Manuscripts and Special Collections

The Religious Life

Decorative flourish from LM6 in the Wollaton Library Collection

'Their thoughts are on preparing their food instead of upon the service and worship of God'

Monasticism was a key part of medieval society and culture in England. Monks and nuns took vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and dedicated their lives to God. The religious life was a vocation, an end in itself. But for some women, entering a convent was a practical alternative to marriage or a safe refuge in widowhood.

Many religious institutions undertook duties such as providing hospitals for the sick, or copying manuscripts. Some owned vast amounts of land, and became very wealthy. These wordly concerns could lead to criticism about the proper behaviour of monks and nuns.

One of the extracts here is from a report on the nunnery at Markyate. The last prioress was Jane Zouche, whose complaint over her forced marriage to Richard Willoughby in 1485 appears in the 'Mistreatment of Women' theme in this resource. During the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ between 1536 and 1541, over 800 monastic communities were closed down on the orders of King Henry VIII, and monastic culture in England was brought to an abrupt end.

Religious books in Latin, along with statues, relics and other Catholic artefacts, were destroyed in parish churches and private homes when Roman Catholicism was replaced by Anglicanism as the state religion later in the 16th century.

The Wollaton Antiphonal, a magnificent example of a church service book, is one of the few which escaped destruction because it was removed from the church and kept in the private library of the Willoughby family. It was returned to the ownership of St Leonard’s Parish Church in Wollaton in 1924. Other fragments of medieval writings survive because they had been used as binding material for less controversial books.

The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into religion in medieval society.


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Manuscripts and Special Collections

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