Category Archives: Monastery

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.

Sources:
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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Lavatorium

The refectory, Roche Abbey

The refectory, Roche Abbey

It’s a bit of a myth that people in the Middle Ages were dirty. We know from contemporary instruction books that fairly high standards of hygiene that were expected at mealtimes at least. Much has been made, however, of the fact that instruction books were needed at all. This must mean, say some, that there were many people whose standards of behaviour and cleanliness were lower than they should have been, and that’s probably true. The same thing applies today, however. We would not need such reminders as ‘Now wash your hands’ in public toilets if everyone complied with that basic hygiene requirement. I would suggest that we accept that, as far as they were able, most people in the Middle Ages did wash their hands before meals.

Instruction books for monks also included directions about cleanliness. The wonderfully-named ‘Babees Book’ was written to instruct the novices at Barnwell Priory. It includes the instruction “The youthful monk is bidden to wash his hands before meals.” Given that some monks in the early days of monasticism could be children, such an instruction is not unexpected. Even these days it’s difficult to get young boys to wash their hands. In the Middle Ages, food was eaten with a knife and fingers from a common dish. Dirty hands would not have been welcome at the table. The place where monks washed their hands was the lavatorium. Don’t confuse this with the latrine, which we’ll come to later. This was a place for washing only.

The lavatorium was usually by the entrance to the refectory, but it was sometimes in the open area surrounded by the cloisters. Wherever it was, the lavatorium had a roof and was large enough to allow access to several monks at the same time. I’m not entirely convinced that I’ve captured what remains of the lavatorium at Roche Abbey in the photograph of the refectory above, as I wasn’t looking for it at the time, but it’s on the left in the middle distance if it’s there at all. Here’s a link to a wonderful example of a lavatorium at Wenlock Priory, which I’ve seen several times but don’t seem to have photographed.

The lavatorium at Roche Abbey was fed by a spring. The water travelled through pipes that filled a shallow basin running along the wall. The basins and troughs in lavatoria would have been lined with lead. The lavatorium was also used on Saturday afternoons when the abbot washed the monks’ feet as a mark of humility. This was supposed to be done in all monasteries, but given a growing tendency for abbots to live in a separate building in the monastic grounds as the Middle Ages went on, I suspect it was a practice that fell increasingly out of use.

Not only was the lavatorium at Roche Abbey filled with water from pipes, but there were also drains to take the water away. Dirty water wasn’t allowed to stand for long. This was the case in most lavatoria.

The monks washed and shaved here after Prime each morning. They shaved in order of seniority, with the senior monks benefiting from the hot water and sharp razors. Clean towels were kept nearby. It was the job of the fraterer to ensure that there were sufficient clean towels ready for use.

The photograph below is irrelevant to this post’s subject, but I was very taken with the little bridges over the stream that runs through Roche Abbey and I doubt they’ll come up again.

Bridges over the stream, Roche Abbey

Bridges over the stream, Roche Abbey

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Refectory

Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey 3 (2)

After the abbey church, the second largest building in a monastery was the refectory, or frater. It was here that the monks gathered for their meals. They ate together, so, like the church, the refectory had to be large enough to accommodate all of them.

Monks had breakfast after the first Mass, between 7 and 8 a.m. Before each meal, they washed their hands in the lavatorium. Handwashing was part of the mealtime ritual in all large households in the Middle Ages; it wasn’t just monks who did this. We’ll look at the lavatorium itself in a later post.

The monks ate in silence, standing up, listening to a monk reading from the Bible. There was a pulpit in the refectory and one of the senior brothers would read aloud during every meal. The reader asked for the meal to be blessed before they ate. At the end of the meal, the monks prayed silently for those who had been the monastery’s benefactors.  Breakfast was a very small meal.

The mixtum was a mid-morning meal of a piece of bread soaked in beer, for the elderly, the infirm and young novices who struggled with the period of fasting until the main meal in the afternoon. When I first read about this, I wondered about the young boys for whom this was a problem, then I realised that they were probably quite young, at least in the early centuries of monasticism in England. There came a point when children were no longer permitted to enter monasteries as novices, but when they were, these boys would have been up since the middle of the night, mostly on their feet. They, like the old and infirm, would have been very tired and very hungry by mid-morning.

Like everything else in the monastery, the timing of meals depended on the season – liturgical as well as temporal. In some monasteries, there was only one meal eaten just after noon in some seasons and around 3 p.m. in others. During Lent, it was eaten at dusk. During the summer, when it was eaten around noon, there was usually a light supper at sunset.

Before the meal, grace was sung and the monks were silent while they ate. In order for the meal to pass in an orderly fashion and to allow the monks to listen to the reading, they developed sign languages so that they could assist one another as necessary. It would have been very distracting and noisy if they had had to walk around the table helping themselves to food and drink. Instead, they had hand signals which indicated what it was they needed so that the brother nearest the item could pass it to them.

Easby Abbey refectory 2

Refectory, Easby Abbey

Monks’ diets varied according to their order. Some were more restrictive than others. St. Benedict had forbidden meat to all but the sick and infirm, but meat was permitted to everyone by the fourteenth century on the grounds that total abstinence from meat was harmful. I’m sure I’m not the only vegetarian who would quibble with that idea. The Carthusians, however, continued to do without meat entirely and the Cistercians only allowed it to be eaten in the infirmary and the guest house. It was cooked in a separate kitchen.

This main meal was supposed to be made up of two courses of cooked vegetables plus bread and beer, or a little wine on a festival day.  St Benedict had only permitted two courses in case some monks were not able to eat one of the dishes. He also allowed a pound of bread a day for each monk, which sounds quite substantial to me. These two courses could be vegetables, fish, eggs, pottage, bread, sometimes fruit and cheese, or meat, depending on where and when in the Middle Ages it was eaten. The meat would have been beef or pork.

Everything you’ve ever learned about fat monks is only partially true and only for a relatively short period. By the fifteenth century it’s possible that some monks were eating as well as, if not better than, any secular lord. It was one of many transgressions against St. Benedict’s rule that made it fairly easy for Henry VIII to dissolve the monasteries. St. Benedict had very definite views on gluttony. He wrote, “Nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence”.

In some monasteries there was a high table where the abbot and the prior sat with their guests, who always had a better meal than the monks. In some monasteries, their meals were prepared in a separate kitchen. Guests were allowed to talk a little. This seating arrangement was a reflection of what happened in the halls of manor houses and castles up and down England. In the same way, the monks sat at long tables that ran along the two longer walls of the refectory. They sat with their backs to the walls facing one another across the width of the room, just as they would have done in the secular world. Those who were serving could move around the space in the middle and place things easily on the tables.

As in secular houses, the seating at mealtimes was hierarchical and the most junior members were closest to the door, away from the high table. Novices had their own table and sometimes ate in a separate room. In either case, they ate under the eye of the novice master.

I said that we would discover some more roles for monks as we went around the monastery and here are a couple of them. The food was served by a discarius in a small monastery and by servitors in larger ones. These were not permanent roles; the monks took it in turns to serve in the refectory. When the meal was over, they, and the monk who had been reading aloud from the pulpit, ate with the kitchen staff.

Refectories were usually built over undercrofts where the monastery’s provisions were stored. You can see the demarcation very clearly in the photograph below. The quality of the stonework in the refectory is much better than that in the undercroft.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

The pulpit in the refectory was usually set in a window bay reached by stairs enclosed by the wall. The reader read for the whole week. The monks prayed for him on Sunday, the day on which his period of service began. He read from the Bible, all of which was read aloud at over the course of a year. Sometimes he also read from commentaries on the Bible.

Refectories were so grand that one of them is serving as a parish church in Beaulieu. The stone pulpit is still in use.

 

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
The Rule of St Benedict in English

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.

rpt

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.

saxon-rood

In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Sources:
Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron

 

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Three

rpt

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.

Sources:
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Two

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

We’re continuing this series about monasteries by looking at some of the obedientiaries. Last week we looked at the cellarer’s department. This week we have two more departments.

First, the chamberlain, or camerarius. He was the housekeeper with wide, though fairly mundane, responsibilities. Sometimes the chamberlain and the cellarer were the same person, which would seem to be a sensible arrangement. The chamberlain’s main duty was to make sure that the monks had clothing and that it was clean. This meant that he had to employ laundresses to wash all the linen used in the monastery. One of the things that surprised me as I prepared for this series is just how much contact the monks might have with women. Whether the linen was sent out to the laundresses or they came into the monastery, I haven’t been able to find out. The washing itself was probably done in a nearby river.

Another of the chamberlain’s jobs was making sure that the hay in the monks’ mattresses was replaced frequently. He was also responsible for horses and carts, including those at the granges, which is one of the reasons why it would have made sense for the cellarer and the chamberlain to be the same person, since the cellarer was responsible for the granges. The chamberlain had to make sure that there was always enough fodder for the horses and that the harness was in good order. He was responsible for keeping the monastery’s lamps in good repair and for maintaining a fire in the warming room, where the monks worked on cold days.

I haven’t come across any subordinates that he might have had, but I doubt he stuffed the mattresses himself, nor would he have put the horses’ fodder into the stables.

warming room, Rievaulx Abbey

Warming Room, Rievaulx Abbey

The third senior obedientiary was the sacrist, who did have identifiable staff beneath him. His responsibility was the very heart of the monastery: the abbey church.

The sacrist looked after the fabric of the church, including the altars, vessels and any shrines. His duties included keeping them secure. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, churchmen weren’t above stealing bits of saints’ relics and the odd pilgrim might try to take a bit of a shrine home with them, but there would also be many extremely valuable objects within the church, which would tempt a thief. The plate would often be of silver or gold, as would the ornaments. If the shrine housed a popular saint, it might be covered with gold and jewels. The vestments were often made of expensive fabric and covered in fine embroidery.

The sacrist didn’t just look after valuable objects, he was also responsible for the cleaning of the church and for making sure that everything within it was in good condition. This included the furniture. He also helped design the fittings, windows, altars, decorations and wall paintings if they were being replaced. The wall paintings would have been replaced frequently. In addition to everything else, he looked after the clocks, bells, vestments, plate, reliquaries, lights and vestments. If it was within the church, he had to make sure it worked, was clean and could be used. He kept an inventory of everything, which I think must have been onerous if the abbey church held a popular shrine. Pilgrims tended to leave gifts of large and small value at shrines, so there would have been frequent additions to his lists.  His assistants included the treasurer, the sub-sacrist, the revestiarius and the master of works. He usually slept at the end of the dorter nearest the treasury.

painted-wall

Wall Painting, Romsey Abbey

The sub-sacrist, or matricularius, was the sacrist’s deputy and the monastery’s timekeeper. In addition to being the deputy, he also had some duties of his own. He had to ensure that the monastery’s bells rang at the right time. He ate and slept in the church so that there was always someone there.

The treasurer was responsible for the monastery’s valuables. These included the church plate, vestments, rare books, documents and money.

The revestiarius looked after the vestments and other fabrics used in the church. Different coloured vestments and fabrics were (and still are) used in different liturgical seasons and at certain festivals. He had to make sure that the correct colours were put out.

Next week we’ll wrap up the obedientiaries with some roles that don’t appear to have come under any of the three departments that we’ve looked at so far.

Sources:

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part One

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

Last week I mentioned that the responsibility for running a monastery was shared between the abbot, the prior and the obedientiaries. These last were like heads of departments in a business. They each had a very precise area of responsibility, often with a large staff, and they had to co-ordinate their efforts with the other obedientiaries. As I said before, all of this applies to convents as well as to monasteries.

In this post, we’ll look at the cellarer.

The cellarer had a wide range of responsibilities and a correspondingly large number of monks and lay servants beneath him. His main responsibility was the supply of food, wine/beer and fuel both to the monastery and to any guests staying there. You would be excused for thinking that this meant that he simply bought food, wine and wood, but he was also responsible for their production. He oversaw the transport of provisions from the monastery’s estates and their storage once they had arrived at the monastery. St. Benedict said that he should be ‘sober and no great eater’, since the temptations for a man in his position were very great.

Monasteries could be large landowners encompassing many manors whose tenants paid rents to them. The cellarer had the right to appoint bailiffs to these manors. Monasteries also had granges. These were farms some distance away from the monastery to which they belonged and they were managed directly by the monastery. This wasn’t easy and granges were usually managed by a granger under the cellarer, although it was the cellarer’s responsibility to make sure there were enough men to work the granges. He also had to ensure that the workers on the granges weren’t stealing, but were working as they should. The tithe barn at Bradford-on-Avon in the photograph at the top of the post, was on one of the granges belonging to the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, thirty miles away. All of the produce from the granges went to the monastery, although some of it was sold, especially the wool. Some monasteries owned thousands of sheep and they were great exporters of wool.

Given that he knew more about land than any of the other monks, it was also the cellarer’s job to lease and sell land on behalf of the abbot.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Undercroft and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

Not only was the cellarer responsible for growing the food, but he was also responsible for storing it and processing it. Like most medieval buildings of any size, monasteries had undercrofts, like those in the photograph above, where things could be stored. He also managed the monastery’s mills, the brew-house, the malthouse, and the bakehouse.

Some of the monastery’s manors might have the right to have markets and fairs within their boundaries. People who sold goods at the markets and fairs had to pay a toll to the lord of the manor, and the cellarer was responsible for collecting these.

He looked after monastery’s guests, usually through his subordinate, the guest-master. We’ll come to his duties in a bit. As you might guess, given that most of his work was based outside the monastery, the cellarer was the person charged with communication between the monastery and the world beyond its walls.

The cellarer’s responsibilities were wide-ranging, so he managed a large staff. Head of these was his deputy, the sub-cellarer, whose specific duties concerned food and drink. In some monasteries, these included responsibility for the guest-house, although larger monasteries had a separate guest-master. The sub-cellarer was assisted by the granatrorius, who looked after the granary. All wheat and malt corn from the monastery’s estates passed through it. The granatorius had to keep accounts of what came in and went out, and where it came from and went to.

The guest-master was a senior member of the cellarer’s staff. Monasteries received two kinds of visitors. The first were poor pilgrims who might ask for free accommodation and food from monasteries on the way to the shrine that was their goal. The second were royalty, cardinals, bishops and nobility. Both groups could include women. The pilgrims were the province of the almoner, while the guest-master looked after the high-status guests. He provided accommodation and meals for them and stabling for their horses. With his assistant, the hosteller, he worked closely with the kitchener.

The kitchener, or coquinarius, looked after the cooking of food and made sure that portion sizes were as prescribed by St. Benedict. No one else, other than his assistants, was allowed into the kitchen. He planned the meals, supervised the kitchen, made sure that cooking pots were cleaned and employed an emptor to buy any provisions that couldn’t be obtained from the monastery’s manors.

The caterer supervised the serving of food at mealtimes.

Easby Abbey refectory 2

Refectory, Easby Abbey

The fraterer, or refecteror, was responsible for the refectory and its cleanliness. This was where the monks ate their meals. The crockery, table linen and lavatorium, where, amongst other things, the monks washed their hands before meals, were his responsibility. He kept an inventory of cups and spoons; made sure that the table linen was clean and in good repair; and he kept the lavatorium clean and supplied with towels. He also made sure that the refectory floor was covered with fresh rushes.

The gardener was another of the cellarer’s staff. He provided fruit, vegetables and herbs to the kitchen and herbs to the pharmacy. Monastic gardens were often places of experience and experimentation, and monks were, generally, ahead of the rest of the population in the cultivation of plants.

As part of their estates, many monasteries owned woods under the care of a woodward. The woods provided fuel and building material to the monastery.

As you can see, feeding a large monastery was not a straightforward business.

Sources:

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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Anatomy of a Monastery – Monks Again

Pedestrian access, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Gates, Roche Abbey

Last week I said that we would move on to the spaces within a monastery, but I thought it might be useful to look more closely at the monks themselves. We saw the timetable of their days last week, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of their lives. They were members of a community which was also a commercial enterprise, and each man had his part to play.

Hierarchy was as important in the monastery as it was everywhere else in the medieval world. The abbot was at the top of the Benedictine monastery. Abbot means ‘father’, coming from the Hebrew ‘abba’. This was a term used by Jesus when referring to God in the Gospels. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule that the abbot was to represent Christ in the monastery. His commands were, therefore, to be obeyed as if they were from God.

The abbot was elected to the position for life by the monks of the monastery, but the appointment had to be approved by the king. Sometimes the pope also interfered in the election. The abbot had absolute authority over the monks, subject only to the Rule and to his own conscience. The abbot was supposed to teach and advise the monks, and St. Benedict advised him to consider himself their servant rather than the other way round. He was responsible for everything to do with the monastery including its estates.

An abbess was the abbot’s equivalent in a convent, and all the positions that I’ll refer to later also applied to convents.

Abbots tended to come from noble families and could be involved in affairs of state in their own right, often attending parliaments. This meant that the day to day running of the monastery was usually left to the prior.

The prior (prioress in a convent) acted as the abbot’s deputy in Benedictine monasteries. In Cluniac and mendicant houses, however, the prior was the superior and his deputy was the sub-prior.

The role of the prior was not something that St. Benedict recommended. He thought there could be discord between the abbot and the prior, who might, through pride, ‘consider himself a second abbot’. What St. Benedict wanted was a system of deans where each dean would have charge of ten monks. This was tried in some monasteries in northern Africa, but it didn’t have much success.

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

There was too much work involved in running a monastery for the abbot and the prior to be able to do it all between them. Since the method proposed by St. Benedict for managing a monastery had been rejected, another way had to be found. In the end, it was done through a small group of monks referred to as obedientiaries, that is those who owe obedience. They included the cellarer, the precentor and the sacrist amongst others. They had to provide accounts for their particular area of responsibility each year at Michaelmas (29th September).

When a new abbot was appointed, the obedientiaries’ terms ended. Some of them had such demanding duties that they didn’t have to attend all of the offices and were permitted to leave the monastery on occasion.

As time went on and the tasks became too many or too complex for one man (or woman), the obedientiaries took on subordinates. The cellarer’s staff, for example, could include a kitchener, a refecteror, a gardener and a woodward (a man in charge of a wood). Each of these might have their own staff beneath them, sometimes including lay servants.

It’s probably easiest to look at the obedientiaries in terms of heads of departments, with staff beneath them. By the time I got to the end of all the obedientiaries and their staffs, though, I had enough information for four posts, so I’ll return to them over the next few weeks.

If you think that all this organisation seems a bit excessive, it’s worth remembering that there could be hundreds of monks in a monastery. Rievaulx at its peak had 600. Providing even their clothes, food and drink would have required the labour of many people, whose efforts would have had to be organised and co-ordinated.

Sources:

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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Monks

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century, we have a (mostly) false idea of their number and importance to people in the Middle Ages. If they weren’t broken up and their stones and lead taken away to be used elsewhere, monastic buildings were turned into private dwellings and we have few physical reminders of them.

In my own town, for example, the friary that was within the medieval town’s walls has disappeared completely. A priory just outside those walls has left behind a gateway in someone’s garden and is recalled in a street name. Within 5 or 6 miles of my house there were at least five monasteries plus hospitals and other institutions founded and managed by them. I can’t over-emphasise how important monasteries were and how much of an impact they had on the lives of everyone in England, monks or otherwise.

Not all monasteries were as large as Rievaulx in the photograph above, but they all had similar spaces within them to meet the requirements of the monastic life. In order to understand the spaces, we need to look at the purpose of a monastery. The monastic movement began in northern Africa in the third century with men and women going to secluded places to live alone and pray without distractions. Gradually the hermits joined together for support and protection, and a number of different sets of rules were created to govern their communities. Those produced by St. Benedict early in the sixth century gained widespread acceptance.

Roch Abbey Church

Roche Abbey Church

The rules set out what the monks could eat and wear, and how they would spend their time. Monks weren’t to spend all their time in prayer, but also take on physical work. The rules also set out how a monastery was to be run. The life of a monk wasn’t supposed to be easy.

Cistercian timetable – the offices are in bold type
Summer
1.30 a.m. Rise
2.00 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
3.30 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
Rest
Reading
6.00 a.m. Prime
Chapter meeting
Work
8.00 a.m. Terce
Mass
Reading
11.30 a.m. Sext
Dinner
Rest
Work
2.30 p.m. None
Work
Supper
6.00 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
8.00 p.m. Compline
8.15 p.m. Retire to bed

Winter
2.30 a.m. Rise
3.30 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
Reading
6.00 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
Prime
Reading
8.00 a.m. Terce
Mass
Chapter meeting
Work
Noon       Sext
Mass
1.30 p.m.  None
Dinner
Rest
Work
4.15 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
6.15 p.m. Compline
6.30 p.m. Retire to bed

St. Benedict divided the monks’ day into three parts – opus dei (work of God or church offices); lectio divina (spiritual reading); and opus manuum (manual labour). As you can see above, their timetable varied from season to season, depending on the hours of daylight available, although some of the offices took place during the night.

The number of offices comes from the Psalms, in which the Psalmist praised God seven times a day and got up at midnight to give thanks. There were eight offices a day and they were made up of psalms, readings from the Bible and prayer. In addition, Mass was celebrated once a day.

Spiritual reading took up about two hours of the day, bearing in mind that the length of an hour was longer in the summer than in the winter.

There was also a meeting of the entire community in the chapter-house each day. This was when the business of the monastery was discussed and rule-breaking punished. At the end of the meeting, a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict was read aloud.

Easby Abbey west range

Easby Abbey

The manual labour part of the day lasted from two to four hours. This could take the form of gardening, agricultural work, carpentry or copying manuscripts. The monks were supposed to do all the labour need to support the community themselves, but many monasteries had servants to assist, St. Benedict having conceded that not all monks would be up to manual labour. The Cistercians decided that their whole day should be devoted to the opus dei and the lectio divina, and instituted the concept of lay brothers, who had dedicated spaces within a monstery. They slept in a separate dormitory, ate in a separate refectory and were cared for when in ill a separate infirmary. They spent most of their time in manual labour and only attended two offices a day.

Having established what monks did, we can move on next week to look at the spaces in which they carried out those activities.

Sources:
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter

 

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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Anatomy of a Monastery

anatomy-of-a-monastery.jpg

Having looked at castles in detail, I thought it might be useful to look at monasteries in a similar way. Although castles feature in most of my novels, my characters rarely have anything to do with monasteries. In reality, though, medieval people were far more likely to be familiar with a monastery than they were to know about castles. There were monasteries and monastic institutions everywhere, while castles tended to be placed only at strategic locations. Monasteries were great landowners and many agricultural labourers had an abbot or abbess as their lord of the manor, which meant dealing with the monks and occasionally visiting the monastery. Monasteries provided hospitals for the sick and alms for the poor.

The layout of a monastery depended on the type of monk or nun who inhabited it and the amount of space available. The Cistercians tended to follow the same pattern in all their monasteries, but that wasn’t necessarily true of the Benedictines.

There were certain buildings and rooms that were essential for all monasteries and the most important of them were situated around the cloisters. The monastery had to have a church where the monks could worship; cloisters (and other places) where they could work; a refectory where they could eat; a dormitory where they could sleep and a chapter house where they could meet together. Typically there would be other buildings such as the abbot’s house and kitchen, an infirmary, latrines, a guest house, a treasury and, in Cistercian monasteries in particular, accommodation for lay brothers.

Over the next few weeks we’ll have a look at the various spaces within a monastery and what happened in them.

 

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

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