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Welcome to Kirkstall Abbey
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On today's programme, ten years on, we hear from the girl who was born in a tree during Mozambique's floods, why has a Buddhist monk taken up rapping, and the retired boxer who lives in the shadow of London's Olympic site
The parlour was the room in the abbey where tasks were given out and the only room the monks were allowed free conversion that was not worship, the word parlour comes from the French parlez which means to talk. As with the warming house spending too much time in the parlour was thought to be sinful and could be punished. There was a special piece of sign language that was used to invite another monk to the parlour to discuss perhaps a piece of scripture or monastic business, the parlour was not meant to be used for idle gossip. This action was to put the palms of the hands together then interlock the fingers, again if you would like to try this please pause the player now. If you stand back you can see that the doorway to the parlour has been made smaller. This was done in the late fourteenth century, historians think it was done to make the parlour cosier, again a sign that abbey rules had relaxed and breaking the vow of silence by talking in the parlour was less of an issue. Today this alteration makes the parlour an excellent stone store as it is easy to access and to block out the weather, if you look through the gate you can see lots of interesting pieces of stone from the abbey which can’t be restored to where they originally came from but we still want to protect. The room next to the parlour is the Chapter House.
Monk chanting, Shoren-in
Monk chanting at the Shoren-In temple, Kyoto, Japan
Eating was another time when the monks were divided into choir monks and lay brothers, in dining rooms either side of this kitchen. All monks were allowed up to 8 pints of beer a day, they even had their own malt house for brewing which could be reached from the kitchen. As fun as it is to imagine drunken monks, the beer was very weak and known as small beer, even children drank it as it was often safer to drink than water which could easily be polluted by bacteria from humans and animals. Choir monks would only eat once a day in winter with perhaps a light supper being added in summer to reflect the extra hours they would be active and the more physical work that would need to be done like helping with the harvests. As the Cistercians believed in simplicity the choir monks originally had a very basic vegetarian diet of bread and a thick vegetable soup called pottage, meat was considered to be an unnecessary luxury. Each monk got an allowance and if they wanted to eat again they could save some for later. Later, the monks here at Kirkstall petitioned the Pope to be allowed to eat meat, this was granted so long as the monks cooked and ate the meat in a completely separate area, so they built a meat kitchen for preparing and cooking and another floor to the refectory for eating meat, which many think is a sign that the abbey was moving away from its strict Cistercian principals. Reconstructions of some of the pottery found in the kitchens is displayed in the Visitor Centre.
The church was the most important part of any monastery; it was built in the shape of a cross and like all Cistercian churches, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Cistercian monasteries were all built to a similar plan, the idea being that a monk could travel between communities and find his way around easily and feel at home. As Cistercians believed in simplicity the church was not decorated, the walls would have been whitewashed and there were no paintings, sculptures or stained glass to distract the monks from worship. Even the altar, the focus of worship, was undecorated with only a simple cloth and cross. Cistercian monks demonstrated to God how important he was to their community through the sheer size of the church and how often they visited it. It must have been an awe inspiring site for a novice monk joining the community at 17, seeing it for the first time and it is hard to believe that this magnificent building was constructed by and for a community of monks that never got bigger than 100 and by the time of the dissolution was only around 30 monks. If you would like the opportunity to spend some time quietly exploring press pause now. The monastic day was built around visits to the church for worship. Choir monks would visit the church at least 8 times a day for services and more if they wished, for private prayer or private mass, the rest of their day was fitted around these services or hours as they were known. They would sing or chant these services as this was a much easier way to remember them. Think of how many songs you know all of the way through compared to how many poems you can recite off by heart. Like the other parts of the abbey we have visited the church was split into sections for choir monks and lay brothers. The choir monks got the top of the church nearest to the altar, and even got a section for sick and old choir monks who would need to sit during worship. The lay brothers were separated from them by a screen and would enter the church and worship in silence so as not to disturb the choir monks. If you look at the top of the columns you can see Victorian signs which show where these screens would be. The screen nearest to the main entrance separated the lay brothers from the public who could come and worship at the very back of the church for certain services though women were not allowed into any part of the abbey precinct until 1401. The main road into Leeds was put through the centre of the church some time after the abbey was dissolved, perhaps as a way of stopping it being used as a church as there were plenty of other places to put a road! The roof and windows had already been removed by Henry VIII’s commissioners to stop this happening and because they were of value. The road passed through the presbytery, where the large window is, which was the most sacred part of the church where mass was celebrated. The road was relocated to its current position in the 19th century and the wall under the large east window was repaired. If you look closely you can see that the mortar doesn’t match the rest of the abbey, particularly from the outside. The parts of the church that make the cross are called transepts.
Only the choir monks refectory has survived, monks sat here at long wooden tables and ate in silence with one brother reading a passage from the bible, no-one was allowed to leave until he was finished and monks were encouraged to make a cross out of breadcrumbs to stop their minds wandering. To communicate in their silent world monks devised a system of sign language including several signs for food. The sign for pottage, which was a thick vegetable soup was a mime of chopping vegetables by extending the index finger of the left hand and miming chopping along it with the first two fingers of the right hand. Visitors especially those with children often like to try out monks sign language or invent new signs for other foods. Each monk would have their own eating equipment including a cup and spoon, forks hadn’t been invented yet! They would use the knife that they carried on their belt which was used for lots of other tasks including making quill pens. It was called a pen knife as pen is the Latin for feather. There were lots of rules for behaviour in the dinning room including using 2 hands for your cup to make sure that you did not spill and not blowing you nose on your napkin - this is a strange rule, perhaps cold weather and hot soup made the monks noses run! The floor of this room is laid with original tiles but historians disagree about when these tiles were laid. Some believe that the monks did it themselves when the strict rules about simplicity started to relax, while others believe it was another alteration made by the Victorians. The refectory also gives access to the warming room, on the left hand side of the gate, which as the name suggests is the room the monks used to get warm. Originally it contained the only source of heat that was not used for cooking and the monks were only allowed to be in there for 15 minutes a day, any more was considered to be sinful and could be punished. This fire was only lit in winter and some strict abbots would only allow it to be lit when the water in the laver or lavatorium, where the monks washed their hands was frozen! Later when rules started to relax more fires were added and this room became less important. Carry on walking around the outside of the cloister to get to the Parlour. On the way you will pass the remains of some stone sinks cut into the wall, this is where the monks would wash their hands before meals and wash each others feet each Saturday afternoon in a ritual called Maundy. This was designed to teach the monks humility.
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Gregorian Monks Chanting