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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The dormitory (continued)


When they rest on their beds, each of them lies alone
and girdled, in habit and tunic in winter and summer.
[Walter Daniel, Life of Aelred.]

Artist's impression of monks sleeping
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
<click to enlarge>
Artist's impression of monks sleeping

In accordance with chapter 22 of the Rule of St Benedict the monks slept fully clothed ‘as if to prepare for the Lord’. This was for reasons of modesty and to prevent vice, but also meant that when the bell for night Vigils sounded the monks did not have to waste time dressing and could simply climb out of bed to make their way to the choir stalls in the church. The monks lay on mattresses filled with straw, which were arranged around the room; there would have been a closet of sorts in the centre for their clothing. Bedclothes were to be either black or white and pillows of a moderate size.

A cure for insomnia
Look at your coarse woollen blanket and bedcovers and compare your bed to the grave, just as if you were entering it for burial … If you can sleep, all is well; if you cannot, experience has proved that if you say the Athanasian Creed seven times or the Seven Penitential Psalms, you will fall asleep.
[Stephen of Sawley, ch. 20 ‘Meditation when you go to bed’ p. 112]

At first all the monks slept in the dormitory, but the abbot later moved to his own lodgings. The sacrist of Rievaulx may have also occupied a separate chamber so that he could rise before the others to sound the bell for Vigils and keep an eye on the goings on in church. In the fourteenth century the General Chapter conceded that priors and sub-priors might have greater privacy and construct cells within the dormitory, i.e. rooms furnished with a lock. It is likely that partitions or screens were also added for the other monks at this time, to provide some seclusion and greater comfort.

The monks were, in theory, to observe the strictest silence in the dormitory at all times and even sign language was forbidden here. Nevertheless, it was not always tranquil and on one occasion during Aelred’s abbacy a mighty rumpus erupted when, it was said, the devil entered the monks’ dormitory:

In this time two monks shouted out by night in our dormitory,
terrifying beyond measure. They bellowed like bulls and aroused
nearly the whole convent by their dreadful vociferation. Their
clamour of terror echoed about the place in a reverberation of sound.
They groaned and sighed wretchedly. In the morning someone told
the abbot what had happened and made him aware of the fright
which he had had in the night. To whom the father said, ‘Son, the
Devil truly came among the brethren there by night, trying to
seduce one or other of them, but was forced to depart in utter
confusion; his malice was in vain. Nevertheless, someone gave
way to him a little.'
[Walter Daniel, Life of Aelred, p. 51]

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