Large Medieval Tannery Discovered at Monastic Abbey in England

Fountains Abbey
Archaeologists have discovered the foundations of a major medieval tannery at a former monastery in northern England. National Trust Image

Monastic religious communities are generally perceived as prayerful and peaceful places, but the large ruins at Fountains Abbey may have been home to one of the noisiest industrial sites in England during the 12th and 13th centuries.

New research involving ground-penetrating radar shows the lands at the former British monastery included a major medieval tannery—one of the largest found at a religious site—reports Mark Brown of the Guardian. Archaeologists are describing the discovery as the “missing link” in deciphering the true history of the ruins at Ripon, located in northern England.

“A tannery of this size, spanning such a large area of the site, reveals an operation on an industrial scale,” Mark Newman, an archaeologist with the National Trust, says in a statement.

He adds the size of the complex, operated by Cistercian monks, a Benedictine order, “really takes one aback.”

Large Medieval Tannery Discovered at Monastic Abbey in England
Ground-penetrating radar identified the foundations of a large-scale tannery next to the medieval monastery of Fountains Abbey in England. University of Bradford Image

Archaeologists located two large buildings using ground-penetrating radar. One measures 50 feet wide by 100 feet long and was more than one story tall, reports BBC News Yorkshire. Pits, tanks and other structures were also detected. Researchers say these ruins are the foundations for a large tannery operation run by the religious order.

“Today, Fountains Abbey is an oasis of tranquility, but in the 12th and 13th centuries in particular, it was as busy and industrialized a piece of landscape as you would have found anywhere in Britain,” Newman says in the National Trust statement.

According to Sarah Freeman of the Yorkshire Post, tanning was a vital part of the local economy. Animal hides were treated and cured to make leather for clothing, belts, bedding, book bindings and vellum for reproducing religious texts. Tanning is a loud, smelly and labor-involved process—a far cry from the Gregorian chants one might expect to have heard at a medieval monastery, Newman points out.

“Given the noise, activity and stench that emanated from a tannery, we previously thought that it would have been sited further away from the monks and their worship,” he says in the statement. “However, see now that the tannery was much closer and a far cry from the idea of a quiet, tranquil abbey community.”

Started in 1132, Fountains Abbey was one of the wealthiest monasteries in northern England until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1536, when the English king seized the property of many religious orders. Archaeologists claim the abbey’s many monks and lay brothers raised sheep and cattle on a large scale, turning the resulting wool and leather into numerous products, including parchment and vellum for printing.

Large Medieval Tannery Discovered at Monastic Abbey in England
Monks at Fountains Abbey produced leather at the large-scale tannery, which was used to make paper and vellum for printing. British Library Image

“The Cistercians—and especially the community at Fountains—were pioneering farmers and land managers on an industrial scale,” Newman says in the statement. “They had to be, to support the enormous religious community that rapidly built up and the vast building projects they undertook, in praise of God.”

The radar research was conducted by the University of Bradford and other partners, which worked with the National Trust to explore the site. Chris Gaffney, a professor of archaeological sciences at the university, says the technology provided “stunning, unexpected and intriguing glimpses” into life at the abbey, according to the Guardian.

Covering about 70 acres, Fountains Abbey is one of the largest and best-preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the large site includes the 12th century abbey, water mill, palatial country house, Victorian church, huge Georgian water garden—and now a major tanning operation.

“It is so easy with a place like Fountains to think this is exactly as the monks saw it,” Newman says in the statement. “What we are finding is that there is a whole unrecognized history.”

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