What Happened When An 11th Century Monk Needed To Go To The Infirmary

In my last post, I discussed what happened if a monk felt a little under the weather. Today’s post will describe what happened if a monk was sick enough to go to the infirmary. My main source is The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc. It was written in the 11th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, so these instructions are specifically what an 11th century Canterbury monk was to do when ill. However, in his Constitutions, Lanfranc does say that other monasteries are more than welcome to use this text as a guideline for themselves.

Sick clerk proposing to become a monk | Royal 11 D IX, f. 207v | Source: PICRYL

If the monk’s illness was deemed too severe for him to be in the vicinity of the rest of the community, the abbot would tell the infirmarian to take him to the infirmary for treatment. Once there the sick monk was allowed to rest and given whatever he needed (if it were possible). If he were super sick he was allowed to eat meat. (The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade meat for healthy monks.) Part of his treatment included religious rituals. Lanfranc instructs the infirmarian to sprinkle holy water over the beds of the sick after Compline.

The infirmarian’s duties included making sure that the sick monks were actually sick and not just faking it. Based on Lanfranc’s wording, if you weren’t bedridden, you weren’t sick enough to stay in the infirmary! And if you weren’t sick enough for the infirmary you were well enough to participate in services. The infirmarian checked his patients by the light of a lantern. He did this before the Trina Oratio was said. (The Trina Oratio were three prayers said before Nocturns. Nocturns are part of the nightly divine hours, so the infirmarian did his rounds sometime before 2 am.) If the infirmarian thought you were faking, he was to publically accuse you in chapter the next morning!

Main Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 119–120. Medieval Classics. 

Lanfranc. “The Infirmarian.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 89-90. Medieval Classics. 

What Happened When An 11th Century Monk Was Only A Little Sick

Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?

A monk sitting on the ground near a cliff and a tree | Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 15, f. 2r – Liturgical Psalter | (https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/bge/cl0015)

Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.

The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.

Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.

After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!

Main Source:

Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics. 

Secondary Sources:

“Fateor.” Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fateor#Latin. 

I also used the app Latin Words to double-check translations of words.