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Scottish, Antiquarian, Scotland



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Chapter II: Monastic Life

A life of prayer and fasting well may see
Deeper into the mysteries of heaven than thou, good brother.
                                            Tennyson's Harold.


THE Scotch monk differed in no way from those anywhere else who belonged to the same order with himself, and a monk of Paisley, in his dress and the daily routine of his life, would resemble very closely, and in every particular of costume, one of Wenlock in England, or of La Charité in France. From the day of his entrance into the brotherhood to that of his death he went through the same unvarying round of duty and work, no matter in what part of the world his convent happened to be situated. We are therefore able to tell with considerable exactness what was the inner life of the Abbey to which these pages relate. We can in thought rebuild the ruined walls, and repeople the Monastery with the old figures, and even tell what they were doing on a particular day, and at a particular hour.

The popular idea of a monk in Scotland is derived from the satires and caricatures of the pre-Reformation times which still linger among the people. He is a jolly, burly man, with a jovial countenance and capacious stomach; bound, indeed, at times to pray, but more given to drinking heavy potations; a lover of strong ale and good wine, with a loud ringing laugh, oftener found in the buttery and cellar than on his knees and telling his beads. Sir Walter Scott has given us a truer idea of the brotherhood; but the typical monk with the multitude is Abbot Ambrose rather than Abbot Eustace. Perhaps the common Scotch people are not singular in their conception of the monastic life and of its duties. “Novelists,” as it has been well said, “have given us many a good monk, and checkmated us with many a wicked one. In volume after volume we have had the murderous monk, the robber monk, the bibulous monk, the felonious monk, and the poisoning monk. We are apt to forget that the duties of the monastic life were very varied; that there was scope in the Abbey and in the Priory for intellects of all degrees, that there were as many sorts of employment within a monastery as there are in a modern factory, and that the monastic establishments were, as a rule, admirably governed and conducted in a businesslike way.”
[1] The truth of this statement will be amply verified by any student of the annals of Paisley Abbey. He will see that there were within it many wise, skilful, and practical men, able to hold their own in all the conflicts and business of their time, but though I have enquired diligently, the only tradition I can find regarding them in the town they founded is that the Abbot, and occasionally the monks, used after dusk to cross the river Cart, and spend the evening in an humble pot-house with the bailies of the town,—the enticements of the pleasant society of these municipal dignitaries being sufficient to induce the holy Fathers to steal from the convent. [2]

First in the Monastery came the Abbot, wearing the dalmatic, representing the seamless coat of Christ;
[3] on his head, the mitre, emblematic of Christ, the head of the Church; in his hand, the crozier or pastoral staff; on his finger, a ring, as Christ was the spouse of the Church; on his feet, sandals, because as the foot was neither covered nor naked so the Gospel should neither be altogether concealed nor rest altogether upon earthly benefits. His power was great. It extended over the whole convent, and according as he used it, the brotherhood was well regulated or out of “gud rewl.” He was subject to none but the head of his order and to the Pope. His privileges were great also. He could confer the lesser orders—give the benediction in any of his churches—appoint and depose Priors of cells, and hold visitations once a year. Bells were rung in his honour as he passed by the churches belonging to his house; he rode on a mule sumptuously caparisoned with an immense retinue attending him. The noble children whom he educated served him as pages. He styled himself by “divine permission” or “the grace of God,” and signed his christian name and the name of his house to all deeds. He had generally a seat in Parliament; visited persons of the highest distinction on terms of equality; and attended at the court of the sovereign, where he often held an office of State. If devoutly inclined he attended the services of the church, and when he did so, was received with great and imposing ceremonial. One instance will suffice. When he was pleased to sing vespers, the vestment and cope for his use, water in silver basin, towels, the comb, mitre, gloves, and staff were placed in the vestry. The Abbot then combed his hair and washed his hands, clothed himself with alb, robe, mitre, and gloves, and assumed the ring and crosier, his chaplains humbly attending. Upon his being robed, all the bells were rung, and entering the upper choir, preceded by the chanters and prior, robed for the occasion, he went to his stall. At the beginning of the first Psalm, a senior, kissing the Abbot's hand, took the crosier and laid it near him, and this ceremony of kissing his hand was always used on receiving anything from him, or delivering anything to him. When he was seated a chaplain was to place a towel across his bosom, and always when he was in pontificals. When the psalms were finished he rose and took the censer from a senior, and his chaplains attended him with the Gospel and the lantern; he then said the Gospel with his mitre, as was always the custom. If we rehabilitate the ruined choir, and place either Abbot William or Lithgow, of whom we shall hear anon, as the central figure in this description of ecclesiastical pomp, with chaplains, and chanters, and prostrate monks, we have brought before us a scene of the past which must often have occurred exactly as we have now described it.


[1] Fraser's Magazine, Dec. 1876, where there is a most admirable article on the daily life of a monk.
[2] This place of select conviviality stood at the foot of what is called St. Mirin's Street.
[3] For the facts referred to in this sketch I am indebted to Fosbroke's British Monachism, to Du Cange, Mabillon's Annales, and Foxe's English Monasteries, and to allusions to the monastic life scattered throughout the Paisley Chartulary.