What happened in a medieval abbey church?
Before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s, hundreds of monasteries and nunneries were founded across Great Britain. The Rule of St Benedict, which most monastic communities followed, set out specific guidelines for their life, including the daily routine of prayer for both the living and the dead.
The Divine Office
In the monastic church, monks followed a timetable of eight services, or ‘hours’, each day, called the Divine Office. The Office was sung in a style of unison singing called plainchant and was originally devised so that monks would recite the entire psalter in a week. The texts and melodies that the monks sang changed daily according to the time of year and whether the day was a feast, such as a saint’s day.
The monks’ daily routine
A monk’s day began shortly after midnight with the services of Matins and Lauds, followed by four more ‘hours’ at intervals throughout the day, and Vespers and Compline in the evening. The monks also sang Mass every day except Good Friday.
The services could be very long, especially Matins, which on Sundays and feast days included twelve psalms and four other songs (‘canticles’) interspersed with readings and other chants; and monks could be in church for up to ten hours each day.
By the end of the fifteenth century, many monasteries supported a specialist choir who sang polyphony (music in several parts). This choir might number about six boy choristers and their instructor, who played the organ, but some institutions also paid adult male singers from outside the monastery.
Each day the choir sang Mass in honour of the Virgin Mary, and a prayer to her in the evening after Compline. These services usually took place not in the main sanctuary, but in a separate Lady Chapel, which was often in one of the transepts of the church or behind the high altar.
Music at Fountains Abbey
Wealthier monasteries incorporated even more polyphony into their liturgy, especially on feast days. Several medieval manuscript fragments survive from Fountains Abbey: they contain music for Matins, Mass and Vespers which can still be read and performed today.
The rich liturgical tradition of English and Welsh monasteries was lost when, between 1536 and 1540, they were dissolved and their wealth redistributed. Some monastic churches were taken over to be used as local parish churches. Elsewhere, they fell into ruin.