Spartan monks liked a touch of pink

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The Independent Online
YORKSHIRE'S WHITE-ROBED Cistercian monks did not quite live the simple, austere life portrayed in the history books, according to evidence uncovered at the ruins of what was once one of the nation's great abbeys.

Work funded by English Heritage at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire - which is now among the most significant medieval ruins in Europe - has uncovered fragments of pink paint, previously unnoticed, in its late 12th- century refectory. The historians who made the discovery say this is evidence that by 1160 the Cistercians had moved on from their early 12th-century austerity to somewhat grander tastes, reflected in their penchant for colour.

Seven years of study at Rievaulx's 92 acres, in the wooded valley of the River Rye, also led a Yorkshire architectural historian, Stuart Harrison, and an American art historian, Professor Peter Ferguson, to conclude that Aelred, the abbey's third abbot, was an even more prodigious figure than history has depicted him.

Geophysical surveys suggest that Aelred, who was also as fine a spiritual writer as they came, largely knocked down a stone abbey he inherited in 1147 before building his own. This confounds the traditional view that the first settlement at the site was largely of timber construction and promotes the new theory that the ruins represent Rievaulx's second stone abbey.

"Aelred's first task on becoming abbot [was] one of largely demolishing the existing stone abbey," said Mr Harrison, as the new findings were made public yesterday. "This is a far more radical evolution than had been thought."

All that survives of the first abbey, built in the reign of Henry I by Rievaulx's first abbot, William, is part of the lay brothers' west range.

History tells us that Aelred's demolition job was born of necessity. During his tenure the community at the abbey, sited in the North Yorkshire Moors national park, doubled within a few decades to 650 monks, servants and lay brothers as a wave of Cistercian popularity swept England and pilgrims descended on the abbey. For 400 years, the abbey - later an inspiration for artists such as Turner and John Cotman - was highly profitable.

In the early years of this century it was feared that part of the abbey was on the verge of collapse and the remaining walls were knitted together with reinforced concrete. Although a controversial scheme at the time, the patch-up seems to have worked.

The complexity of Rievaulx's ruins has deterred many historians from examining the site and it remained unexcavated until early this century. The findings of Professor Ferguson and Mr Harrison, illustrated in six artistic re-creations of the abbey, appear in Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture and Memory, published by Yale University Press.