Life in a mediaeval monastery is vividly depicted in a new museum and exhibition just opened in Rievaulx, North Yorkshire. "Rievaulx: The Work of God and Man" was unveiled this week by Sir Neil Cossons, new chairman of English Heritage. Sir Neil said: "The Museum is the result of years of research and hard work. Our aim is to provide visitors with vivid and often startling new insights into the life and times of England's greatest monastic ruin. "It is hard to imagine today, but Rievaulx was both a hub of industrial activity and a cradle of technology. It's most famous abbot, St Aelred, spoke of Rievaulx's serenity, but the picture emerging of mediaeval life is very different. The exhibition shows how the monks combined zealous faith with business acumen to build the crowing glory of Cistercian architecture in western Europe. Although Rievaulx's modern tranquillity captivates its 75,000 visitors each year, during its heyday the walls would have echoed to the ceaseless hammering of iron forges and building works. To recapture the scene visitors are guided through a series of themed displays showing the importance of industry, agriculture, commerce and water engineering, as well as spirituality and education. Each is illustrated with original artifacts - many of which have never been displayed before - including tools, pencils, pendants, carved heads, chess pieces, floor tiles, and rosary beads all excavated from the site. Exhibits include a 12th century masonry hoist, corn grinding and a tanning vat scented with the pungent odour of leather. The volatile economy of 12th century Europe is recalled by the monks' ill-starred venture on the futures market, when Rievaulx's very existence was put in jeopardy after sheep scab decimated the flock making it impossible to fulfil contracts with Italian merchants. New research shows that the monks were also at the cutting edge of technology and were on the brink of mastering blast furnace technology centuries before the industrial revolution. At its height in the 12th century, the community numbered 130 choir monks, and 500 lay brothers. The Abbey's darkest time came in the 16th century when Henry VIII broke up and sold off all the monasteries, killing or driving out the inhabitants. A remarkable lead 'fother', melted down lead from the roofs of the Abbey, is a reminder of that time. Lead was a valuable commodity and the King's crest is stamped on the torpedo shaped object to ensure others didn't profit from the 'asset stripping' frenzy. Three other 'fothers' from at the Abbey were used to relead the Five Sisters stained glass windows at York Minster after the First World War. When the museum was being built, the old monastic cemetery was found. The graves were all left undisturbed. For opening times at Rievaulx, call: 01439 79822.
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