The Liturgies of Cistercian Nuns in Medieval England

The Liturgies of Cistercian Nuns in Medieval England

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Session 72: English Cistercians and English Critics

Sponsor: Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies, Western Michigan Univ.
Organizer: E. Rozanne Elder, Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies, Western Michigan University
Presider: Margory Lange, Western Oregon University

The Liturgies of Cistercian Nuns in Medieval England

Elizabeth Freeman (University of Tasmania)

“Let Nothing be Put before the Work of God” – Chapter 43, Benedictine Rule


This paper focused on four Cistercian houses. Freeman has been researching Cistercian nuns in the 13th – 16th centuries. Liturgy has remained almost unmentioned in works on Cistercian nuns and very little work has been done on this topic. Unfortunately, clear evidence of liturgical practice is scant.

Most Cistercian female monasteries were founded in the 1140’s. In the abbeys of Tarrant and Lacock three Psalters survive, in Yorkshire there is one surviving Psalter. Wills also provided good guides to liturgical practice; an early 13th century a nun offered her own Psalter to the nunnery in Yorkshire and ordered it be chained up to remain there. Some Psalters are mentioned as belonging to specific nuns.

The Cistercian Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity) said monks should have all the books required to assist in living at the monastery. What evidence do we have that the monks had copies of these books? What evidence is there in Cistercian nunneries? A mere four customaries were found to have survived at female Cistercian houses but official texts may have meant little to nuns. Liturgy and devotional reading were important to nunneries and often combined. In 1448, the nuns of Esholt in Yorkshire, were bequeathed a book in English that emphasised liturgy and the chastising of God’s children. The book stressed that office must be communal and advised the nuns to participate in and focus on liturgy. The absence of service books was not a great concern because there was guidance on liturgy.

To what can we attribute to the lack of liturgical evidence in English Cistercian nunneries? English
exceptionalism – it was easy to say the Reformation may have had something to do with it but you can also say that there were fewer nunneries to begin with. Is this situation and lack of liturgical evidence unique to Cistercian monasteries? No, it’s not unique to them – the distinction lies in whether they have been founded Pre or Post-Conquest. The ones founded earlier were more likely to have rich collections.

Watch the video: Medieval Abbeys Documentary with Patrick Troughton (June 2022).


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