Anatomy of a Monastery – The Latrine Block

Latrine block, Rievaulx Abbey 2

Latrine Block, Rievaulx Abbey

During visits to monastic ruins I’ve often seen signs saying ‘Reredorter’ and I never quite understood what it meant. The dorter was where the monks slept, so I thought the reredorter must be something to do with that. It is, indeed, something to do with monk’s dormitory, but in a way I hadn’t considered.

The original name for the reredorter is the domus necessaria or necessary house – the latrine. Despite its Latin appearance, reredorter was a creation of the Victorians, possibly because they preferred a euphemism. The necessary house was usually an extension to the dormitory, or was built at right angles to it. The latrines were on the first floor, accessible only via the dormitory.

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Some monasteries had complicated systems of pipes and drains to move both clean and waste water around the site efficiently. Others simply built their latrines as close to running water as possible. The latrines at Roche Abbey were sited above the stream. Those at Rievaulx were at the bottom of the slope where it was the last collection point before the drainage system took the waste to the nearest river.

The latrines, Roche Abbey
The latrines, Roche Abbey

Some monasteries discovered the hard way that they had built the latrine block in the wrong place and it had to be rebuilt. Sometimes that would mean rebuilding the dorter and other buildings as well. In other monasteries, the dorter and the latrine block were connected by a bridge.

Latrine drain, Rievaulx Abbey

Latrine drain, Rievaulx Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers slept in their own dorter and had a separate latrine block. Some monasteries had huge latrine blocks. The one at Canterbury could accommodate 55 monks at one time.

We come now to another role in the life of the monastery, one that I’d never heard of before I started reading about latrines. The circator went round the buildings at night looking out for monks who were doing things they shouldn’t be. His unofficial role was to wake up, discreetly, any monks who had fallen asleep in the latrine block.

The latrines were usually a series of cubicles separated by partitions of stone or wood, so that the monks couldn’t see one another. Each cubicle had a wooden seat and a window.

Latrine Muchelney 4

Latrine, Muchelney Abbey

You can see from this photo taken inside the latrines at Muchelney Abbey where the seats would be fixed. The building has changed so much in the last five centuries that no one is quite sure how the drainage worked, but it’s believed that these arches were part of the outflow system.

Latrine Muchelney

Latrine outflow, Muchelney Abbey

One of my sources says that there were restrictions on monks using the latrines, so they carried portable urinals, whose contents were used for bleaching cloth or tanning animal skins. It’s probably best not to think about that too much.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell
Muchelney Abbey by John Goodall


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 Buildings, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery

28 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Latrine Block

  1. Thats a lot of s**t. 55 monks in one go I mean. Great post April.I have seen one person latrine areas in castles and the like but never noticed the big ones, will be keeping an eye out. Thanks again for colouring in the past.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I was not expecting there to be so many in one block, that is impressive. Interesting about the role of circator too. I have too many questions about the portable urinals……a kind of horrified fascination! Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post April, I find toilets and plumbing of the past quite fascinating. Great photos too. The portable urinals though!! Eeek!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yes, weirdly toilets are fascinating. Hate to think of all the waste going in that stream… from which some people drank, I’m sure. Eewww. In Crete, the Minoan palaces of Knossos and Faestos were 5 stories high and had plumbing all the way to the top. Yet in Versailles they went behind the curtains… Great post, anyway, April!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Given the period, these had to be pretty remarkable engineering feats.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When you mentioned the circator I couldn’t imagine monks misbehaving at night – where would they have found the energy? However, falling asleep in the toilets makes perfect sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s such a modern thing to have toilet blocks like that. Monks were clearly ahead of their time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t know that the term ‘reredorter’ was a Victorian one and have just renamed our bathroom the ‘locus necessaria’. Fascinating stuff. I didn’t fully appreciate monastic drainage until I visited Furness Abbey – which is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

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

  10. Very interesting how they constructed such a system! I can’t imagine falling asleep on the toilet—eek!

    Liked by 1 person

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