dorter . When the lantern has been lighted, which one of the younger brethren should carry before them, and a gentle signal has been given, they should put on their shoes and their girdles and march into church in procession and devoutly and reverently begin the triple prayer six at a time . Before they begin this they ought to fortify themselves with the sign of the cross and then to bow low . They are all to stand up and when they say one by one ‘O God the Father of heaven have mercy upon us;’ they should bow their heads when they say the prayer to the Father .

Having lived at Carlisle Cathedral, despite the destruction of some medieval buildings, it is very easy to envisage the dormitory which was on the upper floor of the east range of the cloister, the location of the rere-dorter, the march down the night stairs into the transept, then into the choir for the start of the Night Office . That was how the day started according to this customary . It speaks of rising at midnight, but other sources say 3am or not specify a time at all . Confusingly, this first service is sometimes called Matins or alternatively Vigils . Whatever terms are used, there are eight offices through the monastic day . The first one, Matins or Vigils, is the seriously long one, and given that it was followed by another office called Lauds, this was by far the longest session of worship, longer than the rest of the day’s worship put together . One of the oddities of the end of the 13th centuries was that there had been added a series of secondary services after each office – a service of Our Lady . As the monastic life developed after St Benedict’s time in the 6th century, an increasing imbalance occurred . St Benedict in his Rule sought establish balance between worship and work and study to achieve spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing . However, as the centuries passed, monks wanted to express their spirituality in a more significant way, by adding to the worship to achieve on earth the life of heaven . This tendency had the effect of unsettling the balance of the day by the addition of secondary services ‘of Our Lady’ after each one of the Offices .

The offices depended on all the canons knowing the psalter by heart, so they did not need books in their stalls . When there was serious singing to be done cantors would come out from their places to the lectern in the middle of the choir where there was one of these vast books [antiphonals] from which they would sing . The presupposition in monasteries, then as now, is that everybody can join in singing the simple plainsong . But for the more ornate antiphons and more complex musical elements they do needed to pull out their stars .

After Matins and Lauds and the secondary Office of Our Lady the canons returned to their beds . At dawn the bell rang again, the canons rose and they processed to the choir (in some versions it says they wash and comb their hair) . Then came Prime which is the first Hour of the day . Although we do not now think in these terms, they thought in terms of four night hours, namely Vespers, Compline, Matins and Lauds, and the four day hours, which were Prime, Terce, Sext and None, all very short offices . So all the longer worship was done in the dark . After Prime there are various masses . The morning mass was distinct from high mass; there were also the chapter mass and the mass of Our Lady . There would also have been low masses, celebrated at side altars in the church with a server .

Coming then to Chapter, this was an extremely important occasion in the day, with varied content . It is significant that the opening sentence about the Chapter in the Barnwell Customary concerns confession of sin:

As brethren sin daily they ought to come daily to the Chapter house that they may there amend their daily faults, sins that are manifest ought there to be manifestly amended, but hidden sins ought to be amended in greater secrecy in order that they may not become known to the rest of the brethren .

Chapter meetings were not only concerned with practical matters . The emphasis is on the confession of faults, and certainly in my South Buckinghamshire monastery in the 1960s this was still the case . This was a confession of faults, not of sins; transgressions of the customary, but considered quite important in their own way . What we did not do in my community was the proclamation of the faults of others, which might have been considered counterproductive . At Chapter there would also be a reading from scripture or from some religious writer; the reading of a section of the Rule, and a sermon by the prior, which might be an exposition of the Rule, or address a particular issue . There was the allocation of tasks, normally for the week, in considerable detail . At a certain stage the novices departed with their novice master who took them away to gave them their own instruction . Then the Chapter would get down to the more significant business which had to be transacted . Missing Chapter was a serious offence . The bell for it was rung very clearly, so no-one had any excuse for missing, without permission, this important element in the monastic day.

In terms of work and reading, the timetable looks as though the occasions for these were not very many, but there were people with important and necessary tasks to perform . There was work in the kitchens, the gardens and grounds, the church, the infirmary, scriptorium . There were some servants assisting the obedientiaries (the heads of departments) . For instance:

The Chamberlain ought to provide a laundress of good character and good reputation to wash the garments of the convent . She must be able properly to mend and wash all the linen of the brethren – surplices, rochets, sheets, shirts and drawers . The linen ought to be washed once a fortnight in summer .

Looking back to South Buckinghamshire in the 1960s, we had our own laundry run by the monks, and as novices we sat in a circle darning our socks and putting patches on the seats of our pyjamas .

I like the fact that,

It is the chief duty of the Chamberlain to provide water for the shaving of the convent and soap for washing their heads . He is to provide soap for the baths of the brethren .

Reverting to Bridlington Priory for a moment, and recalling its academic reputation, there will have been canons involved in its scriptorium and library and in teaching roles . Skins will have been prepared and made into vellum for writing . At Barnwell there is evidence of lay brothers, whose absence at an earlier period was mentioned by Professor Mayr-Harting . The Barnwell Customary in 1295 makes the provision:

Lay brethren are not to be admitted to the habit unless they are instructed in some craft which is useful to the monastery . But as regular canons ought to be occupied day and night in things spiritual, so lay brothers ought to labour for the profit of the church in matters corporeal, for in the monastery no-one deserves his bread unless he work for it .

The comment that regular canons ought to be occupied in things spiritual explains why suitably qualified lay brethren might be welcome in addition to the servants to do manual work .

Reverting to the timetable, the next short office was Terce, for which the theological background is provided in the Dialogue . Those coming new into a monastery can be surprised by the shortness of the Little Hours, which serve briefly to give structure to the day and provide a renewed focus upon fundaments of the monastic life . It is a typically Benedictine pattern, by dividing up the day and creating balance, which has great benefits but which can get lost .

Next in the timetable there is the High Mass, about which there is disappointingly little in the customary, except for how deacons and sub-deacons move around . There follow Sext and dinner . Of these, dinner is worthy of attention . The canons go into the refectory, each bringing with him his knife which he sharpens on the knife sharpener at the refectory door . A spoon was provided; forks had not yet been invented . The food was all cooked in the adjacent kitchens:

the servitors are to serve the food quickly and actively, not running or jumping in an unbecoming fashion . They are to hold the dishes neither too high nor too low but so the food can be seen by him who carries it . The dishes are not be dirty or broken or smeared on the underside . The servitor should use both hands to carry only a single dish except when he is serving eggs . If he cannot bring the brethren all they ask for, he ought nevertheless to reply to them civilly . The brethren ought to be careful not to rub their noses or rub their teeth on the napkin or tablecloth nor staunch blood with them nor wipe anything that is unclean with them nor to dirty or cut them with their knives . Those who by accident have made a mark on them are to wash it without delay and those who have made a large stain on the cloth with their food are to point it out to the brederer that he may get it washed with all speed.

When fruit is soft it ought to be served in bowls… . At the end of the dinner the brethren are to heap together the remnants at the edge of the table and the president to give the signal for collecting the spoons . When this is done, the servitors ought to collect the remnants in baskets, beginning with the president and going first to the one on the right and then the one on the left . When the president sounds the bell they ought to turn to the crucifix say grace in the usual way and after bowing they are all to go in procession to the church except for the fraterer and the cellarer .

There was always reading at meals; talking was not allowed:

The reader at table ought not to hurry his reading with a view of reading much, but he should read clearly and distinctly so as to be understood . And when he has found a good and noteworthy passage he ought to repeat it again and again, that it may be thoroughly understood .

It is all very carefully ordered and English; it is hard to imagine Italians writing such a customary . After dinner in the summer, when nights were short, there was a siesta (meridiana) . Canons went to the dormitory and lay down on their beds until the bell rang . There was no such provision in winter when the nights were long . Monasteries had a day-stair from the cloister to the dormitory as well as a night-stair from the dormitory to the choir .

At the midday rest those who cannot sleep may read privately in the dorter [dormitory] but they ought to be careful not to make a noise in turning over the leaves or in any other way . All the brethren ought to come to the dorter and they have full leave to take off their coats and their shoes but they are not allowed to stretch out their legs or to sleep with their head or body uncovered .

So there were rules even when they went to lie down after lunch . Then there was the office of None, a period for work and then Vespers at dusk, the first of the four night offices . If it was not a fast day, there would be a small evening meal (cena) . There was also a rather strange ceremony called collation, which involved going to the chapter house for an edifying reading, and then to the refectory for a drink . Then finally there was Compline, which they reckoned to be the second night office . This ended with asperges, when the prior would sprinkle the canons with holy water to keep evil away during the night . Then there was the formal procession to bed .

To conclude, I want to touch on a few particular matters worthy of note . In those days they did not yet have a 24 hour clock with hours of equal length throughout the day and night . The twelve day hours and the twelve night hours were of varying length . In winter there were long night hours and short day hours, which changed in length as the season advanced . In summer the reverse was the case . The calculation of time was therefore extremely difficult . So, the person chosen to ring the midnight bell had a complicated and responsible task . The division between summer-time and winter-time was invariably on 14th September, Holy Cross Day . The change from winter-time to summer-time was Easter Day which was, of course, a variable date .

A practice decreed in the Barnwell Customary, was that several times a year the canons were bled . Evidence from other places shows it was often much less frequent . At Barnwell every six weeks or so canons were blessed out of the choir and moved into the infirmary where blood was taken . Then, after three days rest in the infirmary, enjoying a comfortable bed, nice food, and freedom to talk, the canons went back into the community . Undoubtedly, it was felt that there were medical benefits from this practice and they listed them exhaustively, but also there were definite psychological benefits from the short but regular break from the monotony of the monastic routine . Further evidence of psychological awareness is demonstrated by provision in the Barnwell Customary for treating canons who were suffering from accidie or weariness with the life . When this occurred, they were encouraged to walk by the river or seek other remedies, recognising that this condition was a real illness needing treatment.


  • Clark, John Willis (ed . & trans .), The Observances in use at the Augustinian Priory of St. Giles and St. Andrew at Barnwell, Cambridgeshire, Cambridge, Macmillan & Bowes, 1897
  • Dickinson, John C ., The Origins of the Austin Friars and their introduction into England, London, S .P .C .K ., 1950
  • Wardle, John, St. John of Bridlington, His Life and Legacy, York, The Max Design, 2013

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