Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part One

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

Last week I mentioned that the responsibility for running a monastery was shared between the abbot, the prior and the obedientiaries. These last were like heads of departments in a business. They each had a very precise area of responsibility, often with a large staff, and they had to co-ordinate their efforts with the other obedientiaries. As I said before, all of this applies to convents as well as to monasteries.

In this post, we’ll look at the cellarer.

The cellarer had a wide range of responsibilities and a correspondingly large number of monks and lay servants beneath him. His main responsibility was the supply of food, wine/beer and fuel both to the monastery and to any guests staying there. You would be excused for thinking that this meant that he simply bought food, wine and wood, but he was also responsible for their production. He oversaw the transport of provisions from the monastery’s estates and their storage once they had arrived at the monastery. St. Benedict said that he should be ‘sober and no great eater’, since the temptations for a man in his position were very great.

Monasteries could be large landowners encompassing many manors whose tenants paid rents to them. The cellarer had the right to appoint bailiffs to these manors. Monasteries also had granges. These were farms some distance away from the monastery to which they belonged and they were managed directly by the monastery. This wasn’t easy and granges were usually managed by a granger under the cellarer, although it was the cellarer’s responsibility to make sure there were enough men to work the granges. He also had to ensure that the workers on the granges weren’t stealing, but were working as they should. The tithe barn at Bradford-on-Avon in the photograph at the top of the post, was on one of the granges belonging to the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, thirty miles away. All of the produce from the granges went to the monastery, although some of it was sold, especially the wool. Some monasteries owned thousands of sheep and they were great exporters of wool.

Given that he knew more about land than any of the other monks, it was also the cellarer’s job to lease and sell land on behalf of the abbot.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Undercroft and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Not only was the cellarer responsible for growing the food, but he was also responsible for storing it and processing it. Like most medieval buildings of any size, monasteries had undercrofts, like those in the photograph above, where things could be stored. He also managed the monastery’s mills, the brew-house, the malthouse, and the bakehouse.

Some of the monastery’s manors might have the right to have markets and fairs within their boundaries. People who sold goods at the markets and fairs had to pay a toll to the lord of the manor, and the cellarer was responsible for collecting these.

He looked after monastery’s guests, usually through his subordinate, the guest-master. We’ll come to his duties in a bit. As you might guess, given that most of his work was based outside the monastery, the cellarer was the person charged with communication between the monastery and the world beyond its walls.

The cellarer’s responsibilities were wide-ranging, so he managed a large staff. Head of these was his deputy, the sub-cellarer, whose specific duties concerned food and drink. In some monasteries, these included responsibility for the guest-house, although larger monasteries had a separate guest-master. The sub-cellarer was assisted by the granatrorius, who looked after the granary. All wheat and malt corn from the monastery’s estates passed through it. The granatorius had to keep accounts of what came in and went out, and where it came from and went to.

The guest-master was a senior member of the cellarer’s staff. Monasteries received two kinds of visitors. The first were poor pilgrims who might ask for free accommodation and food from monasteries on the way to the shrine that was their goal. The second were royalty, cardinals, bishops and nobility. Both groups could include women. The pilgrims were the province of the almoner, while the guest-master looked after the high-status guests. He provided accommodation and meals for them and stabling for their horses. With his assistant, the hosteller, he worked closely with the kitchener.

The kitchener, or coquinarius, looked after the cooking of food and made sure that portion sizes were as prescribed by St. Benedict. No one else, other than his assistants, was allowed into the kitchen. He planned the meals, supervised the kitchen, made sure that cooking pots were cleaned and employed an emptor to buy any provisions that couldn’t be obtained from the monastery’s manors.

The caterer supervised the serving of food at mealtimes.

Easby Abbey refectory 2

Refectory, Easby Abbey

The fraterer, or refecteror, was responsible for the refectory and its cleanliness. This was where the monks ate their meals. The crockery, table linen and lavatorium, where, amongst other things, the monks washed their hands before meals, were his responsibility. He kept an inventory of cups and spoons; made sure that the table linen was clean and in good repair; and he kept the lavatorium clean and supplied with towels. He also made sure that the refectory floor was covered with fresh rushes.

The gardener was another of the cellarer’s staff. He provided fruit, vegetables and herbs to the kitchen and herbs to the pharmacy. Monastic gardens were often places of experience and experimentation, and monks were, generally, ahead of the rest of the population in the cultivation of plants.

As part of their estates, many monasteries owned woods under the care of a woodward. The woods provided fuel and building material to the monastery.

As you can see, feeding a large monastery was not a straightforward business.


The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
Medieval Monasticism by C.H. Lawrence


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

29 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part One

  1. Living in Bath, I’m quite famliar with Bradford-on-Avon’s splendid tythe barn. I’ll remember your post next time I’m there, April.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I am wondering if they had any idea of the number of pilgrims that might arrive? The wealthy I am sure would send word ahead, and certain holidays would bring more people, but it couldn’t have been easy catering, for both food and accommodation, for a varying population. Interesting how many layers of management and responsibility were necessary, and how crucial to have the right person for the job. Great stuff April.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Portia. I think the pilgrims were fairly easily dealt with. They’d have slept on a floor and their meal would have been a very basic pottage. The number would depend on whether or not the monastery was on a popular route. Some monasteries built separate hostels for pilgrims.

      You’re right. The wealthy visitors would have announced their arrival, or they would have been invited. They were more problematic, because they would be expecting to eat meat, at least on non-fast days, and monks were only allowed meat when they were ill.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I knew meat was a delicacy in those times, but I’m interested to learn in your comment that it was provided to sick monks! I suppose they needed a quick, dense nutrition source.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Meat wasn’t a delicacy. Everyone ate it when they could get it and it wasn’t a fast day. Many people couldn’t get it very often, but monks were supposed to have a plain diet. Meat was presumably considered to be strengthening for those who were ill. The monks gave it to the sick poor people in their hospitals.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I didn’t know meat wasn’t a delicacy. I thought it was hard to come by unless you were wealthy. Since having it was a rare occurrence for most people, I’d have thought they would have treasured those rare times! Now I know!

            Liked by 2 people

  3. Really interesting April, the cellerer had a lot of threads to keep right. There must have been great scope for pilfering amongst the obedientaries!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Another great post. One of the characters in my latest novel was a Cellarer so I did read this with great interest.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. A really big job then and quite right the temptation to indulge in the fruits of the labour of others must’ve been a big one. I am really enjoying learning more about monasteries.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Considering how wealthy some houses became, and how far-reaching their properties (donated by lay people for a plethora of reasons), I wonder if trustworthy laymen would manage these, and gather tithes and rents under the cellarer’s aegis?

    Perhaps the cellarer was given great latitude to do this himself, although being far from home would make it hard to observe the rule. Do you know if traveling cellarers would also be put up in monasteries nearer the home house’s property? I can see that fostering jealousy.

    SOMETHING had to be done for rich houses to collect. It had to have been a system similar to those employed by the lay elite. Temptations would have been rife.

    No wonder Henry VIII and other elites coveted that wealth. Besides having way more than contented Jesus and the Apostles, it had to have been clear that monastic life was nothing like that prescribed by St. Benedict.

    It also threw into ugly and glaring light the gulf between poor and rich monastic houses. If not Henry, the system may have crumbled due to rot from within. It was beginning to happen in Germany.

    I’d love to see some maps showing the holdings of wealthy houses at their prime.

    Oh April! May we please have more? ♥

    Liked by 4 people

    • The monasteries in England never really recovered after the Black Death. One of the things that made it easier for Henry VIII to justify closing them down was the reduced number of monks living in them.

      Some of the men working under the cellarer would have been lay servants. The Cistercians had lay brothers who did most of the agricultural work.

      I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about how much land belonged to the monasteries at their peak, but I can’t remember which one it was. When I come across it again, I’ll make a note.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. The cellarer’s sphere of responsibility sounds very wide; I began to feel tired just reading about it! So much to keep tabs on. And now I know what a grange was. It’s a familiar word, but I never stopped to think why some farms would have been referred to as ‘granges’.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Val

    How fascinating! And I thought for a moment that your photo of Bradford On Avon’s Tithe Barn was in one of my old family photos, but alas, it isn’t. Still nice to see it, and the other photos, though, and read about the Cellarers.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Lavatorium | A Writer's Perspective

  10. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Chapter House | A Writer's Perspective

  11. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Gatehouse | A Writer's Perspective

  12. It’s fascinating to get into the everday lives of monastics and their servants. A really interesting post. If I may add one thing: what you describe here is the wirkings of a large monasteries. Smaller institutions, e.g. Rochester Priory, didn’t have sub-obedientaries, so no sub-cellarer and the number of brothers/servants under them were quite small.

    Liked by 2 people

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