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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The novices' house

The cell where the tyros of Christ are proven.(1)
[Walter Daniel, Life of Aelred]


Fireplace in novices' house at Rievaulx
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
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Fireplace in novices' house at Rievaulx

Anyone who wished to become a monk had to first undergo a year-long period of instruction in the monastic life, as stipulated in chapter 58 of the Rule of St Benedict. This was known as the novitiate and the newcomer was called a novice. The novices usually had their own separate quarters where they lived after an initial four days spent in the guest-house. Here they meditated under the tutelage of the novice-master, whose duty it was to offer encouragement and support during times of self-doubt, and to make the novices ‘worthy vessels of God and acceptable to the Order.’(2) Their quarters were often located in the undercroft of the monks’ dormitory, but at Rievaulx the novices’ house occupied the middle level of a three-storey building, sandwiched between the monks’ toilet block (the reredorters) on the upper level and a long, dark cellar, that may have functioned as the novices’ dayroom. The novices enjoyed greater comfort than the monks, for their quarters were heated by a large moulded fireplace, which had a tiled hearth. They could access the infirmary and its cloister via a door and stair in the NW corner of their undercroft.

It was during his time as novice-master of Rievaulx that Aelred wrote what was perhaps the most highly regarded of his writings, namely, the Mirror of Charity (Speculum Caritatis). His biographer, Walter Daniel, considered this the greatest of Aelred’s works: which contains as good a picture of the love of God and one’s neighbour as a man can see held up to a mirror.

[Walter Daniel, Life of Aelred, p. 26.]

Aelred, the third abbot of Rievaulx, officiated for a time as novice-master of the abbey. This was an important position, for he was responsible for grooming the next generation of monks and offering support. Aelred evidently carried out his duties to perfection, and was an inspirational and beloved figure. The fruits of his industry could be clearly seen in the monks whom he had nurtured:

Their manner of life is such that they seem to bear blossoms
more dazzling white than the white flowers about them and
reveal a yet greater loveliness of incomparable grace.

Aelred’s biographer, Walter Daniel, tells of one secular clerk who entered the novitiate at Rievaulx and found the way of life overly severe. Aelred pleaded with him to stay, but to no avail, and the clerk left the abbey, ‘ignorantly ignorant, unwisely wise.’(4) Aelred, we are told, was devastated at his departure, but not for long for only one day later he caught sight of the man who had, unwittingly, walked in a circle and ended back at the monastery! Aelred was overjoyed and welcomed his return. Aelred had prudently not mentioned the novice’s disappearance to the abbot, hopeful that through his prayers the sheep might return to the fold and end his days as a Cistercian monk. This, we are told, he eventually did, for he died in Aelred’s arms.(5)
Walter also reveals that when Aelred was novice-master he built for himself a little brick chamber, rather like a tank, beneath the floor of the novices’ quarters, and would discretely immerse himself here in icy cold water, to ‘quench the heat in himself of every vice.’(6)

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