Tag Archives: Medieval Kitchen

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

Anatomy of a Castle – the Kitchen

With upwards of fifty people to feed every day, you would expect castles to have large kitchens and you would be correct.  Often they were separate buildings. It wouldn’t do for a fire in the kitchen to spread to the lord’s domestic apartments. Given that cooking was done over an open fire, there was always a risk of a fire escaping the confines of the hearth and burning down the kitchen, as we’ll see below. Where the kitchen was joined to the building housing the hall, there was usually a thick stone wall between them

The kitchen at Kenilworth is essentially that built by John of Gaunt in the second half of the fourteenth century. It’s huge.  The English Heritage guidebook tells me that it’s 66ft by 28ft, significantly larger than most aristocratic kitchens. For once I’m grateful that I couldn’t take a photograph without children on a school visit appearing in it, as they give an idea of the scale.


The Kitchen, Kenilworth Castle, with obligatory schoolchildren

There were three fireplaces along the wall to the left of the photograph. The brickwork down the middle of the room was a drain for kitchen waste. John of Gaunt had a very large household, hence the need for a large kitchen.

It also had a bread oven.


Bread oven, Kenilworth Castle

I’m not sure they could have baked many loaves in an oven that size. There must have been more ovens somewhere else.

Within the large kitchen at Kenilworth Castle there was a smaller kitchen: the privy kitchen. That was where the food for John of Gaunt, his family and his important guests was prepared.

The kitchen at Old Sarum was much smaller. It was divided into three and the largest part contained three bread ovens. It was probably built around 1307, when the previous kitchen burned down. That might explain why it’s in the middle of the inner bailey, far from the castle’s main buildings.

The inner bailey and bakery, Old Sarum

The inner bailey and bakery, Old Sarum

The kitchen in the palace of John of Gaunt’s nephew, Richard II, at Portchester Castle is tiny and cooking was probably done over a central, open fire, which was quite old-fashioned for the 1390s, especially in the palace of a king. This was, however, one of Richard’s many palaces and it wasn’t his main one.

As you can see from the photograph below, the food was taken up the steps and through the doorway into the Great Hall.

Entrance to the Great Hall from the kitchen

Entrance to the Great Hall from the Kitchen, Portchester Castle

The kitchen is on the left of the palace and its entrance is just to the left of the unavoidable visitor. You can see how compact the palace is. The great hall takes up the rest of the building, and the king’s sleeping quarters are in the building that sticks out at right-angles.

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Kitchen staff, like most of the household, were men (or boys) and they were mostly unseen. In aristocratic households where boys and young men were sent to learn how to be knights, one of their first lessons was waiting on the lord’s table. They learned the ritual of a meal, so they would be able to perform it correctly in their own households.  It was considered an honour to wait on the lord.

A large household meant storing vast quantities of food, drink and fuel. This is one of the vaulted cellars at Kenilworth Castle.


Vaulted cellar, Kenilworth Castle



Old Sarum – John McNeill

Kenilworth Castle – Richard K. Morris

Portchester Castle – 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.

Available now:











Filed under Castle