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Cloister and Living Quarters in a Medieval Monastery

The parts and functions of the Medieval Monastery, using the groundplan for Beaulieu Abbey as a basemap.  Return to the Parts of a Monastery page to view the map, room labels, and basic information about the abbey.  Scroll down for individual explanations of the basic rooms, parts, and functions of a medieval abbey.   For information about the parts of the abbey church, see Parts of the Church. 

Living Quarters  (Scroll Down)
Monks Frater and Lay Frater (Refectory)
The Kitchen
The Cellars
The Infirmary (and Misericorde)
Calefactory (Common Room or
                     Warming House)
Living Quarters  (next page)
Monks Dorter and Lay Dorter
The Lavatory
The Cloister
Chapter House
Fish Ponds and Grounds                     


  The Frater   
(Refectory, Fraterhouse, Fratry)    

Shared meals in a monastery were as ritualistic as all other parts of the religious life.  In monasteries, such as Beaulieu, where there lived Lay Brothers as well as Ordained Monks, the ritual of mealtime was kept separately, and each group had their own washing sink and dining hall, though both were served by the same kitchen.

Only one meal was served per day, and for that meal the monks processed from the church through the cloister to the refectory, underwent washing at the lavatory sinks, washing their hands, faces, and knives, and then, when the Kitchener (and cook) announced the meal was ready, they processed into the frater.  They sang psalms before and after taking their meal, which was always served with a loaf of bread, this signifying the sharing of bread among Christians.  No talking was permitted, every monk instead listened to the Reader who read a scripture from the pulpit in the refectory.  Sometimes talking was allowed, but then only very quietly as necessary between the prior or abbot and his guests.

Any food left uneaten at the end of the meal was taken into a basket and given to the poor.  In addition, one extra meal was always prepared and one poor man chosen to come into the refectory to receive it. 

Image from English Monastic Life
F.A.Gasquet, 1904

From English Monastic Life, by F.A. Gasquet:

"The refectory, sometimes called the fratry or frater-house, was the common hall for all conventual meals.  Its situation in the plan for a monastic establishment was almost always as far removed from the church as possible, that is, it was on the opposite side of the cloister quadrangle and, according to the usual plan, in the southern walk of the cloister.  The reason for this arrangement is obvious.  It was to secure that the church and its precincts might be kept as free as possible from the annoyance caused by the noise and smells necessarily connected with the preparation and consumption of the meals.

"As a rule, the walls of the hall would no doubt have been wainscotted.  At one end, probably, great presses would have been placed to receive the plate and linen, with the salt-cellars (salt dispenser), cups and other ordinary requirements of the common meals.  The floor of a monastic refectory was spread with hay or rushes, which covering was changed  three or four times in a year ; and the tables were ranged in single rows lengthways, with the benches for the monks upon the inside, where they sat with their backs to the paneled walls.  At the east end, under some sacred figure, or painting of the crucifix, or of our Lord in glory, called the Majestas, was the mensa major, or high table for the superior.  Above this the Scylla or small signal-bell was suspended.  This was sounded by the president of the meal as a sign that the community might begin their refection, and for the commencement of each of the new courses.  The pulpit, or reading-desk, was, as a rule, placed upon the south side of the hall, and below it was usually placed the table for the novices, presided over by their master.

Image from English Monastic Life
F.A.Gasquet, 1904

"Amongst the other weekly officials may be noted the servers and the readers at meals.  These brethren could take something to eat and drink before the community came to the refectory, in order the better to be able to do their duty.  The reader was charged very strictly always to prepare what he had to read beforehand and to find the places, so as to avoid all likelihood of mistakes.  He was to take the directions of the cantor (liturgist) as to pronunciation, pitch of the voice, and at the rate at which he was to read in public.  If he were ill, or for any other reason was unable to perform his duty, the cantor had to find a substitute. 

"The servers began their week of duty by asking a blessing in church on Sunday morning.  They were at the disposal of the refectorian during their period of service, and followed his directions as to waiting on the brethren at meal times, preparing the tables, and clearing them after all had finished." 

  The Kitchen               
The monastic kitchens were overseen by the Kitchener, a monk assigned to that task.  A few monks might work as laborers in the kitchen on a rotating basis, but most of the kitchen work was assigned to lay brothers or sisters, or trusted servants of the monastery.

Much ritual surrounded the serving of food, what type must be served, and in what amounts.  In some institutions, servings were carefully measured on plates beforehand, and in others, communal plates were placed on the table and eaten in a manner similar to that of the manor house, from shared plates.   

The work of the kitchen tended to be segregated according to what needed to be prepared and the quantity of food needed.  In a larger monastery, the main kitchen would be used primarily for making pottage, sauces, custards, and roasting meats.  Bread and pastry (such as for pies) would be baked in a separate kitchen, with the bread of the communion baked in a sacred space set aside for that purpose, perhaps in the kitchens, but perhaps also in an area of the church itself.

Glastonbury, Abbot's kitchen
Image from The Home of the Monk,
by Rev. D.H.S. Cranage, 1926

Yet another kitchen would serve the monastery servants and guests those who had come on pilgrimage or seeking charity (alms) or rest (such as the infirm, should the monastery include a hospital).  This kitchen would be located on the grounds, but not within the gates of the cloister.  Important guests would be served from the monastery kitchen itself, and infirm monks who lived within the cloister might also have a separate kitchen to serve them.  Butchering and cleaning of animals would be done away from the monastery gates.

Beverages were not the domain of the kitchen, but instead were prepared and stored in the buttery.  (Many beer concoctions included things like milk, eggs, sugar, spices and butter.  A raw egg in warmed beer was common. Yum.)  Some monasteries also had a brewhouse for brewing ale or beer, or cellars for fermenting wine, or even distilleries for making the quintessential spirits.  Though it was not only liqueur which was distilled.  Monks experimented with the distillation of many things, including chickens.

  The Cellar s   

The cellars were the storeroom of the monastery, and was used for storing most everything used to upkeep the house, from salt for preserving meat and for the table salt cellars, to beeswax for the altar candles.  The Cellarer was the official in charge of procuring almost all that was needed to run the ‘household’ of the monastery smoothly.  His charge extended to the manors and farmland of the monastery, the tithe barns, and other duties of storage  and procurement.

The duties of the Cellarer, according to F.A. Gasquet in English Monastic Life, were:

"Besides the main part of this office as caterer to the community, on the cellarer devolved many other duties.  In fact, the general management of the establishment, except what was specially assigned to other officials, or given to any individual by the superior, was in his hands.  In this way besides the question of food and drink, the cellarer had to see to fuel, the carriage of goods, the general repairs of the house, and the purchases of all materials, such as wood, iron, glass, nails, etc.

Image from English Monastic Life
F.A.Gasquet, 1904

"Some of the Obedientiary accounts (Officer's accounts) which have survived show the multitude and variety of the cellarer’s cares.  At one time, on one such Roll, beyond the ordinary expenses there is noted the purchase of three hundred and eighty quarters of coal for the kitchen, the carriage of one hundredweight of wax from London, the process of making torches and candles, the purchase of cotton for the wicks, the employment of women to make oatmeal, the purchase of “blanket-cloth” for jelly strainers, and the employment of “the pudding wife” on great feast days to make the pastry.  He had, of course, frequently to visit the granges and manors under his care, to look that the overseer knew his business and did not neglect it, to see that the servants and labourers did not misconduct themselves, and that the shepherds spent the nights watching with their flocks, and did not wander off to any neighbouring tavern.  Besides this he was charged to see that the granary doors were sound and the locks in good order, and in the time of threshing out the corn he was to keep  watch over the men engaged in the work and the women who were winnowing."

The Infirmary                      
The infirmary at any monastery served as a place to care for the sick, the elderly, and those who needed rest. Medicines and special foods were provided, but much more importantly, the infirmary served as a place where the seriously ill monk or nun would receive assistance in preparing their soul for death. Care of the infirm and sick was considered of the highest moral importance, and, in Christ’s example of His own care of the weak and sick, the abbot himself was instructed to visit the ailing every day to comfort and encourage them, as well as to make sure that their needs were being properly met.

(Monasteries also often founded and supported hospitals near to the monastery--but not within the cloister--for permanently disabled, or elderly poor men and/or women. These hospitals could also serve as places of temporary rest. Christians of the time believed in Christ's exhortation to his followers that care of the sick constituted a primary moral obligation:  ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40.)

Image from English Monastic Life
F.A.Gasquet, 1904

Additionally, the infirmary was a place to support recuperation and relaxation. Under the guidance of the Infirmarian, the duties and responsibilities of the communal life could be relaxed a little.  Those suffering from a ‘weariness’ brought on by the strictures of the Rule and the observance of the Hours could find calm and return to their duties with renewed devotion. Some think that this is why the tradition of regular bleeding endured in monasteries, because the four days rest it offered were welcomed.

For those who required an emotional rest (perhaps suffering from depression, or other form of emotional or intellectual fatigue) or for those who were to rest after being blooded (see CALEFACTORY), while they were under the care of the infirmarian, they usually did not stay in the infirmary. The remedy for both emotional weariness and ritual bleeding was quiet rest, opportunity for reflection, and, in the case of the weary, walks in the open air. As such, these patients remained in the dorter, or dormitory. Their duties, however, were eased, and repose in the Chapter House, Calefactory or dorter was encouraged.  Those who had been blooded took their meals in the misericorde, which was the infirmary frater (or dining room).

infirmary arches, Ely
Image from
The Home of the Monk,

by Rev. D.H.S. Cranage, 1926

The infirmary also served as a retirement community for monks who were no longer able to keep up their duties to the house because they had slipped into weakness, senility, or dementia (and so could not keep silent). Though the elderly monks were still required to keep the rule as they were able, things were easier and primary importance was placed on their spiritual needs and bodily comfort. As such, the Infirmary could become a community within a community. It had its own frater (dining room) called the misericorde, an attached chapel for celebrating Mass and reciting the Hours, and was supplied by its own kitchens (sometimes called a meat kitchen), which produced easily digestible foods (such as bread soaked in mare's milk), and foods to strengthen those who had been blooded.


  The Calefactory   (Warming House or Common Room)             

The Calefactory, also called the Warming House or Common Room, was a place for the monks to relax together, and, in winter, enjoy the benefit of a hot fire, especially after night offices.  Monks had specially issued ‘night boots’ and robes so that they could be as warm as possible, but the churches were large and unheated and often drafty.   After the night and early morning offices, they were allowed time to congregate together by the fire and warm up.

Monks also practiced ritual bleeding where two to six monks at a time (depending on the size of the house) were bled by the Infirmarian, or someone qualified to perform the procedure.  Being blooded was considered a health regimen, and it was thought to purge the body of impurities.  (Perhaps in the days when heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) were used in plate glazing and water pipes, periodic bleeding helped purge the body of this metal buildup?  It seems there must have been some type of benefit, either known or unknown, to the procedure.

Each monk was blooded once a year, or occasionally twice, on a rotating basis.  Strict rules followed all aspects of the ritual.  The operation took place during the afternoon in the Calefactory (common room or warming house) by a warm fire with a styptic and a basin.  After, the monk’s arm was wrapped tightly in bandages and for four days he was excused any activity that would risk a resumption of the bleeding, such as too much standing or kneeling, or any activity where the bandages might be accidentally brushed or bumped.  The monk was excused choir duties (though he was still expected to attend the offices) and, though he still had to wake up during the night for prayer, he could go to the infirmary chapel instead of the church, where the service was quicker and simpler.  An easier schedule in general was allowed, rest encouraged,  and foods such as an extra egg and beef broth, were given to help build strength.  

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