19/08/2021Kitchen renovations and gastric woes at Muchelney Abbey
- English Heritage reveals new interpretation at Somerset abbey, with new research pointing to dedicated meat refectory or ‘misericord’
- Mixed blessing for medieval monks as Papal decree introduces meat consumption
Muchelney Abbey overlooks the Somerset levels and today seems pretty idyllic. However, as part of a reinterpretation of the historic site, new research has revealed that a relaxation of Papal law to allow twice weekly meat consumption ensured life for its medieval inhabitants wasn’t quite so heavenly.
The 14th century addition of meat to an already unbalanced and calorie-rich diet (certainly by modern standards) had some unwelcome effects on the monks’ digestive systems. Constipation and diarrhoea became a major concern. However, it wasn’t just the gastric health of the monks that was affected; eating and cooking areas of the abbey also had to be remodelled to comply with newly introduced rules around the consumption of meat.
The monks of Muchelney Abbey followed the Rule of St Benedict, which prohibited the consumption of meat from four-legged animals in the refectory. In 1336, this was relaxed by papal decree and meat was permitted twice a week provided it was not eaten in the refectory. New research has found that changes were made to the Abbey to reflect this, with a large room off the main refectory (previously considered to be an ante-chamber) now thought most likely to be a refectory solely for the consumption of meat, known as the ‘misericord’. The large kitchen was also divided into two parts – one where food was prepared to serve in the refectory, and one where meat was prepared to serve in the misericord and at the abbot’s table.
The inevitable outcome of such indulgence is evident in the suggested medical remedies added to the breviary* by abbots. One laxative recipe consisted of various fruit extracts, while another required the patient to take a small piece of soap and put it in their “fundamewnt”. Further remedies for diarrhoea, constipation, and an appetite stimulant reflect the prevalence of stomach complaints within the Abbey.
[*The breviary is the holy book containing texts for the eight services held each day. The Muchelney Breviary is now preserved in the British Library.]
Once a wealthy Benedictine monastery, the abbey’s buildings included a magnificent church, cloister, chapter house, dormitory, refectory, and lodgings for the abbot – and in the 13th century the monks upgraded to a much needed state-of-the-medieval-art latrine block.
Euphemistically called a ‘reredorter’ by 19th-century antiquarians, it was originally attached to the dormitory and when complete could accommodate up to 40 monks on a bench of latrines, separated by wooden partitions. Directly below, a drain could be accessed for cleaning - by hand - through the five arched openings on the ground floor. The two-storey outbuilding still remains remarkably intact and gives Muchelney an unlikely claim to fame as home to Europe’s best preserved medieval monastic latrine.
Dr Michael Carter, Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, said:
“The necessities of nature were an ever present concern for medieval monks - it’s no coincidence Muchelney Abbey boasts the remains of a fine medieval toilet block - and diet was a constant cause of digestive problems. Its austerities – coarse bread, vegetables and pulses – could irritate the gut and fail to provide essential nutrients. But the introduction of luxuries such as red meat could likewise have unfortunate, if entirely predictable, consequences and these were clearly a source of concern for the monks.
Muchelney provides fascinating evidence of how the buildings of monasteries were refashioned to serve the evolving daily lives of the monks. The evidence really gets to the fundamentals of monastic life in the Middle Ages.”
Alongside the latrine block, Muchelney Abbey retains some remarkably complete medieval buildings, especially the late medieval abbot’s house - portions of its original decoration including stained glass, wall-painting, and even furniture that remains intact.
This summer, the entire Abbey has been given refreshed interpretation inside and out, with new explanatory panels and an updated collection of artefacts on display to the public. Highlights include decorated stonework, ornate floor tiles, and sculptures from the Abbey’s past, and the monks’ diet is explored in an eye-wateringly realistic food preparation scene recreated in the east kitchen. In the west kitchen a display of work by celebrated local potter John Leach, Grandson of the St Ives potter Bernard Leach, places the abbey in the isolated world of the Somerset Levels where traditional arts and crafts continue to thrive.