Tag Archives: Monks

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

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.


Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.


In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron


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 Church, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Monks

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century, we have a (mostly) false idea of their number and importance to people in the Middle Ages. If they weren’t broken up and their stones and lead taken away to be used elsewhere, monastic buildings were turned into private dwellings and we have few physical reminders of them.

In my own town, for example, the friary that was within the medieval town’s walls has disappeared completely. A priory just outside those walls has left behind a gateway in someone’s garden and is recalled in a street name. Within 5 or 6 miles of my house there were at least five monasteries plus hospitals and other institutions founded and managed by them. I can’t over-emphasise how important monasteries were and how much of an impact they had on the lives of everyone in England, monks or otherwise.

Not all monasteries were as large as Rievaulx in the photograph above, but they all had similar spaces within them to meet the requirements of the monastic life. In order to understand the spaces, we need to look at the purpose of a monastery. The monastic movement began in northern Africa in the third century with men and women going to secluded places to live alone and pray without distractions. Gradually the hermits joined together for support and protection, and a number of different sets of rules were created to govern their communities. Those produced by St. Benedict early in the sixth century gained widespread acceptance.

Roch Abbey Church

Roche Abbey Church

The rules set out what the monks could eat and wear, and how they would spend their time. Monks weren’t to spend all their time in prayer, but also take on physical work. The rules also set out how a monastery was to be run. The life of a monk wasn’t supposed to be easy.

Cistercian timetable – the offices are in bold type
1.30 a.m. Rise
2.00 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
3.30 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
6.00 a.m. Prime
Chapter meeting
8.00 a.m. Terce
11.30 a.m. Sext
2.30 p.m. None
6.00 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
8.00 p.m. Compline
8.15 p.m. Retire to bed

2.30 a.m. Rise
3.30 a.m. Nocturns (later called Matins)
6.00 a.m. Matins (Lauds)
8.00 a.m. Terce
Chapter meeting
Noon       Sext
1.30 p.m.  None
4.15 p.m. Vespers
Collation reading
6.15 p.m. Compline
6.30 p.m. Retire to bed

St. Benedict divided the monks’ day into three parts – opus dei (work of God or church offices); lectio divina (spiritual reading); and opus manuum (manual labour). As you can see above, their timetable varied from season to season, depending on the hours of daylight available, although some of the offices took place during the night.

The number of offices comes from the Psalms, in which the Psalmist praised God seven times a day and got up at midnight to give thanks. There were eight offices a day and they were made up of psalms, readings from the Bible and prayer. In addition, Mass was celebrated once a day.

Spiritual reading took up about two hours of the day, bearing in mind that the length of an hour was longer in the summer than in the winter.

There was also a meeting of the entire community in the chapter-house each day. This was when the business of the monastery was discussed and rule-breaking punished. At the end of the meeting, a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict was read aloud.

Easby Abbey west range

Easby Abbey

The manual labour part of the day lasted from two to four hours. This could take the form of gardening, agricultural work, carpentry or copying manuscripts. The monks were supposed to do all the labour need to support the community themselves, but many monasteries had servants to assist, St. Benedict having conceded that not all monks would be up to manual labour. The Cistercians decided that their whole day should be devoted to the opus dei and the lectio divina, and instituted the concept of lay brothers, who had dedicated spaces within a monstery. They slept in a separate dormitory, ate in a separate refectory and were cared for when in ill a separate infirmary. They spent most of their time in manual labour and only attended two offices a day.

Having established what monks did, we can move on next week to look at the spaces in which they carried out those activities.

The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell
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:












Filed under Monastery

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