Chapter Nine:
The Monastic Life

The Premonstratensian Order was austere and secluded, ascetic and contemplative in England (more evangelistic in Europe). It had a reputation for austerity second only to the Carthusians': a vegetarian diet, heavy labour, frequent fasts and vigils, abject poverty, clothes teeming with vermin. Canons wore unbleached white habits and did not remove cloaks, belts or shoes when going to bed (in case of the Second Coming). However, they were living very comfortably by the time of the suppression, as references to feather beds and silver spoons in the inventory show.

Premonstratensians never claimed to be a learned order; their traditions were ascetic rather than intellectual. Canons were not encouraged to go to university until 1252 when a college was founded for them in Paris. No English canons went there, but some (e.g. Adam of Dryburgh) attended English universities in the 15th century. However, Titchfield's library had 224 volumes in 1400, containing nearly 1000 works, mostly theology, grammar, law, medicine and surgery. In the 12th century there was an annual distribution of books on Ash Wednesday. By the 13th century, books were more common. The library was in the cloister. Welbeck (and possibly Hagnaby and Sulby too) had a scriptorium. They could lend books to and borrow books from lay people.  

Premonstratensians did not educate children, but novices were expected to be well-educated. They had to be literate and follow Latin. They had to read each day, between sext and dinner and between vespers and evening collation and between dinner and vespers in the winter; in the summer this last was a rest or manual labour period. They compiled cartularies and catalogued deeds and charters, having a feudal obligation to investigate the early history of their abbey.

Canons originally ate no meat except fowl-meat, unless they were sick or at the abbot's table. Eventually the rule was slackened to all monks during certain fixed periods of recreation, through the year. A "pittance" was a small dish served to the monks in addition to the common dishes. Canons drank mostly beer, but wine and mead on feast days. They washed daily (before Tierce), but their feet only weekly (before Maundy of the poor) and had a bath, shave and change of clothes five times a year. There was a fire from 1st November onwards, and that only in the Warming Room. The cloisters were never heated, and not often glazed, which created problems for anyone copying manuscripts there.