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.
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.
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.