A medieval monastery is traditionally seen as a place of solitude and spirituality. Despite the individual poverty of monks, a monastery could be a wealthy institution.
Although individual monks were expected to lead chaste and austere lives, the popularity of monastic orders in Europe, such as the Cistercian, Benedictine and Augustinian Orders, meant that often, the religious houses belonging to these Orders were wealthy places.
Patrons of Medieval Monasteries
The most basic way in which a monastery could receive wealth was through donations from patrons and well-wishers. In the vast majority of cases, a religious house was founded by a patron, who donated money to set up the house, in return for spiritual benefits, such as prayers said on their behalf.
Once the house was established, anyone else interested in its well-being could donate money or goods, such as valuable chalices, altar cloths or fine furniture for the guest house. Anyone staying in the monastery as a guest could donate towards the upkeep of the house and a person who placed his or her son or daughter within the house as part of their upbringing would usually give a substantial donation.
Estates of a Medieval Monastery
Another of the major sources of income for a religious were its lands and estates. These could range from a few fields which were farmed to meet the needs of the community, through to huge tracts of land. Monasteries such as Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England, had thousands of acres of valuable sheep-grazing and arable land, which stretched throughout Yorkshire into Cumbria and made the Abbey one of the wealthiest in Europe.
In order to successfully farm an estate, a monastery would rely either on the labour of the monks, or the help of lay brothers; men who lived in the monastery but whose work was manual rather than spiritual. In some cases, farmers were able to rent land from the monastery, and paid rent in the form of money or goods, again increasing the wealth of the monastery.
Farming on Monastic Estates in the Middle Ages
The Cistercian Order was particularly noted for excellence and innovation in the rearing of sheep, something which was a major contributor to the Order’s success. Animals such as cows, sheep, pigs and goats produced income in the form of milk, fleeces, cheese, meat and hides. The most successful religious houses, including Ely in England, and Holy Trinity in Caen, France, had flocks of thousands of sheep and were able to export fleeces overseas.
Other sources of income varied depending upon the situation of an individual monastery; some had access to sea or river fish, others had quarries, woodland or a mill; all of which could be used by the local non-religious population who could be charged for the use of these facilities. For example, the Welsh monasteries of Tintern and Monmouth had forges for iron-smelting and Stixwould Priory had the right to obtain fish along the River Humber. Such rights could be granted by a sympathetic monarch or patron, and effectively allowed the monks the right to earn extra money. Other monasteries owned properties within towns and cities, for which they could charge rent.
It was the increasing involvement of monasteries in secular life, and their growing wealth which was to lead to accusations of greed and over-indulgence which were made during the Reformation, which ultimately led to the end of the monastic way of life.