Anatomy of a Monastery – The Infirmary

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey (3)

Infirmary, Rievaulx Abbey

The infirmary was where monks went when they were unable to fulfil their duties because of ill health or advanced age. It was also the place to which elderly monks retired. Infirmaries usually had their own chapel, dormitory, refectory, kitchen and latrines. Some infirmaries even had their own cloister where its inhabitants could walk. The infirmary cloister garth was probably a herb garden for the pharmacy. In many ways, it was a monastery within the monastery, but on a much smaller scale.

All the monks stayed there at some point, since they had regular blood-lettings and they were allowed to convalesce in the infirmary for three days afterwards. With its special diet (including meat) and a fire, it was much more comfortable than anywhere else in the monastery, so spending any time there must have made a very pleasant change. The main part of the infirmary space would have been partitioned with wood or stone to make cubicles containing only one or two beds, which would also have made a stay there desirable. The infirmarian and his staff had to be careful, though, as it wasn’t unknown for monks to pretend to be ill in order to enjoy the comforts of the infirmary for a few days.

Sometimes the infirmarian was a physician, but more often a lay physician was employed by the monastery to work under him. He would have been assisted by a staff of monks.

Within the infirmary, there was a pharmacy where herbal remedies were made. It would probably have had a library, probably just a chest, of medical books.

Whatever our opinion of the state of medical knowledge in the Middle Ages might be, they knew as well as we do, that rest is important for the sick. In most monasteries, the infirmary was built far away from the main cloister, where healthy monks walked, worked and taught, in order to ensure that its inhabitants could have peace and quiet.

Care of the sick was important for those following the Benedictine rule. St. Benedict wrote, “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: I was sick and you visited me, and  What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me.” This care extended beyond the monks themselves. In Cistercian monasteries, there was a separate infirmary for the lay brothers and many monasteries provided another infirmary for lay people living nearby, either within the monastery or just outside. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield started in this way, like many other hospitals, in the twelfth century.

By the fifteenth century, the monastic population had decreased and large infirmaries were no longer needed. Some were converted in guest houses or lodgings for the abbot, but some were demolished so that the stone could be reused.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar


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 Medicine, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

17 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Infirmary

  1. Today there needs to be more time for the carers to care for their patients holistically. Wouldn’t it be great to have the room and time to rest and recover within our health system. Obviously wouldn’t work but what’s life without wistful thinking.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I would be one of those angling to get into the infirmary…sounds lovely. Nowadays they practically catapult you out the door of a hospital on the same day you went it. And similarly to what Suz says wouldnt it be great to have recovery spaces?Even for the healthy, just for some recharging…(actually, come to think of it theres a monastery near me that allows people to come and stay, donations welcome. Mount Mellary in Clonmel, keep meaning to go there).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes I think I’d be making myself sick on a regular basis!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sign me up for the infirmary too! I imagine those in their sick beds didn’t attend the offices, and I wonder if they were happy to catch up on uninterrupted sleep or if there was an element of guilt? I am sure the infirmarian needed to be very wise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those who were able were supposed to attend the offices that they could and they had their own chapel if they couldn’t walk as far as the church. I think they would have missed the offices if they’d been in the monastery for several years.


  5. An opportunity to rest and recharge would be desirable, but I don’t envy them the regular bloodlettings!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was thinking that eating meat after bloodletting could have helped boost haemoglobin (as would fish), and that led me to wondering if nuns were also vegetarian and if so, could they have been iron deficient?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everything (more or less) that applied to monks applied to nuns, so they would have been vegetarian for the most part. They would have had legumes and nuts, so they shouldn’t have been iron deficient any more than I am as a vegetarian today.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Eggs are a good source of iron, too. It’s just that iron deficiency in teenage girls and young women seems to be a common problem in “developing countries”. (I don’t like that rather patronising phrase because the “developing countries” all have a longer history of human habitation than NZ does.) Anyway, it does lead me to suspect iron deficiency may have been widespread in earlier times because of the seasonal nature of food and the limited choices.

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    • Even if it was widespread, I doubt it’s something I’ll come across in my reading. There’s always a chance that there’s some research about it somewhere, but there may not be many sources that would give any clues either way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • They may not have noticed it, or perhaps they thought of it as a form of melancholy. I gather anaemia has to be pretty severe before it shows up on skeletal remains.
        It’s not until the 16th century (according to the OED) that references to “green sickness” in teenage girls appear – its symptoms often sound like iron deficiency. However, I think average height had dropped by then, which indicates people were better fed in medieval times.

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