Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Three


Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

This is the final about the obedientiaries in a monastery. None of my sources gave any clue about who these monks came under, so I’m dealing with them separately. They had such wide responsibilities that it’s probable that they had many monks beneath them.

The precentor was the cantor – the director of music. The “performance” side of the offices was his responsibility. He organised the music, conducted choir practices and rehearsed the readers. It was his responsibility to ensure that the monks could chant and take part in the liturgy correctly. He was also in charge of the scriptorium, where the monks copied and illuminated books, as part of his role was to provide service books for the offices. Another of his tasks was the maintenance of the mortuary roll, which was the list of names of the dead for whose souls the monastery was paid to pray. In addition to this, he had to make sure that the prayers for the dead were said on the correct days. I wish I had known this when I wrote The Heir’s Tale. It would have added some extra colour when Ancelin visits the monks in Winchester. The precentor was often the monastery’s librarian, annalist, archivist and chronicler. His deputy was the sub-cantor or succentor.

The precentor might also be the armarius, who looked after the book cupboard. This was where the books that were lent to the monks were held. The armarius kept track of what had been borrowed and who had borrowed it. When necessary, he purchased new books. He was responsible for what the monks read, both publicly and privately, as well as for what was read aloud during mealtimes. The armarius made sure the books were in good repair and he provided materials and tools (inks,  gold-leaf, parchment and velum) to the scriptorium.

The novice master trained the novices and looked after them during the six or seven years of their novitiate. He was responsible for their material, intellectual and spiritual needs, and made sure that they learned everything they needed to know in order to live and work within the monastery.

The almoner or elemosinarius gave food, clothing, medicine and money to the poor. This obligation on the monastery is one of the reasons why the dissolution of the monasteries in England was such a disaster for the poor. Although everyone who had plenty was supposed to give some of it to support those who had nothing, it was a duty that not everyone took as seriously as the monks. The almoner was also responsible for giving hospitality to poorer pilgrims. Rather bizarrely, he provided walking sticks for monks who needed them and rods for disciplining pupils if there was a school attached to the monastery.

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey (3)

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey

The infirmarian looked after the sick monks and those who were too old or infirm to carry out their normal duties. He managed the infirmary and the pharmacy. He was not a physician, although some monasteries had one among the monks. Mostly they were brought in from outside when they were needed.

I’m sure there are other roles that will come to light as we make our way through the monastery in the coming weeks.

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 Monastery, The Medieval Church

16 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Three

  1. This is all so fascinating, April. The monasteries were like an entire mini city.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. That’s what I was thinking, they seem so busy when I just imagined them praying a lot and singing and gardening. Easy to forget what goes on behind the scenes!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I, too, am fascinated by how intricately structured their lifestyle was, and how much planning went into it!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think of Cluny, that magnificent monastery in France. Such an enormous and complicated system they must have employed at its height!

    Robertawrites is spot on with the “mini city”!

    I then think of the many monasteries within London before the Dissolution.
    Each was a separate entity. Must have alternately aided and thwarted the Lord Mayors on many issues. I wonder what the relations were between monastic houses. Wasn’t at least one house absorbed by another?

    Knights Hospitaller absorbed Knights Templar in London, but were they monastic orders? Never could keep all the Roman Catholic religious houses in order.

    Enlightenment, anyone?

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Hospitallers and Templars were both monastic orders. The Hospitallers didn’t exactly absorb the Templars in England. They were given the Templars’ properties when the order was dissolved in 1314. Some Templars joined the Hospitallers.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The monasteries really were a hive of activity weren’t they?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. So interesting. I was thinking of a monastery being like running a big company, but I think mini city is a better description. I can see how a well run monastery, headed by a reasonable and fair abbot, could really be a benefit to the wider community. Looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library | A Writer's Perspective

  8. Pingback: Medieval Musicians | A Writer's Perspective

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