The village name means “the big island,” looking at a BBC aerial photograph of the village in the winter of 2014, a picture showing the village surrounded by flood water that isolated it for five weeks, it is not hard imagine what Muchelney may have been like in former centuries.
The abbey at Muchelney dates from Saxon times, established during the time of Ethelred. Perhaps the inaccessible location was part of the motivation for the choice of location, perhaps a place cut off for weeks and months of the year corresponded to the ascetic ideal of those aspiring to a monastic life.
The abbey at Muchelney never grew to become a significant house, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, there were just ten monks at the abbey, even at its height there were no more than twenty. Perhaps the dampness of the location and the smallness of the community made the abbey an unattractive place to be, when there was majestic abbey at Glastonbury to attract novices, who would wish to join the religious community at Muchelney?
The monks of Muchelney seem to have compensated for the smallness of their numbers by creating a house that was not lacking in comforts. The British History Online website tells of a visitation of the monastery that found living conditions well removed from the monastic ideal:
In 1335, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury wrote to the abbot concerning the comperta, the things discovered, at a recent visitation of his. He says he found the monks living in luxury and enjoying private privileges which were quite unauthorized. They were not content with the simple cubicles in the dormitory but had made themselves larger beds in the form of tabernacles, which were too ornate and richly covered. They were in the habit of leaving the convent without permission and rode on horseback through the country, and some were wont to take their meals in private and not as they should, in common with the others in the refectory. Secular men, women and girls were allowed in the cloister area. In the refectory the utensils were far too costly and good for the simple life that should be lived there. All this was to be corrected by the festival of St. Michael. He forbade the monks to leave the precincts of the abbey unless they had obtained the abbot’s permission, and if the abbot was absent, they must obtain the licence of the prior, and this licence was only to be granted for very good reasons.
Compared with the realities of daily life for most people in the Fourteenth Century, being at Muchelney seems not to have been a bad choice to have made.
Seeing the footprint of that abbey I’m strongly minded of the one at Old Sarum. And I wonder if it held the bones of an far older saint.
There must be some rationale for a small, remote community having such a vast building.