The Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Two

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

We’re continuing this series about monasteries by looking at some of the obedientiaries. Last week we looked at the cellarer’s department. This week we have two more departments.

First, the chamberlain, or camerarius. He was the housekeeper with wide, though fairly mundane, responsibilities. Sometimes the chamberlain and the cellarer were the same person, which would seem to be a sensible arrangement. The chamberlain’s main duty was to make sure that the monks had clothing and that it was clean. This meant that he had to employ laundresses to wash all the linen used in the monastery. One of the things that surprised me as I prepared for this series is just how much contact the monks might have with women. Whether the linen was sent out to the laundresses or they came into the monastery, I haven’t been able to find out. The washing itself was probably done in a nearby river.

Another of the chamberlain’s jobs was making sure that the hay in the monks’ mattresses was replaced frequently. He was also responsible for horses and carts, including those at the granges, which is one of the reasons why it would have made sense for the cellarer and the chamberlain to be the same person, since the cellarer was responsible for the granges. The chamberlain had to make sure that there was always enough fodder for the horses and that the harness was in good order. He was responsible for keeping the monastery’s lamps in good repair and for maintaining a fire in the warming room, where the monks worked on cold days.

I haven’t come across any subordinates that he might have had, but I doubt he stuffed the mattresses himself, nor would he have put the horses’ fodder into the stables.

warming room, Rievaulx Abbey

Warming Room, Rievaulx Abbey

The third senior obedientiary was the sacrist, who did have identifiable staff beneath him. His responsibility was the very heart of the monastery: the abbey church.

The sacrist looked after the fabric of the church, including the altars, vessels and any shrines. His duties included keeping them secure. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, churchmen weren’t above stealing bits of saints’ relics and the odd pilgrim might try to take a bit of a shrine home with them, but there would also be many extremely valuable objects within the church, which would tempt a thief. The plate would often be of silver or gold, as would the ornaments. If the shrine housed a popular saint, it might be covered with gold and jewels. The vestments were often made of expensive fabric and covered in fine embroidery.

The sacrist didn’t just look after valuable objects, he was also responsible for the cleaning of the church and for making sure that everything within it was in good condition. This included the furniture. He also helped design the fittings, windows, altars, decorations and wall paintings if they were being replaced. The wall paintings would have been replaced frequently. In addition to everything else, he looked after the clocks, bells, vestments, plate, reliquaries, lights and vestments. If it was within the church, he had to make sure it worked, was clean and could be used. He kept an inventory of everything, which I think must have been onerous if the abbey church held a popular shrine. Pilgrims tended to leave gifts of large and small value at shrines, so there would have been frequent additions to his lists.  His assistants included the treasurer, the sub-sacrist, the revestiarius and the master of works. He usually slept at the end of the dorter nearest the treasury.


Wall Painting, Romsey Abbey

The sub-sacrist, or matricularius, was the sacrist’s deputy and the monastery’s timekeeper. In addition to being the deputy, he also had some duties of his own. He had to ensure that the monastery’s bells rang at the right time. He ate and slept in the church so that there was always someone there.

The treasurer was responsible for the monastery’s valuables. These included the church plate, vestments, rare books, documents and money.

The revestiarius looked after the vestments and other fabrics used in the church. Different coloured vestments and fabrics were (and still are) used in different liturgical seasons and at certain festivals. He had to make sure that the correct colours were put out.

Next week we’ll wrap up the obedientiaries with some roles that don’t appear to have come under any of the three departments that we’ve looked at so far.


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

28 responses to “The Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Two

  1. I have read a fairly large amount of history books both fiction and fact and have not come across the duties of chamberlains, cellarists, sacrists (and others) do in this detail…it really brings that period alive…thanks April.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Absolutely fascinating April. Whatever the size of the monastery, it was so crucial these roles were performed well. I imagine they taught the people assisting them so they could take over if necessary? The community would certainly suffer without any of these roles for any length of time.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The deputies were there to take over if the obedientiary were ill or died, but the positions were in the gift of the abbot. A new abbot might appoint someone else entirely, although that might not always have been a good idea.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Gosh those abbots had power!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I hadn’t given much thought to what mattresses might have been stuffed with, let alone that it would need to be frequently replaced! Was the hay refreshed for sanitary reasons, or did it “go bad” over time? I would have thought dried hay would last! Thanks, April!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I wondered the same! The other thought was, I don’t mind creepy crawlies too much (with the exception of eight legged ones), but I don’t think i’d like them in my mattress-eek.

      Liked by 3 people

    • If it was damp, it would have gone bad. Generally, though, it would just get flatter as it got older and would cease to provide any support or comfort.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Hay, weeds, nettles, fallen leaves, wool & many other products were used to fill ticks (what many Americans called mattress covers). Fresh, well-dried hay was preferred, unless feathers could be had.

      As April noted, the fillings eventually compress and disintegrate into bits and dust. My maternal grandmother took her mother’s ticks outside, emptied them, turned them inside-out, & beat out the particles adhering to the cloth. Her ticking was a very dense, & tightly woven cotton, similar to sailcloth. The more it was washed, the softer the tick became.

      If monks used coarse flax ticking, they may have followed a similar routine.
      If they used wool, washing would have been a very physical chore! When wet, dense wool is hard to wash and very slow to dry. The wool would have to have been very dense to keep hay from sticking through.

      Great Grandma’s ticks were laid upon clean grass to dry, & turned every so often. When completely dry, they were filled with the very cleanest hay available & hustled into the house. Rain forced the whole process to be repeated, so they tried to wash them in very dry weather. In winter, they weren’t washed, unless really dirty, and good hay from the haymow was stuffed therein. Bugs were always an issue, but they were dealt with as they came.

      A crucial part of bed-making included fluffing the tick. If you wonder why old depictions of beds show them to be humped in the middle, that was because eventually, a sleeper would sink to the mattress ropes or, in the monks’ case, maybe, a hard slab. Best start with them humped as high as possible in the middle. One quickly learned it paid to shove as much hay in the tick as possible!

      Liked by 4 people

  5. I am assuming mattresses were stuffed with straw, not hay.

    Hay is a harvested material, normally a mixture of plants, including ryegrass, clover, and alfalfa. Hay is typically harvested before the plants go to seed and are just growing leaves. These leaves are packed full of nutrients and easier for animals to digest than the low-quality stems left behind as straw.

    Straw refers to the plant material that remains after grains like wheat and barley are harvested. The stems are straw. Most of the nutrition of grain crops is in the grain. The straw is basically hollow tubes just like a drinking straw. Straw is used as animal bedding, mattress stuffing, or as cover for tender garden plants. It can also be used to make baskets or straw hats.

    It is a common misuse. Most of what we typically call “hay” is, in fact, straw.

    As always, I love your research, April. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Jo. I should know the difference, as we use straw for the chickens’ bedding and I put it around my strawberries. I’ll edit the post.

      Liked by 4 people

    • In my farm family hay is mown grass, collected & baled to feed livestock thru the winter. Straw, as you noted, is the leftover reeds from wheat, rye, etc.

      Hay was Great Grandma’s filler for mattresses. Straw is bedding for animals. Straw is much stiffer and coarser. It will split easily & drive thru ticking faster than hay. It is not very comfortable. I’ve lain on piles of each when visiting family farms.

      If you get an opportunity to see and feel for yourself, I think you will find that it’s best to leave straw for the critters & use their fodder for beds. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think it’s Canterbury Cathedral that has an enormous oaken chest that was once used to store expensive vestments. It’s so big that copes could be laid flat, or folded only once. I wonder how many such items of storage monasteries had, and how many ended up as firewood or building material after the Dissolution?

    It would take a very determined thief to try breaking into such objects. It could not have been done quietly!

    Liked by 2 people

    • A few cathedrals have medieval cope chests. They’re semicircular, because copes are basically round with a hole cut in the middle.

      There were probably very serious thieves about. One managed to steal a copy of the Magna Carta from Salisbury Cathedral recently.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I can see that the temptation to carry off holy relics and to “souvenir” pieces of a shrine would have been strong, but wouldn’t those planning to steal the more material treasures have needed to be part of an organised crime ring? Otherwise silver, gold, or jewels would have been hard to fence.

    Liked by 3 people

    • There wasn’t a police force to track you down if you stole anything and there were bound to be buyers who wouldn’t ask too many difficult questions. I don’t know, though, whether theft from monasteries was a big problem. The necessity of keeping someone in the church all the time indicates that it might have been.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Camerarius, matricularius and revestiarius all sound very Roman, so I’m wondering about that as they were long gone by the time you write of.
    Also I visited Tynemouth Priory today and was reminded of this series!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. So interesting April. I just learn so much from these posts!

    Liked by 2 people

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