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How useful are the secondary sources provided in understanding Medieval Monasticism compared with the site of Fountains Abbey? Essay

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How useful are the secondary sources provided in understanding Medieval Monasticism compared with the site of Fountains Abbey?

Cistercianism was undoubtedly a purist religion, and the Abbey’s original structure was magnificent yet simple. However, due to shifting attitudes and changes over time the buildings changed and became much more elaborate, so Fountains Abbey was left with a mixed collection of sectors and repaired areas, some modern and some original. Everything we see at the site is physical evidence; there is hardly anything else other than the structures to compare.

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The site cannot tell us anything much beyond its layout and structure and therein lays its weakness. However, the site is a primary source and we can guarantee it has not been interfered with in any way. The main disadvantage of written secondary sources is that they can be opinionated or incorrect.

Source A – This source seems fairly relevant at first glance. It provides many images of medieval churches, the diagram on page 91 being particularly useful. However, it does not tell us any more about medieval monasticism as a whole than the site, which in this case may prove to be more useful as source A focuses mainly on the architecture of medieval churches, not in the specific religion we need to study. At the site of Fountains Abbey you see more than just the monastery itself, you can see the situation of the site and geographical features too.

Source B – Architecturally this informs us very little at all in terms of Medieval Monasticism. Pages 85 to 87 provide us with somewhat generic medieval building information of no particular use. However, page 83 is another matter. Although highly simplistic, it does provide us with a large list of tasks that monks would have taken part in, which tells us more than some of the architecture can. Having said this, there are ways the site can tell us some of the points illustrated on page 83. The site can show us how the monks gave shelter to travellers, being on a natural pass used by many, obviously worshipping god, and also farming, made obvious by the large tracts of arable land surrounding the Abbey and the granary. The site and the source seem to be equally useful in providing information to us in this case.

Source C – This is a valuable source as far as architecture is concerned. While the site can give us a limited view of the building styles used for the religion, it does not show us a wider picture of what other buildings were actually like and the processes used in building them. The source tells us how much effort was put into making the structures beautiful. One particularly interesting piece of information states that the buildings themselves were used as giant prayers – such information could only be gleaned from assumption when examining the site. Overall I believe the source itself to be more useful than the physical evidence at Fountains Abbey.

Source D – This is another useful source based on information about the religious society which the site finds difficult to provide. The timetable lets us see an example of a medieval monk’s day, which is the most valuable piece of information in the source. Although one may find out the function of certain buildings at the site itself, you may not discover how important they were in the day of the monk without assumption.


The cases for both are each quite compelling. The site can provide us with a valuable insight into the geographic location of the Abbey, letting us look around first hand to examine the evidence and figure out why the monastery was built there. You can identify the types of stone used; the masonry methods employed in the construction and see the various sections of the building created through the ages. Although it is a valid portrayal of a perfect example of the monk’s lifestyle, the site is just one building and cannot show you a wider picture. The sources also give information that cannot be ascertained from the site in addition to providing a wide view of architectural methods employed across Great Britain at the time. For these reasons I have decided the sources are generally more useful in helping to understand medieval monasticism than the site itself.

‘From its foundation to its dissolution in 1539, Fountains was solely a centre of religious worship.’ How far does a study of the site and other sources support this view?

Fountains Abbey originated from a breakaway group of monks from York who wanted to ‘get back to the basics’ of religion with strict rules and devout belief after many other monasteries had become ornate and for decorative purposes. The monks who built it were believers in the system of St. Bernard, an advocate of this notion of purity who founded Cistercianism. At its start, Fountains Abbey was intended for purely religious purposes as the founder’s thesis was decidedly Bernardine. We can see some reflections of this way of thinking in the site of Fountains Abbey. Day Night Stairs, the separation of the choir and ley monks are all indications through the structure that the abbey was built intentionally for pure religion. The vast aisles in particular suggest utter religious dedication by their pure magnitude. This proves that the abbey at was least intended for religious purposes from the outset, or there would have been less space dedicated to worship.

There is evidence available particularly in the site that suggests there was a weakening of faith as time passed in the abbey. New monks started to soften to the ways of the devout religion that had passed before them and the site reflects this change in attitude. We can see this in firstly the processional passages which were filled in due to the lack of need as monks neglected their religious duties at festivals and turned towards more profitable circles. In later times we can see a tiled floor upon the altar which is for decorative purposes only, furthermore proving the lack of values which began the abbey; purity and lack of material possessions do not match the altar and many other later physical aspects.

However, the altar itself may prove to be a somewhat unreliable source as it was built relatively late in the abbey’s history, probably in the Victorian era. Another decorative point of the abbey is the windows, which show clear signs of alteration from the originals. Whilst being magnificent in size and shape, some of the windows were not in the original building that the earlier monks created. In the last years of the abbey’s alterations, a period beginning in 1450 with Abbot Greenwell who began more embellishment in and around the monastery, new windows were inserted in the east and west gables under the guidance of Abbot Darnton.

Perhaps the structural improvements are also ambiguous in that they can give several reasons for the argument of the weakening of religion. The monks probably would not have found funding for the development of new monastery buildings and developments from an official source, so this implies that they had enough surplus money to spare on such niceties. The money could only have come from extra work in the economical field, only possible if spending less time worshipping (as the typical purist’s day was entirely consumed by prayer).

It was the softening of attitude to ornamentation and a lean towards profit making that lead to Fountains becoming an economic power in the financial community. They achieved this by doing what the earlier monks did to supply themselves with food and resources, but this time for profit by generating surplus materials. They made money from many activities, including fishing, farming, mining, working with sheep and on mills. We can see the evidence for this in the large open areas of arable land around the abbey and the granary in which they could complete their economic activities.

However, these views are only from the physical examination of the area in and around Fountains Abbey, the written source may provide evidence to the contrary:

Source A – There is not a great amount of information in the source particularly relevant to the weakening of religious faith and the source, as a whole, is slightly extraneous due to the lack of specific links to monastic churches in particular. However, it does perhaps support the view that Fountains was used solely for religious purposes indirectly by undermining some of the support for the view against. Page 96 contains a heading labelled ‘Mixture Of Styles’ which indicates nearly all churches, purist and non-purist, have had some form of building extension or modification at some point in their history.

It tells us that modifications took on the architectural styles of their period of implementation. This means there is a possibility that the later signs of building were developments merely indicative of changing building styles and not at all linked with wealth. However, this theory also has a weakness in that most of the more modern building is very intricate which would mean the monks would have to have had much income to build such decorative structures; money that could probably only come from excess economical practices.

Source B – This source does not help a great deal in terms of relevance. It is very simplistic, written in a manner that a child could easily understand. Pages 85 & 87 do nothing but to explain a little about building styles which are difficult to relate to Fountains due to their simplicity. Page 83 is slightly more informative, telling us of the tasks the monks performed in their everyday lives. The multitude of religious tasks portrayed tries to imply that many monks took part in these tasks, but there is nothing to relate them to Fountains Abbey.

Source C – This source is another mainly focussed on building, but has more relevance than previous sources. It explains how magnificent the huge, ancient structures were. The buildings were an immense drain on resources and required huge sacrifices to be made by the builders in the early stages of construction. The most pertinent statement of the source is made on page 103: ‘The cathedrals were immense prayers in stone, works of art in which man expressed his deepest feelings in architecture’. This, combined with the fact that monks in later years felt the need to extend the monastery with equally excellent, if not better, architecture and structures is perhaps one of the best arguments in the case for religion.

Source D – The most useful feature in this source is the timetable of the monk’s average day. The paragraph above states that this system began shortly after the English Conquest. The period of time where the majority of the elaborate building work could have begun is only a few generations after this occurrence, and since the table is very strict this presents the possibility that even the monks of the ‘ornamental period’ adhered to strict religious rules.


Although the majority of the sources seem to point to the fact that religion was the only major factor throughout the entire history of the monastery, when all evidence is considered I personally do not support this view. I agree with the fact that the monastery was founded with the very best purist intentions and for some time over several generations it remained that way. But society as a whole changed and began to shift towards what is now known as capitalism (though admittedly na�ve at this early stage). The monastery could not help being influenced by the changes going on around it, and gradually expanded economically.

When there was an excess of funds the abbots of the monastery obviously thought the best way to use the money was on improving and extending the sanctuary. Fountains retained its religious image and basic values, but not as strongly as its founders would have liked.

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