Tag Archives: Medieval Monastery

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Gatehouse

The gatehouse, Roche Abbey (2)

The Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

This is our final visit to the monastery and we’re leaving, as is proper, via the gatehouse. Like castles, monasteries were surrounded by a wall. In some parts of the country monasteries were subject to raids at various times, so some kind of fortification was important. Since monks had no means of defending themselves, the wall and the gate had to be as strong as possible. 

Gatehouses were staffed by porters, whose job it was to question those who wanted to enter, or leave, the monastery. The purpose of their questions was to find out whether that person had the right to come in or go out. Once he had made sure of the visitor’s identity and their reason for coming to the monastery, the porter directed them to the relevant obedientiary.

The porter could either be a monk or a lay employee and he was usually given accommodation in or near the gatehouse.

Gatehouses didn’t just allow entry to people, but also to carts. Supplies arrived from the abbey’s granges in carts or on the backs of horses, and guests would arrive with carts containing some of their belongings. My favourite gatehouse is this one where you can see the separate entrances for both carts and for people on foot. In many monasteries there was a single entrance for both.

Visitors were only allowed into what was effectively an outer courtyard. They were not allowed into the inner courtyard: the cloister. Like an outer bailey of a castle, this outer courtyard, known as the precinct, could be very large. It was here that any stores, barns, workshops, cattle-sheds, mills, smithies, stables and cemeteries were located.

The gates were closed at Compline, the last office before the monks went to bed. The porter could, however, open them for guests who had been delayed on their way or even pilgrims arriving after dark.

Large gatehouses like the one at Easby Abbey below, had rooms upstairs that could be used as offices or accommodation for the porter. Stores of items to be given as alms to the poor could be stored there so that they could be dispensed without the poor needing to enter the monastery. Alms were given out from a covered porch on the other side of the gate.

Easby Abbey gatehouse (2)

Gatehouse, Easby Abbey

Another use for the space on the upper floor was as a prison. Prisons were used to punish disobedient monks. We saw some weeks ago how they were sentenced in the chapter house and imprisonment was one of the most severe forms of punishment.

The gatehouse at Roche Abbey was built in the fourteenth century. Most of the slabs underfoot are original. Considering its purpose, it’s very elegant. It has beautiful vaulted ceilings with carved heads scattered about. When it was built it had an upper story, but that hasn’t survived.

Corbel, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Carved head, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval pavement, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval Pavement, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Roche Abbey by Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy 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 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.

Sources:
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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Kitchen

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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.

 

Sources:
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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbot’s Lodgings

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Abbot’s Lodgings, Muchelney Abbey

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.

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Abbot’s Lodging, Muchelney Abbey

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.

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

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.

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

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Abbot’s Great Chamber, Muchelney Abbey

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.

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Wall Painting, Muchelney Abbey

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.

 

Sources:
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.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Warming Room

warming room, Rievaulx Abbey

Warming Room, Rievaulx Abbey

Last week I wrote about the cloister, which was the place where the monks spent most of their time when they weren’t in church. The cloister was, at least in the early Middle Ages, mostly unheated and the light on wet or snowy winter days would have been too poor for reading or copying books, which is what the monks were doing there. There would also be days when it was simply too cold to sit in the cloister, even if there were braziers at strategic points.

On those days the monks could sit in the calefactorium (warming house or warming room). In most monasteries it was just a large room, but in Cistercian monasteries it was a separate building.

It was called a warming room because it had a fireplace, sometimes two. It was one of only three rooms in a monastery that had a fire, the other two being the kitchen and the infirmary.

The fire was lit on All Saints Day (1st November) and was allowed to burn until Good Friday (anywhere between 20th March and 23rd April).

One of my sources suggests that clothes were dried in the warming room in winter, which would explain the two fireplaces. I think the size of the room and the number of monks it might have to accommodate explain them fairly adequately.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Cloister

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

Last week I wrote about monks borrowing books from the monastery library, but not reading them there. That’s because they read them in the cloister: the square/rectangular/odd-four-sided space around which the most important buildings were gathered.

Monks had two hours of spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) a day. Their reading would not have been a private matter, however, as silent reading was not encouraged, nor was it the normal practice in the Middle Ages. Reading was generally done aloud, usually with an audience. The monks probably couldn’t choose a book, but had one assigned to them. Whether it was their own choice or not, whatever they borrowed was recorded and they had to return it within a certain time period. Many books were stored in the book cupboard in the cloister and some monasteries never needed more than this one cupboard in which to keep their books.

Easby Abbey refectory and cloisters

Cloister and Refectory, Easby Abbey

The central part, the cloister garth, was uncovered, but the cloister itself was covered and enclosed. It was also the place where the monks worked, taught, walked and meditated. In some monasteries the cloister garth was a lawn, in others it was a herb or vegetable garden. In Cistercian monasteries it was the burial ground. Some monasteries had their lavatorium here and most monasteries had a well.

Where possible, the cloister was on the south side of the church. The floors were covered with rushes or matting, which must have helped with the cold. Some monasteries allowed braziers to be lit on very cold days, but most cloisters were unheated. At night, lamps burned in the cloister. I’m not sure why, since no one was supposed to be there then and access to anyone who didn’t belong to the monastery was severely restricted at all times.

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Reconstructed Cloister Arcade, Rievaulx Abbey

The exterior walls of the surrounding buildings formed the interior walls of the cloister. The exterior wall was usually in the form of an arcade, allowing as much light as possible into the cloister. The church wall of the cloister was lined with carrels where the monks studied, except in Carthusian monasteries where the monks studied in their own cells.

A carrel was made of stone or wood and was an enclosed space. They had rooves, or canopies, and doors to keep the drafts out. There was enough space in each for a bench and a desk. In some monasteries there were additional carrels along other walls.

The cloisters, Roche Abbey

The Cloister, Roche Abbey

The novices were often taught on the western side of the cloister and, in Benedictine monasteries, the southern side held the scriptorium, where books were copied.  In some monasteries the scriptorium wasn’t in the cloister, but in a separate room, usually on an upper floor. The scriptorium was located so that it would receive as much light as possible. Some monasteries had carrels in the scriptorium, others did not.

Copying books was considered to be a good thing for monks to do, because they could do it in silence. Books weren’t just copied; most were also illuminated and painted. Books were produced in places besides the monasteries, but the monasteries were the main source, at least until the development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.

The cloister at Easy Abbey is a very odd shape, due, I think, to the site, which is very uneven. It has three shorter sides and one long side. Sadly, this hasn’t come out in my photographs.

Easby Abbey cloister towards church

The Cloister and Part of the Church, Easby Abbey

The cloister at Rievaulx was one of the largest built by the Cistercians in England.

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The Cloister and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

The cloister also had a part to play in the offices. It was used on some occasions for processions before the monks entered the church.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library

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The library, Rievaul Abbey

If I was surprised by the size of the chapter houses I’ve seen, I was dumbfounded by the size of the libraries. I had anticipated huge spaces, but they were tiny.

All monasteries had a library, but they weren’t necessarily very large, not to start with, at least. In the early Middle Ages, all of a monastery’s books could be kept in a single cupboard. Eventually, however, they needed a room to themselves. From the end of the fourteenth century in many monasteries, that room had to be quite large. By the end of the Middle Ages, even a fairly small monastery could have 1,000 books. The monastery at Canterbury had over 4,000.

Most of the monasteries I’ve visited recently are Cistercian. As you can see from the photograph of the libraries at Rievaulx Abbey above and Roche Abbey below, their libraries tended to be narrow spaces between the north transept of the abbey church and the chapter house. All Cistercian monasteries were laid out on the same plan, with some accommodation being made for the geography of the site and the size of the monastery, so they all had fairly small libraries.

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The Library, Roche Abbey

In monasteries of other orders, the libraries eventually became quite large and there would be additional cupboards of books located around the monastery: in the church, the refectory and the infirmary. Like the dormitories, these larger libraries were often on upper floors.

Books were both valuable and rare, even more so in the early Middle Ages. Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, every book had to be written by hand. The books in a monastic library were either copied in the monastery’s own scriptorium or were the gifts of benefactors. The armarius was responsible for both the library and the scriptorium. Monks could borrow books for their own use from the library and there was time set aside each day for them to read. They didn’t read in the library, but, mainly, in the cloister.

Reading was an important activity for a monk. As a minimum, a monastery had books for the offices and some complete Bibles. The libraries typically held individual books of the Bible for personal study. These often had notes or commentaries written in the margins. Works of the Church Fathers (such as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome) were also held, as were histories; lives of saints; classical texts; books of sermons; meditations; and treatises on medicine and agriculture.

In the thirteenth century, Rievaulx Abbey had 225 books, of which 22 survive. Two catalogues from that time are extant and they list legal works; histories by Bede, Henry of Huntingdon and Eusebius; philosophical works by Cicero and Boethius; books by Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the founders of the Cistercian order; and works by former abbots and monks of the monastery.

Many books from monastic libraries were burned during the dissolution of the Monasteries, although some libraries were just broken up, with the books ending up in private hands. Fortunately, men like Sir Robert Cotton recognised the importance of these books and collected and preserved as many of them as they could. The collection of Sir Robert, his son and his grandson later formed the basis of the British Library.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Monastery – The Chapter House

Chapter House, Rievaulx Abbey

One of the things that surprised me when I started looking properly at monasteries was how small the chapter houses tended to be. The chapter house was the second most important building in the monastery and was usually located near to the most important: the abbey church. All the monks gathered inside it once a day. You can see why I was expecting them to be large.

Not only did the monks meet here daily, but it was also the place where important guests were received and where monks took their vows.

It was called the chapter house because a chapter of the rule governing the monastery was read aloud to the assembled monks each day. This wasn’t necessarily the Rule of St. Benedict, although it was the most common. The Augustinians, for example, were governed by the rule of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Pope Benedict XII decreed in 1344 that in all monasteries where there were more than six brothers there should be a daily meeting with all of them present. This had been the practice in many large monasteries from the eleventh century.

The monks usually met after the office of Prime. The abbot sat on a raised seat with the obedientiaries either side of him. There were stone benches along the walls where monks could sit during the meeting, although the seating was usually insufficient to allow everyone to sit down. In some monasteries, such as Rievaulx (shown above), the seating was tiered and could accommodate most of the community.

The meeting began by remembering the martyrs who were being celebrated on that day. Then there were prayers for the dead, with particular emphasis on those who had been benefactors of the monastery. A chapter of the rule was read aloud and the abbot or the prior addressed the monks. After that they dealt with the monastery’s business. The monks were allocated their weekly duties; correspondence was discussed; and reports from the monastery’s officials were read. These reports were about the running of the monastery itself and its estates. Visitors were present sometimes for this first part of the meeting.

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Chapter House, Roche Abbey

The final part of the meeting took part in private and was mostly concerned with the discipline of the community. Brothers might be accused by others of failing to comply with the rule, or they might accuse themselves. Every member of the community, except the novices, was allowed to speak in this part of the meeting.

In his Rule, St. Benedict took a fairly compassionate approach to discipline that wasn’t necessarily put into practice in medieval monasteries. He said that a monk should be warned privately by a senior monk if he was found to be at fault and he allowed for the monk to be warned twice before any action was taken. Only after that was his fault to be made public. If he still went his own way, he was to be punished. This punishment might be a beating or it might be exclusion from the common life for a while. The monk was said to be excommunicated, because he was no longer in communion with his brothers. He ate alone and wasn’t allowed to lead in any part of the offices. For more serious faults, the monk would not be permitted to talk to the other monks. St Benedict said that it was the abbot’s responsibility to help the non-compliant monk to see his fault and to amend both his behaviour and his attitude. The ultimate punishment was to the expulsion of the recalcitrant monk from the monastery. Failures of discipline were taken seriously because obedience was one of the main requirements of the monastic life.

Most breaches committed by medieval monks were things that we would consider relatively minor, such as not keeping silence or neglecting to give alms. More serious faults included blasphemy and rebellion. These were the kind of failures that might require more than a warning from a senior monk.

The abbot decided the case and any punishment was announced to the assembled brothers. If the punishment was a beating, it would be carried out there and then, with the whole community as witness. Other punishments included putting the monk on a diet of bread and water or demoting him.

The monks were not permitted to talk about anything discussed in the chapter house outside of it and there were strict rules about how discussions within in were to take place. For example, the monks were to speak clearly so that everyone could hear them. When one monk was speaking, everyone else was to be silent. Only the abbot could interrupt when someone was speaking.

Sometimes chapter houses were used for secular meetings by local authorities. The King’s Court, the predecessor of Parliament, met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey.

When a monk died, his body was taken to the chapter house to rest before it was buried in the monastery cemetery. Abbots had the privilege of being buried beneath the chapter house.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
The Rule of St Benedict in English
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of Monastery – The Dormitory

Day room, Rievaulx Abbey

The day room, Rievaulx Abbey. The dormitory was above this room.

Having looked at a building that adjoined the dormitory last week, it’s time to look at the dormitory itself.

When you visit monastic ruins, you’ll often see signs saying ‘Dormitory Above’ or ‘Dormitory Over’. Dormitories were on the first floor, or second if you’re American, and haven’t tended to survive. Sadly, that means that I can’t show you any examples of extant dormitories. Some do exist, but not in the monasteries I’ve visited. That’s why my single photograph illustrating this post doesn’t even show a dormitory.

As I mentioned last week, another name for the dormitory is dorter, which is something else you might see on the signs. It had two sets of stairs: the night stairs leading into the abbey church and the day stairs. The latter usually came out into the cloister.

It was a long room, usually lit by a single light at night. All the monks slept in the same dormitory. One of the exceptions to this were the Cistercian houses where the lay brothers had a separate dormitory to the monks, in a different part of the monastic site. At Fountains Abbey, up to 400 lay brothers could sleep in the space provided. The other exception was the Carthusian order, whose monks slept in individual cells.

Privacy wasn’t much of a thing in the Middle Ages. Had it been, however, it’s unlikely that monks would have been permitted to enjoy it. Some orders did allow the dormitory to be partitioned into cubicles towards the end of the Middle Ages, but only the Carthusians allowed the monks their own cells for sleep.

These days, we’re encouraged to sleep in unheated bedrooms, but that was fairly unusual in the Middle Ages. In large houses and castles, the servants slept in the hall where there was usually a fire, and kings and lords slept in solars which also had a fire. In poorer houses people mostly slept in the same room as the fire or nearby. It must have been a shock for a monk to have to sleep in a room with no heating at all. Some dormitories were built over the day room, however, where there was at least one fire burning during the daytime in winter. The monks sleeping above it might have benefited from some residual heat.

In the early days of monasticism all the monks, including the abbot, slept in the dormitory, but that changed over the years. At first the abbot was allowed his own bedchamber; later he had a separate building to himself.

The monks removed only their outer garments for bed, sleeping in their habits. St. Benedict had prescribed that they sleep on a mattress with a blanket, a coverlet and a pillow.

Talking in the dormitory was forbidden and it was patrolled at night to ensure that the monks were quiet and that no illicit candles were burning. That would be the job of the circator, whom we met last week.

Sources:
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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