The monks of Bec-Hellouin and the importance of place vs space

One of the things I am working on at the moment is an essay for A Companion to the Abbey of Le Bec in the Middle Ages edited by Benjamin Pohl and Laura Gathagan to be published by Brill. This is an exciting project as it brings together different approaches to understand the significance of this important Anglo-Norman abbey from a wide variety of scholars. My piece, as you might expect, is on the use of space. It’s a welcome return for me to the study of monasticism and also to pick up some of the challenges of studying space, place and landscape in the middle ages.

In some respects, this paper ties in neatly with the work I described in the previous post: place was paramount. Now a great deal has been written in various scholarly publications about the difference between space and place or whether they can be used as synonyms. In the case of the abbey of Bec (and indeed other houses) we can make a very clear distinction between the place of the monastery – and the struggles to establish it – and the spaces of the monastery made meaningful by the activities of the community within them. For example, abbeys had a space called the chapter house, but that in itself did not equate to chapter, which was the activity that took place when the community assembled in the space and enacted the practices associated with it. These included discussion of the day’s business, reception of visitors, burial, the mutual confession of faults (offences against the rule) and penance.

The early history of the abbey of Bec is one of conflict, both with local lords and the ecclesiastical establishment in the form of the archbishop of Rouen, and struggle to find a suitable location and construct the necessary buildings for monastic life. These struggles are documented in the early lives of the abbots and various treatises on the profession of monks and the monastery’s liberties. Like Orderic Vitalis’s discussion of the new orders in his Ecclesiastical History there is also a marked concern to underline Benedictine tradition. In many respects, there is more to it than that. Monks from the abbey were chosen to head up new foundations, notably Duke William II of Normandy’s new abbey at Caen, and to take on the role of archbishop of Canterbury following the Norman conquest(e.g. Lanfranc and Anselm). Removing key monks affected the leadership of the abbey and also called into question the very Benedictine ideal of stability to place. This was the first of the vows Benedictines made, in essence to remain in one place and live out their vocation there for the rest of their lives. The need to find the appropriate place was paramount as was the requirement to define how stability and ensure monks maintained it during absences from the motherhouse.

As well as the question of place, other evidence from Bec in its charters (most now survived as post-medieval copies), short chronicle and the visitation records of Eudes Rigaud, archbishop of Rouen in the mid-thirteenth century, reveals challenges facing the buildings. The sense that Bec was firmly established by the early twelfth century gives way to a near constant struggle to keep the buildings standing. There are particularly moving accounts of the gradual deterioration of the church in particular in the mid-thirteenth century following a fire, which culminated in the crossing tower tumbling down into what little remained of the nave. Everything was just nicely established again when the English had the temerity to invade France and capture King Jean II at Poitiers in 1355. The monks were forced to fortify their abbey, which included the destruction of key buildings like the dormitory and parts of the church. More hard work was needed to rebuild and reinstate the monastic quality of the space.

All this contrasts with the elaborate rituals laid down in the customs (those that survive date from the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth-century) for the reception of guests. Important visitors were received initially in the church, so for significant amounts of time the community arrayed in their splendid copes would have been negotiating a building site. It strikes me that this was the perfect opportunity to generate a little bit extra for the abbey’s endowments. Rebuilding was, after all, expensive and the community needed to fulfil its other commitments such as maintaining alms giving and honouring the dead. We can certainly imagine the abbot indicating the next bit of renovation work or suggesting that rebuilding x part of the monastery would be a suitable memorial to lord so-and-so’s piety.*

Which brings us back to stability and reflection on the rule. Benedict and subsequent customaries were quite clear about what should happen where and when in the monastery and the spaces necessary. Ecclesiastical visitors like Eudes Rigaud who were responsible for the maintenance of discipline and observance criticised communities for not adhering to certain practices in certain areas (e.g. chapter). Circumstances regularly, at least for the Bec monks, dictated otherwise, but I don’t think this made them less monastic or necessarily lax in their observance. Like Swamp Castle, the monastery might fall down several times, but once the monks had found their place, they stayed there until evicted during the French Revolution and that is key to understanding the history of the abbey.

This is my rest for ever and ever; here will I dwell for I have chosen it (Psalm 132:14)

*Any resemblance to the behaviour of university vice-chancellors unveiling their latest plans for expansion is purely coincidental, I’m sure.


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

3 thoughts on “The monks of Bec-Hellouin and the importance of place vs space”

  1. I think there is an undeniable relationship between place (and form), space and culture. The Benedictine spirit emphasised order and simplicity, and these values were expressed and sustained architecturally. The typical design was also symbolically meant to express devotion to and service of God – e.g. the openness of the cloisters. You seem to be suggesting in this piece that the buildings in their various changing forms helped to sustain monasticism over centuries of change and disruption and gave the monastics the sense of stability and security they needed to hold fast to their ascetic lives.

    I was also interested to read this:

    [quote]”The monks were forced to fortify their abbey, which included the destruction of key buildings like the dormitory and parts of the church. More hard work was needed to rebuild and reinstate the monastic quality of the space.”[unquote]

    This suggests that the buildings reflected the spirit and purpose of the monastics and it may be that over time there was a synthesis of the two, so that their role in maintaining the buildings subconsciously came to be associated with the maintenance of their Order.

    Now I am going to suggest something quite controversial: that medieval Western monasticism was largely a mythical or fraudulent enterprise. One important element that is missing is analysis of the various social relations: i.e. the relationship between the monastics themselves, between monastics and their visitors, and between monastics and the outside world, and other abstract relations, how these might have influenced the formation, synthesis and evolution of daily life in the monasteries and on monastic land. Buildings are institutionally important, but the nature of the buildings that characterised monasteries suggests that Western monasticism wasn’t very ascetic. The monasteries were communities in their own right and also formed an economic class in medieval society. This is reflected in the buildings. Entry into a monastery wasn’t a route to piety for anchorites so much as the chance of a comfortable life with the added peace of mind that you were veritably doing ‘God’s work’.
    It could be that monastic life had at least three dimensions: Christian, communitarian and economic. The design and physical place, form and architecture of the monastery had to reflect not such the symbolic needs of Christian service and worship and the utilitarian needs of the resident monastics and their hosts, but also the needs of the surrounding community, which the monastics served but also exploited. I would argue that the last of these was the most important. Had Western monasticism been truly ascetic and concerned with religious ideals, a greater emphasis would have been placed on spaces, outer and inner, rather than buildings and formalities. As I see it, monasticism was a reflection of the kind of religious formalism and institutional introversion that the English Reformation would sweep away, again for class and economic reasons.

    I like the dichotomy posited by Weber, between inner and outer worldliness – the inner being something akin to monastic asceticism, while the outer is worldly asceticism. Weber seems to be suggesting that Protestant religion is about the ‘inner world’ expressed through worldly activities. This is the apparent diametric opposite of monasticism, which seems to be predicated on self-actualisation in a monastic space. But in reality I think the capitalist ascetic and monastic ascetic were and are very close and similar, one being a microcosm of the other.


    1. Thank you for your comment. Here are some responses to your points.

      I would disagree that western monasticism was ‘mythical and fraudulent’. If you mean that an analysis of social relations was missing from my original post, then yes, it is. It’s a short post designed to collate my thoughts. The article it feeds into has a section that deals with the relationship between the monastery and its lay community. Monasteries like that of Bec could not be sustained without substantial lay support.

      Coenobitic monasticism was never designed for anchorites. It, particularly in its Benedictine form, is a communal way of life. The nearest thing to an eremitical order in medieval Europe was (and still is) the Carthusians – hermits with infrastructure. The monks of Bec recognised the importance of community and the need to maintain its integrity, hence the stress they placed on stability. Interesting Jean-Hervé Foulon has recently argued from a different perspective that the emphasis on community was, in part, embarrassment at the abbey’s difficult birth. It was, after all, founded by Herluin, a pious, uneducated (at least in the Benedictine rule) layman who became its first abbot.

      In many other foundation narratives, great emphasis is placed on establishing first the place and then the buildings. Often the first buildings to be constructed in something other than wood, were the church, particularly the monks/nuns’ part in the east end, and the chapter house, itself symbolic of a commitment to following the rule. Other buildings came later. This, to me at least, stresses the monastic element over any other.

      I think we could go round the houses all day on the value of liturgy, custom etc. and the way that these practices create space and make it meaningful, but what I think is important is to see medieval monasticism on its own terms in all its messy wonder.


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