The guest house of a medieval monastery offered similar hospitality to a modern-day hotel, with both rich and poor people entitled to food and shelter for the night.
During the Middle Ages, Europe’s monasteries were famed for their hospitality and provided a safe place for people of all ages and classes to shelter for the night.
The Tradition of Hospitality at the Medieval Monastery
Most medieval monasteries welcomed guests as part of their Christian duties. Monks believed that just as Jesus had associated with both rich and poor people, so should they offer hospitality to anyone who needed it, as stated in the Rule of St Benedict, which was followed by several religious orders, including the Cistercians.
In reality, the hospitality on offer varied greatly, depending both on the wealth and resources of the monastery in question and also on the status of the guest. The Christian ideal may have been to treat all people as equals, but in reality, richer and more influential guests received better food and accommodation than an ordinary person who turned up at the monastery by chance.
The Guest House in a Medieval Monastery
As part of the Christian duty of hospitality, each monastery had either a separate guest house, or accommodation for visitors. The number of guests a religious house received depended upon its size and location. A large monastery, in the centre of a city, such as Canterbury in England, might be chosen for important religious meetings and the house would be expected to accommodate large numbers of guests, as well as receiving those visitors to the town who needed a bed for the night.
Smaller monasteries, in rural or remote locations might receive only a few visitors a year. Although visitors were staying within the precinct of the monastery, they were not expected to follow the same rules as the monks. For example, although guests were encouraged to attend daily mass, they were not expected to rise at daybreak for the service of matins nor were they served the strict diet of a monk; rich or influential guests could expect to eat as well as they would have done at a palace.
Some monasteries had a guest house, placed away from the main site and the most elaborate of these had several guest rooms and a kitchen. One such example was Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds, England, which even had a piped water supply. Smaller monasteries would accommodate less important visitors in a communal hall, where everyone was expected to sleep and eat together, before carrying on their journey the following day.
Visitors to a Medieval Monastery
Many monasteries welcomed visitors because of the donations they could expect from these guests. If a monastery held a relic, such as the bones of a saint, it could become a place of pilgrimage and much as in a modern-day museum, visitors could be charged admission.
Other long-term visitors could be less welcome – a monastery was expected to accommodate any of its patrons or a royal guest for any length of time. Such visitors could expect first-class hospitality for themselves and their retinue, playing a heavy financial and administrative burden on the monastery in question.
The Cellarer in a Medieval Monastery
A monastery’s Cellarer held an important position in the medieval monastery, as it was he who held responsibility for the provision of food and drink within the community, including what was served to guests, both humble and important. This was a responsible position as not only did the cellarer have to ensure that dozens of people had enough to eat and drink, he had to try to anticipate the number of guests who might visit each week and sometimes had to organise food and drinks for seminars and royal visits. So important was the cellarer, he was often called upon to deputise for the abbot of a monastery in his absence and so was regarded in some monasteries as second in command.
- Burton, Janet Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain 1000 – 1300, Cambridge, 1994
- Lawrence, CH Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Longman, 2000