The art of reading in the Middle Ages

Thoughts and prayers

Monastic life and reading culture

Christianity is a religion based on books. In practising this religion, an important role has been given to written texts and to books as material objects. It is not surprising that during the Middle Ages a flourishing reading culture could be found in the monasteries.

Not only were monasteries repositories for all sorts of texts, but monks’ and nuns’ lives were also constantly tied to books, primarily through liturgy and study. The Benedictine Rule, which regulated life for monks and nuns, stated that they had to pray seven times a day and once a night. The Rule has traditionally been attributed to Benedict of Nursia, and dates from the 6th century. Inspiration was taken - among other texts - from the Bible and the writings of John Cassian. The Rule was used by the Benedictine order and by several orders that later developed, such as the Cistercians and the Trappists. Its emphasis on fixed moments of prayer thus became integrated into the whole of Western monasticism.

The eight moments reserved for prayer were structured in the so-called hours or offices, i.e. matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. Matins, lauds and vespers were called 'major hours', because they were the most important moments of prayer. The others were considered to be 'minor hours'. During these hours, monks and nuns did not pray randomly. Instead, they followed set schemes of readings, prayers and songs, which were compiled for them in liturgical books called breviaria.

During each office several psalms were sung. Within the course of a week, starting on Sundays, all 150 Psalms had to be sung. These psalms were accompanied by hymns and verses, as well as readings from the Bible.

To give an example: matins on Easter Sunday included 13 psalms; 12 lectures taken from the Bible, from the writings of Gregory of Nazianze and from the homilies of Saint Gregory the Great; three readings from the Old Testament (the Prophets); and two readings of the Gospels.

The readings were separated by prayers such as Pater Noster, Te Deum and Kyrie. The minor hours (with the exception of the prime) were less elaborate and followed a uniform programme. Psalm 118 was so long (no less than 176 verses) that it took up all of the psalm readings on Sundays, and most of those on Mondays.

The text of a Ghent psalter

The celebration of the hours involved not only reading, but also singing. The Benedictine Rule specified the role of the cantor, the monk responsible for the chants. Some parts were sung by the entire congregation or an assembly of monks, while psalms were often sung by the cantor and a small choir. The rest of the congregation would then answer by singing the responding verses. These were called antiphons and responsories (literally: ‘counter sounds’ and ‘answers’).

The day began around 3 a.m. and finished around 9 p.m. Most of the day was dedicated to either prayer, manual labour or study. In the middle of the night, the monks rose from their bed to sing matins. Lauds (ca. 5 a.m.) were supposed to be finished before sunrise and, depending on the time of the year, there might have been some hours for study afterwards.

The first light of the day assisted further reading until the prime (ca. 6 a.m.), with some time left for a morning meal. Afterwards, time was dedicated to manual labour. It was interrupted by the terce (ca. 9 a.m.), the sext (ca. 12 a.m.), the none (ca. 3 p.m.), and lasted until sunset, when the vespers were sung (ca. 6 p.m.). Between sext and none, the monks and nuns were allowed to take some extra hours of sleep if necessary.

After vespers supper was served, followed by time for study. The last office of the day was compline (ca. 9 p.m.), heralding in the night and nocturnal silence. Most monks retired, though individual reading was also allowed.

Monks praying at night

The daily schedule varied according to the seasons. The day was divided into day and night, with sunrise and sunset marking the division. Day and night were each divided into twelve equal 'hours'. During winter, as nights are longer, each hour of the night was longer than during summer. This was accounted for in the Benedictine Rule. In winter, monks had several hours for self-study between night prayers and morning prayers. In summer though, when the sun would rise very early, night prayers were followed immediately by morning prayers (although a small sanitary break was permitted). In all cases, time was dedicated to study between supper and compline (at 9 p.m.). Often one monk read aloud, allowing the others to listen.

Though religious texts were most prominent, other non-religious texts were also read. Monasteries often possessed important collections of texts on a variety of fields, such as poetry, history, philosophy, and natural sciences. Many were texts from classical antiquity. They were not only preserved, but also actively read, studied and commented on. In fact, monasteries played an important role in medieval society as centres of knowledge and study.