Monastic hospitality

The Abbot’s Lodge, Kirkstall Abbey

All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Rule of Saint Benedict 53:1)

Monastic hospitality was of key importance during the medieval period for travellers, pilgrims and rulers. For the monastery it was an opportunity to fulfil its spiritual obligations, find out what was going on in the outside world and also to gain patronage. Reputation for hospitality was an important thing – abbots wished to be seen as generous to their guests.

Houses in York and London could find themselves swamped with guests – the Cluniac priory at Bermondsey being an excellent example of how its location just off the London-Dover road did it’s finances no good at all because it was such a popular stopping off place. In Reading the number of guests resulted in the abbey finding itself in debt. The result of this being that rich guests continued to be welcome but the poorer ones were turned away. Eventually a new hospice was built for poorer travellers outside the abbey gates.

It was also possible for guests to outstay their welcome. It was expected that visitors at larger houses would leave on the third day unless they were ill or travel was made difficult by bad weather. Visiting monks would be permitted to stay longer and of course it’s hard to tell a monarch or a bishop to go away.

The abbot would be expected to dine with guests and on those occasions he didn’t have to stick to the monastic diet – which didn’t help monastic reputation for clerical abuses. By the end of the twelfth century most abbots had their own lodgings and ate separately from the rest of the brethren. I have posted about the abbot’s lodge on a previous occasion:

It was the responsibility of the guest master and the cellarer to accommodate and supply the guests. They would be housed according to their rank. Those with fourteen or more horses in their retinue would find themselves in the abbot’s house whilst those on foot would be provided with a space in the communal hall. Guests were provided with candles and given tours of the monastery where appropriate. There were restrictions of females entering monastic cloisters and on monks interacting with female guests. There were rules about when male visitors could enter different parts of the monastery as well so that the monastic day was not interrupted.

At Kirkstall near Leeds (A Cistercian foundation) there was a separate guesthouse and kitchens and even piped water, elsewhere the guest chambers were within the abbey precincts. Guest quarters would also have fires in them, unlike the monastery itself where a warming room was provided for use by elderly and infirm monks at given times of the year.

Burton, Janet. (1994) Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain 1000 – 1300, Cambridge, 1994

Kerr, Julie. Monastic Hospitality: The Benedictines in EnglandC.1070-c.1250 (Studies in the History of Medieval Religion)