The decline of the lay-brotherhood
The lay-brotherhood had its heyday in the mid-twelfth century,
and at this time most abbeys had more lay-brothers than monks.
Aelred’s abbacy at Rievaulx there
were about 140 monks and 240 lay-brothers and on feast days, when all
the lay-brothers congregated
in the church to celebrate the Hours,
the church was crowded with the brethren ‘like bees in a hive’,
making movement of any kind virtually impossible.(8)
By the end of the twelfth century
there were signs of decline. Reports of misconduct increased –
both cases of individual disobedience and violence, and riots. An
interesting example is that of William Acton, a lay-brother of Rievaulx
Abbey in Yorkshire who, in 1279, claimed he was a leper, stabbed
a monk of the house who was examining him and promptly fled into
the woods with two monks of the abbey hot at his heels who subsequently
caught William and beat him to death.(9)
|When in 1195 the abbot of Cymmer, Wales,
banned the drinking of ale the lay-brothers of the abbey stole
[Canivez, Statutes I, 1195: 66, p. 191].
A number of group uprisings were
triggered by the prohibition of ale at the granges. The abbot of
Margam’s banning of
ale in 1206 incited the lay-brothers of the abbey to retaliate.
They pulled the cellarer from his horse and proceeded to attack
both him and the abbot, whom they then pursued for several miles.
To cap it all off they barricaded themselves inside the monks’
dormitory and refused to give the monks any food.(10)
The decline of the lay-brothers
was also accelerated by external conditions. The demise of the
manorial system of farming in the twelfth
had meant that a number of peasants were on the move seeking
work and security. Membership of the Cistercian lay-brotherhood
was seen by some as
proposition. The disappearance of the manorial system and serfdom
in the thirteenth century brought changes that augmented the
demise of the lay-brotherhood.
Peasants were now lease-holders and the Cistercian abbeys were,
if anything, seen now as the competition rather than an alternative.
The Black Death in the fourteenth century badly reduced their numbers, which
never recovered. By the time of the Dissolution most abbeys had
only a handful of lay-brothers.