Chapter Houses

DSCN3977-2The chapter house was the second most important building in the monastery range after the church. It was here that the monks met every day to discuss abbey business and to listen to a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict. The monks sat on stone benches around the walls as shown in the first picture showing the ruins of the chapter house at Rievaulx.  It was here also that punishments were metered out to erring monks, important visitors greeted and Visitations conducted.  It was here also that the abbots and monks of monasteries across the land surrendered their properties into the hands of Cromwell’s agents.

Burton and Kerr (page 80) emphasise how unusual the chapter house is at Rievaulx. Instead of being rectangular it has an apse (semi-circular end).  It was also large enough to accommodate the lay brothers as well as the choir monks. The chapter house was built during the time of Abbot Aelred  (abbot -1147-1167) but the shrine to Sir William of Rievaulx who was Aelred’s predecessor can still be seen behind a window of the chapter house.

Indeed in the earlier chapter houses it is perfectly normal to find the tombs of  abbots as well as pavements bearing reference to patrons, even tombs of patrons in some cases.  On a more prosaic level in Cistercian chapter houses libraries in the form of book cupboards built into the walls can also be found.

IMG_4456As with much else about monasteries the chapter house changed according to the period in which it was built. Early chapter houses are rectangular ground floor affairs beneath the dormitory but they became increasingly ornate as the medieval period advanced. The chapter house became a separate vaulted building, some with apses and others, which took on a polygon shape- sometimes the original rectangular chapter house became an outer room leading to the chapter house which projected out of the east range.  Many chapter houses are separate from the church, with a slype or alleyway between the church and the chapter house but in other places, such as Chester the chapter house adjoins the church.  Some chapter houses such as the ones at Southwell are heavily decorated.  In Southwell it’s possible to spend hours in the chapter house looking for green men.  Foliate heads of all sizes peer at you from the masonry where as at Wells, as the two photographs in this paragraph show, the vaulted ceiling and lantern of glasswork will have you craning your neck. IMG_4455

Burton, Janet and Kerr, Julie (2011) The Cistercians in the Middle Ages (Monastic Orders). Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer,

Green Men

greenmanGreen men, sometimes known as Jack-in-the-Green, are strange leafy faces. Sometimes the face depicted is very clearly human sprouting leaves, often oak, from their mouths. Other green men are more foliage than person or can be seen wearing leafy masks that cover most of their features. If not oak leaves then the foliage often looks like hawthorn.  Sometimes the leaves are realistic and on other occasions they are much more stylized. In some carvings the green man is alone, in others his foliage has attracted the attention of birds and strange beasts.  Sometimes, like the capital from York Minster shown at the start of this blog, the green man is triple-faced.  There’s a similar, though less friendly looking, tri-faced green man on a misericord in Cartmel  Abbey the image at the end).  It’s not just men either, beasts including cats sprout leaves from their stone perches in churches and cathedrals across the country.


They occur in Norman buildings (Romanesque) and the later Gothic phase of cathedral architecture. Each succeeding epoch since has flirted with foliage figures, not least the Victorians. In fact, closer investigation reveals that green men have made their appearance back into antiquity.


No one is quite sure what they symbolise in the context of church, cathedral or abbey architecture. It often seems reasonable to make links with fertility, May Day celebrations and harvests as well as to forest gods.  The triple headed green men may have Celtic connections.  Though quite why so many Romanesque and Gothic masons across Europe took it into their heads to sneak older belief systems into the heart of Christian worship is a matter for some debate.

MacDermott  (Explore Green Men) observes that the images in churches were visual stories to remind the congregation about the dangers of sin and the importance of repentance as well as depicting images symbolising the life of Christ.  Medieval spirituality was a complicated affair.

As is often the case, Christian association may have subsumed earlier pagan beliefs. MacDermott suggests the in the medieval mind the cross on which Christ was crucified was a living tree.  Trees are best symbolized by leaves. Thus leaves are symbolic of redemption. She also looks at the links that might be made with Jesse. Many churches have Jesse windows showing his ancestry to King David and from there to Christ – Isaiah uses tree imagery to talk about the prophecy of the Messiah, “a Branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah11.1-2. There are many other references to trees and leaves in the Bible including Ecclesiasticus. She also discusses the work of medieval theologians who drew on the world around them to explain their beliefs.


Some of the best examples, certainly the most prolific, can be found in Southwell Minster. They turn up as the decoration for capitals, bosses, fonts, bench ends and on the misericords as well. (Sadly I had only just started taking photographs when I last visited the minster and when I looked back through my photos discovered that none of them passed muster.)

Most cathedrals have a greenman lurking somewhere and sometimes remains hidden for a very long time. There is a green man in Cleeve Abbey but no one spotted it until the wooden timbers were preserved and restored at the beginning of the twenty-first century! I couldn’t see it even though there was a sign pointing out where it was hidden.