English Monastic Life – The Obedientiaries


The officials of a monastery were frequently known by the name of obedientiaries. Sometimes under this name were included even the prior and sub-prior, as they also were appointed by the abbot, and were, of course, equally with the others in subjection and obedience to him. But as usually understood, by the word obedientiaries was signified the other officials, and not the prior and sub-prior, who assisted in the general government of the monastery. Various duties were assigned to all obedientiaries, and they possessed extensive powers in their own spheres. Very frequently in mediaeval times they had the full management of the property assigned to the special support of the burdens of their offices. Their number naturally varied considerably in different monasteries; but here it may be well to describe briefly the duties of each of the ordinary officials, as they are set forth in the monastic Custumals that have come down to us.


The cantor was one of the most important officials in the monastery. He was appointed, of course, by the abbot, but with a necessary regard to the varied qualifications required for the office; for the cantor was both singer, chief librarian, and archivist. He should be a priest, says one English Custumal, of proved, upright character, wise and well instructed in all knowledge pertaining to his office, as well as thoroughly conversant with ecclesiastical customs. Under his management all the church services were arranged and performed: the names of those who were to take part in the singing of Lessons or Responsories at Matins or other parts of the daily Office were set down by him on the table, or official programme, and no one could refuse any duty assigned to him in this way. In everything regarding the church services the cantor had no superior except the abbot, although in certain cases, where the Divine Office, for example, had been delayed for some reason or other, the sacrist might sign to him in suggestion that he should cause the singers to chant more briskly. What he arranged to be sung had to be sung, what he settled to be read in the refectory had to be read; the portion of Sacred Scripture, or other book that he had marked for the evening Collation, had to be used, and no other.

The place of the cantor in the church was always on the right hand of the choir; that of his assistant, the succentor, or sub-cantor, was on the left. It was part of the cantor’s duty to move about the choir when it was necessary to regulate the singing, and especially when any Prose, or long Magnificat with difficult music was being sung. Above all things, he had to guard against mistakes, or even the possibility of mistakes, in the divine service by every means in his power. With this end in view, he was instructed to select only music that was known to all, and to see that it was sung in the traditional manner. To guard against faults in reading and singing he was obliged by his office to go over the Lessons for Matins with the younger monks, and to hear the reader in the refectory before the meals, in order to point out defects of pronunciation and quantity, as well as to regulate the tone of the voice and the rate of reading.

When the abbot had to give out an Antiphon or Responsory on one of the greater feasts, the cantor always attended him, and helped him if there were need. If the abbot was unable to take any of his duties in church in the way of singing, such as celebrating the High Mass or intoning the Antiphons at the Benedictus and Magnificat, the cantor took them as part of the duties of his office. On all greater feasts of the second class, the cantor, by virtue of his office, gave out the Antiphon at the Benedictus and at the Magnificat. At the Mass and other solemn parts of the Divine Office on these occasions, he directed the choir with his staff of office: assisted on first-class days by six of the brethren in copes, and on feasts of the second class by four. His side of the choir was always to take up any psalm he had intoned; the other side of the choir, under the direction of the sub-cantor, doing the same in regard to what he intoned.

Even when the cantor himself was not directing the choir, as on ordinary days, he had to be always ready to come to the assistance of the community, in the case of any breakdown in the singing or hesitation as to the correct Antiphons to be used, etc. If an Antiphon was not given out, or given out wrongly, or if the brethren got astray in the music, he was to set it right with as little delay as possible. If the tone of the chanting had to be raised or to be lowered, it was to be done only by him, and all had to follow his lead without hesitation. On festivals it was his duty to select the singers of the Epistle and Gospel, and he was to be ever guided in his choice of deacon and sub-deacon by his knowledge of their capacity to do honour to the feast by their good singing. When the community were walking in procession through the cloisters or elsewhere, it was his duty to walk up and down, between the ranks of the brethren, to see that the singing was correctly rendered, and that it was kept together. The brethren were charged unhesitatingly to follow his suggestion and his leading.

Besides this, the cantor was naturally the instructor of music in the community, and at certain times he took the novices and trained them in the proper mode of ecclesiastical chanting and in the traditional music of the house. In many monasteries he had also to teach the boys of the cloister-school to read, and the exasperating nature of this part of his office may be perhaps gauged from a provision inserted in some statutes, that he was on no account to slap their heads or pull their hair, this privilege being permitted only to their special master.

On account of the cantor’s care of the church services and the necessary labour entailed thereby upon him, some indulgence was generally accorded to him in regard to his attendance at the parts of the Divine Office where his presence was not specially required. He was, however, forbidden to absent himself from two consecutive canonical hours, and was not to stay away from Matins, Vespers, or Compline. On Saturdays, like the rest, he had to wash his feet in the cloister.

So much with regard to the duties of the precentor, as chief singer of the monastery. He was also the librarian, or armarius; the two offices, somewhat strangely, perhaps, to our modern notion, always going together. In this capacity he had charge of all the books contained in the aumbry, or book-cupboard, or later in the book-room, or library. Moreover, he had to prepare the ink for the various writers of manuscripts and charters, etc., and to procure the necessary parchment for book-making. He had to watch that the books did not suffer from ill use, or misuse, and to see to the mending and binding of them all. As keeper of the bookshelves, the cantor was supposed to know the position and titles of the volumes, and by constant attention to protect them from dust, and injury from insects, damp, or decay. When they required repair or cleaning, he was to see to it; and also to judge when the binding had to be repaired or renewed. For the purpose of thus renovating the manuscripts under his care, he had, of course, frequently to employ skilled labour. At such times he received an allowance of food for the workmen engaged “on cleaning the bindings of the choir books,” etc. Special revenues also were at his disposal “for making new books and keeping up the organs.”

At the beginning of Lent the cantor was to remind the community in Chapter of those who had given the books to their house, or had written them; and subsequently it was his duty to request that an Office and Mass for the Dead should be said for such benefactors. And, during the morning Mass of the first Sunday of Lent, he was to bring a collection of volumes into the Chapter-house, that the abbot might distribute one volume to each monk as his special Lenten reading. In the ordinary course, the precentor was bound to give out whatever books were required or asked for, taking care always to enter their titles and the names of the borrowers in his register. He was permitted sometimes to lend the less precious manuscripts; but if the loan was made to someone outside the monastery, he had to see that he received a sufficient pledge for its safe return.

All writings of the church, or made for the church, came under the charge of the precentor. He made, for example, the tabulae, or lists of those taking any part in the services. These were graven on waxen tablets, the writing on which could easily be changed, and for making and repairing of which the sacrist had to furnish the wax. Moreover, the precentor had to supply the writers with the parchment, ink, etc., for their work, and personally to hire the scribes and rubricators who laboured for money. Also, he was supposed to provide those in the cloister who could write and desired to do so, with whatever materials they required; but before receiving these the religious had first to obtain leave from the abbot or superior, and then only to signify their wants to the precentor. He was told to give them what they needed, remembering that none of the brethren wrote or copied for their own personal good, but for the general utility of the monastery.

The precentor also, in his capacity of librarian, had to provide the books used for reading and singing in the church and for reading in the refectory and at Collation. He had personally to see that the public reader had his volume ready, and that it was replaced in the aumbry at night. To prevent mistakes, as far as it was possible so to do, the cantor was supposed to go over the book to be read carefully, and to put a point at the places where the pauses in public reading should be made. It was also his duty as archivist to enter the names of deceased members of the community and their relatives in the necrology of the house, that they might be remembered on their anniversaries. In this same capacity, at the time of the profession of any brother, he received from the abbot the written charter of the vows that had been pronounced, so that the document itself might be placed in the archives of the house. He was also required to draw up the “Brief” or “Mortuary Roll,” wherewith to announce the death of any brother to other monasteries, etc., and to ask for prayers for his soul. This document, often executed in an elaborate manner and illuminated, after it had received the sanction of the Chapter was handed to the almoner, who sent it by special messenger, called a “breviator,” to the other religious houses. In like manner the cantor received from the almoner all such notices of deaths as came to hand, and presented them to the conventual Chapter to obtain the suffrages asked for. If, as was frequently the case, the roll had to be endorsed with the name of the monastery, with the assurance of prayers, or some Latin verses in praise of the dead or expressive of sympathy with the living at their loss, it was the precentor’s duty to see that all this was done fittingly before the roll was committed again into the almoner’s hand, to be returned to the “breviator” by whom it had been brought.

The cantor also was one of the three custodians of the convent seal, and he held one of the three keys of the chest which contained it. When the die, often in the shape of single or double mould, was needed for the purpose of sealing a document he was responsible for bringing it to the Chapter with the necessary wax in order to affix the common seal to the document, in the presence of the whole convent, and for then returning it to its place of safe custody.

Such an important office as that of precentor obviously required many high qualities for its due discharge. According to one English Custumal, he should “ever comport himself with regularity, reverence, and modesty, since his office, when exercised with the characteristic virtues, is a source of delight and pleasure to God, to the angels, and to men. He should bow down before the altar with all reverence; he should salute the brethren with all respect; he should in walking manifest his modesty; he should sing with such sweetness, recollection, and devotion that all the brethren, both old and young, might find in his behaviour and demeanour a living pattern to help them in their own religious life and in carrying out the observances required by their Rule from each one.”

The succentor, or sub-cantor, was the cantor’s assistant in everything. When the precentor was absent he took his place and performed his duties. In ordinary course he regulated the singing on the left-hand side of the choir, and attended to such details of the cantor’s administration as might be committed to him. It was part, however, of his own duty, as fixed by rule, to see that all the brethren who were tabulated for any duty, or who were involved in any change made in the daily tabula, had knowledge of it, in order to prevent the possibility of mistakes, which would interfere with the solemnity of the divine service, and by such carelessness manifest a want of that respect due to the community as a body. Moreover, before the morning Mass and the High Mass the succentor was to be at hand to point out to the celebrants the Collects that had to be said in the Holy Sacrifice, and the order in which they came. If, whilst at the altar, notwithstanding all his care, the priest could not find the proper place, or made delay from some other reason, he was at once to come to his assistance. Lastly, to take one more instance of the succentor’s duty: if during the course of the night Office he should see any of the brethren drowsy or forgetting to recite, it was his duty to take his lantern and go towards them, in order to remind them that they were to be more alert as “watchmen keeping their vigil in the Lord’s service.”


Next in importance to the office of cantor, especially in regard to the church services which formed so integral a part in the daily life of a monastery, was the sacrist. To him, with his several assistants, was committed the care of the church fabric, with its sacred plate and vestments, as well as of the various reliquaries, shrines, and precious ornaments, which the monastery possessed. It was his duty to provide for the cleansing and lighting of the church, to prepare the choir and altars for the various services, to see that on feast days they were decked out with the appropriate hangings and ornaments; to provide that the vestments for the sacred ministers were ready for use as required, and that, on days when the community were vested in albs or in copes, these were rightly distributed to the brethren. The High Altar was specially in his own personal care: he had to see that it was becomingly decked for the great feasts, and he was particularly enjoined never to leave it without a frontal of some kind, that he might not seem to neglect the place where the daily Sacrifice was offered.

Upon the sacrist was specially enjoined the necessary virtue of cleanliness. Every Saturday he had to see that the sconces of the candlesticks were all scoured out, and that the pavements before the altars were washed and cleaned. The floor of the presbytery was, like the High Altar, to be his own special charge. He was directed constantly to change the linen cloths of the altar and all those otherwise used in the Holy Sacrifice, remembering as a guiding principle that it was “unbecoming to minister to God, with things unsuitable for profane use.” The corporals he was also to wash and prepare himself, polishing them with a stone, known as “lisca” – “lischa,” or glass-stone. For this and the making of the altar breads – concerning which work the minute legislation of the Custumals testifies to the care required in the production of the bread for the Holy Eucharist – the sacrist and his assistants had to be vested in albs and were required to take every precaution in order to secure spotless cleanness of hands and person. During the operation psalms and other prayers were to be said. Once a week, also on Saturdays, if he were a priest or deacon, the sacrist was ordered to wash thoroughly all the chalices and sacred vessels used at the Holy Sacrifice, and to see that no stains of wine, or marks of use, were left on them. If he were not in Sacred Orders he had to get one of the brethren who was to do this office for him. On the Wednesday of each week all the cruets were to be thoroughly cleansed at the lavatory, as also all the jugs and utensils under his care or belonging to his office.

Another function of the sacrist was the care of the cemetery where the dead brethren were laid to their last rest. He was to keep it neat and tidy, with the grass cut and trimmed, and the walks free from weeds. No animals were ever to be allowed to feed among the graves or to disturb the peace of “God’s acre.” This evidence of his care was intended to show to all that it was here that the bodies of the holy departed were laid to their peaceful repose to “await the day of the great Resurrection.” In some places the sacrist also had care of the bells, especially of those which summoned the brethren to the church; and of the clock, where there was one, and this last could be touched by no one but himself or one of his assistants on any pretence whatsoever.

Perhaps his most important duty, however, was that of looking after the lighting of the entire establishment. His office in this matter, somewhat curiously as it may appear to us, was not confined to the church; but from him the officers of other departments had to obtain the candles or other lights they needed. He had to purchase the supply of wax for making the best candles, and the tallow or mutton fat for the cressets and the commoner sort of lights, together with the cotton for making the wicks. At certain periods of the year, it was his province to hire the itinerant candle-makers and, having provided the necessary material, to preside over the process of manufacturing the waxen and other lights that would be needed by the community. From his store he had to supply the church with all necessary lights for the altars, for the choir, and for illuminating the candle-beams and candelabra on feast days. To light up the dormitory and church cloister, the sacrist had to rise before the others were called for Matins, so that all might be in readiness for the beginning of the service. For those who had to read the Lessons, he was warned to provide plenty of lights, especially in view of the difficulty experienced by “old men and those with weak sight,” if the light was poor. Moreover, he had to furnish the novices, who as yet did not know the psalms by heart, with candles to read by. At Matins, he himself was always to have a lighted lantern ready in case of any difficulty, and at the verse of the Te Deum, “The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory,” he took this lantern and, going to the priest whose duty it was to read the Gospel, bowed, and gave it to him so that he might hold it to throw its light on the sacred text. At the conclusion of Matins he received back his lantern, and going out from the choir rang the bells for Lauds.

For the use of the monastery, as has been said, the sacrist had to find the material for lighting the cloister. When it was dark he had to light the four cressets, or bowls of tallow with wicks, which, one in each part of the cloister, can have done very little more than help to make the darkness visible. When more light was needed the sacrist found tallow or wax candles for particular purposes. He did the same in the church, where also great cressets, one in the nave, one at the choir-gates, one at the steps of the sanctuary at the top of the choir, and one in the treasury, were always kept burning during the hours of darkness. Moreover, the sacrist had to furnish the two candles for the abbot’s Mass, and to give a certain specified amount of wax to each of the community to make their candles. At Saint Augustine’s, Canterbury, and Westminster, for instance, the abbot had to receive 40 lbs. of wax for his yearly supply of candles; the prior had 15 lbs.; the precentor, 7 lbs.; each of the senior priests, 6 lbs.; the junior priests, 5 lbs.; and the juniors, 4 lbs. He had likewise to find all the candles necessary to light the refectory and chapter-room, and to give the cellarer and the infirmarian what they needed for the purposes of their offices. In winter, after the evening Collation, the sacrist waited in the chapter-room after the community, standing aside and bowing as they passed out. When all had departed, he extinguished the lights and locked the door. As one amongst the many minor duties of his office, the sacrist had each Sunday to obtain from the cellarer the platter of salt to be blessed for the holy water. For this he could either himself enter the kitchen, otherwise out of the enclosure, or send another to fetch it. After the Sunday blessing of the salt, he was himself to place a pinch of the blessed salt in every salt-cellar used in the refectory.

In brief, the sacrist, as one of the English Custumals has it, “should be of well-tried character, grave at his work, faithful in all his duties, careful in keeping the brethren to traditions, and watchful over the things committed to his care.” “If he love our Lord,” says another, “he will love the church, and the more spiritual his office is, the more careful should he be to make the church becoming and attractive for use, and to study to make it in every way more fitting” to be called “the House of God.”

The sacrist in most of the greater monasteries appears to have had under him four principal assistants: the sub-sacrist, called in some places the secretary, in others the matricularius, in others, again, the master of works; the treasurer; the revestiarius; and the assistant sacristan. The first named, the secretary, had charge of the offerings made to the church, and was to look after the fabric of the church. He was entrusted also with the general bell-ringing, and was exhorted by the Custumals to endeavour by study to master the traditional system of the peals, which in most monasteries was very elaborate. The secretary also had to see that wine was provided for the altar, and that a supply of incense was procured when it was needed; also that the store of charcoal, wax, and tallow was replenished and not allowed to fall too low. He had to purchase these, and the materials, such as lead, glass, etc., for the repair of the fabric, at the neighbouring fairs; and he was warned to keep an eye to the building so that it might not suffer by neglect.

Besides these duties, he was the official chiefly concerned in the opening and closing of the church doors at the appointed times, and in seeing to the safe custody of the monastic treasures. For this purpose, he with two other under-sacristans always slept in the church, or close at hand, whilst the treasurer and one other monk slept in the treasury, and even took their meals near at hand, so that the church was never left without guardians either day or night.

The revestiarius, as his name implies, was mainly concerned with the vestments, the copes, albs, curtains, and other hangings belonging to the church. He was responsible for their care and mending, and for setting them out for use according to their proper colour, and as their varied richness was appropriate to the order and dignity of the ecclesiastical feasts. By his office he was also charged with giving the albs to the brethren when they were to be vested in them, and also with bringing to the precentor in the choir sufficient copes for him to distribute one to each of the community on festivals when the Office was celebrated “in cappis”; or at other times to the schola cantorum, who assisted him in the singing at the lectern.

The treasurer was appointed for the purpose of looking after the shrines, the sacred vessels, and other church plate under the orders of the sacrist. He assisted also in other duties of the sacrist as he might be required; for example, after Compline he, with the others, when the community had retired to bed, prepared whatever lights would be necessary for the night Office. Several times a year it was the general duty of the officials of the sacristy to sweep the church and remove the hay with which it was mostly carpeted, and to put fresh hay in its place. Once a year also they had to find new rush mats for the choir, for the altars, for the steps of the choir, to place under the feet of the monks in their stalls, and before the benches, and at the reading-place in the chapter-house. Various farmsteads, belonging to the monastery, were usually bound at certain times to find the hay, straw, and rushes necessary for this part of the sacrist’s work.


The cellarer was the monastic purveyor of all foodstuffs for the community. His chief duty, perhaps, was to look ahead and to see that the stores were not running low; that the corn had come in from the granges, and flour from the mill, and that it was ready for use by the bakers; that what was needed of flesh, fish, and vegetables for immediate use was ready at hand. He had to provide all that was necessary for the kitchen; but was to make no great purchases without the knowledge and consent of the abbot. In some places it was enjoined that every Saturday he was to consult with the prior as to the requirements for the coming week, so as to be prepared with the changes of diet associated by custom with certain times and feasts.

To procure the necessary stores, the cellarer had of course to be frequently away at the granges and at neighbouring fairs and markets; but he had to inform the abbot and prior when he would be absent, and to leave the keys of his office with his assistant. As the “Martha” of the establishment, always busy with many things in the service of the brethren, he was exempt from much of the ordinary choir duty, but when not present at the public Office, he had to say his own privately in a side chapel. He did not sleep usually in the common dormitory, but in the infirmary, as he was frequently wanted at all hours.

As part of his duty the cellarer had charge of all the servants, whom he alone could engage, dismiss, or punish. He presided at their table after the conventual meals, unless he had to be present in the abbot’s chamber to entertain guests, when the under-cellarer took his place. At dinner, the cellarer stood by the kitchen hatch to see the dishes as they came in, and that the serving was properly done. On days when the community had dishes of large fish, or great joints of meat, or other portions from which many had to be served before the dinner, the dishes, after being divided in the kitchen, were set in the vestibule of the cellarer’s office, and there the prior inspected them to see that the portions were fairly equal. At supper it was his duty to serve out the cheese and cut it into pieces for the brethren.

In the case of Westminster and Saint Augustine’s, Canterbury, the cellarer was urged to look well to the supply of fish, both fresh and salt. In the case of the first, he was to be careful that it had not been caught longer than a couple of days or so, and that it was always properly cooked. In regard to all the meals he was to see that the cooks were prepared and in time with their work, since, says the Custumal, “it were better to let the cook wait to serve up the dinner, than to oblige the brethren to sit wanting for their meal.”

In Benedictine monasteries, on those days when, in the daily reading of the Rule, the part dealing with the duties and qualifications of the cellarer was read, he was supposed to furnish something extra to the brethren in the refectory. On those occasions he was to be present when the passage of the Rule was read out, and to make sure that he might not be away, was to ask the cantor to let him know a few days beforehand.

Besides the main part of his 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. Some of the Obedientiary 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 a watch over the men engaged in the work and the women who were winnowing. He was constantly warned by the Custumals that he should frequently discuss the details of his work with his superior, and take his advice, and get to know his wishes. Finally, in one English Custumal at least, he is warned, in the midst of all his numberless duties undertaken for the community, not to let it affect his character as a religious. He should avoid, he is told, ever getting into the habit of trafficking like a tradesman, of striving too eagerly after some slender profit, or of grinding out a hard bargain from those who could ill afford it.

As chief assistant the cellarer had an under official, called the sub-cellarer, who was told to be kind and to possess polished manners. Besides taking the chief’s place when occasion required, in most well-regulated religious establishments certain ordinary duties were assigned to the sub-cellarer. They were mainly concerned with the important matters of bread and beer. He kept the keys of the cellar, and drew the necessary quantity of beer before each meal. When he took his place in the refectory he handed his keys to the cellarer, in case anything should be required during the meal. He was specially charged with seeing that the cellar was kept tidy, and that the jugs and other “vasa ministerii” were clean. When the barrels were filled with new beer, they were to be constantly watched by him for fear of an accident. In winter he was to see that straw or hay bands were to be placed round the vats to protect them from frost, and that, if need be, fires were lighted; in summer he should have the windows closed with shutters, to keep the cellar cool. He was not to serve any beer till at least the fourth day after it had been made.

His special help, in seeing to the bakery and the bread, was the granatorius, or guardian of the grain. It was his duty to receive the grain when it came from the farms, and to note and check the amounts, to see to the grinding, and to superintend the bakery. He had to watch that the flour was of the proper quality, and on feast days he was supposed to give a better kind of bread and a different shape of loaf. At times the community might have hot bread – a special treat – and if it were not quite ready, the meal could be delayed for a short time on such occasions. The granator was supposed to visit the manors and farms several times in the year, to estimate the amount of flour that would be required, and to determine whence it was to be furnished, and when. Under the assistant-cellarer and the granator were several official servants, of whom the miller, the baker, and the brewer were the chief. It was the sub-cellarer’s place to entertain any tenants of the monastic farms who might come on business, or for any other reason, to the monastery; and from him any of the monks could obtain what was necessary to entertain their relatives or friends when they visited them, or the small tokens of affectionate remembrance, called exennia, which they were permitted to send them four times in the year.


The refectorian had charge of the refectory, or as it is sometimes called, the frater, and had to see that all things were in order for the meals of the brethren. He should be “strong in bodily health,” says one Custumal, “unbending in his determination to have order and method, a true religious, respected by all, determined to prevent anything tending to disorder, and loving all the brethren without favour.” If the duties of his office required it, he might be absent from choir, and each day after the Gospel of the High Mass he had to leave the church and repair to the refectory, in order to see that all was ready for the conventual dinner, which immediately followed the Mass.

Out of the revenues attached to his office, the refectorian had to find all tables and benches necessary, and to keep them in repair; to purchase what cloths and napkins, jugs, dishes, and mats might be required. Three times a year he received from the monastic farms five loads of straw, to place under the feet of the brethren when they were sitting at table, and the same quantity of hay to spread over the floor of the refectory. Five times a year he had to renew the rushes that were strewn about the hall; and on Holy Saturday, by custom, he was supposed to scatter bay leaves to scent the air, and to give a festal spring-like appearance to the place. In summer he might throw flowers about, with mint and fennel, to purify the air, and provide fans for changing and cooling it.

In preparation for any meal, the refectorian had to superintend the spreading of the table-cloths; to set the salt and see that it was dry; to see that in the place of each monk was set the usual loaf, that no wood-ash from the oven was on the underside of the bread, and that it was covered by the napkin. The drink had to be poured into jugs, and brought in, so as to be ready before the coming of the community; and on the table the cup of each monk was to be set at his place. In some houses the spoons also were distributed before the commencement of the meal; but in others, after the food had been brought in, the refectorian himself brought the spoons and distributed them, holding that of the abbot in his right hand a little raised, and the rest in his left hand. Both cups and spoons were to be examined and counted every day by the refectorian, and he had to repair them when necessary, and see that they were washed and cleaned every day.

Amongst the refectorian’s other duties may be mentioned his care of the lavatory. He was to provide water – hot if necessary – for washing purposes, and was to have always a clean hanging-towel for general use, as well as two others always ready in the refectory. All towels of any kind were to be changed twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays. The refectorian was to be blamed if the lavatory was not kept clean, or if grit or dirt was allowed to collect in the washing-trough. He had to keep in the lavatory a supply of sand and a whetstone for the brethren to use in scouring and sharpening their knives. When the abbot was present at meals, he had to see that the ewer and basin with clean towels were prepared for him to wash his hands. On Maundy Thursday the tables were to be set with clean white cloths, and a caritas, or extra glass of wine, was to be given to all the community. At the approach of the festival of All Saints the refectorian had to see that the candlesticks were ready for the candles to light the refectory; one candlestick being provided for every three monks at the evening meal from November 1 to the Purification – February 2. Lastly, it was the refectorian’s duty to sample the cheeses intended for the community. He could taste two or three in a batch, and if he did not like them reject the whole lot. At Abingdon a “weight of cheese” was equal to eighteen stone, and such a “weight” was supposed to last the community five days!


The office of kitchener was one of great responsibility. He was appointed in Chapter by the abbot with the advice of the prior, and he should be one who was agreeable to the community. According to the Custumal of one great English abbey, the kitchener was to be almost a paragon of virtue. He ought to be “a truly religious man, just, upright, gentle, patient, and trustworthy. He should be ready to accept suggestions, humble in his demeanour, and kind to others. He should be known to be of good disposition and conversation; always ready to return a mild answer to those who came to him.” He was “not to be too lavish, nor too niggardly, but ever to keep the happy mean in satisfying the needs of his brethren, and in his gifts of food and other things to such as made application to him. And as the safeguard of all the rest, he should strive ever to keep his mind and heart in peace and patience.”

The kitchener needed to be well instructed in the details of his office. He had to know, for example, how much food would be required for the allowances of the brethren, in order to know what and how much to buy, or to obtain from the other officials. He was to have what help he needed, and, besides the cooks, he had under him a trustworthy servant, sometimes called his emptor, or buyer, who was experienced in purchasing provisions, and knew how and at what seasons it were best to fill up the monastic store-houses. It was obviously of great importance, in order to prevent waste, that the kitchener should keep a strict account of what was expended in provisions and of what amounts were served out to the brethren. Each week he had to sum up the totals, and at the end of the month he had to present his accounts for examination to the superior, being prepared to explain why the cost of one week was greater than that of another, and in general to give an account of his administration.

As his name imported, the kitchener presided over the entire kitchen department. He was directed to see that all the utensils made use of were cleaned every day. He was to know the number of dishes required for each portion, and to furnish the cook with that number; he was to see that food was never served to the community in broken dishes, and was to be particular that the bottoms of the dishes were clean before allowing them to leave his charge, so that they might not soil the napery on the refectory tables. Whilst any meal was being dished, he was to be present to prevent unnecessary noise and clatter, and he was to see that the cooks got the food ready in time, so that the brethren might never be kept waiting. If the High Mass and Office, preceding the dinner, were for any reason protracted beyond the usual time, the kitchener was to warn the cooks of the delay. In the refectory his place was opposite to that of the prior on the left, but if there were need, he could move about during the supper to arrange or change the portions. In a special manner he was to see to the sick, and serve them with food that they might fancy or relish or that was good for them.

In some places the office of kitchener, like many of the others, was endowed with special revenues which had to be administered by the kitchener. At Abingdon, for example, the rents of many of the town tenements were assigned to it. From his separate revenue the abbot in the same place paid into the kitchener’s account more than £100 a year, to meet the expenses of his table, chiefly in the entertainment of guests. Besides money receipts, in most monasteries there were many payments in kind. In the same abbey, to take that place as a sample, at the beginning of Lent various fisheries had to supply so many “sticks of eels.” So, too, on the anniversary of Abbot Watchen, the kitchener had the fish taken from the fish-stew at one of the monastic manors; and during Lent, from every boat which passed up the Thames carrying herrings, except it were a royal barge, the kitchener took toll of a hundred of the fish, which had to be brought to him by the boat’s boy, who for his personal service received five herrings and a jug of beer.

The character of the religious kitchener as sketched in one English Custumal is very charming.

“He should be humble at heart and not merely in word; he should possess a kindly disposition and be lavish of pity for others; he should have a sparing hand in supplying his own needs and a prodigal one where others are concerned; he must ever be a consoler of those in affliction, a refuge to those who are sick; he should be sober and retiring, and really love the needy, that he may assist them as a father and helper; he should be the hope and aid of all in the monastery, trying to imitate the Lord, who said, ‘He who ministers to Me, let him follow Me.'”

The long list of duties for the kitchener to attend to set forth in the monastic Custumals, and the grave admonitions which accompany them, show how very important a place that official occupied in the monastery. He had to attend daily in the larder to receive and check the food. When the eggs were brought, for example, by the “vitelers,” he had to note who brought them, and whence they came, and to settle how they were to be used. He was to see that the paid “larderer” had meat and fish, salt and fresh, and that the fowls and other birds were fed whilst they were under his charge, waiting for the time they would be wanted for the table. After having made his daily inspection of the outer larder, the kitchener was to visit the inner larder, in order to see that all the plates and dishes were properly scoured, that all the food ready for cooking was kept sweet and clean, and that all the fish was well covered with damp reeds to keep it fresh. Moreover, he was to inspect the fuel, to see that the supply was always kept up by the doorkeeper of the kitchen, with the help of the turnbroach.

The kitchener was warned, not without reason, no doubt, to be careful about his keys. They were to be kept in his room, and no one might touch them without having first obtained his leave. “And,” says the Custumal, “he should prudently take heed not to put too much trust in the cooks and the servants, and on account of the danger of temptation” should not let them have his keys without going personally to see what they wanted them for. In this way only was it possible to guard against waste and alienation of the monastery goods.

In discharge of his duties, which were exercised for the common good, the kitchener might easily be excused from choir duties. During the morning Office he was permitted, for example, to say his Mass, and his first daily duty was to visit the sick to see if there were anything they would relish that he could get, and to cheer them with a few kindly words.

Among the many things that the kitchener might be called upon to provide at various times for the brethren, it may be mentioned that he had to furnish the cantor with some of the best beer when he desired to mix the ink for the writers.


Closely connected with the office of kitchener is that of the weekly servers, for they were among his chief, though constantly changing, assistants. They entered upon their weekly duties on the Sunday after Lauds, when those who were finishing their week and those who were beginning had to ask and receive the triple blessing. Immediately after receiving the benediction, the new officers went to their work. They drew water to wash with, and after their ablutions went to the kitchen to be ready to do whatever might be needful.

During their week of service, if there were two Masses, one server went to the first, the other to the second. Whilst the community were in the cloister at reading-time, both were to be at work in the kitchen. They had to be in the refectory ready to serve at meal times, and before all refections they were to see that the lavatory was prepared for the brethren. If there were a frost they had to provide basins of hot water and put them near the washing-place, and they were to make ready the water, towels, and other things requisite on shaving days. After each meal one of the weekly servers in an apron went to the kitchen to assist in washing up the dishes and plates.

On Saturdays they had to prepare hot and cold water, with towels, in the cloister, for the weekly feet-washing; to clean out the lavatory and scour the pot used for boiling water in the kitchen; to help to sweep up and tidy the kitchen, and to prepare wood for the fire next day. In the evening, as the last day of their weekly service, they performed the mandatum, or feet-washing: the first server washed the feet of the brethren, beginning with those of the abbot, and the second wiped them with the towels he had already dried and warmed. As a last act they returned and accounted for all the vessels and other things they had received when entering upon their duties on the previous Sunday.


The official appointed to have the care of the infirm and sick should have the virtue of patience in a pre-eminent degree. “He must be gentle,” says one Custumal, “and good-tempered, kind, compassionate to the sick, and willing as far as possible to gratify their needs with affectionate sympathy.” When one of the brethren was seized with any sickness and came to the infirmary, it was the infirmarian’s first duty to bring thither the sick man’s plate, his spoon, and his bed, and to inform the cellarer and kitchener, so that the sick man’s portion might be assigned to him in the infirmary refectory.

Whenever there were sick under his charge the infirmarian was to be excused, as far as was necessary, from regular duties. He said Mass for the sick, if he were a priest, or got some priest to do so, if he were not. If the sick were able to recite their Office, he said it with them, provided lights, if necessary, and procured the required books from the church. Whatever volumes they needed for reading he borrowed from the aumbry in the cloister; but he was warned always to take them back again before the cantor locked up the cupboard for the night. If there were more than one monk sick at the same time and they could help themselves, the infirmarian was then to go to the regular meals in the refectory; but he was to return to his charges as soon as possible and see that they had been properly served. He always slept in the infirmary, even when there were no sick actually there, and this because he had always to be ready for any emergency. Out of the revenue assigned to his office he had to find whatever might be necessary in the way of medicine and comforts for the sick. He was charged to keep the rooms in the infirmary clean, the floors sparsely covered with fresh rushes, and to have a fire always burning in the common-room when it was needed. According to one set of English directions, the infirmarian was advised always to keep in his cupboard a good supply of ginger, cinnamon, peony, etc., so as to be able at once to minister some soothing mixture or cordial when it was required, and to remember how much always depended in sickness on some such slight act of thoughtful sympathy and kindness.

The mediaeval rules of the infirmary will probably strike us, with our modern notions, as being strangely strict upon the sick. The law of silence, for instance, was hardly relaxed at all in the infirmary; the sick man could indeed talk about himself and his ailments and necessities to the infirmarian at any time, and the latter could give him every consolation and advice; but there was apparently no permission for general conversation, even among the sick, except at the regular times for recreation; even at meal times the infirm ate in silence and followed, as far as might be, the law of the convent refectory.

The brethren who were unwell were not all received in the infirmary for treatment. There were some monks sick, as one set of regulations points out, who were ailing merely from the effect of the very monotony and the necessarily irksome character of the life in the cloister; from the continued strain of silence; from the sheer fatigue of choral duties, or from sleeplessness and such-like causes. These did not need any special treatment under the infirmarian’s care; they required rest, not medicine; and the best cure for them was gentle exercise in the open air, in the garden or elsewhere, with temporary freedom from the strain of their daily service. Those who had grown old in their monastic service were to find a place of rest in the infirmary, where they were to be specially honoured by all. They too, however, had to keep the Rule as far as they were able without difficulty, and were to remember, as one English Custumal reminds them, “that not even the pope could grant them a dispensation contrary to their vows.” So they had to keep silence, for instance, if possible, and especially the great night silence after Compline.

The curious practice of periodical blood-letting, regarded according to mediaeval medical knowledge as so salutary, formed part of the ordinary infirmarian’s work. The operation was performed, or might be performed, on all, four times a year, if possible in February, April, September, and October. It was not to take place in the time of harvest, in Advent or Lent, or on the three days following the feasts of Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. The community were operated upon in batches of from two to six at a time, and the special day was arranged for them by the superior in Chapter, who would announce at the proper time that “those who sat at this or that table were to be blooded.” In settling the turns, consideration had, of course, to be paid to the needs of the community. The weekly server, for example, and the reader, and the hebdomadarian of the community Mass were not to be operated upon during the period of their service; and when a feast day was to be kept within four days of the blood-letting, only those were to be practised on who could be spared from the singing and serving at the necessary ecclesiastical functions of the feast.

From first to last, the operation of blood-letting occupied four days, and the process was simple. At the time appointed, the infirmarian had a fire lighted in the calefactory, if it were needed, and thither, between Tierce and Sext, if the day was not a fast, or between Sext and None if it were, the operator and his victims repaired. If the latter desired to fortify themselves against the lancet, they might proceed beforehand to the refectory and take something to eat and drink. During the time of healing, after the styptic had been applied and the bandages fastened, the discipline of the cloister was somewhat mitigated. The patient, for instance, could always spend the hours of work and reading in repose, either lying on his bed or sitting in the chapter-room or cloister, as he felt disposed. Till his return to full choir work, he was not to be bound to any duty. If he were an obedientiary or official, he was to get someone to see to his necessary duties for him during the time of his convalescence. If he liked to go to the Hours in choir, he was to sit; he was never to bend down or do penance of any kind, for fear of displacing the bandages, and he was to go out of the church before the others, for fear of having his arm rubbed if he were to walk in the ranks. During the three days of his convalescence he said his Compline at night in the chapter-room or elsewhere and then went straight to bed before the community. Though he had still to rise for Matins with the others, after a brief visit to the church he was allowed to betake himself to the infirmary and there to say a much shortened form of the night Office with the infirmarian and others. When this was done he was to return at once to bed. In the refectory the monk who had been “blooded” received the same food as the rest, with the addition of a half-pound of white bread and an extra portion, if possible, of eggs. On the second and third days this was increased in amount, and other strengthening food was given to him. In some places these meals were served in the infirmary after the blood-letting; and it was directed that the infirmary servant should on the first day after the bleeding get ready for the patients sage and parsley, washed in salt and water, and a dish of soft eggs. Those who found it necessary to be cupped or scarified more frequently, adds one set of regulations, had to get leave, but were not to expect to stay away from regular duties on that account.


The conventual almoner was not necessarily a priest; and although, as his name imports, his chief duty was to distribute the alms of the monastery to the poor, there were generally many other functions in behalf of the brethren which he had to discharge.

“Every almoner must have his heart aglow with charity,” says one writer. “His pity should know no bounds, and he should possess the love of others in a most marked degree; he must show himself as the helper of orphans, the father of the needy, and as one who is ever ready to cheer the lot of the poor, and help them to bear their hard life.”

In order to distribute the alms of the house the almoner might be absent from the morning Office, and although he should be discreet and careful in his charities, not wasting the substance of the monastery, he should at the same time be kind, gentle, and compassionate. He should often visit the aged poor and those who are blind or bedridden. If amongst his numerous clients for assistance he ever found some who, having been rich, had been brought to poverty, and were perchance ashamed to sit in the almonry with the other poor, he should respect their feelings, and should try and assist them privately. He should submit without manifesting any sign of impatience to the loud-voiced importunity of beggars, and must on no account abuse or upbraid them, “remembering always that they are made to the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ.”

The general measures for the relief of poverty were in the hands of the almoner; but he is told that should he find that his charity to any individual was likely to be continuous, he must consult the superior; and in like manner, when anyone has been a pensioner of the house, the almoner must not stop the usual relief without permission. Whilst engaged with Christ’s poor in the almonry, in ministering to the wants of the body, he should never forget those of the soul, and should, as a priest, when opportunity served, speak to them about spiritual matters, of the need of Confession and the like. He had charge of all the old clothes of the religious, and could distribute them as he thought fit, and before Christmas time he was enjoined not to omit to lay in a store of stockings, etc., so as to be able to give them as little presents to widows, orphans, and poor clerks.

To the office of almoner belonged the remnants of the meals in the refectory, the abbot’s apartments, the guest-house and the infirmary. At the close of every meal one of the weekly servers took round a basket to collect the portions of bread, etc., which the monks had not consumed, and after the dinner the almoner could himself claim, as left for him, anything that was not guarded by being covered with a napkin. In many places, on the death of a monk, it was the almoner’s duty to find the community an extra portion for the labour involved in the long Office for the dead, and to remind them to pray for the soul of the deceased. In some monasteries, on the other hand, the almoner daily received a loaf and one whole dish of food that the poor person who received it might pray for the founder of the monastery. In most houses, too, upon the death of any member of the establishment, a cross was put in the refectory upon the table in front of the place where the dead monk had been accustomed to sit, and for thirty days the full meal of a religious was served and given to the poor, that they might pray for the departed brother.

The almoner also superintended the daily maundy, or washing the feet of the poor selected for that purpose. At Abingdon, for example, every morning, after the Gospel of the morning Mass, the almoner went to the door of the abbey, and from the number of those waiting for an alms he chose three, who subsequently had their feet washed by the abbot, according to the approved custom. After this maundy they were fed and sent away with a small present of money. On the great maundy, on the Thursday before Easter, it was the almoner’s duty to select the deserving poor to be entertained – sometimes they were to be equal in number to the number of the community – and after they had had their meal, the almoner furnished each religious with a penny to bestow upon the poor man he had served.

As an ordinary part of his office the almoner had also a good deal to do with any monastic school, other than the claustral school for young religious, which was connected with a monastery. There, young clerks were to have free quarters in the almonry, and the almoner was frequently to see them set to argue one against the other, to sharpen their wits. He was to keep them strictly, or, as it was called in those days of belief in corporal punishment, “well under the rod,” and he had to find, out of the revenues of his office, all “discipline rods” both for the boys and for use in the monastic Chapter. On feast days, when there were no regular lessons, these young clerics were to be set to learn the Matins of the Office of the Blessed Virgin; or to practise writing upon scraps of parchment. If they did not learn, and especially if they would not, the almoner was to get rid of them, and fill their places with those who would.

As before noted, to the almoner belonged, at least partially, the duty of attending to the mortuary-rolls or notices of deaths. That is to say, he had to supervise the “breviators,” or letter-carriers, who were sent to announce the death of the brethren, or who came with such rolls. He received the rolls, and gave them into the hands of the cantor to copy and to notify to the community. If it were the mortuary-roll of a prelate, and especially if it announced the death of the head of any associated monastery, the superior was to be informed at once, in case he should desire to add to the roll something special about the dead; that is, more than the mere name of the place, which was simply meant to testify that the notice had been seen and read in Chapter. Whilst the bearer of the roll was waiting to receive back his “brief,” he was to be entertained liberally in the almonry. Sometimes the almoner was to get the cantor to multiply copies of the death-notice, and these he at once despatched far and wide by the hands of such poor people as were tramping the country and called at the monastery for assistance.

Amongst the miscellaneous duties of the office of almoner, in some places that official had to see that the mats under the feet of the monks in the choir were renewed each year for the Feast of All Saints. He had also to find the rushes for the dormitory floor. From Saint Dunstan’s Day, May 19th, till Michaelmas the cloister was kept strewn with green rushes, which the almoner had to find, as well as all the mats used in the cloister and on the stairs, and also in some houses the bay-leaves or “the herb-benet, or common hedge avens,” to scatter in the refectory and cloister at Easter. At the time of the long processions also on the Rogation days, two of the almonry servants, standing at the church door, were wont to distribute boxwood walking-sticks to such of the community who through age or infirmity needed them to walk with.

The almoner, says one Custumal, should remember that from his office might be derived great spiritual gain. He should keep before his mind our Lord’s words: “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” etc. For this reason alone he should ever be gentle and kind to the poor, for in them he was really ministering to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He ought to endeavour to be seldom, if ever, without something to give away in charity, and he should try to keep a supply of socks, linen and woollen cloth, and other necessities of life, so that if by chance Christ Himself were at any time to appear in the guise of a poor, naked, and hungry man, “He might not have to depart from His own house unfed, or without some clothes to cover the rags of His poverty.”


In mediaeval days the hospitality extended to travellers by the monastic houses was traditional and necessary. The great abbeys, especially those situated along the main roads of the country, were the halting-places of rich and poor, whom business, pleasure, or necessity compelled to journey on “the King’s highway.” For this and many other causes, such as the coming to the monastery of people desiring to be present at church festivals and other celebrations, visits of the relatives of monks, and of those who were concerned in the business transactions of a large establishment, the coming and going of guests was probably of almost daily occurrence. The official appointed to attend to the wants of all these and to entertain them on behalf of the monastery was the hospitarius or guest-master.

The official guest-master had the reputation of the religious house in his hands. He required tact, prudence, and discretion in a full measure. Scribbled on the margin of a monastic chartulary as a piece of advice, good indeed for all, but most of all applicable to the official in the charge of the guests, are the following lines: –

“Si sapiens fore vis, sex serva quae tibi mando
Quid dicas, et ubi, de quo, cui, quomodo, quando.”

Which may be Englished thus: –

“If thou wouldst be wise, observe these six things I command you,
Before speaking think what you say and where you say it; about
and to whom you talk, as well as how and when you are conversing.”

On the other hand, the guest-master is frequently warned that he must certainly be neither too stand-off, silent, or morose in his intercourse with strangers. And, as it is part of his duty to hold converse with guests of all sorts and conditions, with men as well as women, “it becomes him,” says one Custumal, “to cultivate,” not merely a facility of expression in his conversation, but pleasing manners and the gentle refinement which comes of and manifests a good education. All his words and doings should set the monastic life before the stranger “in a creditable light,” since it becomes him to remember the proverb: “Friends are multiplied by agreeable words, enemies are made by harsh ones.”

The guest-master’s first office was to see that the guest-house was always ready for the arrival of any visitor. He was to make certain that there was a supply of straw sufficient for the beds; that the basins and jugs were clean inside and out; that the floors were well swept and spread with rushes; that the furniture was properly dusted, and that, in a word, the whole house was kept free from cobwebs and from every speck of dirt. Before the coming of an expected guest the master was personally to inspect the chamber set apart for him; to see that there was a light prepared for him should he need it; that the fire did not smoke; and that writing materials were at hand in case they were required. Moreover, he was to ascertain that all things were ready in the common rooms for his entertainment. When it was necessary to procure something that was needful, the master could enter the kitchen, which was, of course, otherwise out of the enclosure for the monks generally. He was to get coal and wood and straw from the cellarer; the cups, platters, and spoons that were required from the refectorian; and the sub-cellarer was to arrange as to the food itself. At Abingdon the guest-master had a special revenue to be spent upon what must have been a source of very considerable expense in those days, the shoeing of the horses of travellers generally who came to the abbey, and especially of those belonging to religious and to poor pilgrims. People also at various times left small bequests for this as for other monastic charities. In the same abbey, the guest-master had also a small yearly sum, charged on a house in the town, which had been left by “Thurstin the tailor,” to help to entertain poor travellers, as a memorial of the day when he and his wife had been received into the fraternity of the monastery.

When word was brought to the guest-master of the arrival of a guest, he was charged forthwith to leave whatever he was about, and to go at once to receive him, as he would Christ Himself. He was to assure him – especially if he were a stranger – of the monastic hospitality, and endeavour from the first to place him at his ease. He was to remember what he would wish to be done in his own regard under similar circumstances, and what he would desire to be done to himself he was to do to all guests. “By showing this cheerful hospitality to guests,” says one English Custumal, “the good name of the monastery is enhanced, friendships are multiplied, enmities are lessened, God is honoured, charity is increased, and a plenteous reward in heaven is secured.” The whole principle of religious hospitality, as practised in a mediaeval monastery, is really summed up in the words of Saint Benedict’s Rule: Hospites tamquam Christus suscipiantur – Guests are to be received as if they were Christ Himself.

Directly the guest-master had cordially received the new-comer at the monastery gate, he was to conduct him to the church. There he sprinkled him with holy water and knelt by him, whilst he offered up a short prayer of salutation to God, into whose house he was come safely after the perils of a journey. After this the master conducted his guest to the common parlour, and here, if he were a stranger, he begged to know his name, position, and country, sending to acquaint the abbot or superior if the guest was one who, in his opinion, ought to receive attention from the head of the house. When the guest was going to stay beyond a few hours, he was taken after this first and formal reception to the guest-house, where, when he had been made comfortable, according to the Rule, the master arranged for the reading of some passages from the Scriptures or some spiritual work. If the strangers were monks of some other monastery, and the length of their visit afforded sufficient time, he showed them over the church and house, and if they had servants and horses he sent to acquaint the cellarer, that they too might receive all needful care. If a conventual prior came on a visit he was to be given a position and portion of food, etc., similar to that of the prior of the house, and every abbot was to be treated in all things by the monks like their own abbot. For each monk-guest the master got from the sacrist four candles, and the chamberlain found the tallow for the cressets in the guest-house. It was the master’s duty to see that the guests kept the rules, which were to be made known to them on their first coming. Strangers were entertained for two days and nights by the house without question. If any of them wished to speak with one of the monks, leave had to be first obtained from the superior.

When the guest desired to say the Office, books and a light were to be provided in the guest-hall, and the master was to recite it with him if he so desired. If on great feasts guests desired to be present in the church for Matins, the master called them in ample time, waited for them whilst they rose, and then with a lighted lantern accompanied them to the choir. There he was to find them a place and a book and leave them a light to read by. Before Lauds he came to them with his lantern to take them back to their chambers that they might again retire to bed till the morning Office.

Either the guest-master, or his servant, had to remain up at night till the fires were seen to be protected and the candles put out. If the guest was obliged to depart early in the morning, the master had to obtain the keys of the gate and of the parlour from the prior’s bedplace. After having let the visitor out, he was charged to take care to relock the doors and to replace the keys. At all times when guests were leaving the master was bound to be present, and before wishing them Godspeed on their journey, he was instructed to go round the chambers, “in order,” says one Custumal, “to see that nothing was left behind, such as a sword, or a knife; and nothing was taken off by mistake which belonged to his charge by his Office, and for which he was responsible.” With the departure of guests came the duty of seeing that everything in the guest-house was put in order again, and was ready for the advent of others.


The chief official duties of the chamberlain of a religious house were concerned with the wardrobe of the brethren. He consequently had to know what and how much clothing each religious ought to have by rule, and what in fact he had. For this purpose he was provided with an official list of what was lawful, or required, and from time to time with his servant he had to examine the clothing of the monks, removing what was past repair, and substituting new garments for the old, which were placed in the poor-cupboard to satisfy the charitable intentions of the almoner. In the distribution of these cast-off clothes, however, it was to be remembered that those who worked for the monastery had first claim, if they were in need, upon the old garments of the monks which had found their way to the poor-cupboard.

It is somewhat difficult to discover exactly the amount of underclothing considered sufficient for religious, especially as in most places there seems to have been little difficulty in furnishing more, if there was any particular reason shown for additional clothing. Three sets, however, of shirts, drawers, and socks, seem to have been an ordinary allowance for priests and deacons, and probably two sets for others; with two tunics, scapulars, and hoods, and two pairs of boots. These last were over and besides the “night-boots,” which were apparently made of thick cloth, with soles of some heavy noiseless material, such as our modern felt.

The chamberlain by virtue of his office had also to provide the laundresses and superintend their work. These necessary servants were to mend as well as wash all sheets, shirts, socks, etc., and all clothes that needed regular cleansing and reparation. All underclothing was to be washed, according to one set of rules, once a fortnight in summer, and once every three weeks in winter. Great care was to be taken that no losses should occur “in the wash,” and all the clothes sent to the tub were to be entered on “tallies,” or lists, and returned in the same way into the charge of the official.

The chamberlain, according to the amount of his work, could generally have a monk as assistant chamberlain either for a time, or continuously. Amongst the duties assigned to this assistant was that of looking to the repairs needed in the clothes, which in a large establishment were sometimes very heavy. In one of the Custumals, any monk who wanted a garment repaired, had to place it in the morning in one of the bays of the cloister leading to the chapter-house, Thither each day came the assistant chamberlain to see what had been placed there, and what was wanted. He then carried what he found to the tailor’s shop and fetched it again when the repairs had been executed. This necessary establishment was generally well organised. For example, at Abingdon there were four lay officials and five helpers in the tailor’s department. The first had charge of the skins and furs; the second was the master tailor; the third the master cutter; and the fourth was called the “proctor of the shop”; and his office was to see that all materials had been supplied by the camerarius, that there was a store of cloth and skins, an abundance of needles, pins, and thread, and a sufficiency of knives and scissors, and wax for the thread. The proctor of the shop also had charge of the lights and fire, and he himself slept in the shop and was responsible for its safe custody.

The camerarius by his office had to provide all the cloth and other material necessary for the house. For such purposes he had to attend at the neighbouring fairs, whither merchants brought their goods, where he purchased what was necessary. For such matters he frequently had the use of a cart and horse, with its driver. When vendors of cloth came to the monastery the chamberlain had to interview them, and, if necessary, entertain them out of the revenue attached to his office.

In mediaeval times, when patent methods of heating were unknown and windows were often unglazed or badly glazed, the cold of our northern climate required the general use of skins and furs as lining to the ordinary winter garments for protection from the weather and draughts. The cloister was no exception, especially when the monks had to spend some hours each night in their great unwarmed churches; and so we find in the Custumals that the camerarius was warned to prepare a store of lamb-skins and cat-skins before the cold set in, and he was granted a special supply of salt for the purpose of curing them. He had charge also of the boots of the community; and, at one place at least, three times in the year he had a right to a supply of pigs’-fat from the kitchener, in order that he might compound the grease with which the community liberally anointed the leather of their boots to keep it supple and to make it weather-proof.

On the chamberlain of every monastic house devolved also the duty of making preparation for the baths and for the shaving, etc., of the brethren. He had to purchase linen cloth for the towels in the cloister lavatory, for the monks’ baths, and for the general feet-washing each Saturday. He was charged always to keep an eye upon the lavatory, and, when it was frozen in the winter, he was told to see that there were hot water and warm dry towels for the monks’ use. He had also to buy the wood needful to warm the water for the baths, which were to be taken by all, three or four times in the year; and he had to keep by him a store of sweet hay to spread round about the bathing tubs for the monks to stand on. From November to Easter he was to provide hot water for the general feet-washing on Saturdays, and on Christmas Eve he was charged to see that a good fire was kept burning in the calefactory, so that when the monks came out from their midnight Mass and Office, they should find a warm room and plenty of hot water to wash in after their long cold vigil in the church. For all these occasions, too, the camerarius had to provide a supply of soap, as well as for the washing of heads and for shaving purposes.

In Cluniac monasteries, at least, the arrangements for shaving had also to be made by the chamberlain. The brother who undertook the office of barber kept his implements – razors, strop, soap, and brushes, etc. – in a small movable chest, which usually stood near the dormitory door. When necessary he carried it down to the cloister, where, at any time that the community were at work or sitting in the cloister, he could sharpen up his razors or prepare his soaps. When the time of the general “rasura” came, the community sat silently in two lines, one set along the cloister wall, the other facing them with their backs to the windows. The general shaving was made a religious act, like almost every other incident of cloister life, by the recitation of psalms. The brothers who shaved the others, and those who carried the dishes and razors, were directed to say the Benedicite together before beginning their work; all the rest as they sat there during the ceremony, except of course the individual actually being operated upon, said the Verba mea and other psalms. The sick, and those who had leave, were shaved apart from the rest in the warmer calefactory. It would seem that the usual interval between the times of shaving the monks’ tonsures was about three weeks; but there was always a special shaving on the eve of all great festivals. Sometimes in monasteries situated in towns the work of shaving was performed by a paid expert. In the Winchester chamberlain’s account-roll, there are entries for such payments, as, for example, “for thirty-six shavings, 4s. 6d.”

According to custom, the chamberlain had also to find, out of his revenues, various little sums for specified purposes. For example, from the same Winchester rolls it appears that he paid 20s. to each monk, in three portions of different amounts, apparently as pocket-money; he also year by year paid the money for wine on Holy Innocents’ Day for the boy-bishop celebration; he kept several boys in the school, and also defrayed the cost of a student at Oxford University. At Abingdon, in the same way, from rents received by him, the chamberlain had to furnish each of the monks with threepence to give to the poor whose feet were washed on Maundy Thursday. The chief virtues which should characterise the true monastic chamberlain are stated to be, “wisdom and learning, a religious spirit, a mature judgment, and an upright honesty.”


The master of novices was, of course, one of the most important officials in every religious house. So far we have spoken of the obedientiaries, who were immediately concerned with the management of the whole monastery; and the novice-master is placed here, not because his was a less dignified or a less important office, but because he was officially concerned merely with those who were being proved for the religious life. The master of novices, we are told, was to be a man of wide experience and strength of character. “A person fitted for winning souls,” is Saint Benedict’s description of the ideal novice-master. It is obvious that he should be able to discern the spirits and prove them; to see whether their call to the higher life was really from God, or a mere passing inclination or whim.

During the year of his probation the novice was in complete subjection to his master. The postulant, who came to beg for admission into religion, usually remained in the guest-house for four days; after that time, in some houses, he came to the morning Chapter for three consecutive days, and, kneeling in the midst of the brethren, urged his petition to be allowed to join their ranks and to enter into holy religion in their monastery. After the third morning, if his request was granted, he was clothed in the habit of a monk, and was handed over to the care of the novice-master, who was to train him, and to teach him the practices of the religious life; whose duty it was to test him and to prove him; and who, for a whole year, was to be his guide, his master, and his friend.

One walk of the cloister, generally the eastern side, was assigned to the use of the novices. In their work and life they were to be separated, as much as possible, from the rest of the community except in the church, the refectory, and the dormitory. Even in these places they were to be still under the immediate control and constant watchful care of their master. From the day of their reception the systematic teaching of the rules and traditional practices of the religious life, which was imparted in the noviciate, was commenced. The first lesson given the novice was how he was to arrange the monk’s habit and cowl, which were new to him; how to hold his hands and head; and how to walk with that modesty and gravity which become a religious man. These minutiae were not always so easy to acquire; and to most, frequently presented some difficulty. The neophyte was next shown how he should bow, and when the various kinds of bows were to be made. If the bow was to be profound, it was pointed out to him how he could tell practically when it was correctly made, by allowing his crossed arms to touch his knees. Then he was instructed how to get into his bed in order to observe due modesty, and how to rise from it in the morning, in the common dormitory. In a word, he was exercised in all the usual monastic manners and customs.

After these first lessons in the external behaviour of a monk, the novice was taught the necessity and meaning of such regulations as custody of the eyes, silence, and respect for superiors and other brethren, both outward and inward. Step by step he was drilled in the exercises of the regular life, and taught to understand that they were not mere outward formalities, but were, or ought to be, signs of the inward change of soul indicated by the monk’s cowl.

The cloister was the novice’s schoolroom. His master assigned to him a definite place amongst his fellows, and after the morning Office he sat there in silence with the book given him, out of which to learn some one of the many things a novice had to acquire during the year of probation. The Rule: the prayers and psalms he had to learn by heart: the correct method of singing and chanting and reading: and sometimes even the rudiments of the Latin language, without a knowledge of which the work of a choir brother was impossible, were some of his daily studies; and hard work enough it was to get through it all in twelve fleeting months. His master, however, was ever at hand to help him and to encourage him to persevere, if he only showed the real signs of a call to the higher life.

Before beginning their work the novices always had to recite a De profundis and a prayer, as an exercise in decorum and deliberation. Not more than three of them were to use the same book together. At times there must have been a considerable amount of noise, for in practising the reading, singing, and chanting they were all directed to make use of the same tone, as they would have to do in the church or refectory. The novice-master began their exercises with them, but he could pass them on for this kind of drilling to someone else, provided he was competent and a staid and true religious.

Thrice during the year of probation, if the novice persisted in his design, his master brought him to the morning Chapter, where on his knees he renewed his petition to be received as one of the brethren. At length, as the end of the year approached, a more solemn demand was made and, the novice having been dismissed from the Chapter, the master gave his opinion, and the verdict of the convent was taken. If the vote were favourable to the petitioner, a day was appointed for him to make his vows, and, having pronounced these with great solemnity, he received the kiss of peace from all as a token of his reception into the full charity of the brotherhood. In some Orders, certainly amongst the Benedictines, the ceremony concluded with a formal and ceremonious fastening of the hood of the newly professed over his head. This he wore closed for three days, as a sign of the strict retreat from the world, with which he began his new life as a full religious; and just as our Lord was buried in the tomb for part of three days to rise again, so was he buried to the world to rise again to a new life. At the morning Mass of the third day the superior with some ceremony unfastened the hood, and the late novice joined the ranks of the junior monks, who for some years after their profession still remained under the eye and guidance of an immediate superior called the junior master.


To complete the account of the officers of a monastery some few words are necessary about the officials, whose duties lasted merely for the week. The first of these was known as the hebdomadarian, or the priest for the week. In most places, apparently, the hebdomadarian began his labours with the vespers on Saturday and continued them till the same time the following week. It was his chief duty to commence all the various canonical Hours during his week of office. He gave all the blessings that might be required; he blessed the holy water and, on the proper days, the candles and ashes. He gave even the blessings bestowed upon the weekly servers on the Sunday morning. Besides these duties it was his office to sing the High Mass on all days during the week, and in monasteries where there were two public Masses, during the week which followed his week of service, he took the early Mass and assisted at the second.

A second weekly official was the antiphoner, whose duty it was to read the Invitatory at Matins. He did so alone on ordinary days, and sang it with an assistant, or even with two or more, on greater feasts. He gave out, or intoned, the first Antiphon at the Psalms, the Versicles, the Responsoria after the Lessons, and the Benedicamus Domino at the conclusion of each Hour. He also read the “Capitulum,” or Little Chapter, and whatever else had to be read at the morning Chapter.

Amongst the other weekly officials may be noted the servers and the reader 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 as to pronunciation, pitch of the voice, and 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. With the reader, and other officials who could not be present at the conventual meals, they took theirs afterwards in the refectory.

MLA Citation

  • Dom Adrian Gasquet. “The Obedientiaries”. English Monastic Life, 1904. CatholicSaints.Info. 28 November 2018. Web. 21 April 2021. <>