1. Change of habit
Monks in medieval England and Wales had a hard life, and few had it harder than those who faithfully followed the Rule of St Benedict. If you wanted to join an order you had to give up all your personal possessions and take vows of poverty and chastity. You would live in absolute obedience to your abbot and observe silence from sunset until the following morning.
The Rule of St. Benedict was written by a 6th Century Italian abbot. He founded a monastery at Monte Cassino and laid out a basic guide for daily monastic life. The monastic day was made up of three elements: prayers and services (Opus Dei), spiritual reading (lectio divina) and manual labour.
The Benedictine style of being a monk took off in England in the tenth century when Bishops Oswald of Worcester and Dunstan of Canterbury and Abbot Aethelwold of Abingdon worked with King Edgar the Peaceable to reform monastic life. In the 11th Century, new orders of monks arrived dedicated to living a simpler life based on a more literal reading of the Rule of St Benedict. Chief amongst these were the Cistercians or "White monks". While the routine was tough, many found the balance between work and prayer rewarding.
3. Bending the rules
Monastic life was bound by rules, but monks often found ways to get around them.
Talking was prohibited at certain times and in certain places. The monks learnt sign language to communicate but some used this to excess, and to converse about frivolous matters. When the cleric, Gerald of Wales, dined with the monks of Christ Church Cathedral Priory, Canterbury, in 1180, he was not impressed with what he saw: "There were the monks, all of them gesticulating with fingers, hands and arms and whistling to one another instead of speaking so that I seemed to be seated at a stage play or among actors and jesters." He concluded wryly it would have been less disruptive had they simply spoken a few words.
Late night parties
The arrival of guests could provide too great a temptation. It was said when Henry II (reigned 1154-89) stumbled upon a Welsh Abbey while separated from his hunting party, the monks - unaware of the identity of their guest - entertained him late into the night with hard drinking and rowdy toasts.
The vow of chastity was very difficult to keep. Monks might take cold baths to quench their passions or refrain from eating red meat as it was thought this might increase the libido. Yet some monks gave in to temptation and there are numerous accounts of misdemeanours. Abbot Roger Norreys of Evesham was said to have entertained a whole series of local women in his quarters, while Abbot Enoch of the Welsh house of Strata Marcella allegedly made several nuns pregnant.
4. Spiritual benefits
Father Erik Varden, a present-day monk, reveals to Nina Ramirez how a life of physical denial brings spiritual rewards. Clip from Saints and Sinners: Britain's Millennium of Monasteries. (BBC Four, 2016).
5. What can you learn from the Benedictines?
Few of us would abandon all comforts for religion, yet many still crave spiritual satisfaction. How can you apply a little Benedictine wisdom in your life?