Modern visitors to monastic ruins are more often than not on their phones or chatting to each other, or thinking about work and what’s for tea, or shouting at the kids to please get away from that latrine drain.
Over the next month, English Heritage is hoping people might consider silence, for an hour at least. It has launched an “hour of contemplation” trial project at 16 monastic sites that it looks after in England, from Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island in Northumberland to Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings.
The idea is for people to “take a step back, centre yourself and focus on appreciating the peace and tranquillity that is unique to these historic buildings,” said Michael Carter, a senior properties historian.
He quoted Saint Aelred, a 12th-century abbot of Rievaulx Abbey, a magical place nestled in a secluded North Yorkshire valley: “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”
Carter added: “I get incredibly moved every time I read that and I think it still resonates today.”
He said monasteries were “a place of escape, a place to focus on the human spirit, however you want to define that.” Given what people had been through over the last 18 months, this was an ideal time to undertake such a project, he said.
“We’re inviting visitors to escape from their cares for a short time, using the quiet, the sound of the birdsong, the rustle of the wind in the trees to contemplate and free their minds and spirits of the busy, noisy, demanding distractions of contemporary life.”
The peace will descend in the last hour each day of each site’s opening.
Carter said there were many misconceptions about monks, not least that they took a vow of silence. They did not. “Monks took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and also stability – that’s not to leave the monastery without the permission of their superior. That’s not to say silence wasn’t very important to them.”
The most frowned upon noise was unnecessary conversation, especially gossip, which could undermine community cohesion. Penalties for monks and nuns breaching rules included corporal punishment before the entire community, the reciting of penitential prayers and a diet of bread and water.
A complex system of hand signals was developed and used by monks and nuns to communicate silently, with individual monasteries having their own versions.
At the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmonds in the 14th century they had 198 signs, including one for underpants: “Pretend that you are drawing your hand on your thigh from below.”
English Heritage said it had asked Stephen Fry, with his mental health campaigner hat on, to record an audio introduction to the hour of contemplation, an experiment that will run from Wednesday until 22 October.
Carter said medieval monasteries were places where people could escape things tha really were not important, and that held true today.
English Heritage is not suggesting visitors give up their material possessions. “We’re not telling people how to live,” said Carter. “But the idea that life within monasteries has something within it which we can find spiritual and nourishing today really resonates, I think.”