Monastic Life and Literacy

Jedburgh Abbey

Life in a Medieval Abbey

Medieval Abbeys were not only places of worship and quiet contemplation. They strove to be self sufficient communities, with thriving gardens, craft industries and farmland. Vegetables and herbs would have been grown and tended in the gardens; growing what they needed to eat. Monks would have worked in the kitchens, preparing the meals for the day. There would have been a bakery for the baking of bread and even a mill for grinding the grain. A brew house would have been common, supplying the monks with ale; and some even had their own tanneries for making leather goods such sturdy leather shoes for the monks to wear.

One of the most famous jobs for monks, was to be a scribe. These monks would work in the scriptorium copying out religious manuscripts (books)in latin. There were no printing presses or electronic printers to make many copies at once, so they had to do it by hand, which took a long time! Scribes took great care in their work and the manuscripts they produced, illustrating them with beautiful images. They also 'illuminated' their manuscripts with vibrant colours, and even with gold, in a process known as 'gilding'. Have a look at the activity section below for an activity on illuminated manuscripts.


Click the picture to the left to go to the British Library website where there are several videos on making medieval manuscripts.

After watching the videos, check out the Illuminated Manuscripts section below for an activity on making your own illuminated letter.

Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts were highly decorated, illustrating them with beautiful pictures. Interestingly they also picked out the first letter of different sentences to illustrate, often hiding a small picture inside an 'a' or 'o'. Some of the pages even have very large letters with images inside them like the one on the right.

The images in these letters would often be based on what was in the written text. They were very religious and often depict Christ, Mary and other scenes from Christian psalms.

A common form of illuminated manuscript in the medieval period was a book known as a 'book of hours'. These often contained psalms, prayers and other religious texts along with calendars of church feast days and were for lay people who wished to bring a little monasticism to their daily life.


Illuminated letters


Letter outlines (the document on the right)

Coloured pens, pencils


After watching the videos on illuminated manuscripts and looking at the image above, pick one of the letter outlines and illuminate it using coloured pens or pencils. Use the space inside or around the letters to adorn it with images, just like the beautiful medieval examples!


Further information on the Abbeys

For further information about Medieval Abbey Life, see the section on Monastic Literacy on the Downloads and Further Resources page.