Tag Archives: Muchelney Abbey

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 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.

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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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

28 Comments

Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery