The nuns of Rumwoldstow (as well as the monks and priests) entered the religious life so that they could spend time in prayer and the praise of God. Much of their time was taken up with communal prayer services, known as the Divine Office. Each of these services, or ‘hours’, consisted of a sequence of prayers, psalms, hymns, and readings from the Bible. The psalms were the core of the Office, divided between the services so that all 150 psalms were chanted each week.
The nuns rose at dawn for the first service of the day and during daylight hours there were another four or five services.1 The daytime services were usually short (one service might consist of three psalms, a reading and the singing of a few Bible verses). There was another service before they went to bed. The nuns all slept in one dormitory – as the monastery grew in size, there might have been a separate room for the abbess, and separate quarters for elderly and infirm nuns.
The most important service took place in the middle of the night. The timing of this varied during the year so that the nuns could get most of their night-time sleep before they were woken by the bell summoning them to the church. The night service might consist of 18 psalms, a couple of hymns, four readings, with the singing of Bible verses before and after each of these. After this the nuns returned to bed.
At mealtimes the nuns gathered together in their refectory to eat in silence while listening to readings of devotional works. The times of meals varied depending on the time of year; sometimes there would be a meal at noon and another at the end of the day. The nuns ate a lot of bread, with butter, cheese, fish, beans and vegetables; they drank ale, milk, and sometimes wine. Meat would only be provided to guests, novices and nuns who were ill.2
The church’s year included regular days and periods of fasting so that the nuns could practice self-denial and prepare spiritually for holy days and festivals. During Lent and other fast days, the nuns would have a single meal at 3pm or later. The strictest fasts involved abstaining from fats, eggs and dairy products, with just water to drink.
In between the regular services, the inhabitants of the monastery did all the normal work involved in maintaining an Anglo-Saxon household. They did work according to the gender roles of the period, except that the abbess was in charge of the household and its estates rather than a man. So, the monks or male servants undertook agricultural work and male crafts like metalworking. The nuns undertook the usual domestic duties performed by women, such as working in the kitchen, spinning and weaving. Work also related to rank, so the abbess and other well-born nuns would have been more likely to have spent time on embroidery than in cooking and cleaning.
The more devout and spiritually ambitious nuns would make time for private prayer. All the nuns who were able to read were expected to spend some time each day prayerfully reading and studying. The psalms and the texts read and sung in the Divine Office were all in Latin and so novices and younger nuns would be taught to read Latin.
This daily routine of prayer and work would have varied with the changing of the seasons. Highpoints of the year were the great festivals of Christmas and Easter, and the highpoint of each week was Sunday and the celebration of Mass. In most weeks there was also at least one holy day or saint’s day, which would have had different prayers, songs and readings. For Rumwoldstow, two of the most important days of the year were the saints’ days of its patron saints. They celebrated Saint Seaxburh in the height of summer, on 6th July. In the mists of autumn, on 3rd November, they celebrated their very own Saint Rumwold.
Billett, Jesse D., The divine office in Anglo-Saxon England, 597-c.1000, London: Published for the Henry Bradshaw Society by the Boydell Press, 2014.
Foot, Sarah, Monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hagen, Ann, Anglo-Saxon food and drink: production, processing, distribution and consumption, Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.
Hiley, David, Gregorian chant, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Smith, Julie Ann, Ordering women’s lives: penitentials and nunnery rules in the early medieval West, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
- Rumwoldstow’s period is the early 10th century, before the reforms of the mid 10th century conformed monastic life to the Rule of St Benedict. Before the reforms, Anglo Saxon monasteries were free to choose when and how to observe the Divine Office, for example how many services to have per day. By the beginning of the 10th century many monasteries were following some version of the Roman or secular Office and the hours usually consisted of Prime at daybreak, Terce, Sext and None during the day, Vespers around sunset, and Compline before going to bed; the Night Office (also called Vigils, Nocturns or Matins) was usually combined with Lauds.
- Earlier Anglo-Saxon monasteries observed a range of different dietary and fasting practices. Some allowed meat as part of the normal diet, others were very austere. The Rule of St Benedict became very influential in in England in the 10th century and this prohibited red meat. The monastic reforms of the mid 10th century enforced a strict ban on meat and this was maintained for a couple of hundred years (though lard and other meat fat could be allowed). There was increasing consumption of fish, which had originally been seen as a delicacy for feasts. Later in the medieval period the prohibition on meat was relaxed, for example, allowing poultry meat. Religious effectively redefined themselves as ill enough to be allowed to eat meat and set aside a separate dining room where meat could be eaten on any non-fasting day.