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Grandmontine life and custom

Prior to the reorganisation of the Order under Pope John XXII and the subsequent relaxation of the strict observance, the Grandmontines led a life, which took austerity to the limits of human endurance. Their Rule was defined under the fourth prior of Grandmont and based on the maxims of St Stephen, orally transmitted. St Stephen anticipated the teaching of St Francis of Assisi in his insistence that there is no rule but the Gospel. Poverty and implicit obedience are the key words of this document, which represents more of a spiritual treatise than a practical constitution for a life lived in community. Some of the more practical considerations are as follows: the ‘cells’ were to be sited in solitary places but never too far from a main thoroughfare, for the brethren were dependent upon alms for their livelihood, being barred from owning land outside the actual boundaries of the monastery. In addition, they had always to seek the natural enclosure afforded by woodland areas.

Although they were permitted to receive rents from lands by way of alms, should the heir of a donor discontinue such payments the brethren were forbidden to invoke the law in order to claim their rights. They were not allowed to maintain herds in the manner of the Cistercians as the need for pasture might cause people to say: ‘Would that these hermits had never come here, for they increase their possessions and are a nuisance to us’. They were forbidden to minister as priests except to the dying in cases of extreme necessity when an alternative priest could not be found.

The pattern of the daily life lived by a Grandmontine hermit is shown to us through ‘The Mirror of Grandmont’, the work of the seventh prior, Gerard Ithier. From this document we learn that each ‘cell’ had a senior lay brother, the ‘curiosus’, who was responsible for all temporal administration. He it was who distributed food, clothing and other necessities as required and he was also entrusted with the care of the sick. Unlike the Cistercian lay brothers who were provided with separate quarters, the Grandmontines recognised no distinction between the separate classes of ‘clerk’ and ‘conversus’. Both groups shared the same choir, cloister and chapter house, ate in the one frater and slept in the communal dorter. Neither was there any distinction to be made in dress or appearance – the Cistercian lay brothers were bearded and were assigned different attire from the clean-shaven choir monks. All Grandmontine brothers wore sackcloth next to the skin covered by a brown tunic and round hooded scapular; they were also prescribed woollen gaiters and leather shoes. In church they all wore surplices, a tradition which later led to them being mistakenly classed as canons rather than monks. In the matter of diet, the ‘Mirror’ tells us that meat and lard were strictly prohibited even to the sick. From September 15th to Easter they fasted except on Sundays and Christmas Day. From Septuagesima until Easter they also abstained from eggs and cheese but between Easter and September they were permitted two meals a day. The hours set aside for prayer were long. In company with other religious orders, they recited the hours of the Divine Office, retiring to bed at sunset after the Office of Compline and rising in the night to celebrate Nocturns. Unlike other orders, however, the ritual in their churches was uncomplicated; their small single-aisled churches did not allow for any elaborate processions and ceremonial. They maintained one distinctive liturgical feature: three times daily they processed solemnly through a specially constructed passage to the cemetery behind the church, where they recited the Office of the Dead.

The superior or ‘corrector’ of each ‘cell’ was elected by the common consent of the brethren, as was a senior lay brother, the ‘curiosus’. A distinctive feature of the Order lay in the fact that the ‘curiosus’ held a position of seniority at least equal if not actually superior to that of the ‘corrector’. The Rule likens the functions and status of choir and lay brethren to Mary and Martha in the Gospel. We nowhere read that Mary held sway over Martha or vice versa. Ultimately the lay brethren did succeed in gaining the upper hand with unfortunate consequences for the Order. There was a serious crisis in 1186 when the lay brethren beat up the choir monks and expelled the prior from the Mother House.

An interesting account of the resentment, which led to this incident, is given by Guiot de Provins, a soldier who participated in the third Crusade. When he returned to France early in the 13th century he resolved to become a monk and circulated the monasteries of the various orders in the course of deciding which to join. His satirical account of his travels praises the church services of the Grandmontines together with their cuisine, which included garlic soup and spicy sauces. He deplores, however, the relationship between choir and lay brothers. The choir monks, he relates, dared not commence a church service until the lay brothers gave their consent, and if they did, could expect severe beatings by way of punishment. The situation was resolved only when Pope Honorious III decreed that the ruler of each ‘cell’ be a choir monk and that the ‘curiosus’ be responsible to him in all things.

The sleeping arrangements in a Grandmontine ‘cell’ required a common dorter which was divided into separate cubicles by wainscotting. This semi privacy was subject to-some criticism as representing luxury, but in fact it was all that remained of the primitive ‘laurae’ in which the founding hermit monks lived at Muret.

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