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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

View Movies The chapter-house

Plan of Kirkstall abbey showing the location of the chapter house(1/2)

The chapter-house at Kirkstall, like those at other abbeys, was situated in the eastern range, one of the most inaccessible locations to outsiders. It was amongst the first buildings erected and was completed before the end of the twelfth century; in the thirteenth century the eastern half was rebuilt and brought greater light to what may have previously been a rather dim room. The monks gathered here every day for about an hour to attend the chapter meeting, so called as a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict was read aloud to the monks who sat on wooden or stone benches around the walls. The abbot or his deputy who presided occupied a pulpit in the eastern part of the room and there was also a lectern here for the reader.

Kirkstall abbey chapter-house
© Abbey House Museum
Kirkstall abbey chapter-house  Abbey House Museum

The chapter meeting opened with a reading of the martyrology, to commemorate the saints celebrated that day, and this was followed by a short morning prayer (the Pretiosa). Thereafter a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict was read and this marked the real start of the proceedings. On Sundays and feast days a passage from either the Cistercian Customs (the Book of Usages) or the Statutes of the General Chapter was read and explained. An office to commemorate the dead concluded the liturgical part of the meeting. Disciplinary matters were then addressed. Each monk was invited to step forward to confess his sins before the community. He prostrated himself on the floor, asked pardon and awaited judgement. Those who were not forthcoming were ‘accused’- out of charity - by their brethren, so that they too could be judged and corrected, and progress, unhindered, on the road to salvation.

In 1206 the General Chapter of the Order permitted that prisons might be built within the abbeys for those who offended; in 1230 it was stipulated that these should be strong and secure. Statutes from the General Chapter suggest that from the second half of the thirteenth century life imprisonment was not uncommon.

Punishment usually consisted of fasting, demotion or beating,(1) but in more extreme circumstances, such as murder or sodomy, the offender might face imprisonment or expulsion. Whilst the whole community witnessed these punishments nobody was to disclose what had transpired at chapter. After the necessary disciplinary measures had been taken business matters were discussed – announcements were made, letters read out, officials appointed and novices or lay-brothers professed. On certain feast days a sermon was given and on such occasions the lay-brothers might join the monks in the chapter-house, but if there was a shortage of space they were expected to listen at the door.(2) At the close of the chapter meeting the monks stood facing eastwards for the recitation of Psalm 129 (De Profundis) and prayers.(3)