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The infirmarer

Depiction of a urinal
© British Library
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Depiction of a urinal

The infirmary at Kirkstall, like that of other religious houses, was managed by the infirmarer (or server of the sick), a monastic official (obedientiary) of some prominence. Whilst the infirmarer at first slept in the common dormitory with the rest of the community, later on he probably had his own house within or near to the infirmary complex.(5) The infirmarer acted first and foremost as an intermediary between the infirmary and the cloister. Whenever a monk was received in the infirmary it was the infirmarer’s responsibility to transfer his utensils from the refectory and his bedding from the dormitory, and obtain his allowance of food and drink from the cellarer each day. The infirmarer also fetched the books that were needed for services in the infirmary chapel from the abbey church and made sure that they were returned safely. Whenever one of his charges was ready to return to conventual life, the infirmarer sought authorisation from the abbot for his return to the cloister. If one of the brethren was about to die the infirmarer notified the community of this so that they could all gather around the dying monk and observe the required solemnities. The infirmarer also had numerous responsibilities within the infirmary complex. He was to ensure that the fire was lit, to light the candles for Matins, to clean the bowls that had been used at bloodletting and dispose of the blood. On Saturdays he washed the feet of those who resided in the infirmary – if they so wished – and gave their clothing a good shake to air it.

In 1448-9 a London physician, Henry Wells, was summoned to Fountains Abbey to tend Abbot John Greenwell, who, it was thought, had been poisoned by William Downom, one of his monks. The alleged reason for William’s actions was the sick abbot’s refusal of the pottage William had prepared for him.
[Hammond and Talbot, A Biographical Register of the Medical Practitioners in Medieval England, pp. 85-6]

Although the twelfth-century customary of the Order (the Ecclesiastica Officia) discusses the infirmarer’s managerial duties in some detail, it says little of his medical knowledge. The infirmarer – and no doubt others in the abbey - would have been well-versed in herbal remedies and used herbs from the abbey’s herb garden, but it is likely that lay medical practitioners were summoned to tend the seriously ill.(6) Such visits would have been expensive and were probably only used when absolutely necessary.(7) That is not to say that the infirmarers – or others within the abbeys – had no medical knowledge and surviving manuscripts from Kirkstall, and from other Cistercian abbeys, suggest that ancient and contemporary medical authorities were known.(8) A copy of the Medulla Philosophorum, a miscellany of tracts that includes explanations of various herbs and plants and passages on indigestion, digestion and blood survives in a thirteenth-century manuscript from Kirkstall.(9) In contrast, a rather exceptional entry in the Coucher Book of Kirkstall is a recipe for the prevention of falling sickness which prescribes that the charm, Dealbagneth, Debagneth, Degluthun should be recited whilst making the sign of the Cross.

[Read more about sickness and health]

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