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The Benedictine monks at Norwich Cathedral

From 1096 until 1538, Norwich Cathedral was part of a Benedictine monastery. This monastic order took its name from Saint Benedict of Nursia (c.480 - c.543AD). St Benedict was responsible for many changes in monastic life. His chief contribution was his Rule which described how monks could best serve God and themselves. The Benedictine Rule required its followers to lead a life of perfection and poverty, and to withdraw from the secular world. This would lead to salvation for the individual monk, and for Christian society at large.

At Norwich Cathedral, it is possible for you to experience our Monks’ Trail, as you travel back in time to discover what life was really like for the Benedictine monks.

Talk to Brother Nicholas

The lives of the monks were very different to ours today. Can you imagine getting up at 2.00am and not having any food until around 2.00pm?

Find out more about a day in the life of a monk at Norwich Cathedral Priory below.

Brother Nicholas is an expert on the daily lives of the monks here in Norwich. If you have any questions you would like to ask him about the monks, which would help you with your studies, email him.

A day in the life of a monk at Norwich Cathedral Priory

So what was life like for the monks who lived, worshipped and worked here? Prayer dominated their day, and the rest of the Cathedral Priory's business from manual labour to study was fitted between the daily services in the Cathedral.

Midnight until 8.00am
The monastic day began sometime between midnight and 3.00am when a bell roused the community. The monks slept fully dressed, so they only had to put on their ‘cowls’ (a hood that obscured the face) and shoes and go straight from their Dormitory to their places in the Cathedral choir stalls. The first services of the day – the night office (Mattins) and Lauds of the Dead – were sung, with short intervals, followed by Prime, which took place at first light in winter or around 6.00am in summer. The monks used plainsong, or Gregorian chant, as their form of prayer. This is a very solemn type of unaccompanied singing and was the sound you would normally hear when you entered a monastery.

Between Prime and 8.00am there was time for private prayer in the Cathedral's side chapels. After this the monks returned to the Dormitory to wash and prepare for the rest of the day.

8.00am until 2.00pm
The monks then assembled in the Cathedral again for Terce and Mass. At 9.00am the whole community gathered in the Chapter House with the Prior for the Chapter meeting. At this meeting a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict was always read and various administrative tasks were allotted to the monks. Punishments were also given to those monks who had broken any rules.

Did you know?
Punishments for the monks differed depending on the seriousness of the wrongdoing. Flogging was the normal punishment but it could also take the form of an enforced diet of bread and water or separation from the others monks in the Refectory. If any monk committed a more serious crime, he might be forced to undertake the public humiliation of lying at the door of the church which meant the other monks had to step over him to enter. Imprisonment, exile or expulsion from the Benedictine Order was administered for grave crimes.

The rest of the morning was spent at various work - administration, reading, studying, copying and illuminating manuscripts and the like. Soon after midday the community gathered to sing High Mass and at about 2.00pm they went to the Refectory for dinner, their main meal of the day. During the meal only one monk was allowed to speak and he read religious works to his fellows as they ate.

2.00pm until 8.00pm
When they had finished dinner the monks returned to their previous occupations in the workshops and cloisters. Talking was permitted while they were working, but between 6.30pm (the beginning of Vespers) and the Chapter meeting the next morning, no ordinary conversation was allowed. The locutory was the only place where communication could take place if it was urgent.

After Vespers the monks went to the Refectory for some simple food and a drink. Then they went straight to Compline which was the last service of the day. Compline usually ended at about 8.00pm and afterwards the monks retired to the common Dormitory to sleep.

Did you know?
Before mechanical clocks were invented, the monks used to rely on water clocks in the day to make sure their services were on time. These water clocks were containers that were drained of a certain amount of water over a certain period of time. At night the stars were sometimes used to keep time.

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