Celebrating Cistercian Women

Discover more about the daily lives of the monks of Kirkstall Abbey from archaeology curator Kat Baxter’s recent visit to a Norwegian Cistercian monastery.

As curator of archaeology for Leeds Museums and Galleries, I have been fortunate enough to work at Kirkstall Abbey and look after its collections for many years.  Kirkstall Abbey, our oldest heritage site, was built in 1152 and was home to monks from the Cistercian order for nearly 400 years. The extent to which women were allowed the Abbey in the Medieval period is uncertain, but in July 2016 a Cistercian nun from a monastery in Norway came on one of my tours.  We talked in depth about Medieval Cistercian life and their notion of hospitality, and she invited me to stay with them to experience being the guest of a Cistercian house for myself. The opportunity to further connect to life in Kirkstall Abbey was too good to pass up, and 3 weeks ago I was able to take her up on the offer.

A photograph of a brown brick building surrounded by deep snow and snowy skies,
The monastery on Tautra in the snow

Tautra Mariakloster, the Cistercian nuns’ monastery on the island of Tautra in Central Norway, was completed in 2006 and is currently home to 14 women from all over the world, including the UK, USA, Norway, Poland and Vietnam.   The nuns follow the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the 5th century, and attend 7 services in the church throughout the day and night, just as the Medieval monks at Kirkstall Abbey would have done.  I got up at 4.10am to attend Vigils, where the nuns standing at the front softly recited their prayers in Norwegian, after which the lights were extinguished and we sat in the dark in an hour of silent reflection or prayer.

A photograph of a dark building with lights on inside and deep snow outside. It's still dark.
Approaching the church for Vigils at 4.10am

The church itself was wooden and incorporated the outdoors into its design.  Nature was part of the building, from the sunlight shining through the slatted roof to the full view of the fjord behind the altar.

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Nearby are the ruins of a Medieval Cistercian monastery established only 55 years after Kirkstall Abbey.  Only parts of the church walls now remain.  You can image how isolated and bleak it would have been here in the 13th century, back when being separated from the world was of the utmost importance to the community.

A photograph of the medieval cistercian monastery ruins, surrounded by snow.
The ruins of the Medieval Cistercian monastery on Tautra

Some things in the monastery were difficult to adjust to – the silence being the hardest – but I was lucky to get to talk to one of the sisters freely for 2 hours.  All of the information I gathered on my trip will feed into future displays at Kirkstall Abbey, and watch out for future blogs about Cistercian life on Tautra and links to Kirkstall Abbey.

By Kat Baxter, Curator of Archaeology for Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Learn more about Tautra Mariakloster here

Find out more about Kirkstall Abbey and our Archaeology collection on our website.

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