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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. July 2007.
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THE PAID SERVANTS OF THE MONASTERY
No account of the officials of a medieval monastery would be complete without some notice of the assistants, other than the monks, who took so large a part in the administration. Incidentally something has already been said about the paid lay officers and servants ; but their position requires that their place and work should be discussed somewhat more fully. They were all of them lifelong friends of the monks, whose interest in the wellbeing of the establishment with which they were connected was almost as keen and real as that of the brethren themselves. On some of the greater houses their number was very considerable, and even in small monasteries the records of the dissolution make it clear that there were, at least in most of them, a great number of such retainers. In many places the higher lay offices, such as steward, cook, etc., because in process of time, hereditary, and were much prized by the family in whose possession they were. It was also possible, of course that by default of male heirs, the position might pass to the female line. Thus in one case the office of cook in a great Benedictine monastery was held by a woman in respect to her inheritance of the last holder. She because the ward of the
superior, and he had thus a good deal to say to her marriage, by which she transmitted the office to her husband as her dower. Among the various paid officials the following were most important.
I. THE CATERER, OR BUYER FOR THE COMMUNITY
caterer, says one Custumal, “ought to be a broadminded and
: one who acts with decision, and is
wise, just and upright in things belonging to his office ; one who is
knowing, discreet and careful when purchasing meat and fish in the
from the salesman.” Under the
2. THE ABBOT’S COOK
This official held more the position of a steward, or valet to the superior, than that of a cook. He had to go each morning to the abbot or prior for orders, and
to find out what would be required for the superior’s table for the day, and he had then to proceed to the
If he needed help, the abbot’s valet could have a boy to run on errands and generally assist ; and they were both warned that in the season for pig-killing and bacon-curing they, like all other servants, were to be ready to help in the important work of salting. He had, as part of his duty, to keep a careful list of all the spoons, mugs, dishes, and other table necessaries, and after meals to see that they were clean ; and, if not, to clean them before the close of the day. Once each year the inventory had to be shown to, and checked by, the
3. THE LARDERER
The larderer should be “as perfect, just, and faithful a servant” as could be found. He had charge of the keys of all the outhouses attached to the great larder of the monastery, which in one Custumnal are specified as “the hay-house, the stockfish-house, and the pudding-
house.” These keys, together with that of the outer larder itself, he had always to carry with him on his girdle, as he alone might be responsible for their safety. In all matters he, too, was to be under the
4. THE COOK
For the infirmary, and especially for the use of those who had been subjected to the periodical blood-letting, there was a special cook skilled in the preparation of strengthening broths and soups. He was the chief or meat-cook of the establishment, and had under him two boys, one as a general helper, the other to act as his “turnbroach.” He was appointed to his office by the
abbot, and at least in the case
of some of the greater houses it was secured to him for life by a
grant. It was his duty to provide those
who had been “blooded” with a plate of meat broth on the second and
and also to give them, and the sick generally, any particular dish they
fancy. Moreover, he had to furnish the
whole community with soup, meat, and vegetables on all days when meat
by the whole convent.
He had also to see to the process of salting any meat in the proper seasons, or whenever it might be necessary. He also prepared the various soups or pottages for the community ; for instance, “Frumenty” on all Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, from August 1st to September 29th ; or “Letborry,” made with milk, eggs and saffron on fish days, from July till October ; or “Charlet,” the same composition with the addition of pork, for other days during the same time ; or “Jussel,” from Easter to July ; or ”Mortews,” in which the quantity of meat was increased, and which was served on all days, except those of abstinence, during the winter months, from All Saints’ day to Lent.
One English Custumal warns the cook to reflect often that his work in the kitchen is necessarily heavy and tedious ; and that he should endeavour to keep up a goodly feeling between himself and his assistants, for “without this mutual assistance it is difficult” to do what his office requires of him for the good of others. For his trouble he had a fixed wage and a house ; and many recognized perquisites, the chopping of joints, and two joints from every other chine of pork, as well as half the dripping that came from the joints roasted for the community.
5. THE GUEST-HALL COOK
The cook to attend to the needs of visitors was appointed by the cellarer, and had under him a boy to help in any way he might direct. His office was frequently for life, and certainly, once appointed, he could be removed only with difficulty. He had to get everything ready for the entertainment of strangers and of the parents of the religious, whenever they came to the monastery and at whatsoever hour of the day or night. Besides this ordinary work he had to assist, when disengaged, in preparing the meals for the monks, and in the season for salting, the pork and mutton, to help in that work with the chief cook and the larderer. He was to be in all things obedient to the
6. THE FISH-COOKS
In the large monasteries, such as, for example, Edmundsbury, there were two cooks for the fish-dishes ; the first was properly called the “fish-cook,” the other was “pittance-cook.” Their appointment was made for life, and by letters-patent signed by the abbot in Chapter, with the prior and the community as witnesses. Though called the “fish-cooks” these servants had also to attend to the general work of the kitchen, even on days when meat was eaten, and to cook the meat and make the gravy required ; whilst the “pittance-cook” was specially detailed to fry or poach the eggs required for the extra portions, or to
prepare whatever else took their place in the dishes served as pittances to the community, or to individuals such as the president of the refectory, and the priest who had sung the High Mass. These two cooks also had to help in the satling time, and in other common work of the kitchen.
7. INFIRMARY COOK
To serve the sick a prudent, skilful cook was to be chosen by the infirmarian, who, besides the knowledge of his art, should have compassion and feel pity for the sufferings and afflictions of the sick. Like the officers previously named, the appointment of the infirmary cook was for life ; but though he could not be moved at the whim of a superior, he was not formally appointed in Chapter, but by a letter from the infirmarian. Day and night he was to show himself solicitous for the welfare of those in the infirmary, and be ready at all times to make for them what they needed or might fancy. He, too, had to help in the general kitchen, and he had to obtain thence all the requisite food for those who were having their meals in the infirmary. Like the rest of the above–named officials, he had to give what help he could in the kitchen in the seasons of great pressure, and in particular at the time of the winter salting, about
When the infirmary cook or servant came to die, for his faithful service he was borne to the grave, like all the other servants of the monastery, but the whole convent. His body was met at the great door of the church by the community in procession, and after Mass had been celebrated for the repose of his soul by the sub-sacrist, the monks carried his remains, as that of a good and faithful servant gone to his reward, to his last resting-place. In
some houses there was even a special portion of the consecrated ground dedicated to the burial of monastic servants : at Bury, for example, it was called “Sergeant’s hill,” and the Custumnal says that in the “venerable monastery” such old friends “shall never be forgotten in the prayers and devout supplications of the community.”
8. THE SALTER
salter, who was also called the mustardarius,
was appointed by a letter of the
BELL-RINGERS AND CHURCH-SERVER
On all days when the great bells were rung and the services of the church were more elaborate than at ordinary times, the ringers and servers had their rations and some
extra portion from the conventual refectory. In a great place like Bury St. Edmunds these days amounted to some two and forty in the year.
10. THE GARDENER
gardener was appointed by the cellarer at his pleasure.
His chief duty was to keep the convent
supplied with herbs on four days a week in winter and spring, and with
vegetables in their season. He was
frequently to visit the kitchen in order to learn what was required
and he was always to bring his vegetable and herbs cleaned and prepared
11. THE CARRIERS
The carriers were servants who were continually occupied in the work of provisioning the establishment. They had to be at hand to carry to the monastic stores whatever the caterer bought in the market. Also in the time of the great fairs, they attended the cellarer to take charge of his purchases of spices, almonds and raisins, ling and stockfish, and salted herrings, red and white, and to convey them to the monastery. On ordinary days they were occupied in bringing to the cook the wood he required from the various officials ; in carrying in the fuel and keeping up the fires, and in carting away the refuse to the waste-heap. These carriers had a money wage and numerous perquisites ; amongst other things, they could claim all the little barrels in which salmon, sturgeon, and salt eels had come to the monastic larder, and they might take and use what they could for their own meals of every pig that was brought to the salting-tub and found to be “measly.”
In most great monastic houses there were naturally several porters or door-keepers. The kitchen-porter was in some ways the most important, as so much of the traffic from the outer world to the cloister came this way. He was set there for the purpose of preventing any unauthorized person gaining access to the kitchen so as to disturb the cook ; and at all times he had to check the coming in of seculars, or of begging clerks, or of the neighbours, unless they could show leave or business. He had to receive and distribute all the daily alms of food for those waiting at the gate. The porter of the great cloister gate had to watch over the main entrance of the house, to open the door to visitors, and at once to acquaint the guest-master of their arrival.
13. THE BRIEF-BEARER—BREVIATOR
The brief-bearer, by his office, was intended to carry the notice of the death of any of the brethren in the monastery round to other monasteries and religious houses in
Besides the above-named officers there were, at least in
the greater houses, many minor paid officials and retainers. For example, the discarius, or server of dishes in the refectory, was bound always to be at the kitchen-hatch whenever conventual meals were in progress, and it was his place to wait upon those who took their meals at the second table. He was a kind of lower servant to the kitchen ; he had to help in bringing in the fuel, and to see that the wheelbarrow for the waste was in its place, and was emptied when it was necessary. After the meals, the discarius washed the plates and dishes, and saw that when dry, they were stacked in their proper cupboards ready for the next occasion.
Another minor official was the “turnbroach”—a boy chosen by the cellarer for his activity. He had to be always ready when required to turn the spits on which meat or fish was cooking. He helped in carrying fuel for the kitchen and elsewhere ; and when ordered, he had to go to the ponds and stews to help to catch fish for the conventual meal.
In some places, for example at Edmundsbury, there were certain women employed at times by the monastery for the making of pastry, etc., called pudding-wives. They had a house or chamber near at hand to the kitchen, called “Pudding-house.” These women were chosen by the larderer with the assent of the chief cook ; they lived in the neighbourhood and came up to the outer kitchen offices when their services were required. Great care was taken in the selection of these servants, and it was directed that they : be always married, sober, of good repute and honest, that all danger of detraction from evil tongues be avoided.” At all times when animals were slaughtered, in particular about
and when pigs were being killed, the services of these women were required to make black puddings. At other times, if the cook desired, they were to be ready to make pasties, and other things which seemed to require the gentler touch of a female hand. Among the women servants there were, of course, also laundresses for the washing of the clothes of the community and others for the infirmary, the guest-hall, and the church linen. All these were selected with care and upon the same principles which guided the selection of the above-mentioned pudding-wives.