Life and Times of the Monks of Deer



The marginalia in the Book of Deer focuses on the granting of land and records for posterity the names of wealthy landowners and patrons of the monastery. In their daily lives, however, the monks of Deer would have had more contact with the common people, most of who rented rather than owned land. Scotland, in this period of the late Dark Ages, was very scarcely populated: in 1000 A.D. there were probably fewer than half a million people scattered across the entire country. Settlements were concentrated near rivers or the coastline and most people divided their energies between fishing and farming, with their principal focus on subsistence; it was not until later in the twelfth century, during David I’s reign, that a primitive money economy evolved to encourage trade in the newly-established ‘burghs.’ Until the development of markets and a system of exchange food was produced and consumed for the household. Dues to a wider society were acknowledged in the practice of cain—payment of produce such as cheese—to the chiefs of a district in return for the use of land and protection.

Animals were a key asset in early medieval times and their significance is recognised in the animal illustrations in the margins of the Book of Deer. The monks used animal skin as parchment, a non-essential use of an important economic resource which might have exposed them to criticism from the common people. Outside the monasteries people lived in close proximity with livestock since the byre was usually sited at the opposite end of the house from where the family lived; animals were smaller in the early medieval period due to the poor knowledge of animal husbandry and so it was physically possible to accommodate them in this way. Animal skins were used as coverings for doors and windows to keep out the cold but this also meant smoke from the peat fires accumulated inside and prevented fresh air from circulating. The monasteries tended to have a more developed understanding of hygiene and disposed of their household waste near sites of running water or away from the main living quarters; the laity disposed of refuse directly outside the door, where it provided a breeding ground for flies and vermin.

The diet at this period was not unhealthy but it was very limited. Famine was an ever-constant threat and the spoiling of crops, whether from bad weather or warfare, could devastate whole communities. Although the level of the population was low there were never enough resources to generate much of a surplus so chronic malnourishment was normal and starvation was as common in the summer months, before the August harvest, as it was in the winter. Dry salt as a preservative was still undiscovered so brine was used instead. Meat was occasionally eaten and because there were no intensive methods of rearing it had a higher protein content and was more nutritious than modern cuts of meat. Most of the daily food intake, however, was cereal-based, with an emphasis on oats and barley; in England at this time the preference was for wheat but barely was the staple crop north of the border. Kale, peas, and watercress provided important sources of vitamin C and protected against scurvy. Skirret, a root vegetable, was another common choice although it has now fallen into disuse; other vegetables we are all familiar with today were unheard of at the time such as potatoes, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts. Life expectancy was less for women than it was for men because the diet did not provide sufficient sources of iron to offset the blood loss from child-bearing. The common drink, ale, could provide some nutritional benefits and was undoubtedly safer than water, which was often contaminated: it is an irony of the early medieval era that water was often ascribed healing properties and wells provided a symbolic focus for religious life but the actual drinking of water was discouraged. One distinct advantage of the early medieval diet was the absence of sugar, which explains why archaeological finds from this period have revealed skeletons with little evidence of dental decay.

MEDICINE—The Book of Deer includes a prayer for the ‘Visitation of the Sick’ and the origin legend of Deer monastery emphasises the importance of the art of healing in converting the Picts to Christianity. For much of the early medieval era disease was seen as a manifestation of ‘evil’ rather than a purely physical phenomenon and treatment did not just involve administering herbs and potions but also invoking chants and rituals to ‘drive off’ spirits; in modern terms, healing in this period was more holistic and the mind-body dualism did not obtain. The advent of Christianity strengthened the idea of suffering as ordained but whether this meant people were fatalistic or not is difficult to know; it is likely that people still continued to seek folk remedies from reputed ‘healers’ and did not rely solely on healing by monks. All medicine, whether clerical or lay, had a seasonal aspect because the cultivation of herbs changed with the seasons. Also, different seasons and astrological phases were believed to cause different afflictions and parts of the body were believed to be vulnerable to disease at certain times of the year. This is an example of how disease was understood not in terms of the individual but in terms of the wider cosmos.

The remoteness of Scotland in this period, and the poor state of communications, probably spared the inhabitants from the worst effects of epidemics such as the plague. It is interesting that one of the most significant surviving sites of monastic medicine in Scotland, Soutra, in Lothian, is situated on what was previously the main overland trading route between Scotland and England. Soutra was established shortly after the death of David I and the many travellers who passed through its doors may have helped develop the monks’ therapeutic knowledge by exposing them to a wider diversity of ailments and conditions than the monks at the monastery of Deer would have been exposed to. Archaeological remains suggest that surgery of some sophistication was being practised at Soutra and that the monks there developed salves as antiseptics and were familiar with the use of hemlock as a painkiller. This kind of knowledge was probably not widespread although areas of Scotland now considered ‘remote’ may also have had important centres of healing—an example is the archaeological evidence of a ‘spital’ on the east Caithness coast. Significantly, the practice of medicine came to be seen by the church authorities as a distraction from clerical duties and in the twelfth century medical teaching was no longer continued in the monasteries, with the consequence that monks were obliged to seek training at the universities on the Continent. By 1130 the council of Clermont forbade monks from practising medicine but the establishment of Soutra thirty years after this edict indicates that there was still a recognised need for monastic medicine and if the secular ruler encouraged it then this practice continued to flourish.