Reading in the Refectory at Reading in the Twelfth Century

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Webber, MTJ 

Reading at mealtimes is a requirement of the Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 38 prescribes: ‘Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. ... Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking– only the reader’s voice should be heard there’.1 The Rule does not specify which texts should be read, but by the time of Reading Abbey’s foundation in 1121 it had become a widespread custom in monasteries and communities of regular canons throughout Latin Europe for the refectory reading to correspond closely with the liturgical calendar and the annual cycles of liturgical lections, in particular those of the Night Office of Matins.2 Customs compiled for Eynsham Abbey at the beginning of the eleventh century by the Anglo-Saxon homilist, Ælfric, acknowledge that it had become common for the liturgical practice of reading the entire Bible at Matins over the course of the year to be fulfilled in part during meals,3 while two late-eleventh-century Cluniac customaries provide the earliest surviving detailed evidence for how this might be achieved.4 From the twelfth century onwards, houses of monks and regular canons across Latin Europe came to observe a broadly similar framework of norms for an annual cycle of refectory reading that incorporated not only Scripture but also patristic exegesis, gospel homilies, sermons and hagiography.5 This shared framework nevertheless permitted considerable variation in matters of detail, but evidence of how the norms were applied in individual communities is comparatively rare. Late-medieval additions to a twelfth-century manuscript from Reading Abbey and annotations in this and other Reading manuscripts constitute some of the best evidence from England of how Chapter 38 of the Rule was observed at the local level, and bear witness to the efforts made periodically to ensure its proper observance.

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Reading Medieval Studies
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