One of the most subtle operations of time is the tendency it has to transform the facts of one age into the phantasies of another, and to cause the dreams of the past to become the realities of the present. Far away in the remote distance of history, when a lonely monk in his cell mused of vessels going without sails and carriages without horses, it was a dream – a mere dream, produced probably by a brain disordered by over study, long vigils, and frequent fasts, but that dream of the thirteenth century has become the most incontrovertible fact of the nineteenth, a fact to whose influence all other hitherto immovable facts are giving way, even the great one, the impregnability of the Englishman’s castle; for we find that before the obstinate march of one of these railway facts a thousand Englishmen’s castles fall prostrate, and a thousand Englishmen are evicted, their avocations broken up, and themselves turned out upon the world as a new order of beings – outcasts with compensation.

The monastic life, so commonly regarded in these later times as a phantasy, was once a fact, a great universal fact; it was a fact for twelve or thirteen centuries; and when we remember that it extended its influence from the sunny heights of Palestine, across Europe, to the wild, bleak shores of western Ireland; that it did more in the world for the formation and embellishment of modern civilization than all the governments and systems of life the accompanied it in its course; that the best portions of ancient literature, the materials of history, the secrets of art, are the pearls torn from its treasure-house, we may form some idea of what a fact the monastic life must have been at one time, and may venture to assert that the history of that phase of existence, as in frock and cowl it prayed, and watched, and fasted; as in its quiet cloisters it studied, and copied, and labored; as outside its walls it mingled its influence with the web of human destiny, and as in process of time, becoming wealthy and powerful, it degenerated, and went the way of all human things – we say that the history of the development of this extinct world, however defective the execution of that history may be, will include in its review some of the most interesting portions of our national career, will furnish a clue to many of the mazes of historical speculation, or at least may be suggestive to some more able intellect of a course of investigation which has been very little followed, and a mine of truth which to a great extent still remains intact.

At a time when laws were badly administered, and the country often torn by internal contentions, and always subject to the violence of marauders, it was absolutely necessary that there should be some asylum for those thoughtful, retiring spirits who, unable or unwilling to take part in the turmoil of the times, were exposed to all its dangerous vicissitudes. In an age, too, when the country possessed no literature, the contemplative and the learned had no other means of existence than by retiring to the cloister, safe out of the reach of the jealous superstition of ignorance and the wanton barbarity of uncouth violence. The monastery then was the natural home of these beings – the deserted, the oppressed, the meek spirit who had been beaten in the world’s conflict, the untimely born son of genius, the scholar, the devotee, all found a safe shelter and a genial abode behind the friendly walls of these cities of refuge. There, too, lay garnered up, as a priceless hoarding for future ages, the sacred oracles of Christianity, and the rescued treasures of ancient lore; there science labored at her mystic problems; and there poetry, painting, and music were developed and perpetuated; in fine, all that the world holds as most excellent, all that goes toward the foundation and adornment of modern society, treasured up in the monastery as in an ark, rode in safety over the dark flood of that mediaeval deluge until the waters subsided, and a new world appearing from its depths, violent hands were laid upon those costly treasures, which were torn from their hiding-places and freely scattered abroad, whilst the representatives of those men who, in silence and with prayer, had amassed and cherished them, were branded as useless idlers, their homes broken up, and themselves dispersed, with no mercy for their errors and no gratitude for their labors, to seek the scanty charities of a hostile world. Beside being the cradle of art and science, the monastery was a great and most efficient engine for the dispensation of public charity. At its refectory kitchen the poor were always cheerfully welcomed, generously treated, and periodically relieved; in fine, the care of the poor was not only regarded as a solemn duty, but was undertaken with the most cheerful devotion and the most unremitting zeal. They were not treated like an unsightly social disease, which was to be cured if possible, but at any rate kept out of sight; they were not handed over to the tender sympathies of paid relieving officers, nor dealt with by the merciless laws of statistics, but they were treated gently and kindly in the spirit of the Great Master, who when on earth bestowed upon them the larger share of his sympathy, who, in the tenderness of his pity, dignified poverty and sanctified charity when he declared that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Whatever may have been the vices of the monastic system or the errors of its ritual, its untiring charity was its great redeeming virtue.

It will not perhaps be an unfitting introduction to our investigation into the rise and influence of this system upon our national life if we resuscitate from the grave of the past one of these great monasteries, the oldest and most powerful which sprang up in our country, and which, compared with others at the time when they fell before the great religious convulsion of the sixteenth century, had, in the midst of general corruption, maintained its purity, and suffered less from its own vices than from the degeneracy of the system to which it belonged, and of which it was the most distinguished ornament. We shall endeavor to portray the monastery as it was in all its glory, to pass through its portals, to enter reverently into its magnificent church, to listen to its gorgeous music, to watch its processions, to wander through its cloisters, to visit its domestic domains, to penetrate into the mysteries of its refectory, the ascetic simplicity of its dormitory, the industry of its schoolhouse and fratery, the stores of its treasury, the still richer stores of its library, the immortal labors of its Scriptorium, where they worked for so many centuries, uncheered and unrewarded, for a thankless posterity, who shrink even now from doing them justice; we shall visit the gloomy splendors of its crypt, wander through its grounds, and marvel at its strange magnificence. After having thus gazed, as it were, upon the machine itself in motion, we shall perhaps be the better enabled subsequently to comprehend the nature and value of its work.

In the early part of the sixteenth century the ancient abbey of Glastonbury was in the plenitude of its magnificence and power. It had been the cynosure for the devotees of all nations, who, for nearly eleven centuries, flocked in crowds to its fane – to worship at its altars, to venerate its relics, to drink in health at its sacred well, and to gaze in rapt wonder at its holy thorn. And even now, in these later days, though time has wasted it, though fierce fanaticism has played its cannon upon it, though ruthless vandalism in blind ignorance has despoiled many of its beauties, it still stands proud in its ruined grandeur, defiant alike of the ravages of decay, the devastation of the iconoclast, and the wantonness of the ignorant. Although not a single picture, but only an inventorial description, is extant of this largest abbey in the kingdom, yet, standing amidst its silent ruins, the imagination can form some faint idea of what it must have been when its aisles were vocal with the chant of its many-voiced choir, when gorgeous processions moved grandly through its cloisters, and when its altars, its chapels, its windows, its pillars, were all decorated with the myriad splendors of monastic art. Passing in at the great western entrance, through a lodge kept by a grave lay-brother, we find ourselves in a little world, shut up by a high wall which swept round its domains, inclosing an area of more than sixty acres. The eye is arrested at once by a majestic pile of building, stretching itself out in the shape of an immense cross, from the centre of whose transept there rises a high tower. The exterior of this building is profusely decorated with all the weird embellishments of medieval art. There, in sculptured niche, stands the devout monarch, sceptred and crowned; the templar knight, who had fallen under an oriental sun fighting for the cross; the mitred abbot, with his crosier; the saint with his emblem; the martyr with his palm; scenes from Sacred Writ; the apostles, the evangelists; petrified allegories and sculptured story; and then, clustering around and intertwining itself with all these scenes and representations of the world of man, were ornamental devices culled from the world of nature. A splendid monument of the genius of those mediaeval times whose mighty cathedrals stand before us now like massive poems or graven history, where men may read, as it were from a sculptured page, the chivalrous doings of departed heroes, the long tale of the history of the Church – of her woes, her triumphs, her martyrs, and her saints – a deathless picture of actual existence, as though some heaven-sent spirit had come upon the earth, and with a magic stroke petrified into the graphic stillness of stone a whole world of life and living things. The length of the nave of this church, beginning from Saint Joseph’s chapel (which we shall presently notice, and which was an additional building) up to the cross, was 220 feet, the great tower was 40 feet in breadth, and the transepts on either side of it each 45 feet in length, the choir was 150 feet; its entire length from east to west was 420 feet; and if we add the appended Saint Joseph’s chapel, we have a range of building 530 feet in length.

Turning from the contemplation of this external grandeur, we come to a structure which forms the extreme west of the abbey – a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph of Arimathea. The entrance on the north side is a masterpiece of art, being a portal consisting of four semicircular arches, receding and diminishing as they recede into the body of the wall, the four fasciae profusely decorated with sculptured representations of personages and scenes, varied by running patterns of tendrils, leaves, and other natural objects. The first thing that strikes the attention upon entering is the beautiful triarial-mullioned window at the western extremity, with its semicircular head; opposite, at the eastern end, another, corresponding in size and decoration, throws its light upon the altar. On both the north and south sides of the church are four uniform windows, rising loftily till their summits nearly touch the vaulting; underneath these are four sculptured arches, the panelling between them adorned with painted representations of the sun, moon, stars, and all the host of heaven; the flooring was a tesselated pavement of encaustic tiles, each bearing an heraldic device, or some allegorical or historical subject. Beneath this tesselated pavement is a spacious crypt, eighty-nine feet in length, twenty feet in width, and ten feet high, provided with an altar, and when used for service illuminated by lamps suspended from the ceiling. Saint Joseph’s chapel, however, with its softly-colored light, its glittering panels, its resplendent altars, and its elegant proportions, is a beautiful creation; but only a foretaste or a prelude of that full glare of splendor which bursts upon the view on ascending the flight of steps leading from its lower level up to the nave of the great abbey church itself, which was dedicated to Saint Mary. Arrived at that point, the spectator gazes upon a long vista of some four hundred feet, including the nave and choir; passing up through the nave, which has a double line of arches, whose pillars are profusely sculptured, we come to the central point in the transept, where there are four magnificent Gothic arches, which for imposing grandeur could scarcely be equalled in the world, mounting up to the height of one hundred feet, upon which rested the great tower of the church. A portion of one of these arches still exists, and though broken retains its original grandeur. In the transept running north and south from this point are four beautifully decorated chapels, Saint Mary’s, in the north aisle; Saint Andrew’s, in the south; Our Lady of Loretto’s, on the north side of the nave; and at the south angle that of the Holy Sepulchre; another stood just behind the tower, dedicated to Saint Edgar: in each of these are altars richly adorned with glittering appointments, and beautiful glass windows, stained with the figures of their patron saints, the apostles, scriptural scenes or episodes from the hagiology of the Church; then, running in a straight line with the nave, completing the gigantic parallelogram, is the choir, where the divine office is daily performed. The body is divided into stalls and seats for the abbot, the officers, and monks. At the eastern extremity stands the high altar, with its profusion of decorative splendor, whilst over it is an immense stained-glass window, with semicircular top, which pours down upon the altar, and in fact bathes the whole choir, when viewed from a distance, in a sea of softened many-colored light. The flooring of the great church, like that of Saint Joseph’s, is composed of encaustic Norman tiles, inscribed with Scripture sentences, heraldic devices, and names of kings and benefactors. Underneath the great church is the crypt – a dark vault divided into three compartments by two rows of strong massive pillars, into which, having descended from the church, the spectator enters; the light of his torch is thrown back from a hundred different points, like the eyes of serpents glittering through the darkness, reflected from the bright gold and silver nails and decorations of the coffins that lie piled on all sides, and whose ominous shapes can be just faintly distinguished. This is the weird world, which exerts a mysterious influence over the hearts of the most thoughtless – the silent world of death in life; and piled up around are the remains of whole generations long extinct of races of canonized saints, pious kings, devout queens, mitred abbots, bishops, nobles who gave all their wealth to lie here, knights who braved the dangers of foreign climes, the power of the stealthy pestilence, and the scimitar of the wild Saracen, that they might one day come back and lay their bones in this holy spot. There were the gilded coffins of renowned abbots, whose names were a mighty power in the world when they lived, and whose thoughts are still read with delight by the votaries of another creed – the silver crosiers of bishops, the purple cloth of royalty, and the crimson of the noble – all slumbering and smoldering in the dense obscurity of the tomb, but flashing up to the light once more in a temporary brilliancy, like the last ball-room effort of some aged beauty – the aristocracy of death, the coquetry of human vanity, strong even in human corruption. Amongst the denizens of this dark region are – King Arthur and his queen Guinever, Coel II., grandfather of Constantine the Great, Kentwyn, king of the West Saxons, Edmund I., Edgar and Ironsides, Saint David of Wales, and Saint Gildas, beside nine bishops, fifteen abbots, and many others of note. Reascending from this gloomy cavern to the glories of the great church, we wander amongst its aisles, and as we gaze upon the splendors of its choir, we reflect that in this gorgeous temple, embellished by everything that art and science could contribute, and sanctified by the presence of its holy altar, with its consecrated host, its cherished receptacle of saintly relics, and its sublime mysteries, did these devout men, seven times a day, for centuries, assemble for prayer and worship. As soon as the clock had tolled out the hour of midnight, when all the rest of the world was rocked in slumber, they arose, and flocked in silence to the church, where they remain in prayer and praise until the first faint streaks of dawn began to chase away the constellations of the night, and then, at stated intervals through the rest of the day, the appointed services were carried on, so that the greater portion of their lives was spent m this choir, whose very walls were vocal with psalmody and prayer. It was a grand offering to the Almighty of human work and human life. In that temple was gathered as a rich oblation everything that the united labor of ages could create and collect; strong hands had dug out its foundations in the bowels of the earth, had hewn stubborn rocks into huge blocks, and piled them up high in the heavens, had fashioned them into pillars and arches, myriads of busy fingers had labored for ages at its decoration until every column, every cornice, and every angle bore traces of patient toil; the painter, the sculptor, the poet, had all contributed to its embellishment, strength created it, genius beautified it, and the ever-ascending incense of human contrition, human adoration, and human prayer completed the gorgeous sacrifice which those devotees of mediaeval times offered up in honor of him whose mysterious presence they venerated as the actual and real inhabitant of their holy of holies.

Retracing our steps once more to the nave, we turn to take one lingering glance at the scene: and here the full beauty and magnificence of the edifice bursts upon the view, the eye wanders through a perfect stony forest whose stately trees, taken at some moment when their tops, bending toward each other and interlacing themselves, had been petrified into the natural beauty of the Gothic arch; here and there were secluded spots where the prismatic light from painted windows danced about the pillars like straggling sunbeams through the thick foliage of a forest glade. The clusters of pillars resembled the gnarled bark of old forest trees, and the grouped ornaments of their capitols were the points where the trunk itself spread off into limbs and branches; there were groves and labyrinths running far away into the interior of this sculptured wood, and towering high in the centre were those four kings of the forest, whose tops met far up in the heavens – the true heart of the scene, from which everything diverged, and, with which everything was in keeping. Then, as the spectator stands, lost in the grandeur of the spectacle, gazing in rapt wonder at the sky-painted ceiling, or at some fantastic gnarled head grinning at him from a shady nook, the passing whim of some mediaeval brain – a faint sigh, as of a distant wind, steals along those stony glades, gradually increasing in volume, until presently the full, rich tones of the choir burst forth, the organ peals out its melodious thunder, add every arch and every pillar vibrates with undulations of harmonious sound, just as in the storm-shaken forest every mighty denizen bends his massive branches to the fierce tempest-wind, and intones his deep response to the wild music of the storm. Before the power of that music-tempest everything bowed, and as the strains of some Gregorian chant or the dirge-like melody of some penitential psalm filled the whole building with its pathos, every figure seemed to be invested with life, the mysterious harmony between the building and its uses was manifested, the painted figures on the windows appeared to join in the strain, a celestial chorus of apostles, martyrs, and saints; the statues in their niches threw back the melody; the figures reclining on the tombs seemed to raise their clasped hands in silent response to its power, as though moved in their stony slumber by a dream of solemn sounds; the grotesque figures on the pillars and in nooks and corners chanted the dissonant chords, which brought out more boldly the general harmony; every arch, with its entwined branches and sculptured foliage, shook with the stormy melody: all was instinct with sympathetic life, until, the fury of the tempest dying away in fitful gusts, the last breeze was wafted, the painted forms became dumb, the statues and images grew rigid, the foliage was still, all the sympathetic vitality faded away, and the sacred grove fell into its silent magnificence.

Attached to the great church were two offices – the sacristy and church treasury. In the former were kept the sacred vestments, chalices, etc., in use daily; and in the latter were kept all the valuables, such as sacred relics, jewels and plate not in use, with mitres, crosiers, cruces, and pectorals; there was also a confessional for those who wished to use it before going to the altar. The care of these two offices was committed to a monk elected by the abbot, who was called the sacrist. Coming out of the church we arrive at the cloisters, a square place, surrounded by a corridor of pillars, and in the centre of the enclosure was a flower-garden – this was the place where the monks were accustomed to assemble at certain hours to walk up and down. In one of the alleys of the cloister stood the chapter-house, which, as it was the scene of the most important events in their monotonous lives, deserves a description. In this spot the abbots and officers of the monastery were elected, all the business of the house as a body was discussed, faults were openly confessed, openly reproved, and in some cases corporal punishment was awarded in the presence of the abbot and whole convent upon some incorrigible offender, so that, beside being an assembling room, it was a court of complaint and correction. One brother could accuse another openly, when the matter was gone into, and justice done. In all conventual institutions it was a weekly custom, and in some a daily one, to assemble in the chapter-house after one of the morning services (generally after primes), when a sentence from the rule was read, a psalm sung, and business attended to. It was also an envied burying-place; and the reader, as he stood at his desk in the chapter-house of Glastonbury Abbey, stood over the body of Abbot Chinnock, who himself perfected its building, which was commenced in 1303 by Abbot Fromont. In the interior, which was lit up by a magnificent stained-glass window, there were three rows of stone benches one above another. On the floor there was a reading-desk and bench apart; in a platform raised above the other seats was the abbot’s renowned elbow-chair, which extraordinary piece of monastic workmanship excited so much curiosity at the great Exhibition of 1851. In the middle of the hall was a platform called the Judgment, being the spot where corporal punishment, when necessary, was inflicted; and towering above all was a crucifix, to remind the brethren of the sufferings of Christ. In another alley of the cloisters stood the fratery, or apartment for the novices, which had its own refectory, common room, lavatory, and dormitory, and was governed by one of the priors. Ascending the staircase, we come to a gallery in which are the library, the wardrobe, the common house, and the common treasury. The library was the first in England, filled with choice and valuable books, which had been given to the monastery from time to time in its history by kings, scholars, and devotees of all classes; many also were transcribed by the monks. During the twelfth century, although even then of great renown in the world, it was considerably augmented by Henricus Blessensis, or Henry of Blois (nephew of Henry I. and brother of Stephen), who was abbot. This royal scholar had more books transcribed during his abbacy than any of his predecessors. A list is still extant – “De libris quos Henricus fecit transcribere,” in which are to be found such works as Pliny “De Naturali Historia,” a book in great favor at that time; “Originem super Epistolas Pauli ad Romanos,” “Vitas Caesarum,” “Augustinum de Trinitate,” etc.

Here, too, as in every monastic library in the kingdom, was that old favorite of conventual life, and still favorite with many a lonely student, “Boethius de Consolatione Philosophiae,” and many a great work from the grim solitude of a prison cell, cherished, too, as the link which connected the modern Latinists with those of the classic age. Housed up in that lonely corner of the island, the Glastonbury library was the storehouse of all the learning of the times; and as devotees bent their steps from all climes toward the Glastonbury relics and the Glastonbury shrine, so did the devotees of genius lovingly wander to the Glastonbury library. Leland, the old gossipping antiquarian, has testified to its glory, and given us an amusing account of the reverential awe with which he visited it not long before the fatal dissolution of the monastery. In the preliminary observations to his “Collectanea de Rebus Britannicis,” he has put the following upon record: – “Eram aliquot ab hinc annis Glessoburgi Somurotrigum ubi antiquissimum simul et famosissimum est totius insulaes nostrae caenobium, animumque longo studioram labore fessum, favente Ricardo Whitingo, ejusdem loci abbate, recreabam donee novus quidam cum legendi tum discendi ardor me inflammaret. Supervenit autem ardor ille citius opinione; itaque statim me contuli ad bibliothecam non omnibus perviam at sacras sanctae vetustatis reliquias quarum tantus ibi numerus quantus nollo alio facile Britanniae loco diligentissime evolverem. Vix certo limen intraveram cum antiquissimorum librorum vel solus conspectus, religionem nescio an stuporem, animo incuteret meo, eaqae de causa pedem paululum sistebam. Deinde salutato loci numine per dies aliquot onmes forulos curiosissime excussi.”

But attached to the library was a department common to all the Benedictine monasteries, where, during long centuries of ignorance, the materials of modern education were preserved and perpetuated; this office was called the scriptorium, or domus antiquariorum. Here were assembled for daily labor a class of monks selected for their superior scholarship and writing ability; they were divided into two classes, the antiquarii and the librarii: the former were occupied in making copies of valuable old books, and the latter were engaged in transcribing new ones, and works of an inferior order. The books they copied were the Scriptures, always in process of copying; missals, books for the service of the Church, works on theology, and any of the classics that fell into their hands. Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, is said to have devoted much time to this work, and at the period of his death had begun to transcribe the gospel of Saint John in letters of gold with his own hand.

The instruments used in the work of the scriptorium were pens, chalk, pumice-stone for rubbing the parchment smooth; penknives, and knives for making erasures, an awl to make dots, a ruler and inkstand. The greatest care was taken by the transcriber, the writing was always beautifully clear, omissions were most scrupulously noted in the margins, and all interlineations were mentioned and acknowledged. In an old manuscript belonging to the Carmelites, the scribe adds, “I have signed it with the sign following, and made a certain interlineation which says ‘redis’ and another which says ‘ordinis,’ and another which says ‘ordini,’ and another which says ‘circa. ‘” So great was the care they took to preserve the text accurately, and free from interpolations. In these secluded studies sprang up that art, the most charming which the middle ages have handed down to us, the art of illumination, so vainly imitated by the artists of the present day, not from want of genius, but from want of something almost indescribable in the conception and execution, a tone and preservation of color, and especially of the gilding, which was essentially peculiar to the old monks, who must have possessed some secret both of combination and fixing of colors which has been lost with them. This elaborate illumination was devoted to religious books, psalms, missals, and prayer-books; in other works the first letters of chapters were beautifully illuminated, and other leading letters in a lesser degree. The scribe generally left spaces for these, as that was the duty of another; in the spaces were what were called “leading letters,” written small to guide the illuminator; these guide-letters may still be detected in some books. So great was the love of this art, that when printing displaced the labors of the scribe, it was customary for a long time to have the leading letters left blank for illumination. Such were the peculiar labors of the scriptorium, and to encourage those who dedicated their time to it, a special benediction was attached to the office, and posterity, when satirizing the monastic life, would do well to remember that the elegance of the satire may be traced back again to these labors, which are the materials for the education and refinement of modern thought; we got our Bible from them, we got our classics from them, and had not such ruthless vandalism been exercised by those over-zealous men who effected their dispersion, it is more than probable that the learned world would not have had to lament over, the lost Decades of Livy. It is the peculiarity of ignorance to be barbarous. There is very little difference between the feeling which prompted a Caliph Omar to burn the Alexandrian Library or a Totila to destroy the achievements of Roman art; and the feeling had only degenerated into the barbarity, without the bravery, when it revived again in the person of our arch-iconoclast, Cromwell, of church-devastating memory, who, however great his love of piety many have been, must have had a thorough hatred of architecture. The care of the library and the scriptorium was intrusted to the librarian. The next department in the gallery was the lavatory, fitted up with all the appliances for washing; and adjoining this room was one arranged for shaving, a duty to which the monks paid strict attention, more especially to preserve the tonsure. The next room was the wardrobe, where their articles of clothing and bedding were stored, and in an inner chamber was the tailory, where a number of lay brethren, with a vocation for that useful craft, were continually at work, making and repairing the clothes of the community. These two rooms and the lavatory were in charge of the camerarius, or chamberlain. The last abbot who sat in the chair of Glastonbury was, as we shall see, elevated from this humble position to that princely dignity. The common room was the next office, and this was fitted up with benches and tables for the general use of the monks; a fire was also kept burning in the winter, the only one allowed for general purposes. The last chamber in the corridor was the common treasury, a strong receptacle for ready money belonging to the monastery, charters, registers, books, and accounts of the abbey, all stored up in iron chests. In addition to being the strong room of the abbey, it had another important use. In those uncertain times it was the custom for both nobles and gentry to send their deeds, family papers, and sometimes their plate and money, to the nearest monastery, where, by permission of the abbot, they were intrusted to the care of the treasurer for greater security; in the wildest hour, when the castle was given up to fire and sword, the abbey was always held in reverence; for, independently of its sacred character, it was endeared to the people by the free-handed charity of its almonry and refectory kitchen. Retracing our steps along the corridor, and ascending another flight of stairs, we come to the dormitory, or dortoir, a large passage with cells on either side; each monk had a separate chamber, very small, in which there was a window, but no chimney, a narrow bedstead, furnished with a straw bed, a mattress, a bolster of straw, a coarse blanket, and a rug; by the bedstead was a prie-Dieu, or desk, with a crucifix upon it, to kneel at for the last and private devotions; another desk and table, with shelves and drawers for books and papers; in the middle was a cresset, or stone-lantern, with a lamp in it to give them light when they arose in the middle of the night to go to matins; this department also was under the care of the chamberlain. One more chamber was called the infirmary, where the sick were immediately removed, and treated with the greatest attention; this was in the charge of an officer called the infirmarius. We now descend these two flights of stairs, issue from the cloisters, and, bending our steps to the south-west, we come to the great hall, or refectory, where the whole convent assembled at meals. At Glastonbury there were seven long tables, around which, and adjoining the walls, were benches for the monks. The table at the upper end was for the abbot, the priors, and other heads, the two next for the priests, the two next for such as were in orders, but not priests, and such as intended to enter into orders; the lower table on the right hand of the abbot was for such as were to take orders whom the other two middle tables could not hold, and the lower table on the left of the abbot was reserved for the lay brethren. In a convenient place was a pulpit, where one of the monks, at the appointment of the abbot, read portions of the Old and New Testament in Latin every day during dinner and supper. The routine of dinner, as indeed the routine of all their meals, was ordered by a system of etiquette as stringent as that which prevails in the poorest and smallest German court of the present day. The sub-prior, who generally presided at the table, or some one appointed by him, rang the bell; the monks, having previously performed their ablutions in the lavatory, then came into the great hall, and bowing to the high table, stood in their places till the sub-prior came, when they resumed their seats; a psalm was sung, and a short service followed by way of grace. The sub-prior then gave the benediction, and at the end they uncovered the food, the sub-prior beginning; the soup was then handed round, and the dinner proceeded; if anything was wanted it was brought by the cellarer, or one of his assistants, who attended, when both the bringer and receiver bowed. As soon as the meal was finished the cellarer collected the spoons; and so stringent was the etiquette, that if the abbot dined with the household (which he did occasionally) he was compelled to carry the abbot’s spoon in his right hand and the others in his left; when all was removed the sub-prior ordered the reading to conclude by a “Tu antem,” and the reply of “Dei gratias;” the reader then bowed, the remaining food was covered, the bell was rung, the monks arose, a verse of a psalm was sung, when they bowed and retired two by two, singing the “Miserere.”

A little further toward the south stood the guest-house, where all visitors, from prince to peasant, were received by the hospitaller with a kiss of peace, and entertained. They were allowed to stay two days and two nights; on the third day after dinner they were expected to depart, but if not convenient they could procure an extension of their stay by application to the abbot. This hospitality, so generously accorded, was often abused by sons of donors and descendants of benefactors, who saddled themselves and their retinues upon the monasteries frequently, and for a period commensurate with the patience of the abbot; and to so great an extent did this evil grow that statutes were enacted to relieve the abbeys so oppressed. Not far from the refectory, toward the west, stood the abbot’s private apartments, and still further to the west the great kitchen, which was one of the wonders of the day; its capacity may be imagined when we reflect that it had frequently to provide dinner for four or five hundred guests; but the arrangements and service of the kitchen deserve notice. Every monk had to serve as hebdomadary, or dispenser, whose duty it was to appoint what food was to be dressed and to keep the accounts for the week. Upon taking office he was compelled to wash the feet of the brethren, and upon yielding it up to the new hebdomadary he was obliged to see that all the utensils were clean. Saint Benedict strictly enjoined this rule upon them, in order that, as Christ their Lord washed the feet of his disciples, they might wash each others’ feet, and wait upon each others’ wants. The Glastonbury kitchen is the only building which still remains entire; it was built wholly of stone, for the better security from fire; on the outside it is a four-square, and on the inside an eight-square figure; it had four hearths, was twenty feet in height to the roof, which ran up in a figure of eight triangles; from the top hung suspended a huge lantern.

Attached to the kitchen was the almonry, or eleemosynarium, where on Wednesdays and Fridays the poor people of Glastonbury and its neighborhood were liberally relieved. This duty was committed to a grave monk, who was called the almoner, or eleemosynarius, and who had to inquire after the poor and sick. No abbots in the kingdom were more liberal in the discharge of these two duties of their office, hospitality and almsgiving, than the abbots of Glastonbury. It was not an unusual thing for them to entertain 500 guests at a sitting, some of whom were of the first rank in the country, and the loose charge of riotous feasting which has been thoughtlessly made against the monastic life by hostile historians becomes modified when we recollect that in that age there were scarcely any wayside inns in the country, and all men, when travelling, halted at the monastery and looked for refreshment and shelter as a matter of right; neither had that glorious system of union work-houses been thought of, and therefore the sick and the poor fell at once to the care of the monastery, where they were cheerfully relieved and tenderly treated. Last, but not least, was the department for boys – another little detached community, with its own school-room, dormitory, refectory, hall, etc. One of the monks presided over them. They were taught Christian doctrine, music, grammar, and, if any showed capacity, the subjects necessary for the university. They were maintained free, and had to officiate in the church as choristers; a system maintained almost to the letter up to the very present moment. William of Malmesbury records that in the churchyard of Glastonbury Abbey stood some very ancient pyramids close to the sarcophagus of King Arthur. The tallest was nearest the church, twenty-six feet in height, consisting of five stories, or courses; in the upper course was the figure of a bishop, in the second of a king, with this inscription – HER. SEXI. and BLISVVERH. In the third the names WEMCRESTE, BANTOMP, WENETHEGN. In the fourth – HATE, WVLFREDE, and EANFLEDE. In the fifth, and last, the figure of an abbot, with the following inscription – LOGVVOR, WESLIELAS and BREGDENE, SVVELVVES HVVINGENDES, and BERNE. The other pyramid was eighteen feet in height, and consisted of four stories, whereon were inscribed in large letters HEDDE Episcopus BREGORRED and BEORVVALDE. William of Malmesbury could give no satisfactory solution to the meaning of these inscriptions beyond the suggestion that the word BREGDENE must have meant a place then called “Brentacnolle,” which now exists under the name of Brent Knowle, and that BEORWALDE was Beorwald, the abbot after Hemigselus. He concludes his speculation, however, with the sentence – “Quid haec significent non temere diffinio sed ex suspicione colligo eorum interius in cavatis lapidibus contineri ossa quorum exterius leguntur nomina.”

The man who ruled over this miniature world, with a state little short of royalty, was endowed with proportionate dignities; being a member of the upper house of convocation and a parliamentary baron, he sat robed and mitred amongst the peers of the country; in addition to his residence at the abbey he had four or five rural retreats at easy distances from it, with parks, gardens, fisheries, and every luxury; his household was a sort of court, where the sons of noblemen and gentlemen were sent to be trained and educated. When at home he royally entertained his 300 guests, and when he went abroad he was attended by a guard of 100 men. The rent-roll of the monastery has been computed to amount to more than £300,000 per annum, which in these days would be equal to nearly half a million. Up to the year 1154 he ranked also as First Abbot of England, and took precedence of all others; but Adrian the Fourth, the only Englishman who ever ascended the papal chair, bestowed that honor upon the Abbot of Saint Albans, where he had received his education. The church, and different offices which clustered round it, formed a kingdom, over which he ruled with absolute power. This description of the buildings and adjuncts of the abbey may not be inaptly closed by giving a sketch of the outline of a monastic day, which will assist the reader to form a clearer idea of the monastic life. At two in the morning the bell tolled for matins, when every monk arose, and after performing his private devotions hastened to the church, and took his seat. When all were assembled fifteen psalms were sung, then came the nocturn, and more psalms; a short interval ensued, during which the chanter choir and those who needed it had permission to retire for a short time if they wished; then followed lauds, which were generally finished by six A.M., when the bell rang for prime; when this was finished the monks continued reading till seven o’clock, when the bell was rung and they returned to put on their day clothes. Afterward, the whole convent having performed their ablutions and broken their fast, proceeded again to the church, and the bell was rung for tierce at nine o’clock. After tierce came the morning mass, and as soon as that was over they marched in procession to the chapter-house for business and correction of faults. This ceremony over, the monks worked or read till sext, twelve A.M., which service concluded, they dined; then followed the hour’s sleep in their clothes in the dormitory, unless any of them preferred reading. Nones commenced at three P.M., first vespers at four, then work or reading till second vespers at seven, afterward reading till collation; then came the service of complin, confession of sins, evening prayers, and retirement to rest about nine P.M.

That was the life pursued at Glastonbury Abbey, according to the Benedictine rule, from the time of its establishment there until the dissolution of the monastery, nearly ten centuries. With our modern training and predilections, it is a marvel to us that men could be found willing to submit to such a monotonous career – ten hours a day spent in the church, beginning in the middle of the night, winter and summer. And yet the monastery was always full. We read of no breaking up of institutions for want of devotees, and we are driven to the conclusion that in the age when the monastic life was in its power and purity these men could have been actuated by none other than the motive of strong religious fervor – a fervor of which we in modern times have neither conception nor example. The operation of the influence of that life upon the history of these islands can only be contemplated by watching it in the various phases of its action upon the politics, literature, and art by which it was surrounded, and for that purpose we have selected this oldest and grandest specimen of English monasticism, so faintly described, the mother Church of our country, in whose career so brilliant, so varied, and so tragically ended, we hope to be able to show wherein was the glory, the weakness, and the ruin of the system, as it rose, flourished, and fell in England.

We have endeavored to conjure up from the shadowy realms of the past some faint representation of what Glastonbury Abbey was in the days of its glory; let us now transfer ourselves from the age of towered abbeys, wandering pilgrims, monks, cloisters, and convent bells to this noisy, riotous, busy time in the year of grace 1865 – from the Glastonbury Abbey of the sixteenth century to the Glastonbury Abbey of to-day.

It is only within the last ten years that the deep slumber of that quiet neighborhood has been disturbed by the noise and bustle of this busy life – that a railroad has gone out of its way to upset the sedate propriety of ecclesiastical Wells, or the peaceful repose of monasterial Glastonbury; hitherto the stillness and quiet of that lovely country was the same as when mass was sung in the superb cathedral of the one place, and the palmer or the penitent bent his steps to the holy well of the other. But alas! the life of the nineteenth century has broken in upon it; the railway has dashed through that beautiful valley with its sacrilegious march; and at Wells, the cathedral of Ina, with its matchless front, studded with apostles and martyrs, kings, bishops, knights, and mystic emblems, vocal as it were with history, now frowns upon the contentions of two rival companies; whilst at Glastonbury there is a railway station erected almost over the very bones of the saints. Alighting from this, we make our way to the ruins; but as we go, will just view their past history. After the dissolution of the abbey there was an effort made to restore it in the time of Mary, but unavailingly; from that period it was allowed to fall into decay. It is difficult to estimate whether the hand of man or the hand of time has been busier about its spoliation. At the period of Cromwell, who loved to worship God in the “ugliness of holiness,” it must have been nearly entire, but that hero could not pass the town without putting a shot through those unoffending ruins in the name of the Lord, which act, however appropriate as an expression of Puritan feeling, was sadly detrimental to the architecture of Glastonbury Abbey. Then in 1667, as we have already alluded to, the Quakers got possession of the kitchen, hired at a nominal rent, paid in hard Quaker money – that glorious kitchen, sanctified by so much saintly cookery – for their grim assemblies. There is a great deal of what is aptly called the “romance” of history in this fact if we only had time to think about it – that it should come to this, monasticism with its princely head, its grand religions life and ceremonies, its painting and staining, its chanting and intoning, itself in all its glory, driven from the face of the country, and modern Quakerdom sitting silent in its ruined kitchen waiting to be “moved.” It has suffered much, also, from the gross vandalism of the people themselves. Naturally a simple people, they of course knew nothing of antiquarianism, although that science is irreverently said to master many simples among its votaries. For years then it was their practice to use the materials of the abbey for building purposes, and it is not difficult to find scattered for miles around the country, in farmhouses and even in hovels, portions of sculpture over doorways and fireplaces which speak of mediaeval workmanship. But a worse degradation still befel the place, and the walls which at one time would have been regarded as invested with the odor of sanctity, and even now are sacred to us as a priceless historical monument, were actually sold as materials for mending the roads, to the lasting shame of overseerdom and the powers that were at Glastonbury. But the day for building huts or mending roads with ecclesiastical sculpture is gone, and the little that remains of Glastonbury Abbey has found its way into the hands of those who appear to know how to preserve it, and have the intention to do so. After all this decay and vandalism very little is left of the old abbey – some portions of Saint Joseph’s church with the crypt – some walls of the choir of the great church; the two east pillars of the tower, forming a grand broken arch, a lasting memento of the original splendor; there are portions, also, of some of the chapels and the abbot’s kitchen, the most complete of all. The eye is at once arrested by the portals of Saint Joseph’s church, which still remain in a tolerable state of preservation, sufficient to enable one to form an idea of what a triumph of decorative art they were. Nothing could be more profusely ornamented than the northern portal; it was composed of semi-circular arches, receding in succession and diminishing in size as they recede into the body of the building; the exterior arch being about twelve feet by eleven, and the interior nine feet by six. The four fasciae are covered with sculptured representations supposed to be commemorations of royal and noble people connected with the monastery – saints, pilgrims, and knights. The forms graven on these fasciae are interpreted in Warner’s History of Glastonbury to represent the following subjects. The uppermost fascia is almost obliterated, though still showing a running pattern of tendrils and leaves interspersed with figures of men and animals; toward the centre the sculpture is much mutilated, though something can be traced like the effigy of a person in long robes seized on the shoulder by a furious animal. Beyond him are indistinct remains of three or four upright figures, and the rest is filled up by foliage. The second fascia is made up of eighteen separate ovals, each of which contained a distinct subject; the two first are defaced; the third contains a person apparently kneeling; the fourth, a female with a head-dress sitting on a conch; the fifth, a female on horseback; the sixth, a man on horseback; the seventh, a crowned personage on horseback; the eighth, the body of a deceased person stretched on a couch, with a canopy over it, the corpse covered, and the head resting on a pillow; nine and ten the same; eleven, a knight in a coat of chain armor, with a pointed shield charged with the cross, indicative of a crusader; twelve, a regal personage with a flowing beard and in long robes, crowned, and sitting on a throne; thirteen, a knight in chain armor falling from his horse as if wounded; fourteen, a figure like the former, the right arm stretched out and holding a sword which impales an infant; fifteen, the upright figure of a female with a veil, apparently in male costume; sixteenth, another body stretched out on a couch; seventeen, unintelligible; eighteen, a figure of a pilgrim. The intervals between all these ovals are sculptured into foliage. There can be very little doubt that the subjects contained in these ovals were the representations of monarchs, knights, persons, and events connected with the history of the abbey. The fourth fascia is much mutilated; but Warner thinks it referred to some act of munificence, from the canopied couch it displays, with a figure recumbent upon it and representations of angels guarding it. The portal toward the south was on a similar plan to the northern, but with five instead of four fasciae. One, two, and five are covered with finely chiseled foliage; the third is plain; the fourth only partially worked. According to the authority already mentioned, the only two ovals which are complete represent in the first the creation of man, and in the second the eating of the fruit. In the former is to be seen an upright figure with a nimbus or glory round its head, designating the Almighty in the act of calling man into being, and at his feet is man himself. In the latter there is the tree with Satan behind it, and Adam and Eve sitting with the apples. The appearance of these two portals, independent of the interest lent them by Warner’s speculations as to their import, is very striking. In their perfection they must have been masterpieces of that exquisite taste and minute labor which the men of that age devoted to the embellishment of the church. Taking the ruins in a mass, it would be difficult to find anywhere such a specimen of broken grandeur. Standing upon the spot at the extreme east, where was the high altar of the church, the eye wanders down a grand vista of some five hundred feet, relieved in the midst by that solitary, magnificent, broken arch towering up high in the air, with rich festoons of ivy hanging about it in lavish luxuriance like the tresses of some gigantic beauty, and far down in the distance are the crumbling remains of Saint Joseph’s chapel, the gem of the whole, with its arched windows and profuse decoration, the tops of its walls covered over with straggling parasites, which curl over its brow like the scanty locks of sere old age. And as we reflect that this sacred spot was the cradle of our Christianity; that this building was the mother of our Church; that far back in the bygone ages of barbarism vagrant missionaries wandered foot-sore and worn to this very spot; planted with their own hands the cross of Christ; built up with those hands the rude rush-covered shed which served as the first temple raised to God in these islands; spent their lives here in preaching that good tidings to a benighted pagan people, laid their bones down by the side of the work of their hands, and left their mission to their successors; that in process of time this little community became a mighty power, and that rush-covered shed a splendid temple, whose history is collateral with that of the country for nearly twelve centuries, and now it lies all battered and broken, crumbling away and wasting like human life itself – the mind shrinks appalled at the thought of the vicissitude which brought about so complete a ruin.

“O who thy ruine sees, whom wonder doth not fill

With our great father’s pompe, devotion, and their skill?

Thou more than mortall power (this judgment rightly waid)

Then present to assist at that foundation laid;

On whom for this sad waste, should justice lay the crime?

Is there a power in fate? or doth it yield to time?

Or was this error such that thou could’st not protect

Those buildings which thy hands did with their zeal erect?

To whom did’st thou commit that monument to keepe?

That suffereth with the dead their memory to sleepe.

When not great Arthur’s tombe, nor Holy Joseph’s grave,

From sacrilege had power their sacred bones to save;

He who that God-in-Man to his sepulchre brought,

Or he which for the faith twelve famous battles fought;

What? did so many Kings do honour to that place

For avarice at last so vilely to deface?”

In the neighborhood of the town is a hill known all over the world by the name of Wearyall Hill, so called (according to the chronicles) because Saint Joseph and his companions sat down here to rest themselves, weary with their journey. As the legend goes Saint Joseph is said to have stuck his staff in the earth and left it there, when lo! it took root, grew, and constantly budded on Christmas Day! This was the legendary origin of the far-famed holy thorn. Up to the time of Queen Elizabeth it had two trunks or bodies, and so continued until some nasal psalm-spoiler of Cromwell’s “crew” exterminated one, leaving the other to become the wonder of all strangers, who even then began to flock to the place. The blossoms of this remaining branch of the holy thorn became such a curiosity that there was a general demand for them from all parts of the world, and the Bristol merchants, then very great people in their “line,” turned this relic of the saint into a matter of commercial speculation, and made goodly sums of money by exporting the blossoms to foreign countries. There are trees from the branches of this thorn growing at the present moment in many of the gardens and nurseries round about Glastonbury, nay, all over England, and in various parts of the Continent. The probability is, as suggested by Collinson in his “History of Somerset,” that the monks procured the tree from Palestine, where many of the same sort flourish.

In the abbey church-yard, on the north side of St Joseph’s chapel, there was also a walnut tree which, it was said, never blossomed before the feast of Saint Barnabas (the 11th June). This is gone. These two trees, the holy thorn and the sacred walnut, were held in high estimation even long after the monasteries had disappeared from the land. Queen Anne, King James, and many of the nobility of the realm are said to have given large sums of money for cuttings from them; so that the “odor of sanctity” clung about the old walls of Glastonbury long after its glory had departed; nay, even the belief in its miraculous waters lingered in the popular mind, and was even revived by a singular incident so late as the year 1751. The circumstances are somewhat as follows: – One Matthew Chancellor, of North Wootton, had been suffering from an asthma of thirty years’ standing, and on a certain night in the autumn of 1750, having had an usually violent fit of coughing, he fell asleep, and, according to the depositions taken upon his oath, dreamed that he was at Glastonbury, somewhere above the chain gate, in a horse track, and there found some of the clearest water he ever saw in his life; that he knelt down and drank of it and upon getting up, fancied he saw some one standing before him, who, pointing with his finger to the stream, thus addressed him: “If you will go to the freestone shoot, and take a clean glass, and drink a glassful fasting seven Sunday mornings following, and let no person see you, you will find a perfect cure of your disorder, and then make it public to the world.” He asked him why he should drink it only on Sunday mornings, and the person replied that “the world was made in six days, and on the seventh day God rested from his labor, and blessed it: beside, this water comes out of the holy ground where a great many saints and martyrs have been buried.” The person also told him something about Christ himself being baptized, but this he could not distinctly remember when he awoke. Impelled by this dream, the man kept the secret to himself, and went on the Sunday morning following to Glastonbury, which was three miles from the place where he lived, and found it exactly according to his dream; but being a dry time of the year, the water did not run very plentifully; however, dripping his glass three times in the pool beneath the shoot, he managed to drink a quantity equal to a glassful, giving God thanks at the same time. This he continued to do for seven times, according to the injunction of the dream, at the end of which period he had entirely lost his complaint. The effect of this story is remarkable. As soon as it was noised abroad, thousands of people of all sects came flocking to Glastonbury from every quarter of the kingdom to partake of the waters of this stream. Every inn and house in the town, and for some distance round, was filled with lodgers and guests; and it is stated upon reliable authority that during the month of May, 1751, the town contained upward of ten thousand strangers. Even to this day, there is a notion amongst the peasantry, more especially the old women of both sexes, that the water is good for the “rheumatiz.”

After the scenes of violence, the ruthless vandalism, which this old abbey has gone through, it cannot be a matter of surprise that so little remains of all its grandeur; but it is a fact much to be lamented, because, as it was in its time one of the grandest ecclesiastical edifices in the country, so, if it had been preserved intact like its old rival, the cathedral at Wells, it would have been one of the most important and valuable items in the monumental history of England; that broad page where every nation writes its own autobiography; how valuable we find it in our researches as to the life of bygone times; and yet how little do we appear to do in this way as regards our own fame; how little do we cultivate our monumental history. One of the most lasting evidences of greatness which a country can leave behind it for the admiration and instruction of posterity, is the evidence of its national architecture – its architecture in the fullest sense of the term, not its mere roofs and walls, but the acts which it writes upon those walls, its statues and monuments. There are only two agencies by which national fame can be perpetuated – literature and art. The pen of the historian or the poet may give the outline of national manners and the description of national achievements, but art, as it exists in the extant monuments of the architecture of that nation, gives the representation of the actual life as it was, fills up the outline, and presents us with something like the substance: it does not describe, but illustrate; it is, in fact, the petrified manifestation of the very life itself. We have read much about the splendor of those extinct civilizations of the Pharaohs, and of the marvels of Babylonish grandeur, but what a flood of light was thrown upon our dim conceptions by the resuscitated relics of a buried Nineveh! In Grecian poets and Grecian historians we make the acquaintance of the heroes and the heroism of that heroic existence; but in the Elgin marbles we see the men and the deeds in all their natural grandeur, petrified before us in the graphic sublimity of motionless life. To come a little nearer our own times and to the mother of our civilization, what a confirmation of the historic tradition of the Rome of our studies have we found under that hardened lava which for centuries has formed the tombstone of Herculaneum and Pompeii. What vivid illustrations of Roman life and Roman manners are continually being discovered in those buried cities; and so of every nation and time it is its history which narrates its glory, but it is its architecture alone which must illustrate and confirm it. There is no fear of the present age of our country leaving no evidence of its power behind it. That evidence is written in indelible characters deep even to the very bowels of the earth itself, through the heart of mountains, over broad rivers, across plains, its scroll has been the broad bosom of the country, upon which it has engraven its character truly with a pen of iron; but there is a danger that we shall leave very little monumental history behind us in our architecture. . . . .

Protestantism, too, was an iconoclast as regards Catholicism, but it contented itself with desecrating temples, pulling down altars, tearing away paintings, but it substituted nothing in their place; it would admit of no allurements in the Church but that of genuine piety, and supplied no attractions for the thoughtless, the careless, the unbelieving, but its bare walls and cold ministrations. This feeling is now undergoing a marked change; we are beginning to see that plainness in externals may conceal a considerable amount of pride and worldliness, and thus Quakers are leaving off their curious garb, and Methodists are building temples; it is beginning to dawn upon men’s minds, at last, that ugliness is one of the most inappropriate sacrifices man can offer to his God, that as in the olden times the patriarchs used to offer up the first-fruits of the field, so in these later times we should offer up the first-fruits of our achievements; the choicest productions of art, science, and every form of human genius should be presented to him who is the God of all humanity. As we raise up temples to his honor and glory, where we may come with our supplications for his mercy, our adoration of his power, where we may bring our purest thoughts, our noblest hopes, our highest aspirations, and our best emotions; so let us decorate that temple with the best works of our hands as we hallow it with the best feelings of our hearts. The reason given by Solomon for exerting all the power and wealth of his kingdom to decorate the temple was simply, “This house which I build is great, for great is our God above all gods;” and the approval and acceptance of it by him for whom it was built is recorded in his own words: “Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place, for now have I chos

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