Medieval Infirmary and Hidden Abbey Buildings Show Monastic Hygiene Practices and More, Say Archaeologists

Comparing the plans of leiston Abbey to other Premonstratensian abbey complexes shows that the location to the east of the main complex was often taken up by an infirmary hall, which was usually rectangular.


An overhead drone photo of Leiston Abbey, the Suffolk site where a medieval hospital has been found. © DigVentures

Maiya Pina-Dacier on the crowdfunded dig in 2015 which has unearthed the remains of a medieval infirmary in the grounds of Leiston Abbey, Suffolk

“Leiston Abbey is one of Suffolk’s most impressive upstanding medieval ruins, but compared to other orders, relatively little is known about the daily lives of its inhabitants.

It was originally built in 1182 under the patronage of Ranulf de Granville - Lord Chief Justice to Henry II - out on the wet and windswept marshes of Minsmere.

Although the inhabitants braved these conditions for nearly 200 years, the site flooded repeatedly and, by 1363, they had it dismantled, moved stone-by-stone and rebuilt a few miles inland, close to the village of Leiston.

Monasteries were a common feature of the British medieval landscape, the most prominent of which were the Benedictines, the Augustinians and the Cistercians.

A smaller, but no less important constituent of the medieval clergy were the Premonstratensians.

They were founded by Saint Norbert in France in 1120 and arrived in Britain in 1143, establishing a total of 42 abbeys, six priories and four nunneries over the next 120 years.

At the time of the dissolution, there were 37 Premonstratensian abbeys across the country and more than 700 throughout Europe and West Asia.

The Premonstratensians are a fascinating but hugely understudied order. Instead of the usual black, they wore white habits and were known as the White Canons.

They weren’t really monks, but usually canons regular – ordained priests whose duties included preaching and pastoral work. They are also one of the only orders who regarded sisters and brothers on equal footing – in several cases, male and female communities lived next to each other and would share a church.

This is the third year of excavation at Leiston Abbey. This year, more than 120 people from the local area and around the world came together to raise the funds to continue investigations.

Publishing everything the team finds online is also a crucial part of the project. We use iPads and smartphones to record everything straight from the trench and upload it onto an open access database that anyone in the world can view.

When you’ve got a really interesting site that’s not under the remit of a university, or under the next new shopping centre, crowdfunding is one way to make a dig happen.

It also makes archaeology accessible to whole new audiences and really puts their involvement at the heart of how we conduct fieldwork.

Every find is attributed to the person who found it, and they get to be the person who records it and assists in interpreting it.

Over the course of three years, the Leiston Abbey project has raised £54,000 with contributions from 360 people, and the dig has had over 2,500 visitors while the team was on site.

Without the contributions of people from all over the world, none of this would have happened.

Many of the buildings of the inner precinct are well preserved, like the refectory, the warming house - where the priests would go to warm up - and the chapel, but some of the others are missing entirely, like the gatehouse and the infirmary.

This year, we sent a drone up above Leiston Abbey to take aerial photos and the images very clearly show an inverse L-shape in the neighbouring field, where the crops haven’t grown so well over an underlying structure.

The photos it takes are absolutely phenomenal. Being able to see the footprint of that building so clearly was really quite amazing.

These are the remains of a large, rectangular building aligned with the main abbey buildings, clearly an adjunct to the abbey complex. Comparing it to the plans of other Premonstratensian abbey complexes, we know that this location to the east of the main complex was often taken up by an infirmary hall, which were usually rectangular.

True to form, unlike other monastic orders, Premonstratensian infirmaries did not include a chapel, but would typically have a hall, a kitchen and a refectory where the sick or elderly canons could eat a more nutritious diet – intended to help improve their health.

We sank a couple of trenches in over the suspected area to see whether there really was something there, and we found foundations, walls and floors, some of which was tiled – this was clearly a substantial building.

Many historical sources paint the Premonstratensians as reclusive types. It is generally said that, like the Cistercians, the Premonstratensians sought out isolated positions in the landscape, but there are some reasons to question whether this is really the full story.

One theory is that as relative latecomers to the UK monastic scene, a lot of the good land had already been taken. It’s possible that they were actually just victims of circumstance, forced onto low quality land in marginal areas, rather than actively seeking out isolation.

Whether or not the priests took in members of the lay community is yet to be evidenced archaeologically, but they were already priests and teachers and, if it turns out that they were also caring for members of the local community in the infirmary, this could be further evidence that they had little intention of being the solitary types that many historical sources suggest based on the statutes of their order.

Medieval medicine is often depicted as being a bit crazy, but it wasn’t all complete quackery. At sites like Sutra in Scotland, archaeologists have found evidence that suggests monks were treating people with painkillers, disinfectants and even diet pills.

It’s really important to understand the contribution that monasticism made to medicine and healthcare, but it’s also important to understand why.

In many cases, yes, it was part of their duty to the community, but there is some evidence that monasteries would also take people in, in return for their land. For any order pressed for resources, this could be a good way to expand.

This year, we were investigating the abbey’s lost buildings. Last year, the aim was to understand life on the periphery of the abbey complex. How were the fields surrounding the abbey used? What were they doing to generate an income? How did they fit into the local economy?

We know that compared to many orders, the Premonstratensians were pretty entrepreneurial, doing heavier-than-usual industries like tile making, metalworking and even forgery in some locations.

At Leiston Abbey, documentary evidence shows income from various property resources, but how were they using the land? We found a large platform, structural postholes and water storage and control, all of which suggest a potential mill, but this is still to be confirmed.

We also excavated what must have been the kitchen midden; it was full of ceramics and cooking pots, including Low Countries Redware, a brilliant reminder of how well integrated major ports like Colchester on this part of English coast were with trade routes to and from places like Germany and Belgium in medieval times.

The team also found an earspoon, tweezers and a comb – vital clues to medieval monastic hygiene practices, as well as a number of Nuremberg jettons - a type of informal medieval currency - glazed pottery and the seal of a papal bull issued by Pope Clement IV.

Finds have included everything from door keys to fish bones and beer jugs. We’re starting to put together a broader image of the social and economic life of the abbey.

As always with archaeology, things you don’t expect turn up. We’ve found evidence of a much earlier, previously unknown, prehistoric settlement, including a range of flint tools.

But perhaps one of the most surprising was what at first seemed like a rather ordinary cooking pot. On closer inspection, we now think it may have been used as a urinal.

The inside was caked with lime and there was a hole in the bottom, much like a urinal pot that was found at the priory site of Monk Bretton.

We want to go back and investigate Minsmere and see what continuing links there might have been with the new abbey. Was this a still-functioning outpost? If so, what for?

Later, the chapel was pulled down and used to conceal a pillbox by soldiers in World War Two, creating a very curious mix of medieval and wartime artefacts. We found bullets and things among the medieval rubble.”


Source: Culture24



Medieval Infirmary and Hidden Abbey Buildings Show Monastic Hygiene Practices and More, Say Archaeologists

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