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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Women as guests


That in our Order it is forbidden for women to live under the
same roof (as monks) and that even entry past the monastery
gate is denied them. Excluding every pretext – whether it be
animal husbandry and care or the laundering of monastery
goods (as is sometimes necessary), or, finally, anything whatever
that needs to be done – it is absolutely forbidden for us and for
our lay-brothers to have women living under the same roof as
ourselves. Therefore they may not be permitted to be lodged
within the grange enclosure or to come within the monastery gate.

At harvest time, however, women might be employed to work in the fields, but they were kept at a respectable distance.

In the Middle Ages women were ambivalently perceived. On the one hand, they were identified with Mary, the Mother of Christ, but on the other, they were associated with the Temptress, Eve. Monks were reminded that no man, since Adam, had been able to resist the wiles of a woman and accordingly, nuns, female relatives, workers and visitors were kept outside the Cistercian precinct. Early legislation prohibited women from entering Cistercian abbeys and granges. Any abbot who ignored these rulings risked being deposed; any monk who helped a woman to gain access without his abbot’s knowledge would be transferred to another community.

The refectory at Beaulieu abbey
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The refectory at Beaulieu abbey

The Cistercians did not refuse to provide for women as such and were happy to refresh dignified women elsewhere, for example, in the vill.(2) The late thirteenth-century account book for King John’s foundation, Beaulieu Abbey, in Hampshire, states that relatives of the community and other women ‘who could not be refused without scandal’ should receive bread from the ‘furno’, beer from the cellarer and pittances from the sub-cellarer (although the guestmaster was to account for this in his audit).(3) The monks’ kind-heartedness did not extend to those whom they considered unworthy of their care, such as prostitutes and local women, who were only to receive help in exceptional times (for example, during a famine).(4) The Cistercian Order was not, therefore, against providing for women per se, but was wary of the risks posed by their presence within the abbey precincts.