The map of western Europe is peppered with sites of medieval monasteries, most of them now in ruins. Outstanding among those in England is Fountains Abbey in Studley Royal Park, a few miles southwest of Ripon in Yorkshire.

Fountains Abbey had turbulent beginnings

What, one might ask, can be derived from viewing the ruins of a group of stone buildings like Fountains? The answer is a great deal, for they afford a fascinating picture of how some of our ancestors lived, the way they viewed life and the architecture and technology of which they were capable.

So much so, that in 1986 Fountains Abbey and the parkland in which it lies were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site – “a masterpiece of human creative genius, and an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history.”

Monastic foundations were very numerous during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and played an important role in the life of western Europe. Their way of life had its roots in the hermitages in the deserts of Egypt and Syria and in the Benedictine-inspired communities in sixth-century Italy.

It was a life regulated by ritual in daily activities in the cloister, refectory, church and dormitory, a life of prayer, worship, contemplation, study, poverty and manual labour in accordance with St Benedict’s dictum that “idleness is the enemy of the soul”.

Five centuries after St Benedict, at the end of the 11th century, new orders sprang up, among them the Cistercians, who took their name from their monastery called Cistercium (Citeaux).

After a year as a novice and two years there as a simple monk, a certain Bernard was sent as abbot to Clairvaux in Burgundy, where his eloquence and force of character led to his being heard not only by his fellow monks and colleagues but eventually also by bishops, cardinals, kings and popes. His creed was based on an austere, literal interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, shorn of the many accretions added to it over the years.

Fountains Abbey, which became one of the most successful Cistercian monastery complexes, was founded in the 12th century and had turbulent beginnings.

It owed its creation to a group of Benedictine monks in St Mary’s Abbey in York, who were greatly attracted by the ideas of English disciples of Bernard of Clairvaux, who passed through York in 1131-2 on their way to found the first of the great Cistercian houses in the north, the abbey of Rievaulx near Helmsley, some 30 miles to the northeast of Fountains.

A year later, the group presented proposals for reform to their ageing abbot, but he was unable to handle the human problem of a sharply divided community.

The tense situation came to a head when the Archbishop of York, Thurstan of Bayeux, came to make some enquiries. Feelings ran high and led to a veritable riot, from which the archbishop narrowly escaped without being beaten, taking the would-be reformers with him.

Most of them eventually decided to join the Cistercian Order. The archbishop provided land on his estates at Fountains, and Bernard sent one of his monks to complete the transformation and to construct an abbey according to Cistercian practice.

The site chosen was eminently suited to the purpose. Its distance from towns and villages gave the monks the seclusion they desired, the valley provided a large, flat space as well as stone and timber for the construction of a great complex of buildings, and the river Skell running through it provided running water for their washing and cooking, to flush their drains and to turn their mill-wheels.

The corn mill at Fountains is the only surviving one in Cistercian abbeys. Its mechanism and the conduits and drains of the plumbing system, where they still exist, show a degree of planning and technological sophistication unseen in Christian Europe since Roman times.

The imposing main monastic complex at Fountains has at its heart a large, 125-square-foot cloister, bounded on the west by part of the lay brothers’ quarters, on the south by the kitchens, refectory and monks’ warming-room or parlour, on the east by the chapter house and monks’ dormitory, and on the north by part of the church.

Separate outlying buildings housed a guest house and the infirmary or Great Hall. Plain rather than stained glass was used for the windows of the church, which contains no elaborate sculpture or ornamentation, in keeping with St Bernard’s view that ornaments in a church were a distraction.

The dominance of the cloister in monastic planning is well known but remains something of a puzzle because, while covered porticoes with arches open to the weather were common in southern Europe, providing shelter from the sun, monastic cloisters became as common in the north as in the south and there is much uniformity in the shape, design and function of the cloister in medieval monasteries.

The conventional explanation is that the large, square cloister was well suited for the daily ritual procession from and to church, refectory, dormitory, and so forth. To the east of the buildings, the monks could also enjoy, as can visitors today, pleasant tree-shaded walks by the river.

A notable feature of Fountains is the great size of the lay brothers’ quarters, a consequence of the innovative impetus given by the Cistercians to the (already existing) concept of having two kinds of monks: choir monks and lay brothers called conversi.

Whereas most of the former became priests or deacons, the latter were a class of monks not suited for or aimed at a priestly calling. Many were illiterate, and so exempt from learning and took a greater share in the community’s manual work.

The internal design of the monastery was such as to enable large numbers of lay brothers to render their services without having to mingle with the choir monks.

It was the increase in lay brothers that enabled early Cistercian communities to become self-supporting islands cut off from the world.

In general, medieval monasteries were sustained by landed estates donated to them by benefactors, from which they derived an income from rents. Despite receiving such endowments from Archbishop Thurstan, in its early years Fountains struggled to maintain itself.

It went through many periods of financial difficulties but always recovered and, helped by the extreme simplicity and austerity of the monks’ life and the crafts they possessed, various additions and extensions were made over the centuries, the latest being the 160-foot tower attached to the north side of the church, completed in 1526.

By 1535, Fountains was probably the richest Cistercian monastery in England but it received a death sentence in 1539 when after his break with the Pope, Henry VIII issued his infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries order, abolishing all monasteries and confiscating their properties and endowments.

The whole monastic fabric was ruthlessly destroyed, and much the same thing happened in Germany with the rise of Lutheranism and, after the French Revolution in 1789, in France and the countries of Europe which fell to Napoleon.

It was a sad end to what was, not least architecturally and artistically, a rich thread in the tapestry of European history.

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