Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Excavating a grange of Rievaulx Abbey

The Yorkshire Post website has a report about the excavation of a grange near Helmsley which had been established by the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. As is pointed out in the article few such sites have been investigated by archaeologists. This one appears to have been quite sophisticated, but it was obviously close to the main abbey, which lies just outside Helmsley and had was under the patronage of the lords of the castle there.

Cistercian houses like Rievaulx and its sister houses in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are those most associated with farming using granges as their administrative bases. Consciously placing themselves outside the mainstream of society the Cistercians, unlike the older Black monk Benedictines, avoided manorial ties and drew their income in large part from sheep rearing on upland pastures and the sale of the wool to the home and export markets. 

The evidence for metal working at this particular site reminded me that we have documentary evidence for such commercial activities by Rievaulx on their Pennine estates in the West Riding. This was also done by other Yorkshire houses often close to the main monastery, and this was also done with tanning, as has recently been revealed at Fountains.

Monastic life in these houses was supported by agricultural and industrial endowment and enterprise. Ora et labore was indeed the order of the day.

The original Cistercian impulse for a reformed monasticism based on abbeys removed from the commercial and tenurial system of the early twelfth century ironically gave rise to massive sheep farming that served the main English export market and a significant source of government revenue through customs and loan securities, and also the beginnings of industrial enterprises, some of whose successors are still functioning today. The beauty of the setting of these Cistercian monasteries in the Yorkshire Dales belies the financial acumen of the monks and lay brothers. Their “seeds of contemplation” ( to quote the twentieth century Cistercian Thomas Merton ) were also seeds of trade and industry.

If readers are interested in more about monastic granges then I think the book to go to is Colin Platt’s The Monastic Grange in Medieval England and also his Abbeys of Yorkshire and, more generally, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. The Yorkshire Cistercian monasteries have attracted a lot of studies - the most recent is probably David H Williams The Tudor Cistercians. He has written extensively about medieval Cistercian life, as can be seen on Amazon.

No comments: