Tag Archives: Monasticism

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.


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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Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

Monks and friars and how to tell them apart


I used to work in an area of London called Blackfriars. It took its name from the monks of the priory built there in 1276. The Black Friars were Dominicans and wore black habits. There were other monks who were white friars, as well as Benedictines and Cluniacs and others, and I have never been able to come to grips with the differences between the various monastical orders. I wasn’t even sure that there were differences.

Since a character in my work in progress is a monk, it seemed like a good idea to work out what kind of monk he was and, perhaps, get all the different varieties sorted out. There appeared to have been a huge number of different kinds of monks wandering around fourteenth century England, but it’s even more complicated than I thought.

There were essentially two types of monks – those who lived in monasteries and those who did not. The members of the monastical orders lived in monasteries and very rarely left them after they had entered them (although it might be more accurate to say that they were not supposed to leave them). The monasteries were often large and usually owned great swathes of land. Some monks were also friars, who did not live in a monastery. We’ve all heard of Friar Tuck roaming the countryside with Robin Hood; he was a member of one of these orders. Friars belonged to mendicant orders. In the fourteenth century there were four monastical orders and four mendicant orders. The mendicant orders had no great houses and the monks lived on the alms of people who wanted to help them. They were, essentially, beggars. These were the preaching orders, usually working to convince people to give up the various heresies that threatened to overwhelm the church in the Middle Ages. When the inquisition was formed, many of its members were Dominicans, from one of these preaching orders. Many parish priests resented the mendicant monks, because they took money that the priests thought could be better used by them in their parishes. Others found it hard to accept monks who did not live up to the monastic ideal of entering a community and not leaving it again. Despite their members living as beggars, these orders eventually became very wealthy.

Monasticism has its roots in the desert monks of the fourth century. Christians in North Africa left the towns to live as hermits in the desert so that they could pray and study. They became known as particularly holy men and people would visit them in the hope that they would learn something, or that the holiness would rub off on them. Some of these visitors would become disciples of the hermits and monastic communities were born.  One such community gathered around St Benedict in the sixth century and he formalised the way in which the members should live together in his Rule. Monks were to pray and work together. Over time it became accepted that the prayers of simple monks had value and the monasteries were given money so that their inhabitants would pray for the donors.

Monks in monastic orders generally followed some form of the Benedictine Rule. The Benedictines were the oldest order, but later monks thought they had become corrupt and there were a series of reformations, which brought about the other three orders. These were the Cistercians, Carthusians and Cluniacs.

Books were produced in monasteries and this was often the sole labour of the monks and the Rule said that they were supposed to work. They would spend their time when not in church sitting at desks in the cloisters of the monastery copying out books.

Monasteries were often pilgrimage sites, because they often held relics of saints. Pilgrims came to visit the shrine holding the relic expecting miracles and left gifts behind.

Due to the communal nature of their lives, almost two thirds of the members of monastic orders in England died during the Black Death. Some monasteries never recovered. Rievaulx in Yorkshire had once held over 400 monks, by 1381 there were only 18.

By the fourteenth century monks were increasingly treated with suspicion. They came to be seen more as wealthy landowners who behaved in the same way as other wealthy landowners than as men who prayed. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, monks and their churches were as much targets of attack as the property of wealthy and unpopular men like John of Gaunt. The Archbishop of Canterbury was killed.

By the sixteenth century the monasteries were easy prey for Henry VIII. Many monasteries were too small to continue effectively and others had departed so far from the rule that the monks were bad examples to the people around them. Most monasteries were dissolved,  with the Crown taking their land. The buildings themselves either fell into ruin or became the homes of wealthy middle class men. I can never read Emma without thinking that Donwell Abbey was once a place where monks prayed for their fellow men.




Filed under Fourteenth Century