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The chapter-house at Fontenay, France, which was built in a similar architectural style to Roche
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The Chapter House at Fontenay

The monks gathered in the chapter-house daily 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.

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. Punishment usually consisted of fasting, demotion or beating,(4) but in more extreme circumstances, such as murder or sodomy, the offender might face imprisonment or expulsion.

Permission to imprison
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.

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. At the close of the chapter meeting the monks stood facing eastwards for the recitation of Psalm 129 (De Profundis) and prayers.(5)

Notable visitors, such as royalty and prelates, were received by the community in the chapter-house, and it was here that those conducting a visitation of the abbey would have read out their injunctions. Abbots were installed in the chapter-house, benefactors might formalise their grants here or be received into the confraternity of the house,(6) and it was in the chapter-house at Roche – as at other religious houses in England and Wales – that the community gathered for the last time and surrendered their abbey to Henry VIII’s commissioners. Whilst the chapter-house was the setting for the public correction of those who transgressed the rules, it was also used for private confession when the monks confessed wrongful thoughts or feelings such as anger, laziness or jealousy.

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