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Obedientaries

A Benedictine monastery was quite ordered, both by the Offices of the Day, the services that all monks attended, and by the structure of the hierarchy within it. Firstly, there were ‘choir monks’ and ‘lay brothers’. Choir monks, as the name implies, sat within the choir, nearer the high altar, and sang the Offices in Latin. The Benedictines followed the concept of ‘laborare est orare’ - ‘to work is to pray’, and all the monks were expected to work for certain periods of the day. However, the lettered choir monks worked in the scriptorium rather than labouring every day in the fields, or with the fish ponds. From among the choir monks came also the obedientaries of the monastery, those with specific roles and duties for the running of the House. Some of these duties were purely administrative, and others had practical aspects.


An abbey was headed by an abbot or abbess, and a priory by a prior or prioress. A large monastic institution might have not only a prior under the abbot as ‘second in command’, but also a sub-prior. They dealt with the overall day to day running of the enclave, especially if the abbot was involved in wider issues within the Church or state. An abbot was involved in politics, however much a monastery was set apart from the secular world, not least because monasteries held large estates, and the Church wielded a lot of power.


There were then the obedientaries with specific areas of responsibility. 


The Precentor - was in charge of both the liturgical and the literary aspects of the monastery, and during the 12th century the latter became more important. Initially he would have led the choir and organised the choral part of the services, but not those involving the altar. He also ran the writing and illumination that took place in the scriptorium, and might make the decisions on which books would be copied, if the abbot did not think himself qualified, or had too little time to make such decisions. It was a position taken by some of the most literary men, such as William of Malmesbury, and Eadmer.


The Sacrist - was in charge of the altars and service at them, the vestments and plate, and the decoration and repair of the church building, a de facto Clerk of Works, although in some cases an actual Clerk of Works was designated under them.


The Cellarer- was in charge of the food and drink for both monks and guests in a managerial capacity, but under him there would be perhaps a kitchener who ran the kitchen but did not cook, a refectorer in charge of the refectory and all that was in it, from rushes for the floor, lamps and linen, and a pittancer, in charge of the additional dishes for feast days.


The Infirmarian or Infirmarer - almost ran a monastery within a monastery, since he ran an establishment set apart from the main day to day life of the enclave. The sick, and also those infirm through age, were in his care, and all monks were bled upon a rotation during the year, requiring different meals and a different regimen. He therefore had his own refectory and kitchen, chapel and even garden, and arranged for his ‘sub flock’ to receive Mass and the sacraments. 


The Master of Novices - was, perfectly logically, in charge of those in the novitiate, aspiring to take vows. There would generally be also a Master of the Children where youngsters were effectively given an education by the monks, but were not automatically destined for the cowl.


The Almoner - dispensed charity in the form of food and clothing, or a bed for the night, to applicants, some of whom would be regular.


The Guest Master or Hosteler - in the twelfth century there were no hotels. Inns, which gave lodging, were rare, ale-houses and taverns were places to drink. If one had to travel about the country one stayed with relatives if possible, and more frequently in the Guest Hall of a monastery, which gave a place of safety, food and lodging. It was expected that one would pay according to one’s wealth for this hospitality, and no doubt some guests paid in kind rather than in coin. The vast majority of people, the peasantry, would never go further from their village than they could reach and still return before nightfall. Townsfolk who traded beyond what was brought into the town for market might have need to go further afield, and so some of the travellers using the Guest Halls were guildsmen, and women, engaged in trade. There would also be pilgrims, seeking the aid of some local saint, or making their way on the long and arduous treks to visit shrines of international renown. The third group of travellers would be lordly, and might arrive with an impressive entourage, or be accompanied by just a servant or small escort of men-at-arms. Ladies would not travel unprotected. The Guest Master had to see that the rooms were ready for guests, liaise with them, and arrange for the stabling and even shoeing, of their horses.


The Chamberlain was in charge of clothing, from habits and cloaks to boots and shoes, bedding and the baths.