Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

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What Nuns Ate: The Multilingual Kitcheners’ Accounts of Campsey Ash Priory

Marilyn Oliva, Fordham University

The management of medieval monastic houses was carried out by and administrative staff, commonly known as obedientiaries.  These officers executed duties specific to the household departments to which they were assigned: a chamberer was responsible for beds, bedding, and other furnishings and upkeep of a monastic dormitory; a cellarer responsible for the dry goods and other staples that stocked the monastic pantry.  These officeholders kept annual and often detailed accounts of their income and expenses; and these sources can tell us a great deal about the mundane workings of monastic houses and provide details about otherwise unknown aspects of the religious inmates’ lives.

Obedientiaries accounts survive in relative abundance and cover significant spans of time for many of the large and wealthy medieval English male monasteries.  Those from Westminster Abbey, for example, have been used extensively by Barbara Harvey to analyze the monks’ diets, health, and life spans.  Significantly fewer of these sources survive for English female houses, and those that do tend to be from a single household office, or from one or two but not in any sequence or significant amount of time.

This paper will look at an exception to these general conditions of nuns’ household accounts, the eight kitcheners’ accounts from Campsey Ash Priory, a mid-sized, relatively wealthy house in the county of Suffolk.  These documents are remarkable in several ways: they are the only known kitcheners’ accounts from a medieval English female house; they are the earliest obedientiary accounts we have for any English convent, and they date in sequence from 1298 to 1303; and, unlike the other accounts we have from nuns’ houses, these documents are in Anglo/Norman.  These very practical records offer detailed information about what the nuns ate over the course of five years.  This paper will consider the sociolinguistic issue of the use of the accounts – who wrote them and why—and look at what kinds of food the nuns bought, how much the food cost, and what the kitcheners’ purchases indicate about the nuns’ diet and health.  This paper will also consider the broader issue of multilingualism in this medieval convent.


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