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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.