The Lavatory                       
   Ritual surrounded every aspect of the monastic life, including grooming.  As a group of educated men and women, monastics understood the need for sanitation and cleanliness well before science ‘discovered’ bacteria as a primary source of contagion.  Smell was long understood to carry contagion, and even the generals of ancient Rome understood that communal latrines must be dug far away from sources of clean water.

Personal cleanliness in a monastery included the everyday washing before meals and other ceremonial or official activities, Saturday foot washing, barbering (shaving), bathing (four time each year), and toileting.  Washing before the communal meal was done right outside the dining room (called the frater or refectory) where a sink flowing with water (heated in winter) also included clean sand where the monks could wash their knives (the primary eating utensil of the middle ages) before heading in to their meal.  A cupboard (aumbry) near the sink held clean linen towels. 


In Beaulieu Abbey, which had separate facilities for lay monks and professed monks, each frater is equipped with its own sink and towel cupboard.  There was also a sink (laver) near the presbytery, where clergy could perform ritual ablutions (washing) before Mass.

Barbering was done in a common room in the cloister,  dorter, or in the calefactory.  A skilled monk, or a paid professional, with strop, razor and brushes, shaved each member of the community one at a time, while the rest recited psalms and other prayers.  Each monk received the ‘tonsure’ haircut that was characteristic of their Order, and the ritual was repeated every three weeks and before important feaster or festivals.

Toileting was done in the rere-dorter, a room near the monks dorter that was easily accessible during the night.  Toilets were holes in a plank where the monks sat, and the waste ran down through pipes or channels into running water where the waste was swept away.   Warm water was supplied during the winter for washing and clean towels as well.  Bathing used this similar system of waste water drawn away, the bathing tubs lined with fresh clean hay and the monks supplied with soap, herbs, towels, and warm water.

The final ‘health’ ritual was that of bloodletting.   (For more about this, see INFIRMARY.)


Copyright (c) Richenda Fairhurst and, 2007  All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.  Keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.