On my way up north, I stopped off at Mount Grace Priory, just off the A19 near Thirsk. It's a place that was somewhat on my radar, though mainly because of the fact it was a monastery in Britain. I love a good monastery, so was looking forward to it, but had no real idea as to what I would encounter here.
Well, I was in for an extremely pleasant surprise!
Mount Grace was a Carthusian monastery, one of only ten such 'Charter Houses' to be founded in Britain. I've talked a lot about monasticism in Britain in previous blogs, primarily the Cistercians of course, along with my exhaustive look at the Dissolution. Here, however, we've got something completely different.
The Carthusian Order did not follow the Rule of St Benedict, as per most medieval monastic orders, but rather harkened back to the desert fathers by emphasising a solitary, eremitical life. The order began in 1084, when St Bruno withdrew from the religious life of Reims to a secluded valley in the Chartreuse near Grenoble. He and his followers led a life of solitary devotion, coming together only to celebrate Matins in the morning and Vespers in the evening, and Mass only on feast days or at burials.
Otherwise, the monks led an isolated life in a private cell within the monastic complex. These cells were strung out around the cloister, which provide the most striking remains at Mount Grace today. Rather than the usual, communal rooms surrounding the cloister such as the chapter house and the refectory, there are a series of small rooms within larger areas, and when I first arrived at this part of the complex, I was at a bit of a loss as to what these things could be. Moving through the complex, I became intrigued by all of this - the idea of a group of monks living alone together became utterly fascinating.
A monk would live within his cell, which was a two-storey affair, the ground floor being given over to the living space, small rooms where the monk would celebrate mass as well as sleep. On the first floor, a general-purpose work room. The cell had a walled garden, including a covered walkway that led to a latrine. While the monk could grow food in the garden, and had access to drinking water within the cell-complex, a hatch in the wall allowed food to be passed through without contact with other monks.
It all seems very strange, and yet also makes perfect sense within the wider history of monasticism. After all, the original ideas of the desert fathers were to get away from the world entirely, and devote their life to spiritual devotion alone. To segregate themselves from fellow monks within an already-segregated complex seems a little like overkill, but certainly recalls the earlier tradition.
Mount Grace is a really intriguing place, and certainly worth visiting if you enjoy monastic ruins.