When you stand in the Cellarium of Fountains Abbey, with its vaulted ceiling arching like gigantic fingers above your head and dusty shadows lingering around its massive stone columns, you could be forgiven for feeling a sudden chill… alternatively, you might just start planning a Twilight premiere after-party.
Back in the 12th century, however, no vampires would have been seen dead within these sacred walls. The Abbey church was built in 1160, by a band of Cistercian monks who had devoted themselves to the worship of Christ. They had no room in their lives for dark romantic fantasies, and if one of them happened to feel a bit queasy around the time of a full moon, he would have taken himself straight off to the infirmary and asked for a fortifying herbal drink.
A truly beautiful place, built for the glory of God.
Cistercian monks were distinguished by their white robes, or habits. They believed in working the land so that their monastery was self-sufficient. This meant growing crops, keeping sheep and shearing them for wool, and grinding corn to bake bread. Any food left over from the monks’ table was given to the poor, and Fountains Abbey received a steady stream of hungry visitors once its reputation for generosity became widely known.
High enough to reach the heavens!
A Quiet Life
There were two kinds of monks living at Fountains Abbey: choir monks and lay brothers. The choir monks observed the Canonical Hours; seven times a day, the tolling of the bell in the lantern tower would summon them to prayer. Even at two o’clock in the morning, they would rise from their dormitory and walk down the stone stairs into the church below, guided only by candlelight. There was no point in complaining – the bell didn’t have a snooze button – and they had taken a vow of silence, anyway.
The lay brothers, on the other hand, did lots of manual labour. Their job was to plough the fields, harvest the crops, tend the livestock, operate the mill, tan hides for leather, brew ale, supervise the store-rooms and prepare meals. Some of them helped in the infirmary, while others were skilled stonemasons and carpenters.
It all seems such a peaceful rural idyll: no arguments, no suffering, no violence, and definitely no blood-letting. Wait…did I say no blood-letting?
Well, one thing that the monks were very careful about was their health. They ate a frugal but fairly varied diet, consisting mainly of vegetables, fruit and fish. However, during the Middle Ages, medical practices were primitive by today’s standards and science was mingled with folklore and fear. If diseases were unsavoury, sometimes the remedies were just as unpleasant. The abbot of Fountains Abbey obviously felt that prevention was better than cure, and every few months he gave orders for a bit of blood letting. Organised, peaceful blood letting however; not salivating, going-for-the-jugular kind of blood letting.
This procedure was believed to purge and purify the body, and it took place in the Warming Room, where massive log fires were left blazing. We don’t know how much blood was taken from each monk, but apparently it was considered sacred, and it was carried away and buried in the grounds of the Abbey. The monks were allowed to rest afterwards before resuming their duties.
The stunning Cellarium at Fountains Abbey.
What seems, to our modern eyes, a rather weird and gruesome practice was rooted in deeply-held beliefs: the monks were simply respecting the principles laid down by their holy order. But I’m sure at least some of them would have been glad to take a couple of vitamin tablets instead!
Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries Fountains Abbey grew to become one of Britain’s wealthiest monasteries, owning vast estates in the north of England and exporting fleeces to Flanders and Italy. But for the monks, time was running out.
In 1539, incensed with the Pope in not allowing his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII hunted for revenge – and where better than the rich monasteries scattered across his country, all under the guardianship of the Roman Catholic church? He set about destroying them, seizing their assets, and turning the monks out of their homes. Four hundred years of worship at Fountains Abbey came to an undignified end. Today it stands in ruins, although an atmosphere of serenity still remains.
Henry VIII: How Fountains Abbey met its ‘undignified’ ending.
And the Cellarium; the place that’s just waiting for Edward Cullen to step out of the shadows? This is where stores of food were kept, because here they would stay cool, dry, and out of the sunlight. In fact, it was one very large pantry. If you walk beneath its arches at dusk on a summer evening, you’re more than likely to encounter one of the eight species of bat that have been reported around the Abbey. The rest is entirely up to your imagination!