Anatomy of a Monastery – The Kitchen


Kitchen, Byland Abbey

Unlike the majority of domestic kitchens, those in monasteries were built in stone. This reduced the risk of an out-of-control fire within spreading to the rest of the buildings, a fairly common occurrence in the Middle Ages.  Monastic kitchens were, therefore, usually built next to the refectory.

Few of them have survived, although the Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey is a marvellous exception. I have visited Glastonbury, but it was about 35 years ago and I’m not sure where the photographs from that day are. Here is a link to someone else’s photograph of the abbot’s kitchen.

Where kitchens were built next to refectories, there was a hatch between them through which the food was served. Where they weren’t, the food would be carried along a covered passageway between the two buildings. In Cistercian monasteries there were two refectories: one for the monks and one for the lay brothers. Both were served by the same kitchen.

When they were first built, monastic kitchens had a central fire with a flue or vent in the roof above it to allow the smoke to escape.  These were often, but not always, replaced by a fireplace later.

In accordance with the rule of St. Benedict, only vegetables and legumes were cooked in these kitchens. In some monasteries there was an additional kitchen where meat was cooked for guests and for monks in the infirmary. Meat was initially forbidden to the rest of the monks for fear of enflaming their baser passions. By the late fourteenth century, though, this rule was relaxed, although some monasteries continued to forbid meat to the monks.

As set out in St. Benedict’s rule,  all the monks were to take their turn at cooking and working in the kitchen, as they did at serving in the refectory and in reading. Gradually, however, paid servants were taken on to do this work in all save Cistercian and Cluniac monasteries.

Some orders had very strict rules about how things were to be cooked and which utensils could be used. In some monasteries the rule was that there were three cauldrons (caldaria for those of you interested in the Latin) in which water was heated. One was for cooking legumes, one for vegetables and one for washing dishes and other utensils.

Waste from the kitchens was disposed of through the drainage channels taking the monastery’s waste to the nearest river.

Drainage channel, Rievaulx Abbey

Drainage Channel, Rievaulx Abbey

A monastic kitchen fed many people and needed a lot of fuel. The was usually stored in a service yard just outside the kitchen. The kitchen was also served by a pantry (where bread was stored), a buttery (were the wine was kept) and a scullery (where utensils and kitchen equipment were kept).

Monks’ Kitchen, Muchelney Abbey

At Muchelney Abbey there are now two kitchens, originally dating to the fourteenth century. Today they back onto one another, but when they were first built they formed a single kitchen. At that time there would have been a central fire and a vent in the roof. Around 1400 the kitchen was divided and a fireplace was installed in each part. One kitchen is much larger than the other and that was where the food was prepared for the abbot and his guests. The smaller kitchen served the monks. Both kitchens have changed extensively over the centuries and you can see from the photographs below that the medieval fireplaces were much larger than the eighteenth-century replacements.


The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Muchelney Abbey by John Gooddall and Francis Kelly


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 Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

19 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Kitchen

  1. Fascinating post. I am planning to visit Glastonbury and see the medieval kitchen there this year.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post as usual. You always tell me something I didn’t know. Didn’t think about monks being vegetarian…reminds me of my cousin who lived in a vegetarian co-op. She was caught cooking sausages in the middle of the night and nearly got turfed out!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. A great argument for not going veggie, I’d hate to be without my baser instincts! Seriously though, a fascinating post again.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. lydiaschoch

    Did monks ever eat fruit? A diet of only vegetables and legumes would be pretty healthy, but I can’t help but to wonder if it would become a little repetitive after a while.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Interesting that kitchen waste water was shunted from the abbey in an era when such water was usually added to hog feed.

    Even dish washing water, depending on the scouring materials used, might have been fed to pigs (which is kind of unsettling, if any washing soap was used {typically hog fat and wood lye}).

    Yet another reason to embrace vegetarianism/veganism! I’m wondering, April, if you’ve discovered whether cloistered lives were healthier? Certainly eschewing martial arts and iffy meats must have helped!

    Again, congratulations upon being recognized as fascinating-over-50! I repeat: Do NOT mull over it. Go out and enjoy every minute! And thank you, wholeheartedly, for sharing your fascinating interests with us! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Since the monks didn’t eat pigs, they wouldn’t have kept them, so would have had no need to feed them.

      I read some things that suggested that the monks were less healthy after meat was allowed, but I think it’s probably because things in general became more lax in monasteries and they just ate a lot. As a consequence, they suffered the downside of obesity.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The buttery was for wine? I assumed it was for butter and dairy products.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Now that you point it out, April, it seems obvious to build kitchens in stone to prevent fire outbreaks. A very clever architectural decision!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Sam interviews April Munday | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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