Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Caversham Heights History Society

WITH the growing interest in the possibility of locating Henry I’s remains beneath the ruins of Reading Abbey, similar to the discovery of Richard III in Leicester, it was apt that the last lecture of this season’s programme for the society should have focused on the abbey during its heyday.

On April 5 John Mullaney, former owner of the Caversham Bookshop, enthralled members with his talk called “Life in Reading Abbey, 1121 to 1539”. He talked about the purpose of medieval abbeys, their importance to local communities, their development and what life was like for the occupants.

Reading Abbey was a Benedictine foundation linked to the great French abbey of Cluny.

It was essentially a monastery made up of single monks who lived in community, each with their own cell and with a small patch of garden.

There were also convents but, contrary to general belief, these could be for both men and women. They were less important than abbeys but nevertheless fulfilled an important role in society.

There were several thousand monasteries in Europe during medieval times, the largest being Cluny which was 600ft long and 218ft high.

If we compare this with St Paul’s Cathedral, which is 580ft long and Reading Abbey, which measured 400ft long, the scale of these buildings can be appreciated.

John then looked at the purpose of these abbeys, the daily life of the monks and their artistic achievements.

There were two key precepts — work and prayer (laborare et orare) and ministry to travellers, the sick and needy and pilgrims.

The building of Reading Abbey, which was to become the largest in the country, was begun by the monks of Lewes Abbey in Sussex and there were close links with Leominster in Herefordshire with periodic exchanges of monks.

Life for the inmates was very structured and controlled, with severe punishments handed out for misdemeanours.

Each day began at 6am and ended at 6.30pm, the day being punctuated with services at different times.

The monks were expected to know the Bible inside out, to be able to debate theological issues and to both read and compose music as well as sing plainsong and harmony.

They specialised in stonemasonry, carpentry, agriculture, horticulture and medicine and pharmacy using different herbs.

They also designed stained glass windows and illustrated some amazing manuscripts.

Much of their legacy has continued to influence the church through the ages.

The Bible was central to everything that happened on a daily basis.

Several things set Reading Abbey apart from many others. It came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Salisbury and was located at a key juncture for the many pilgrims coming from the Continent.

It was designed to be the resting place for monarchy, hence the return of Henry I’s remains for burial there.

It was also very wealthy. By 1539, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries by Thomas Cromwell on behalf of Henry VIII, its income was £2,000 per annum compared with the average of £200 for most monasteries.

The number of monks living there varied between 50 and 100. Far from being lazy and sexually immoral, as suggested by Henry VIII, most of the monks were extremely hard-working and upright though there were inevitably a few who misbehaved.

John illustrated his talk not only with pictures and photographs but also with different musical examples.

Although this was a fascinating and well-presented talk, it was unfortunate that those at the back were unable to hear everything partly because of microphone problems.

It is hoped that these will be resolved before next season.

For more information about the society, visit our website or email contact@caversham

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