We’re continuing this series about monasteries by looking at some of the obedientiaries. Last week we looked at the cellarer’s department. This week we have two more departments.
First, the chamberlain, or camerarius. He was the housekeeper with wide, though fairly mundane, responsibilities. Sometimes the chamberlain and the cellarer were the same person, which would seem to be a sensible arrangement. The chamberlain’s main duty was to make sure that the monks had clothing and that it was clean. This meant that he had to employ laundresses to wash all the linen used in the monastery. One of the things that surprised me as I prepared for this series is just how much contact the monks might have with women. Whether the linen was sent out to the laundresses or they came into the monastery, I haven’t been able to find out. The washing itself was probably done in a nearby river.
Another of the chamberlain’s jobs was making sure that the hay in the monks’ mattresses was replaced frequently. He was also responsible for horses and carts, including those at the granges, which is one of the reasons why it would have made sense for the cellarer and the chamberlain to be the same person, since the cellarer was responsible for the granges. The chamberlain had to make sure that there was always enough fodder for the horses and that the harness was in good order. He was responsible for keeping the monastery’s lamps in good repair and for maintaining a fire in the warming room, where the monks worked on cold days.
I haven’t come across any subordinates that he might have had, but I doubt he stuffed the mattresses himself, nor would he have put the horses’ fodder into the stables.
The third senior obedientiary was the sacrist, who did have identifiable staff beneath him. His responsibility was the very heart of the monastery: the abbey church.
The sacrist looked after the fabric of the church, including the altars, vessels and any shrines. His duties included keeping them secure. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, churchmen weren’t above stealing bits of saints’ relics and the odd pilgrim might try to take a bit of a shrine home with them, but there would also be many extremely valuable objects within the church, which would tempt a thief. The plate would often be of silver or gold, as would the ornaments. If the shrine housed a popular saint, it might be covered with gold and jewels. The vestments were often made of expensive fabric and covered in fine embroidery.
The sacrist didn’t just look after valuable objects, he was also responsible for the cleaning of the church and for making sure that everything within it was in good condition. This included the furniture. He also helped design the fittings, windows, altars, decorations and wall paintings if they were being replaced. The wall paintings would have been replaced frequently. In addition to everything else, he looked after the clocks, bells, vestments, plate, reliquaries, lights and vestments. If it was within the church, he had to make sure it worked, was clean and could be used. He kept an inventory of everything, which I think must have been onerous if the abbey church held a popular shrine. Pilgrims tended to leave gifts of large and small value at shrines, so there would have been frequent additions to his lists. His assistants included the treasurer, the sub-sacrist, the revestiarius and the master of works. He usually slept at the end of the dorter nearest the treasury.
The sub-sacrist, or matricularius, was the sacrist’s deputy and the monastery’s timekeeper. In addition to being the deputy, he also had some duties of his own. He had to ensure that the monastery’s bells rang at the right time. He ate and slept in the church so that there was always someone there.
The treasurer was responsible for the monastery’s valuables. These included the church plate, vestments, rare books, documents and money.
The revestiarius looked after the vestments and other fabrics used in the church. Different coloured vestments and fabrics were (and still are) used in different liturgical seasons and at certain festivals. He had to make sure that the correct colours were put out.
Next week we’ll wrap up the obedientiaries with some roles that don’t appear to have come under any of the three departments that we’ve looked at so far.
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
Medieval Monasticism by C.H. Lawrence