Howard Lake, MN '12
We are nearing the end of our time here in York and our studies have taken us from the beginnings of recorded history about and within England as control of the country passed through many hands. Now we are near the end of the medieval period at a time when Christianity was firmly in place as a dominant force in York and England as a whole. However with that power and authority came an increase in wealth and with that increase came a corruption of many of the religious leaders and members of the monastic orders. This moral corruption is something Chaucer critiques brilliantly in his Canterbury Tales. It is the wealth these churches possessed that produced the grandiose buildings we have visited, including the York Minster, Durham Cathedral, and today Ripon Cathedral and Fountains Abbey.
Fountains Abbey was the highlight of the day. Founded in 1132 by a group of monks from the Benedictine St. Mary's Abbey in York who were displeased with the increasing laxity of monastic life, Fountains Abbey and the Cistercian monks who populated it became a highly influential place in Medieval England. I have visited the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in York, the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in Whitby, and the ruins of St. Mary's in Lindisfarne but the sheer size of the grounds and ruins of Fountains Abbey in Ripon makes all these others seem small. Fountains Abbey was meant to be a return to the simplicity of monastic life that the Benedictine order had started as, but the popularity of its principles turned it into a massive estate with hundreds of residents.
Wandering around the ruins of Fountains Abbey and the outlying lands the abbey possessed, one better understands why Chaucer and others in Medieval England were so critical of the monasteries. With acres upon acres of land at their disposal and wealthy benefactors, life in Fountains Abbey would have been pretty cushy as the laity struggled to survive the constant warring among royalty and the plague. Even so, the peacefulness of an abbey placed on the bank of a river and surrounded by forests demonstrates the appeal of the location. The abbey ruins, not just at Fountains but at all the other abbeys I have seen, are truly incredible. The amount of time spent constructing these massive stone buildings, stone arches, and intricate carvings show the deep significance an abbey or cathedral had. That type of dedication is almost impossible to find on a building today. The opportunity to visit these historic sites with their hulking masterpieces of masonry is one that I am extremely glad I chose to take. Not only does it deepen my knowledge of English history and culture, it gives me a sincere appreciation for the people who came before us, who lacked our modern technologies and managed to create again and again imposing and impressive structures that people still marvel at centuries later.