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Cistercian charity

(1/2)

O fount of gardens, paupers’ open gate
You cure the sick, disease alleviate
.(1)

‘In Thy name we have done charitable deeds’
Even Gerald of Wales, a staunch critic of the Cistercians, acknowledged the monks’ generosity to guests and the needy. He noted that their gates were never closed, and that their liberality excelled all others. However, Gerald questioned their rather untoward methods of financing such generous works of hospitality and charity, and concluded that they would, in fact, be better to temper their liberality.
Read more of Gerald’s account.

Fountains, like other Cistercian abbeys, made a significant contribution to charity, distributing food, clothing, money and providing other support for the local poor. The monastic porter regularly distributed alms to worthy locals, and a chosen few were probably accommodated in the secular hospice each night.(2) The porter of Fountains would have handed out leftover bread from the monks’ refectory and on certain occasions, bulls.(3) He may also have distributed shoes and clothing that the monks no longer required.(4) Cistercian charity did not extend to disreputable women or the lazy, for the monks were concerned to help the worthy and deserving poor.(5) Accordingly, the administration of hospitality and charity was restricted at harvest time when work was plentiful and those in need could earn their bread.(6)

In times of crises, Fountains was a source of refuge to the desperate. The ‘Foundation History’ (Narratio) records how the community was duly rewarded for its kindness to a pilgrim who arrived at the abbey gate during the famine of 1133, seeking bread in the name of Christ. The porter explained to the man that the community had no food, but, the famished pilgrim was insistent and the affair reached the ears of the abbot. Abbot Richard instructed that the pilgrim should be given one of the 3 ½ loaves that had been set aside for the carpenters, and assured his community that God would provide for them. The truth of Richard’s words was soon proven, for when Eustace FitzJohn of Knaresborough Castle heard of the monks’ plight, he sent two of his men with a cartload of the finest quality bread to the abbey gates; significantly, they stood with the bread right on the spot where the pilgrim had received his loaf.(7)

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