How Rievaulx thrived on souvenir tat but lost the lot in sheep

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The Independent Online

The white-robed Cistercian monks who created one of England's wealthiest monasteries in the Middle Ages drew on a remarkable propensity for peddling souvenir tat, a new exhibition reveals.

The white-robed Cistercian monks who created one of England's wealthiest monasteries in the Middle Ages drew on a remarkable propensity for peddling souvenir tat, a new exhibition reveals.

The Cistercians of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire have long been credited with an entrepreneurial bent, plantingseeds, felling trees and rearing sheep while the black-habited Benedictines prayed for the souls of their benefactors. From 1147 to 1167, Rievaulx's halcyon years, this endeavour paid for a new chapter house and a large infirmary and the soaring beauty of the eastern part of the church, replacing its austere predecessor. It still stands at virtually full height.

Until now, the monks' ability to shift souvenirs has not been fully appreciated. But yesterday 100 relics, many discovered in the 1950s, went on show at a new £300,000 museum. Andrew Morrison, senior curator at Rievaulx, said: "They were little tacky souvenirs, but it was a way for the church to make money."

The exhibits suggest the monks plied a rattling trade in votive offerings - cheap relics that could be left at the shrine at Rievaulx or taken away. For those who came to be healed, there were relics for every ailment, such as a shoe sole of sheet lead with mock stitching for those with painful feet.

Rievaulx was not alone in such enterprise. Canterbury Cathedral made a quarter of its income from souvenirs to be placed at the shrine of Thomas Becket. Similar enterprise is depicted in one of York Minster's stained-glass windows, which shows a worshipperplacing an imitation leg at a shrine in the hope of healing.

But Rievaulx's exhibition, The Work of God and Man, illustrates the monks' far grander capitalist aspirations, including some risky dabblings on the Medieval equivalent of the futures markets. The community - which numbered 130 choir monks and 500 lay brothers at its peak in the 12th century - had been paid for a flock of sheep by Italian merchants before the herd was wiped out by scab. The abbey was later placed into Royal Custody - a form of receivership - and never entirely recovered financially.

Opening the museum and exhibition, Sir Neil Cossons, the chairman of English Heritage, said: "St Aelred [Rievaulx's third Abbot] spoke of the place's 'serenity', but the picture emerging of medieval life is very different. The monks combined zealous faith with business acumen."

Today's Rievaulx souvenirs, perhaps more tasteful, range from £4.99 luggage tags to £14.99 hip flasks.

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