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Byland Abbey: Location

Byland Abbey: History
Later Middle Ages

Byland Abbey: Buildings
Chapter House
Warming House
Day Room
Lay Brothers' Range

Byland Abbey: Lands

Cistercian Life







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Arable and pastoral lands

Because their rule does not permit them to govern parishioners,
they proceed to raze villages and churches, to turn out parishioners
and to destroy the altars of God, not scrupling to sow crops or cast
down and level everything before the ploughshare, so that if you
looked on a place you knew previously, you could say,
“ and grass grows now where Troy town stood.”
[Walter Map, twelfth-century archdeacon and satirist]

A Cistercian monk reaping corn
© Bibliotheque Municipale Dijon
<click to enlarge>
A Cistercian monk reaping corn

The monks of Byland would have grown a variety of crops to provide for their needs, including wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans, grass for hay and pasture, and flax. In some areas the community cleared the land in preparation for cultivation. This was known as assarting and took place, for example, at Osgodby and Coxwold. The Cistercians’ successful exploitation of the land in this way provoked considerable hostility and provided ammunition for their critics to caricature them as ruthless predators, who wreaked devastation across the countryside and razed villages. There was some truth in this portrayal of the Cistercians, and it was Byland’s clearance of the land around Kilburn and Thorpe that sparked off its conflict with Robert de Daiville and Thomas de Coleville.(44) Nevertheless, this did not occur on the scale suggested by the monks’ critics. Moreover, the Cistercians’ arrival might actually work to the benefit of the natives if they were relocated to a more favourable site, or if they received employment from the abbey or admission as a lay-brother.

White linens
Linen was bleached in the streams between Oldstead and Was, and this process was continued for some 250 years following the Dissolution.
[F. Banks, ‘Monastic agriculture: a farmer’s view’, p. 16.]

The monks might receive pastoral or arable lands from donors, or acquire rights to use land for this purpose. Surviving charters that record these grants can be revealing, for they often state precisely how many animals the monks might pasture on the land, details of other activities they might pursue and any restrictions that applied. Byland’s founder, Roger de Mowbray, was clearly concerned to preserve the Chase of Nidderdale for hunting, and although he granted the monks rights to take building timber, minerals and pasture their animals, he restricted arable farming and laid down other constraints. For example, Roger stipulated that for the sake of the young deer, the monks should remove their pigs from the forest between 8 June and 10 July, and that whilst they might keep dogs to guard the court these should be chained up. He also warned that if any of the community’s lay shepherds were caught poaching, they would lose their wages and positions.(45) In the late twelfth century William, son of Osbert of Denby, gave the community 22 acres of land in Pilatescroft, Denby, and common pasture for 200 sheep, 2 horses and 20 animals.(46) Peter, son of Horn de Bretton, granted Byland ten acres in West Bretton for forty sheep and as many animals as they needed to cultivate the land here; it seems that this land was administered from Byland’s grange at Bentley.(47) The monks’ bercary at West Bretton could accommodate c. 200 sheep in the late twelfth / early thirteenth centuries. This was slightly less than the average bercary which held about 250 sheep. (48)