Opinion: St Hilda’s monastery really meant business

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When I first came to Whitby, I thought how incongruous it was that there should be a St Hilda’s Business Centre. How wrong I was!

I had in my mind that familiar picture of a monastery – a large church with a cloister on the south side, the refectory, dormitory and other monastic bulidings grouped round it with monks busy praying and copying manuscripts. This only became the pattern for English monasteries after the Norman Conquest. St Hilda’s monastery was not like that.

Picture instead a small village of wooden huts, one each to a monk or nun, perhaps one or two for married couples vowed to continency. Here the religious, each in his or her own rhythm would perform their prime duty: to recite all 150 psalms in the course of a week, probably by heart.

The day was divided between prayer work and rest. Some would be needed to teach the young novices. Others would look after the sick or needy villagers. Many would be occupied in manual tasks – weaving, needlework, woodwork and metalwork, pottery or looking after the domestic animals. It was Whitby’s business centre, in so far as it had one.

The huts would be grouped around a wooden church where the community would meet for the Eucharist on Sundays and other days at the discretion of the Abbess. On these holy days, the community were excused manual work. There would also be a wooden hall where the community would gather for the main meal of the day. Ale would be drunk and conversation allowed, but it must be discrete and sober.

Some monasteries of the Celtic tradition were more austere than this. St David’s monastery , for instance, drank only water and ate only vegetables. St Hilda’s rebuked him for being too severe.

At St Hilda’s Whitby, eggs and dairy were probably eated, fish and on occasion meat. Most of this would be produced by the community or bartered with the villagers.

Members of the community probably bathed in the sea.It was really only in the 10th Century that the pattern of monasticism with which we are familiar began to spread from the Continent.

After the Norman Conquest, there was a wholesale takeover by the Benedictine Order. Life in a Celtic monastery was not necessarily harder than outside it. Poverty was universal. Chastity and obedience were, of course, required, in return for which life could be secure and for those called to it, even fulfilling