Step into a monk’s shoes
There were swings and roundabouts to life as a mediaeval monk. On the one hand, you had some of the best food, shelter, medical care, and education available. On the other hand, the acedia – a characteristic monkish sickness best summed up as a sort of careless, painless, listless depression. The demanding routine of daily services can’t have helped (or perhaps it gave them the structure they craved…), with as many as nine liturgies carrying the devout from 2am to 8pm. The nocturnal services strike modern minds as particularly inhumane, so it makes sense that there would have been a shortcut from the dormitory (or ‘dorter’) to the church, to mitigate against a dark journey through a frigid cloister. In Bristol Cathedral, a rare example of just such a shortcut survives, in what have become known as the Night Stairs.
These ancient stone steps – worn so low that modern wooden boards have had to be fitted above them – are a remarkable testament to the faith of the individuals that walked them night in, night out (in fact, in Bristol these men were canons, not monks, but potato potato). The staircase, which now leads to the Sacristy, is still used daily by canons, vergers, acolytes, and history bloggers.
Door to the past
At the top of the Night Stairs, though, stands a greater treasure: a simply astonishing survival from the early middle ages. From the very first days of the Abbey – founded in 1140 – a large wooden door separated the canons’ dormitory from the Night Stairs. Incredibly, this original door survives, almost entirely untouched and unaltered, still hanging in the frame for which it was made nearly 900 years ago. Since the reign of King Stephen – grandson of William the Conqueror – this door has stood witness to the life of the mediaeval world, the reformation, renaissance, and enlightenment, industrialism, and modernity.
Embossed dates of 1667 and 1867 – now believed to be associated with minor restorations – threw historians off the scent for centuries, and it was only discovered in the year 2000 to be the age that it is. This splendid object now holds the (almost) magnificent accolade of second oldest door in the country. For five years it even held the gold medal until, in 2005, a door in Westminster Abbey was found to predate it by a full century. Fair play.
Without doubt, the Night Stairs – laden with the memory of countless faithful – and the ancient door leading to them, have earnt a place in our countdown of treasures from Bristol Cathedral.