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Manual labour

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We put great effort into farming which God created and instituted. We all work in common, we (choir monks), our lay-brothers and our hired hands, each according to his own capability, and we all make our living in common by our labour. (1)

Manual labour was traditionally a central part of monastic life. The Rule of St Benedict structured the monks’ day around three activities – worship, divine reading and manual work, but a growing preoccupation with the liturgy from the ninth century resulted in its elaboration and expansion, leaving little time for manual labour, which was essentially ousted from the monastic timetable. The Cistercians sought to restore Benedict’s threefold division of the day, and make manual labour once more an integral part of monastic life. By engaging in work the monks practiced humility, the leading monastic virtue; on a more practical level manual labour helped create self-sufficient communities, for although lay-brothers were enlisted as a work-force, the monks’ help was also needed. This was particularly the case during the early stages of an abbey’s development, and at times such as harvest.

The Cistercians’ devotion to manual work was noted by their contemporaries, and seen as a defining feature of the Order. Whereas some admired the industry of the White Monks, others, like the abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, voiced their disapproval:
How is it possible for monks fed on poor vegetable diet, when even that scanty fare is often cut off by fasts, to work like common labourers in the burning heat, in showers of rain and snow, and the bitter cold? Besides, it is unbecoming that monks, the fine linen of the sanctuary, should be begrimed in dirt and bent down with rustic labours.(2)

 

Manuscript images of manual labour


Cistercian monk reaping corn
from the Moralia in Job
© Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon

<click to enlarge>

MS 173: f 41r: the above image, from the Moralia in Job, shows a monk and a novice (or layman) felling a tree .© Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon <Click to enlarge>
A monk and a novice (or layman) felling a tree
from the Moralia in Job © Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon

<Click to enlarge>

The initial'Q' from the Moralia in Job shows two monks splitting a log. © Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon<click to enlarge>
Two monks splitting a log
from the Moralia in Job © Bibliotheque Municipal, Dijon

<click to enlarge>