Vivid details of everyday life in medieval Rochester
Dr Christopher Monk explores the ‘Custumal of Rochester’, a thirteenth-century book from the cathedral library
[IMAGE PENDING caption: ‘1: The opening of the account of the various lay servants at St Andrew’s Priory, starting with the millers. Custumale Roffense (Rochester,c.1275–c.1325), folios 53r. © Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. By permission.]
In Custumale Roffense Rochester Cathedral has a little gem. The sixty-eight folios of this admittedly plain-looking book sparkle with historical insights. It is not the grandest of medieval books – there are no illuminated paintings and it would be a stretch to call the script elegant – but what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in substance.
This may seem a rather optimistic appraisal. After all, a custumal is, fundamentally, just an institution’s record of its means of income and its expenditure, and it might therefore seem to promise little by way of the lively detail alluded to in my title. However, for those of us interested in medieval cultural history (the attitudes, behaviours, habits and practices of medieval people), the Rochester customs book proves to be an unexpected delight.
Yes, this custumal is so much more than a book about monastic revenue. The intent of its compiler, John of Westerham, one of the senior Rochester monks, was no doubt to preserve a searchable record of produce, commodities, and the pounds, shillings and pence needed to sustain the Benedictine community of St Andrew’s Priory (which isfascinating in its own way). In carrying out that purpose, however, he (along with a few later contributors) left for us a vivid portrayalof, what I like to call, everydayness.
A few examples of the texts beyond the revenue lists should suffice to illustrate this:
A significant proportion of the book is dedicated to a record of the priory’s paid servants, who were recruited from among the laity (see image 1, above). Obviously, it was important for the monks to understand their outgoings as well as their income, and so it is here that we find out the servants’ wages. But in also offering an account of each servant’s role, we are additionally gifted with wonderful details about their everyday lives.
What is revealed, I would suggest, is a sort of beauty of the mundane. There is a curious delight in reading about the wives of the cooks turning up at the cellarer’s door to collect the left-over offal from the meat prepared for the monks’ table; and the hirelings in the cloisters – probably local Rochester lads – shaking out curtains, skins and cushions ‘in the sunshine’, and receiving ‘four pennies for drink’ as recompense for their labours.
[IMAGE PENDING caption: ‘2: Medical recipes for strangury and ulcers.Custumale Roffense, folio 3r. © Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. By permission.]
Custumale became a book to keep local medical knowledge alive. Two therapeutic recipes were appended at the front of the book (see image 2, above), probably late in the thirteenth century, some years after the bulk of the manuscript was written. One is for ulcerated skin, the other for male bladder problems. Rather than seeing these texts as oddly placed in a book about money, they actually bring to our attention other direct concerns of the monks: worries about particular health problems common to the brothers, perhaps, and even their anxiety over the vagaries of aging.
[IMAGE PENDING caption ‘3. Copies of entries from Domesday Book. Custumale Roffense, folios 7v–8r © Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. By permission.]
Two copies of entries from Domesday Bookalso found their way into Custumale, probably in the early fourteenth-century, and were added no doubt because the Rochester monks were anxious to nail down their claim to the two estates mentioned therein, which happened to be some distance away in the county of Buckingham.
As the cartulary (the collection of charters) of Rochester’s more famous medieval book, Textus Roffensis, shows, there was a good deal of stress involved in establishing and maintaining the rights to one’s land and livelihood. A farmed estate could be lost in a competing but fraudulent claim, or a charter outlining a gift of land may be stolen. Certainly, by the thirteenth century, St Andrew’s Priory has a well-documented history of fighting for its land at court, and so the appearance of these two Domesday entries in the customs book underscores such history and tension.
We can see from just these few brief examples that Custumale Roffense is a book with great potential for expanding our understanding of the local cultural history of Rochester. Now, though, for a few more detailed highlights.
Food, clothing, health: highlights from the text
In a short essay such as this it is only possible to offer a few textual highlights, though there are many. The passages below, translated from Latin, focus on three areas of everyday monastic life: food, clothing and health. Each is drawn from the detailed account of the role of waged lay servants in the community, found on folios 53 to 60.
Food is mentioned in different contexts within Custumale, including food-rents (payable by the tenants of the various estates of the monastery), the daily allowances of bread and ale for servants, and the treats which individuals and the community enjoyed on special festivals and anniversaries.
My particular food highlight relates to the millers – or, more accurately, the miller-bakers – who, along with upwards of thirty other servants and seasonal hirelings, formed the paid workforce within the monastery’s precinct.
The master miller oversaw the production of the core staple for medieval monastic life: bread. He worked along with four other miller-bakers: the so-called ‘second-rank’ miller, who shared some of the master’s duties and also supervised the milling and weighing of flour; and ‘the other three’ millers, who worked both in the mill-house, grinding and bolting (sieving) the flour, and in the bakery, heating the ovens and forming the dough into loaves.
The master, however, held the most trusted position, ultimately responsible for ensuring quality and standards, as we see here:
The master of the millers must see and feel the wheat in the sacks at the door of the granary. If he is able or not to make for the monastery the best and finest bread, indeed by his mouth he should accept or reject it. He weighs the bread. Moreover, he must agree upon all the bread at the storeroom of the cellarer; and, after, he will have one monk’s loaf, and at Easter time a flaco. His wages are 7 shillings. To him it belongs to mix and knead the monastery’s dough.
The image of daily life here is captivating. We can imagine the miller standing seriously and resolutely at the granary door as a cartload of wheat is delivered, then feeling the grain and checking its colour, before selecting a few individual grains to chew. He would have done this to test the hardness of the grain, and possibly its milling potential. Likely he would have chewed the grains long enough to form a tiny ball of dough in his mouth, and then used his fingers to stretch the dough in order to evaluate its strength.A thirteenth-century master miller evidently needed a good set of teeth!
Such conscientiousness continued throughout his duties. His weighing of loaves is particularly interesting, for it ensured the monastery’s compliance with the Assize of Bread and Ale, a thirteenth-century law governing the price, weight and quality of bread and ale produced in towns and villages.
What is really engaging about Custumale’s account of the millers (and the other servants) is the way it attends to the details of everydayness. Subsequent sections of the record show that the master had the same daily allowance of food as the second-rank miller, that is, ‘a loaf of bread, a gallon and a half of ale, and a single dish of pottage from the kitchen’ (perhaps they didn’t drink the ale in one sitting, and it may have been quite weak).
The three others had ‘in common one loaf and three gallons of ale’ and ‘a pie from a one-pound monk’s loaf’ (some kind of filled bread trencher, it would seem), as well as a further ‘four guest loaves’ between them after they had carried the bread to the cellarer, the monk in charge of food supplies. Plenty of bread and ale, then!
The master miller, however, gets singled out for a treat. His token of honour is the flacoat Easter. From what I have been able to glean on this matter, a flaco was probably a kind of pastry flan or flat cake, possibly resembling the Roman placenta cake which was made of layers of dough interspersed with honey and cheese and flavoured with bay leaf.
During Lent, dairy foods were forbidden, so a flaco was a suitable and presumably delicious way of marking the end of abstinence. I imagine the master miller taking it home to his family, his children getting a little over-excited as they were handed a piece of it by their mother, rather like the way children today get a little giddy over Easter eggs.
[IMAGE PENDING caption: ‘5. ‘De lavatoribus et quid facere debeant’ (Concerning the launderers and what they must do), Custumale Roffense, folio 59v. © Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. By permission.]
Clothing of one sort or another finds its way into various passages in Custumale. We see, for example, those close to death being laid upon a haircloth inside the monks’ infirmary; the church attendants dressing the altar and lectern with curtains or tapestries; and the chamberlain (one of the senior monks), accompanied by one of the tailors, going off to London or Winchester to buy both ‘white and black cloth’.
For my highlight, however, we visit the laundry house (see image 5, above):
In the laundry house there are two servants, one master and also a second rank servant. Whenever the sleeves of undershirts are torn, it belongs to the master to receive new ones from the chamberlain. If the body of an undershirt can be re-used, the second rank servant must store it, and he will have the old sleeves. Likewise, he will check if undershirts and under-breeches, after they have been washed, cannot honestly be made serviceable, before they are handed over to show to the chamberlain and put at the beds of the brothers by the sub-chamberlain. Their wages: to the master 4 shillings, to the second rank servant 3 shillings. […] The master also sews the names of the brothers in their undershirts and under-breeches. These two have a Christmas fire for the Nativity, just like the tailors.
Is this not just incredible? We even get to know what the brothers wore under their habits! More soberly, we can see that though life was relatively comfortable in Rochester’s thirteenth-century priory, the Benedictine vow of poverty precluded waste. Patching and repairing underwear was most likely a daily routine for the launderers; and it would seem that they never doubted that an old sleeve might usefully be redeployed.
The most exquisite detail, though, is surely that of the master launderer, evidently with some level of literacy (at least the capacity to memorise name-forms), sewing the names of the monks into their underwear. Apparently, as with us today, it was not desirable to share one’s ‘unmentionables’.
Health and hygiene
As mentioned above, medical know-how is preserved in Rochester’s custom’s book in the form of medical recipes. There are other texts, too, that focus on physical wellbeing, including a record of ‘what is owed the sick brothers’ at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Rochester, which was supported by daily supplies of leftovers from the monastery’s kitchen and refectory, as well as a sizeable annual donation of grain from one of the monastery’s estates.
For my final highlight, however, I’m going to return to the laundry team:
And when the brothers go to bathe, they [the two servants in the laundry] ought to have ready everything for this which is necessary. They supply soap for the brothers for shaving. It belongs to the lad-servant to make the lye. His role is to make the fire before which the brothers must be bled, and to summon the blood-letter, in order that he may be prepared to bleed the brothers.
Contrary to the common misconception that everyone in the Middle Ages was smelly and dirty, clearly, the brothers of St Andrew’s Priory knew what soap and water were. Soap-making was evidently an important task for their laundry servants, requiring lye, a caustic material obtained by leaching wood ash, to be prepared by the junior member of the two-man team. The result may not have been on a par with our pampering body washes with added moisturiser, but evidently this lye soap provided the monks with the means for cleanliness, that prerequisite neighbour to godliness. Moreover, we should also note that elsewhere in Custumaleit is made clear that the brothers always washed their hands in fresh water before a meal.
Remarkable, too, in the context of cleanliness, is the matter of bloodletting. Certainly, today, we know there are safer and far more reliable methods of healing and preventative medicine, but it is nevertheless intriguing that the text implies the monks knew it was important to carry out the procedure in clean conditions. A somewhat crazy, medieval medical practice, then, but with a dash of what we tend to think of as modern common sense.
If doubts persist over whether the monks understood and observed basic hygiene, then it should also be observed that Custumale informs us that the attendant in the infirmary who served the meals to patients was expected to avoid handling bed clothes and other items which had been in contact with a dead body: ‘He will not wash anything of the deceased because he serves the healthy at mealtime.’ Good to know!
As we turn the pages of Custumale Roffense, I think it is fair to say that we may move beyond what we might term the formulaic aspect of a customs book – its lists of what is owed: by whom, to whom, and when – into the living, breathing world of medieval men, women and children, a world upon which I have, in this short essay, but lightly touched.
With our imaginations engaged, we will have further opportunities to explore the monastic precinct and observe the lives of real folk from Rochester’s medieval past, be they toiling, making merry, worrying, arguing, getting sick or even dying. In doing so, we will find ourselves wondering at both the resilience of such people and the vivid everydayness of it all.
The process of chewing the grain is described in R. J. Henry and P. S. Kettlewell (ed.), Cereal Grain Quality (Chapman & Hall, 1996), p. 337.