Rosie Chan, a Museum Studies student at the University of Leicester, was recently here on a work placement, and immersed herself in our heritage. Here she looks more closely at the lives of the Carthusian monks who lived here in the 14th century, as we mark 650 years since the founding of the Charterhouse.
Lockdown, isolation, social distancing…these rules and regulations have been hard for us to bear during the pandemic, but they were the way of life for the Carthusian monks, and it is interesting to see these privations through a historical perspective.
In 1084 a small community of monks established a secluded and harsh life of piety in the Chartreuse Mountains, near Grenoble in France. It was a religious régime eventually leading to a new monastic order, known as Carthusians, that spread rapidly across Europe, promoted by Bruno Hartenfaust, a canon in northern France, who rejected what he saw as a corrupt and degenerate Church. It eventually reached England, and in 1371 the London Charterhouse was founded. The monks here lived as hermits and become known as Christ’s Poor Men. The buildings were stripped bare, with no paintings, tapestries or other decorations. Clad in hair shirts and white habits they lived a silent, meditative life, spending most of the week alone in their cells.
The Carthusian monastery surrounded by high walls, easily enforced absolute isolation from the outside world. Each monk could concentrate on his spiritual and religious development through study and prayer without any worldly concerns. Their cells had a living area furnished with a few pieces of furniture and a straw-filled mattress. Each cell had a small library and a workroom with various tools and the monks could also do some gardening and produce their own food. The monks rarely met except on Sundays or at church and Mass, respecting absolute silence and not allowed conversation even during meal times. For most of the week their food was brought to them by lay brothers, passed through a hatch by the door (the guichet), and their meals eaten alone in their rooms. Their diet consisted mainly of eggs, fish, pulses and vegetables grown by themselves, but no meat.
We know well from our own recent periods of enforced isolation, that, as social beings, we do not take naturally to being cut off from all our connections and loved ones. This way of living alone, focusing on spiritual development, and insisting on creating an orderly life, as Carthusian monks did, must have taken extraordinary power of mind over matter (though admittedly they had fewer potential distractions).