Monastic Lifestyles

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Monastic Lifestyles


Communicating in the Monastery. Monks were supposed to be silent during much of the day. Silence not only aided spiritual contemplation, but it helped to prevent disputes and gossip. Monks were not allowed to speak in the church, kitchen, dormitory, and refectory. Even when monks could speak, they were instructed to do so quietly and to speak only about spiritual subjects. Moreover, monks could not speak with anyone except other monks, even the lay brothers, except in emergencies or if they held office in the monastery. Yet, there were times when communication was essential even if speech was forbidden, and monks developed sign language for use in these periods. Most sign language had to do with basic foodstuffs and activities, but it could become quite elaborate and excessive. Gerald of Wales, who visited Canterbury in the eleventh century, complained about the monks’ violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Benedictine Rule: “They gesticulated with fingers, hands, and arms, and whistled to each other instead of speaking. … It would be more consonant with good order and decency to speak modestly in human speech than to indulge ridiculously in this mute chatter.”

Diet. Food had an important place in medieval monasteries for several reasons. First, it was essential to life, and St. Benedict had condemned fasts and other austerities that prevented monks from performing their spiritual duties. Second, as central social and spiritual institutions, monasteries had the responsibility to provide food to travelers and the poor. Finally, food and gluttony were symbols of the worldly preoccupations that monks were supposed to avoid. As such, dietary regulation permeated monastic life. Like other medieval people, monks were subject to meatless fast days as part of their religious observations. On those days fish, vegetables, cheese, and grains formed the basis of their meals. On other days meat was consumed quite frequently, generally at every meal, in all but the strictest religious houses. Bread was served at every meal, and the allotment was often around a pound a day. All leftovers were distributed to the poor. In addition, the number of foods available at each meal was quite diverse. The Benedictine Rule required two cooked dishes to be served at each meal in addition to bread, cheese, seasonal fruit, and beverages. It also provided for dietary supplements and additional dishes, called pittances, on special occasions. By the twelfth and thirteenth century it was common for several pittances to be included with each meal. In the course of the Middle Ages, monastic dietary rules also became increasingly lax. In order to fulfill dietary regulations while appeasing delicate palates, fine distinctions were drawn among kinds of meat. As Barbara Harvey has noted,

They distinguished between the muscle tissue of animals—“butcher’s meat,” as we should say—and the offal and entrails, which were not to be regarded as “meat”; and between fresh meat cut from the joint, on the one hand, and salted, pre-cooked, or chopped meat, on the other. A monk, they said, kept the Rule if all that he consumed was a pork fritter, for which the meat was pre-cooked, or “umbles”—sheeps’ entrails cooked in ale and breadcrumbs—but he broke it if he ate fresh roast beef.

Monastic Mealtime. Sit-down meals were served in medieval monasteries at least twice a day. With anywhere from twenty to many more than one hundred individuals to be fed in several locations, preparing and serving them could become quite a production. Monks were required to


The reform movement based at Cluny in France was probably the most significant monastic movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries. While a monk there, Udalric composed a book called The Ancient Customs of the Monastery of Cluny (circa 1086). Among many other topics, Udalric describes the sign language used by monks when they were not allowed to speak.

For the sign for bread, make a circle with both thumbs and index fingers, since bread is usually round. …

For the sign for beans, place the tip of the index finger on top of the first joint of the thumb, and in this way make the thumb stick out. …

For a general sign for fish, imitate the motion of the fish’s tail in the water with your hand.

For the sign for honey, stick out your tongue just a bit, and apply your fingers to it as if you were going to lick them.

For the sign for garlic or horseradish, open your mouth slightly and extend your finger toward it, on account of the sort of odor that comes from it.

For the sign for water, place all your fingers together, and move them sideways. …

For the sign for a dish, hold out your hand flat. …

For the sign for the tunic, hold its sleeve with three fingers, the little finger and the two next to it.

For the sign for braies, do the same thing, and at the same time pull your hand up along your thigh like someone who is putting on his braies.

[Sign used by someone asking permission to leave early from a meal:] He rises from the table, comes toward the dais, and with his hand stretched out, draws it away from his chest.

[Sign used by someone wishing to see a priest for confession:] Taking his hand out of his sleeve, he places it on his chest, which is the sign for confession.

Source: Udalric, “Antiquiores Consuedtudines Cluniacensis Monasterii,” in Patrilogia Latina, edited by J.-P. Migne, 149 (Paris: Gamier, 1882), cols. 703–704, 707, 711.

eat their meals in the refectory unless they were sick or had pressing duties; sick monks ate diets tailored to their illnesses in the infirmary. Monastic complexes generally had separate refectories for the lay brothers and the monks. Moreover, the abbot might take his meals in his own lodgings, particularly if he were entertaining an influential visitor. Serving meals was a chore rotated among the healthy monks, and it qualified as one of their good works, a meritorious duty blessed by God. The meal began with grace and prayers. Then the monk in charge of provisions and the kitchens (the cellarer) sent his assistants into the dining hall to distribute platters of food. The monks were supposed to remain quiet during meals, but one monk might be given the task of reading psalms or biblical verses to the others. Like medieval nobles, monks placed their food on bread trenchers and, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, wooden plates. They ate with spoons and knives. Ale, wine, and water were served with each meal. Once a monk was done, he waited at the table until everyone was dismissed.

Clothes. Monastic garments were distinctive, and medieval people could tell to which religious order a monk or friar belonged by the color and cut of his clothes. Among a monk’s most dramatic differences from the laity, however, were his hair and the thick cowl that covered his head. When a monk took his preliminary vows, his hair was cut into a tonsure, that is, it was shaved leaving a row of hair around the skull just above the ears. (The size of the area shaved varied somewhat.) Generally made of wool, the cowl was a long, loose, sleeveless garment with a deep hood attached. The hood provided warmth, and, if a monk needed to leave the monastery, it protected him from the outside world by hiding his face from view and blocking the world from his field of vision. Under his cowl, a medieval monk wore clothes similar to the peasant or nobleman’s braies, tunic, hose, mantle, and shoes. Over his cowl a monk put a loose gown with long sleeves that usually covered even his hands. Depending on the religious order, the gown came in different, albeit subdued, colors; for example, Benedictines generally wore black, while the Cistercian’s gown was of white wool. Depending on a monk’s activities additional clothes might be issued to him, such as gloves to protect hands while gardening or sheepskin slippers for ill monks. Although a medieval monk’s wardrobe might seem minimal, compared to even many minor nobles he was quite comfortable.

Laundry and Hygiene. Laundry services were available for the monks in the cloister, and there is some evidence that by the later Middle Ages monks also sent their laundry out of the monastery when such services were available. A monk who needed to wash his clothing removed it modestly—generally under his blankets—folded it, and took it to the washing facilities. Laundry was left to soak in the tub during the chapter meeting, and during the afternoon the monk washed out his clothing and hung it out to dry. Any clothes that needed mending were put in a location where they were taken to the monastery’s tailor, and any clothes that were beyond basic repairs or were getting threadbare were set aside for distribution to the poor. Running and piped water made laundry easier in a monastery than elsewhere; it also aided shaving, bathing, and other aspects of personal hygiene. Although full-body baths were considered sensuous and, therefore, potentially sinful, monks were expected to wash their hands, feet, faces, and other body parts as needed every day. Based on biblical models, foot washing even became a valuable ritual of humility, and monks washed the feet of other monks and of poor people who came to the monastery. Shaving and barbering appears to have been done weekly, and often the monks took turns caring for each other. In the late Middle Ages some more-lax monasteries might hire a professional barber. These activities were socially segregated. Monks cared for other monks, while the lay brothers helped only other lay brothers. Such segregation was carried out at many levels; at

Westminster Abbey there were even separate latrines for the monks, the monks’ officials, the lay brethren, and for common use.

Sleeping. The dormitory where most of the monks slept was often one of the largest buildings in the monastic complex, sometimes measuring more than 150 feet long and 30 feet wide. The monks’ beds were arranged in rows down the two long walls, much like those in a military barracks. A monk had no privacy in these dormitories, and only monasteries that deviated from the Benedictine Rule allowed curtains to separate the monks’ beds, which were wooden frames lined with straw. A mattress made of canvas and probably filled with straw was put on the frame and covered with a woolen blanket or two. A monk got into bed fully clothed, even with his hood over his head. After he crawled under the covers, he removed the top layers of his clothing, which he placed at the head of his bed so that he could easily reach them when called to Matins. These provisions were designed to protect the monks’ modesty and minimize any sexual impulses that a naked body might cause. Luxurious dormitories might provide a small chest for a monk’s few clothes and possessions; the chest was supposed to remain unlocked. There were often windows set high on the dormitory walls, and a large dormitory had some sort of fire. Fires and other lights were extinguished once the monks went to bed, so getting up for Matins must have been cold and dreary.

The Infirmary. Most monasteries had at least one monk with medical expertise (the infirmarian) who managed the infirmary. Sometimes infirmarians engaged in the sort of medical practices performed by surgeons or apothecaries—which were looked down on as manual labor and as crafts in the Middle Ages—but infirmarians were generally diagnosticians and left to others the treatment they prescribed. The Benedictine Rule allowed ill and elderly monks additional comforts and dietary privileges, and custom diets were even developed for them. The infirmary surroundings could be relatively luxurious, and a trip to the infirmary could seem like a brief vacation. For example, the infirmary in Westminster Abbey had red and green worsted wall hangings and blue cushions with a pattern of foliage and birds in flight. A sick monk brought his own bedclothes—generally the undergarments he wore every day—but beds, mattresses, and blankets were provided. There were also attempts to make the infirmary more sanitary and comfortable. The thick rushes that covered the floors retained heat, minimized sound, and gave some cushioning underfoot. These rushes were changed at least once a month. Moreover, the infirmary hall, its parlor, and even the individual rooms where the sick were housed had fires. Even though the fires were extinguished at night, the infirmary’s rooms were still significantly warmer and less drafty than the dormitory. Most monasteries also treated sick people from the neighboring community, and the infirmarian and his assistants might be called to mix drugs, set bones, and contain contagious diseases.


Judith M. Bennett, ed. Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England, 1100–1500: The Monastic Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Berenice M. Kerr, Religious Life for Women, c.llOO–c.1350: Fontevraud in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (London & New York: Longman, 1984).