My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk.

JOHN KEATS (1795-1821)


Writing with Earwax

Monks used their earwax for illuminated manuscripts – it was the best way of preventing bubbles forming in ‘glair’, the liquid used to make paints for books. (The anti-foaming capabilities of earwax can be demonstrated today by dipping a wax-coated finger into the head of a glass of beer; the head supposedly collapses). Other ingredients used in illuminations included spinach juice and stale beer.

Monks often left little notes (called ‘colophons’ – Greek for ‘summit’ or ‘crowning touch’) at the beginning or end of manuscripts, saying things like ‘I am very cold’, ‘The parchment is hairy’ and ‘Now I’ve written the whole thing, for Christ’s sake give me a drink.’ They also drew ‘maniculae’ (Latin for ‘little hands’) –pointing out interesting passages. Sometimes, they used octopuses instead. Another common feature was knights fighting huge snails. Nobody knows why – perhaps it was to symbolise the struggles of the poor against the aristocracy, or perhaps they just didn’t like snails.

Trappist Monks

Trappists have never taken a vow of silence. The whole ‘Trappist monk who can never talk’ thing is entirely an invention of films.

The official Trappist website says there are three reasons for monks to speak– ‘functional communication at work or in community dialogues; spiritual exchange on aspects of one’s personal life; and spontaneous conversation on special occasions.’ Another website adds: ‘Trappists will enjoy friendly conversations with each other in a conversation room'.  It is the case that the Rule of St Benedict rather assumes silence as the default position but it divides the day between the Great Silence (usually between Compline and Lauds, i.e. at night – no talking after lights out), and 'Lesser Silence' during the working day, which is less strict.

They are definitely quiet. Quietness is encouraged as it creates more time for prayer. Until the 1960s, monks communicated by signs, and older monks still remember it to this day.

In total there are only about 3,900 Trappist monks and nuns worldwide. They are a branch of the Cistercians. The name ‘Trappist’ comes from the monastery at which the order started in the C17th, La Grande Trappe. Female Trappists are called Trappistines.

The other thing Trappists are known for is their beer. When monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Belgium, who make Westvleteren beer, introduced a system to order by phone, they got so many calls that the local telephone exchange crashed.


A habit does not a monk make.

Self Mummification

The Sokushinbutsu were an obscure sect of Buddhist monks in Japan who practised self-mummification. For 1000 days, a monk would eat only nuts and seeds, exercising rigorously to strip away his body fat. For another 1000 days he lived on bark, roots and sap from the Urushi tree, making him vomit and leaving his body too dehydrated and poisonous to be eaten by maggots. The monk would then bury himself in a tomb and sit in the lotus position until he died. A 1000 days later, the tomb would be opened to see if the body had mummified. Though hundreds tried, only about 28 ever succeeded. These were worshipped as Buddhas.


I describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk. No more, no less.

First Clocks

The first clocks created in medieval England were the work of monks. Richard of Wallingford built a clock in c. 1320. It became the first public clock in the country.

A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of other monks.

Like calling a priest a ‘Father’, the correct form of address for a monk is ‘Dom’.

Newcastle used to be called Monkchester.

Cappucino is so named because it is a similar colour to the light brown robes of the Capuchin order of monks.

An abbey-lubber is a lazy monk.

A passalorynchite is a monk who takes a vow of silence.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan but Buddhist monks are forbidden to participate. Instead they play darts.

In 1550, the Isle of Wight had no monks, lawyers or foxes.

Monaco is Italian for 'monk'.