When St. Benedict wrote his rule of monastic life, his intention was that the monks would live a truly communal life: all monks, regardless of their status, would eat together in the refectory and sleep in the dormitory. As monasteries grew richer and their abbots more powerful, however, the focus of some abbots was no longer within the monastery, but outside. By the mid-twelfth century, most abbots were spending much of their time with secular authorities. Such men had to be entertained in the monastery in the same way that they were elsewhere, which couldn’t always be done by having them eat in the refectory with the monks or by meeting them in the chapter house. It’s impossible to imagine such men, who would usually travel with their own beds, giving up the comfort of their mattresses to sleep in a monks’ dormitory.
In some monasteries, this meant building a separate house for the abbot where he could eat with his guests and they could all sleep. These lodgings usually contained a hall, a parlour, a chapel and bedchambers. They became increasingly luxurious. Often this house had its own kitchen. It was more or less identical to great secular houses.
Not everyone was comfortable with the change and many abbots had to be forced to live in this way, which they saw as neglecting their obligations to the monks. A large number, however, took very well to having plenty of space and comfort. Even where they didn’t have an entire house to themselves, they might take over the whole of the upper floor of what was known as the west range. These were the buildings on the western side of the cloister, as you can see in the photograph of Muchelney Abbey below.
Many abbots’ lodgings survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries simply because they were houses in which the new owner of the monastery could live. Apart from the latrine block and a barn, it’s the only part of Muchelney Abbey to have survived. Most of the building dates from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and it occupied the top floor of the west range.
Although it’s much later than the things I usually write about, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the abbot’s lodgings at Muchelney Abbey in detail. By the end of the fifteenth century, the domestic hall had been replaced by a (smaller) great chamber. This was partly because owners of great houses were tending to eat apart from the rest of the household, so a large space was no longer required. Despite that, this is still an imposing space. Tapestries would have hung on the walls and there would have been more imposing furniture and furnishings than you can see in the photographs. The guidebook on the table is mine and is not representative of anything medieval.
At Muchelney, the abbot’s lodgings incorporate rooms build over the cloister. These rooms have been changed many times over the centuries, but some early sixteenth-century wall paintings are still visible.
The Cistercians, who were strict, but pragmatic, complied with the requirement for the abbot to sleep with the other monks by connecting his lodgings to the monks’ latrine, which was, in turn, connected to the dormitory.