Mayo of the Saxons and Anglican Jarrow Evidence for a Monastic Economy.

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This is an abridged version of Dr Chris Grocock's paper for a gathering of local historians in Abbey Park, Mayo Abbey on Friday, September 13th, 1996 which I was very lucky to have attended. Editor.

By Dr Chris Grocock

This is an abridged version of Dr Chris Grocock’s paper for a gathering of local historians in Abbey Park, Mayo Abbey on Friday, September 13th, 1996 which I was very lucky to have attended.  Editor.

Ireland had been in contact with Rome from the earliest times: Tacitus tells us that 'its approaches and ports are known through traders and merchants'. Such links continued - most obviously through missionary activity in the (very late) fourth and fifth centuries. Ireland was rapidly Christianized following the missions of Patrick and Palladius (whom I take to be active in the north and south respectively), and the means of establishing the church was through monasteries, not dioceses (for Ireland had never been a part of the Roman Empire). 'The story of early Christian Ireland is, in the main, the story of the gradual absorption of Mediterranean culture by an unsubdued Celtic community, who yielded, not to Roman arms, but to Roman letters and religion.'

By the seventh century, Ireland was a well-known place of study, retreat and learning for English monks. Bede says of them 'At that time there were many of the English race, both nobles and lesser persons, in Ireland. During the time of bishops Finan and Colman they left their native island and had settled there for the grace of reading the scriptures or of leading a more disciplined life'. Plummer notes this as a 'resort from Britain to Ireland for the purposes of study or devotion'. Likewise, the first poem in the Hisperica Famina, (if Ireland is indeed the setting) may reflect an influx of such early medieval 'wandering scholars'.

There was also a great deal of intercourse between Ireland, England and the continent, and the Irish missions established numerous monastic sites throughout Europe in the years to come. Mayo continued to be very important: two generations after Bede, Alcuin of York was playing a key role in the reorganization of learning and ecclesiastical training in Charlemagne's empire, but still kept in contact with the brothers in Mayo. He wrote to them 'leaving your fatherland for the name of Christ you wished to go on pilgrimage, and did not shirk from being buffeted by the attacks of vagabonds. Pay attention to the study of the scriptures... for a great light of knowledge has come to our land in various places because of you. You should all be blameless, so that your light may shine in the midst of a barbarous nation, like the star in the western sky... and regard your bishop as a father.

We know most about the earliest history of Mayo from Bede, to whom we owe our knowledge of numerous sites, some as yet unidentified. To conclude our introduction, it is worth telling the story as he told it:

'In the meantime Colman, who was a bishop from Ireland, left Britain and took with him all the Irish monks whom he had gathered at Lindisfarne; and he also took about thirty men of the English race; both English and Irish were thoroughly learned in the monastic life. Leaving a few brothers in his church be first came to the island of Iona, whence he had been sent to preach the gospel to the English nation. He then moved on to a small island which lies sheltered off the west coast of Ireland and is called in Irish Inisboufinde, that is, the island of the white calf. Arriving there he built a monastery and he placed in it the monks he had brought from both nations. But they could not live in harmony, because the Irish left the monastery in the summer, when the harvest should have been gathered in, and travelled to the different places they knew, and then wanted to make common use of the things the English had prepared. Colman looked for a solution to this strife, and travelling far and wide he found a place in the island of Ireland which was suitable for building a monastery, called in Irish Mag Éo; he bought a modest part of it for the building of a monastery from a count in whose possession it was, with the condition that the monks who stayed there should offer prayers for him who had made room for them. A monastery was built straight away with the help of the count and all the neighbours, and Colman put the English there, leaving the Irish on the island we have mentioned. This monastery has English inhabitants to this day. It remains the same, though it has grown large from its small beginnings, and is called Muigéo; it has now adopted a better rule and contains a notable host of monks gathered there from the province of the English. They live following the example of the venerable fathers under a canonical rule with an abbot, in abstinence and truth, by the work of their own hands.'

Land use in the early medieval period

The amount of land which was occupied by, or worked, or dedicated to, a monastery is problematic. The rath at Mayo contains 28 acres. Was this how much Colman needed in the beginning, for thirty monks? Or was more added? How big was the monastery? Such ground plans of monasteries as have been produced by archaeology are, of necessity, limited for the most part to the remains of the monastic buildings per se. Thus the ground plans of various excavated monasteries known to us may be limiting, conceptually.

The Anglian measurement of land is in hides, and this raises difficulties in itself. It is based on the amount of land needed to support a family, but the extent of the family is nowhere defined: which relations were included? As a further complication, the size of the hide will vary in physical extent from place to place depending on the fertility or otherwise of the soil.

Wearmouth/Jarrow can help in several ways, however. First, there are some indications about the amount of land given to it (again, from Bede!) when it was founded; second, information from the excavations carried out there; and finally, work being done on the demonstration farm, which give an indication of the land usage needed to support early medieval (= Third World) farming in Western European climate, and the specific demands which monasticism made on the land.

Our knowledge about the amount of land that Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were given comes from Bede's History of the Abbots, from which we learn that in AD716 there were six hundred brothers whose monasteries had donations of 140+ hides of land. This leaves a lot of questions we may ponder. Is it realistic for 600 monks, whose manual labour is interrupted constantly by the daily offices, to farm this - or was the peasantry left in situ? There is one place where we have an indication of land measurement in both early medieval and (relatively) modern reckoning - the island of Iona. Bede says of it 'it is not large, but is of about five hides, in English reckoning'. We also know that in the 18th century it support about 400 people, and was exporting barley and horses, with a pre-Agricultural Revolution economy, which may have been more productive than that of the early medieval period.

The monastic Rath at Mayo encompasses 28 acres. Could this area really have been cultivated by 30 monks? Was it exclusively cultivated by monks? Does it represent a larger, later community of which Bede speaks? What was the relationship of the monastery with the 'settled peasantry' - if there was one?

There is a similar problem - but with more clues as to land usage - in continental Europe of roughly the same period. Here it is clear that by the ninth century a system of demesne land - mansus indominicatus - which was cultivated on behalf of the monastery by lay peasantry, who also worked their own land - had come into being. Land here was measured in 'bonniers', and a 'mansus' was as a general rule the amount of land needed to support a peasant family (i.e. approximately the same as a hide). Documentary evidence shows that each 'mansus' had to provide labour, sometimes with oxen, as well as produce such as malt. Such data as this shows what the land could produce; 'starting from the other end', so to speak, was can also ask what land was needed for?

Demands on the early medieval economy

In an age when food is flown in bulk halfway round the world, and the seasons have little impact on the town-dweller at least, it can be hard to envisage a community largely self-sufficient - which lives, as Bede says of the monks of Mayo, by the labour of their own hands. This is not subsistence farming - or else one bad year would carry all before it - but it is close to it.

A little thought can provide a list of the staples needed. Animals - sheep, pigs, cattle -provided foodstuffs, including milk and cheese. They also provided - with flax - the sole source of clothing, footwear, and other items such as bags and cases. Tallow from rendering was used for lighting. Oxen provided motive power in agriculture; with horses, they also provided land transport. Finally, they provided writing materials - vellum and parchment - which as we shall see would have been needed in massive quantities. Cattle and sheep bones found at the monastery at Hartlepool were all from young animals - which seems to indicate that breeding took place elsewhere, and these beasts were destined for food and/ or literary production (or both).

The land requirement for livestock must have been great. At a rough calculation, pasture can support 1 cow + calf/ acre, 5 sheep + lambs/ acre. Additional land might be needed for hay production - though not if Bede's comments on Ireland are taken at face value!

Woodland would support pigs. It had to be cultivated and managed to produce building materials and fencing - again, we will look at this in detail later. Other utensils and items such as cups and plates would be turned on a pole-lathe Its waste products supplied fuel for heating and cooking.

Arable farming included autumn and winter wheat, flax, oats, barley, vegetables - though these are very limited in their range at this period - and herbs. Much of what may have been eaten would now be considered 'weeds' or 'wild flowers'.

Last but not least - specific activities such as bee-keeping would have been carried out. A quarter of Vergil's Georgics are devoted to this topic. Honey would have been used for sweetening foods, and in mead; beeswax was a major writing medium, as the tablets from the Springmount Bog show.

All this had to be done in a local context - which underlines the exchange of land Ceolfrith negotiated for his community. There was some trade, but for specific items which could not be found in the local area, and trade itself dictates a surplus - the community had to have something to trade with.

Let us begin with buildings. These would have been primarily wood and thatch, although we know that stone construction was not unknown in the early medieval period in Ireland. We might ask - what buildings would have been needed?

First of all, there would have been cells - perhaps for individual monks, or shared. Other buildings of importance were the guest-house (tech n'oiged) and the refectory (praindtech), and a school. There would also have been a church, the most important building of all - though it would not necessarily have been a large structure. Some of the earliest settlements resembled that of the first Egyptian monasteries, such as Sceilg Mhichil on the south-west coast.11

However it is once more Bede who tells us that the Irish manner of building churches was in hewn oak: 'Meanwhile Bishop Aidan died, and Finan was ordained bishop in his place by the Irish and was sent to Lindisfarne. On the island there he had a church built, fitting for a bishop's seat, but he built it in the Irish manner, not of stone, but entirely of hewn oak, and thatched it with reeds. In due course the most reverent Archbishop Theodore dedicated it to the honour of the blessed Apostle Peter. But Eadberct, bishop of that place, had the thatch removed and too care to have the whole church - that it, both the roof and the actual walls - covered in plates of lead.'

The earliest buildings here were built with timber frames filled in with upright stakes and daub; replaced by solid timber (plank-walled) constructions, and only after the Northumbrian period did wattle-and-daub infill over timber structures become the norm. The architecture of the churches made from hewn wood is also shown by the illustration of Solomon's Temple in the Book of Kells; 'the dimensions prescribed for a dairthech (literally 'oak-house' - the name commonly applied to the early churches) were 15 feet by 10 feet'. Such buildings were later copied directly in stone, and the surviving building on St MacDara's Island off Galway is an excellent example.

The information we can glean from history, from archaeology, and from contemporary experiment - as at Bede's World - combine to show that any concept of monastic settlements - such as Mayo - being of a modest scale may well be a false one.

However at Jarrow sufficient archaeological evidence was found to illustrate the range of activities which the monastic carried out' As well as daily activity such as cooking, baking and bee-keeping, there was evidence of workshops for glassmaking and other crafts.

This much is clear from the archaeology at Jarrow. On the reclaimed 11-acre site next to the new Museum building, we have been experimenting with early medieval farming, as well as other aspects of the economy of Bede's day, and the first results of this can also tell us something. The magnitude of the actual economy at Jarrow in Bede's time can only be guessed at, but 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread', and I will attempt a few snapshot examples.

Crop yields - arable farming

We have experimented for two years now with ancient varieties of wheat - emmer and spelt Yields from these crops may have been quite low, eightfold being the best yet achieved in experimentation at Bede's World. As a rough approximation, enough grain for a 2 lb. loaf can be harvested from about 1m/sq. This means 400m.sq would be needed per head, with the surplus used as seedcorn. The 30 original monks at Mayo would therefore have needed 12,000 m/sq., or 1.2 hectares (just under 3 acres) - all of which had to be harvested by hand with a sickle and a basket! Other crops grown included hemp (for rope), flax, beans, peas, cabbage, and herbs.

Timber - Woodland management The first experiments at building in timber at Bede's World are now approaching their completion. The larger building has taken 35 tons of oak and at 1996 prices will have cost, including labour, just under £50,000 This is 40' by 20' - bigger than the buildings discussed above - though it has wattle panels, and is not made 'entirely of hewn oak', which is much more costly way of building!

The smaller building, the grubenhaus, has been must less expensive to construct and has cost about £6,000.

On top of building materials has come a colossal requirement for material for fencing - much more so than hedges, which only really remain on major field boundaries and only come into use to keep stock in in the 18th century in England. The early medieval practice is to fence animals out. To replace the modest 2.3 km of fencing at Bede's World on a five-year cycle requires 2.5 hectares/ 6.2 acres of coppiced, managed woodland. To maintain it at current rates - approximately 1 hour per metre - requires 15 man/ hours for 30 weeks per year.

In monastic communities, great demands must also have been placed on the land to produce parchment.

The famous Codex Amiatinus required 600 sheets. If made in 1 year, using sheep, it would require 240 acres or 97.2 hectares; using calves, 1200 acres or 486 hectares. If made in 5 years, using sheep would need 48 acres/ 19.44 hectares, and using calves 240 acres/ 97.2 hectares.

Three such codices were made! This would have taken 3,600 acres using calves of 1200 using sheep if it was accomplished in one year!

For comparison: The Moore Ms (M) of the Ecclesiastical History has 129ff, requiring say 75 sheets including waste. If made in 1 year, using sheep, it would have needed 30 acres/ 12.15 hectares; using calves, 150 acres or 60.75 hectares.

The total of words in Bede (from Migne, PL) is at least 1,000,000 - nearer 1,250,000! This equates to about 1,040 sheets of parchment if all his works were written out as per the Moore MS, and would need 416 acres devoted to sheep production to produce a 'complete works of Bede' in 1 year.

These ' snapshots' illustrate the colossal amount of economic activity - mainly manual labour - needed for an early medieval monastery to not merely survive, but to flourish and to produce the extraordinary works of illumination, stone carving and learning which have survived - and when one considers what must have been lost, the scale of activity is made even more vivid. From the excavations at Jarrow, from Bede's writings, and from the beginnings in experimentation we have carried out at Jarrow, a picture emerges of constant activity, of a fertile and productive era both intellectually and physically.

Here at Mayo data may well emerge which offers a more realistic picture. For any early medieval monastery to survive from year to year, let alone flourish as a centre, as we know so many did - an economic infrastructure of awe-inspiring proportions would have been necessary. The 28 acres contained inside the monastic Ráth at Mayo may be but the tip of an iceberg! I for one look forward with great interest to seeing the results of the work which is about to begin.

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 20/02/2022.

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