views updated May 29 2018


MONASTERY . [This entry discusses the architecture of Christian monasteries. For discussion of monasteries in Asian religions, see Temple, articles on Buddhist Temple Compounds, Daoist Temple Compounds, and Confucian Temple Compounds. For further discussion of the monastic way of life, see Religious Communities.]

A monastery is a building or group of buildings arranged for the members of a religious order to live as a community apart from the world in work, study, and prayer dedicated to God. The term monastery will be broadly used here to mean not only the houses of monks but also the houses of nuns (convents) and friars (friaries); the term monk will be used to mean both male and female residents of mon-asteries.

The practice of Christian monasticism has its origins in Egypt where, beginning in the late third century, men withdrew to the deserts and mountains to meditate and fast in solitude. Soon these hermits (Lat., eremites ) formed groups of cells adjacent to a small oratory or church (laura ). Pachomius (c. 292346) was the first to organize hermits into a cenobitic community (coenobium ), where each monk lived alone in a room or a cell but joined with the other monks for prayer and meals. Nothing is known about the physical appearance of these monasteries except that the informally disposed buildings were surrounded by a wall, and the monks grouped according to skills or crafts. In Asia Minor, Basil the Great (c. 329379) added charitable works such as establishing orphanages, hospitals, and workshops to the monks' activities. Some monastic communities included buildings for travelers and pilgrims.

By the fifth century, the cenobitic system had spread throughout the Mediterranean world and north through Europe. The organization of the buildings varied from monastery to monastery, according to what activities were performed and at what times of the day and night. A coherent and logical architectural scheme was worked out only after the monks' day was strictly regulated.

In 529, Benedict of Nursia (c. 480547) established a community at Monte Cassino, in Italy, where he composed a rule to govern its life. The rule demanded a blend of liturgy, study, meditation, and manual labor under the close direction of an abbot (abbas ). While not prescribing the physical features of the monastery, the rule profoundly influenced its design by touching on all aspects of monastic activity, including the monastery's services to society.

The Benedictine Schema

By the late eighth century, Benedict's rule was the accepted code for western European monasteries. The first monastic plan is known as the Plan of Saint Gallit is extant and now resides in Saint Gall, Switzerland. This plan is a copy from about 820 of a lost scheme for an ideal monastic complex formulated during the reform synods of Aachen in the years 816 and 817. The plan did not designate a specific monastery and was never built as such; rather, it was a statement of policy showing what buildings should make up an ideal monastery and the relationship of these buildings to one another. The Plan of Saint Gall provided a model for later monasteries where the rule of Saint Benedict could be lived in the most rational manner.

Designed to accommodate 110 monks and 150 to 170 serfs and workmen, the Saint Gall plan clearly defines the different activities of the monastic community within separate buildings. Broadly described, these buildings comprise the church; the cloister and its buildings for the monks; the buildings for the sick, the elderly, and the novices; the buildings for the monastery's secular responsibilities; and the domestic buildings serving the community. Each building on the plan is labeled, and these labels are sometimes complemented by a reference to the spiritual significance of the building. The order and logic of the plan both served and reflected the order of the monks' lives as prescribed by Benedict's rulea perfect life required a perfect monastery.


The monastery, a self-contained and self-sustaining community within the larger community of empire, kingdom, or nation, was enclosed by a high wall with only one means of access. Its physical and spiritual heart was the church. Whereas in the eastern Mediterranean, the centralized, or cross, plan was more popular, in the West, as the Saint Gall plan shows, the basilical plan was preferred. East or West, the church was always the most resplendent building in the monastery, invariably constructed of stone or brick and richly ornamented. The church served the local parish, pilgrims, and guests as well as the monastic community. The lay community and visitors were restricted to the western end of the church, located closest to the monastery's entrance.

The monks, housed in their own group of buildings, were isolated from serfs and workmen and from the secular activities of the monastery. Located alongside the eastern half of the church, the monks' quarters consisted of three ranges of large, often double-storied buildings tightly locked around a square or rectangular courtyard that was the cloister. This cloistral complex was usually sited on the south side of the church in cooler northern climates and on the north side in southern climates; site constraints also influenced its location.

A continuous covered arcade surrounded the open court and so gave direct access to all the buildings. The walk closest to the church often was used for reading or study and from the fifteenth century contained recesses or carrels to hold the monks' desks. The origin of the cloister as an architectural unit is still unclear, but the square-shaped cloister surrounded by the monks' quarters was an invention of the Carolingian age; its development was dependent on the adoption of the highly controlled and ordered life prescribed by Benedict.

On the eastern side of the cloister, the dormitory was placed at right angles to the church and, joined to it at the transept, provided direct access for the monks during night services. Monks slept communally in the early Benedictine monasteries, although the dormitory often was divided into separate cubicles by wooden partitions. After Pope Martin V conceded single cells to the Benedictines in 1419, the common dormitory became rare. Taking up a greater area than a dormitory, single cells probably led to the two-story cloister composed of cells on all three sides of the upper floor. On the Saint Gall plan, the dormitory was raised above the monks' warming, or day, room. Located near the dormitory was the reredorter, or latrine, which was linked by a covered passage to protect the monks in inclement weather.

The refectory was placed at right angles to the dormitory, parallel to the church, with the vestiary, or wardrobe, above. While most refectories were at ground level, some were raised on undercrofts, which were used for food storage. Like the dormitory, the refectory had to be large enough to accommodate all the monks at one time. Monks ate at long tables while listening to scriptural readings given from a pulpit. A fountain or basin for the monks to wash in before eating was located near the refectory, often in the south walk of the cloister. From the twelfth century, the fountain was commonly an independent structure projecting into the cloister opposite the refectory. The kitchen was located near the refectory but usually outside the cloister.

On the west side, for easy access to the outer world, was the cellar, located on the ground floor, with a larder above. Between the cellar and the church, the sole formal exit from the cloistral area was through the monks' parlor, where monks, when permitted, met guests. Except for the time they spent working, the monks spent their entire lives in the cloistral complex. This complex, an architecturally conceived whole, provided a self-contained world for the monks within an already separate world.

From the eleventh century, one other building or room not included on the Saint Gall plan became a standard feature of the cloistral area: the chapter house. Used for business matters of the monastery and as a burial place for the abbots, the chapter house was located either next to the church or under the dormitory. In England, it was sometimes a separate circular or polygonal building.

The other buildings that made up a typical medieval monastery, as shown on the Saint Gall plan, were sited and grouped according to their function and their relationship with the secular world. Attached to the north side of the church were rooms for the porter and visiting monks. Flanking the apse was the scriptorium, where selected monks copied and illuminated manuscripts, with the library above it. By the twelfth century, the library frequently was located under the dormitory, alongside the chapter house. Also on the north side of the church, but freestanding, were the buildings that served the monastery's obligations of hospitality and education. These included the house and kitchen for visitors of rank; a school for children of the local nobility; and a house and kitchen for the abbot, whose social responsibilities included such secular activities as entertaining guests. The inscription on the Saint Gall plan notes that the ideal abbot's house is constructed of stone; in many monasteries, except for the church, the abbot's house was the most splendid building.

Isolated to the northeast of the church was the infirmary. This infirmary, also used as a nursing home for aged monks, often was designed as a monastery in miniature, with its own refectory, dormitory, bath house, and chapel arranged around a cloister. Completing this unit was the doctor's house, the house for bloodletting, and a medicinal herb garden. Nearby was the cemetery, which in the Saint Gall plan doubled as an orchard. The novitiate, also planned as a monastery in miniature, was to the south of the infirmary.

The L-shaped tract of land on the south and west was occupied by the service buildings. These included chicken and goose houses, a granary, a mortar and mill, workshops, houses for livestock and their keepers, and facilities for visiting pilgrims, paupers, and servants of distinguished guests.

Careful attention was paid to sanitation. In the Saint Gall plan, most of the latrines were placed on the perimeter. Whenever possible, monasteries were located near flowing water, which was channeled both to provide fresh water and to carry away waste. The importance of the water supply and drainage in medieval monasteries is attested to by a plan, drawn up around 1160, for the installation of a new water system at the Canterbury Cathedral monastery.

There is a coherent and logical organizing principle underlying the plan of Saint Gall. The hierarchical division and separation of buildings by function that is integral to the plan is clearly realized in all later monasteries. The plan provided a highly generalized statement adaptable to highly particularized site conditions, needs, and size. The clarity and unity of the plan served the monastery at a symbolic as well as a practical level, reflecting the order of the Benedictine rule and, by extension, the divine order and rule. For many centuries, the scheme of Saint Gall remained the guiding principle for the layout of a monastery, easily adapted to meet the requirements of orders other than the Benedictine.

Other Developments

The monasteries of the Carthusian order are a variation on the carefully conceived scheme of Saint Gall. In 1084, Bruno of Cologne (c. 10301101) fused the eremetic life with the cenobitic in one complex at Chartreuse, France, soon called La Grande Chartreuse. It was designed to house twelve monks and a prior, with each living alone in a cell and working alone in the private garden attached to his cell. The only communal activities in these Carthusian monasteries were mass, matins, vespers, and occasional meals. To ensure the monks' solitude, the cells and gardens were arranged around a large cloister and separated from the ancillary activities of the monastery by the church, refectory, chapter house, library, and prior's cell, all of which were organized around a second and smaller cloister. The quarters for the lay brothers (conversi), who ministered to the needs of the monks, and for the guests were arranged around a separate cloister. Because their tasks required more frequent contact with the outside world, lay brothers inhabited either the western range of the cloister or a duplicate cloistral complex to the west. The Certosa di Pavia, the charter house in Pavia, Italy, founded in 1396, is typical of the layout and, like many Carthusian monasteries, housed twice the ideal number of twelve monks. Despite the adoption of single cells and private gardens, there was no substantive alteration in the ideal monastic scheme since there was no fundamental change in the monk's world of prayer, study, and work.

The Cistercians, founded in 1098 by Stephen Harding, dedicated themselves to restoring the original concept of Benedict's ruleself-sustaining communities based on a life of hard manual labor and prayer. They built their first monastery at Cïteaux, France, but it was later, under the leadership of Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153), that the order grew rapidly. Uniformity of activities and liturgy within the order resulted in uniformity in plan and design. For example, all the early churches followed the so-called Bernardine plan of a long nave and a rectangular apse in imitation of the church at Clairvaux. The Abbey of Maulbronn, Germany, founded in 1139, exemplifies Cistercian planning as a whole as well as the early design of the church. Located in secluded valleys, Cistercian monasteries possessed small guest quarters and no outer school. The lay brothers, in the western range of the cloister, were physically separated from the cloister by a walk known as the lane. The monks' refectory was usually at right angles rather than parallel to the church, probably to provide space for the kitchen between the refectory and the quarters of the lay brothers. Extensive and often distant land exploitation required granges consisting of living quarters, a chapel, and barns.

Over the centuries, Benedictine monasteries increasingly were adorned with figural sculpture and painting intended to instruct the faithful in Christian doctrine. For Bernard, this architectural ornament achieved an aesthetic and emotional power inappropriate for monks. Cistercian architecture was without figural sculpture and was minimally embellished, but the unplastered stone buildings achieved an austere monumentality reflective of Cistercian ideals. Cistercian monasteries were structurally innovative and influential in the dissemination of the pointed arch and vault throughout Europe.

The Franciscans (founded by Francis of Assisi, c. 11811226), the Dominicans (founded by Dominic of Osma, c. 11701221), and the Augustinians (late eleventh century) adapted the Benedictine schema to serve their synthesis of the contemplative life and active ministry. Located in cities and towns, their churches were large and spacious to serve better the new emphasis on preaching. From the 1520s, these three orders played a crucial role in the colonization and conversion of the Americas. In Mexico alone, nearly sixty monasteries were built in the sixteenth century. The early monasteries consisted of a church, often of single nave, and accommodations for the friars grouped around a cloister. For the enormous number of converts, the friars built a large walled courtyard that was attached to a side or corner of the church; this served as a temporary outdoor nave for the huge congregations. A typical courtyard consisted of a vaulted structure with a triple-arched façade to house the Sacrament on the side opposite the entrance and small square structures known as posas (Span., posar ) at the corners. Pauses were made at the posas during liturgical processions around the courtyard, and they were used by the friars when teaching separate groups in the corners. The Dominican Monastery of Tepotzlan, Mexico, built in the sixteenth century, shows this ensemble. Both the open court and the posas appear to be an original architectural solution, probably invented by the Franciscans, for the particular spatial needs of the early Mexican monasteries. By the mid-sixteenth century, it was normal for these nontraditional open courtyards to be roofed, using traditional European techniques.

As early as the seventh century, and as formalized in the Saint Gall plan, many monasteries served the dual needs of both the monks and the larger community. In England, for example, in ten of the seventeen dioceses, the bishop's residence was in a monastery, and the monastery church also served as the cathedral church. Built within cities, the monks' buildings were set apart by a high wall. The church formed a physical and spiritual link between the conventual buildings and the bishop's palace, court, and administrative buildings outside.

The alliance of secular power with the monastery was demonstrated most influentially in the Escorial palace-monastery in Madrid, built between 1563 and 1584. It was conceived and endowed by Philip II as a retreat for himself and as a mausoleum for his father, Charles V; the monks, in this case of the Hieronymite order, performed daily rituals of commemoration for dead and living royalty. The Escorial was built on a plan of axial symmetry, with the church and crypt at the center and the monastic community housed around five cloisters on the south side of the church and its forecourt. To the north were the palace, a college and seminary, and lodgings for guests. A radical innovation was the king's apartment wrapped around the sanctuary of the church; its location simultaneously stated the power of the monarchy and affirmed monarchal piety. The absolute order of the design of the Escorial, where even the cruciform church echoes the overall grid, reiterates this union of church and monarchy.

The union of religion and state achieved its greatest architectural grandeur in the eighteenth-century Baroque monasteries, especially in central Europe. Adopting a symmetrical and axial plan in emulation of the Escorial, both monastic and secular precincts also were built around their own cloisters. Imperial apartments usually possessed a monumental, ceremonial staircase leading to the imperial hall, a large library to assert the monastery's role as a center of learning, and often a theater. These colossal and ostentatious monastery-palaces had magnificent façades and, sometimes, vast forecourts.

From the beginning, Byzantine and Russian monasteries showed less uniformity of plan than did those in the West. Although the church was normally in the center of the complex, the support buildings were variously arranged. But in the Baroque period, many newly founded monasteries followed the symmetrically planned and sumptuously appointed models of central Europe.

Modern Times

Following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the French Revolution of 1789, many monasteries were dissolved or suppressed, and the buildings were destroyed. A monastic revival in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, coupled with colonization and increased missionary activity, saw the establishment of monasteries in Africa, the United States, and, by the end of the century, Japan. In the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, many monastic communities launched extensive building programs, often selecting internationally renowned architects. Emphasis was on mission and on hospital and educational work, including higher education. Some monasteries extended the concept of hospitality to serve as temporary retreats for the laity. As before, the church acted as the spiritual unifier and the physical separator; the cloistral area was located on the side farthest from the visitor's area, and the school and other buildings were on the other.

Even before the Second Vatican Council of 1965, monastic churches were designed to emphasize the unity of monks and laity. The Benedictine Abbey of Saint John in Collegeville, Minnesota, founded in 1856 and redesigned by Marcel Breuer in 1953, preserves traditional plan organization while epitomizing the new trends. The entire complex of conventual buildings, a seminary, a university, and a high school, center on and revolve around the church. Scholastic zones are grouped to the north and west, and the conventional buildings are to the south. But the bell-shaped church has a centrally located altar, which allows the monks' choir to be visible to the laity, and new materials and structural forms directly express contemporary technology and ideas.

The monastery provides a physical environment to serve the contemplative and active dimensions of the monk's life and has, therefore, a continuity in overall planning concepts and building type irrespective of the circumstances of time and place. At the same time, within the type, monastic architecture shows the persistent experimentation and variation necessary for the particular requirements of the different orders.


Bazin, Germain. Les palais de la foi. 2 vols. Fribourg, 19801981. A comprehensive and well-illustrated study of Baroque monasteries in Europe, Russia, and Latin America.

Braunfels, Wolfgang. Monasteries of Western Europe: The Architecture of the Orders. London, 1972. The basic analysis of Western monastic architecture from its beginnings to the present.

Horn, Walter, and Ernest Born. The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the Architecture and Economy of, and Life in a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery. 3 vols. Berkeley and London, 1979. The definitive interpretation of the first monastic plan and a comprehensive study of all aspects of medieval Benedictine monastic architecture and life. Beautifully illustrated, fully documented, and very readable.

Le Bras, Gabriel. Les ordres religieux: La vie et l'art. 2 vols. Paris, 19791980. A survey of all the monastic orders throughout the world. Particularly useful for its hundreds of illustrations, many in color.

New Sources

Abdel Sayed, Gawdat Gabra, and Tim Vivian. Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture. Cairo, 2002.

Cassidy-Welch, Megan. Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries. Turnhout, Belgium, 2001.

Gerson, Paula Lieber. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium. New York, 1986.

Hanawalt, Barbara, and Michal Kobialka, eds. Medieval Practices of Space. Minneapolis, 2000.

Keevill, G., Michael Aston, and Teresa Anne Hall, eds. Monastic Archaeology: Papers on the Study of Medieval Monasteries. Oxford, 2001.

Kinder, Terryl Nancy, ed. Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002.

King, James Cecil, and Werner Vogler, eds. The Culture of the Abbey of St. Gall: An Overview. Stuttgart and Zürich, 1991.

Stalley, R. A. Early Medieval Architecture. Oxford, 1999.

Verdon, Timothy, and John Dally, eds. Monasticism and the Arts. Syracuse, N.Y., 1984.

Karen Kingsley (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 11 2018



The Church in Daily Life. As a landlord, institution, and spiritual guide, the Church was an integral part of the daily lives of all people in medieval Europe. Yet, the Church also had its own material culture, which shared aspects of the lives of nobles and peasants but had distinctive characteristics as well. Monasteries were in principle separate from the rest of the community, and their structures and the lives of their residents were designed to be self-contained. In practice, however, medieval monasteries fulfilled many important roles in the daily lives of the entire Christian community. Churches also had a central role in medieval villages and cities, and the construction of the most dramatic structures in medieval Europe—Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals—highlights the value of the church in urban communities and the integration of clergy and laity in medieval life.

Monasteries and Medieval Society. Monasteries were supposed to follow rules that regulated every aspect of their community life. The Rule of St. Benedict was the most influential. Medieval monasteries were much like prosperous lordships and manors, and their monks had the privileges and responsibilities of large landowners. The wealth of monasteries made them attractive to the sons of the nobility, and monks generally came from the upper classes of medieval society. Yet, for all their influence the number of residents in the average medieval monastery—even when residents who had not taken vows were counted—was relatively small. Large and prestigious institutions such as the Benedictine monasteries of Westminster Abbey in England, Monte Cassino in Italy, and St. Gall in Switzerland had approximately eighty to one hundred monks at their peak, and most medieval monasteries were at least half that size. Yet, monks and monastic institutions greatly influenced medieval society even though they were definitely a minority population.

Nunneries. Around 1100 an advocate for women’s pursuit of the monastic life wrote the following description of a laywoman’s life: “When she comes in the house, the wife hears her child screaming, sees the cat at the bacon, and the dog gnawing her hides; her biscuit is burning on the stone, and her calf is sucking up her milk; the crock is boiling over into the fire, and the husband is scolding.” Although such descriptions were clearly polemical, they emphasize that life in a cloister could provide a fulfilling alternative for medieval women. Like monasteries, nunneries came in many sizes, with wide varieties of wealth, and with great social distinctions in their population. From early in the Middle Ages, certain nunneries were reserved to the nobility, and their lifestyle was relatively luxurious. Monastic rules set up different standards and guidelines for male and female religious communities. In general, however, the female abbeys were poorer and smaller than monasteries. Unlike their male counterparts, they did not actively acquire lands, but waited for gifts to come to them. Although their complexes followed the patterns for male monasteries, their buildings were frequently smaller, their outbuildings less numerous, and their community less diverse. For example, in all but the poorest monasteries, the abbot had a detached residence to himself, while in the nunneries abbesses were told to sleep communally, that is, in the same room, with their nuns. Although the abbesses of the great female abbeys could wield significant secular power, most communities had only local influence.

The Complex and Its Residents. In keeping with their purpose of individual contemplation and prayer, many monasteries were initially built in relatively isolated areas and designed to be self-contained; all the facilities available in a prosperous village or castle could normally be found in a monastic complex, including stables, barns, cisterns, latrines, and kitchens. At the heart of this complex were the church and the cloister. Attached to the church structure, the cloister was a square series of buildings with a central, enclosed courtyard in which the monks did most of their daily living. It was rare for a nonmonk to enter this part of the monastery. Medieval monasteries could have residents other than the monks, and lay brothers, individuals who had taken less binding vows than the monks, performed many menial tasks around the monastery. They were housed in separate quarters and ate their meals in separate buildings or separate parts of the dining hall (refectory). Not only did monasteries have lay brothers in residence, but they could have noble and prosperous individuals who essentially used the monastery as a retirement home or a place of refuge. The latter was especially common in upper-class nunneries. Finally, as landowners, monasteries and nunneries had peasants and serfs working for them and under their care. Generally all these people had access to some buildings in the monastic complex, including the church. To deal with these demands and preserve the original purpose of monastic life, parts of the church were reserved for the different sorts of people affiliated with the community. Increasingly during the Middle Ages men and women were separated in distinct religious communities for monks and nuns.

The Ideal Monastery: St. Gall. In the early ninth century, a plan was developed for an ideal Benedictine monastery, filling in the many gaps Benedict left in his description of its structures. Because the plan has been in the library of the Swiss monastery of St. Gall, it is known as the Plan of St. Gall although the layout of that monastery has significant differences from the plan. The more than thirty buildings and the several gardens of this ideal plan illustrate the medieval vision of a monastery’s spiritual and social roles. Although the church, cloister, and residential buildings for the monks are at the heart of the complex, the Plan of St. Gall describes buildings for services second only to those obtainable in a large city or a

great castle. There are separate barns for geese, cattle, dairy cows, sheep, goats, pigs, mares, and other horses. The servants caring for these animals also have several buildings as quarters. A brewery, pantry, cellar, bakery, winepress, and several kitchens provide for food preparation. The monastery also needed skilled craftsmen in various fields; tanners, shoemakers, saddlers, turners, goldsmiths, cloth workers, and even sword makers each have a separate workshop. Buildings were designed to hold guests of different social statuses and their retinue. Even public welfare and hygiene were considered. Latrines were placed throughout the complex; there were baths for the monks and others affiliated with the monastery; and there was even a hospital with a separate home for its manager and chief doctor (the infirmarian). A monk living in such a place had little need to leave it to find anything necessary for his livelihood or comfort.

Variations from the Ideal. Although many monastic institutions followed the general organization found in the Plan of St. Gall, they rarely had all the services and separate buildings included there. The church and cloister were always at the center, and kitchens, barns, and various outbuildings were constructed soon after a monastery was established. Because a monastery was intended to be a self-contained complex, it also had storage facilities for food, tools, and raw materials—as well as separate buildings designated for travelers and other visitors. Given the lack of large hotels or other accommodations, large ecclesiastical structures, castles, and manors had a duty to house the retinues of traveling lords. The key differences between the Plan of St. Gall and actual monasteries are found in the number of separate structures, the geographic orientation of the buildings, and the materials with which the buildings were constructed.

Building Monasteries. The ideal monastery was built entirely of stone, and actual monasteries worked to achieve this goal as much as possible. Generally the church, cloister, and other key buildings were stone; workshops and barns were likely to be wooden. The materials used in building monastic structures were predominantly local; in parts of Europe, buildings might be sandstone, in other areas, brick or granite. As such, building techniques took into account local demands and variations. Building methods for wooden structures were much like those for peasant structures, while stone Buildingmethods for constructed in the same way as castles and cathedrals. When monasteries were first founded, monks might have worked alongside craftsmen, if craftsmen were even available outside the monastic community. Once the monastery was established, monks generally worked separately from lay craftsmen or brothers, although monks did perform manual labor, and some were skilled artisans.

Plumbing and Water. Medieval monasteries were known throughout Europe for the sophistication of their plumbing systems and their relatively easy access to water. In addition to digging several wells in the complex itself, monastic planners generally established systems of pipes and drains that supplied running water to the monastery. These provisions helped monks enjoy a standard of living about which most medieval Europeans could only dream. For example, Westminster Abbey had a system of pipes that took water to every major building in the monastery. Moreover, Westminster had a series of settling tanks for purifying the water; sediment settled to the bottom and water was taken only from the top. Such provisions contributed to the health of monastery residents and were rare outside of monastic complexes. Latrines were often constructed so that running water washed away the excrement immediately, the closest thing to a flush toilet until the modern era. This access to water made it easier for monks to take baths, although the Benedictine Rule limited full-immersion bathing to four times a year. Baths were considered a worldly luxury, and the rule tried to redirect the monks from worldly to spiritual concerns. For this reason, medieval monks enjoyed the benefits of running water less than aristocrats, who by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had apparently incorporated some of this technology into their structures and were enjoying the sanitary benefits.

Decorating Monasteries: Tiles. Monastic structures were decorated by many of the same techniques used in noble castles and cathedrals, but monastery builders were also innovators. It appears that monasteries were among the first medieval buildings to employ tiles extensively as roofing and flooring materials. The manufacture of tiles demanded a supply of the appropriate clay, a large area in which a kiln could be built without endangering other structures, and a group of skilled craftsmen. By the twelfth century glazed, monochrome, and patterned tiles were being used as flooring over wooden supports. Tiles were, of course, custom-made and highly decorative, often covered with floral, animal, and heraldic motifs. Tiles of various colors could be interlaid to form beautiful mosaics, as at Byland Abbey in England. Tiles could also be used on walls almost like paintings and, in the same way, could be used to illustrate stories. Tile decorations brightened medieval monasteries and churches, making them more colorful and vibrant than the sparse structures that modern people frequently imagine.


Elizabeth Eames, Medieval Craftsmen: English Tilers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

John Fitchen, Building Construction before Mechanization (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986).

C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (London & New York: Longman, 1984).


views updated Jun 08 2018


In early usage, in its strict etymological sense (from μόνος or μοναχός), the term monastery denoted a hermit's cell or a group of cells surrounded by a protective wall. Later it applied to the dwelling of monks (coenobium ) and clerics living a common life (monasterium canonicorum ). In the West the word refers specifically to the houses of benedictines and of other orders derivatively using the benedictine rule. St. benedict employed the word 72 times in the Rule to mean either the physical structure of the abbey or the community living in such foundations. The houses of canons regular of st. augustine also are called monasteries.

Despite the many inaccuracies of popular terminology in matters pertaining to the religious life, some elements of monasticism have always remained reasonably constant. Only with reference to them can one speak properly of a monastery as the dwelling place of monks. The following seem to be the most basic distinguishing marks of the monastery in this restricted acceptance: (1) well-defined separation from the world and permanent attachment to the place of the monk's profession through the vow of stability; this is monasticism's principal identifying feature; (2) an almost complete autonomy of internal government of the individual house, despite legal provisions for membership in monastic congregations (1917 Codex iuris canonici c.488n1) and, since 1893, in the Confederation of the Benedictine Order under the abbot primate; (3) commitment to one of the classical rules of monasticism, today almost exclusively the Benedictine Rule for the West and those of St. basil for the East; and (4) concentration on work identified with the region, since a monastery's influence is usually wielded locally, in distinction to that of centrally controlled undertakings which call for large numbers of specially trained personnel.

The generic term "monastery" usually needs to be qualified for accuracy. Canon Law employs various descriptive phrases, such as independent (sui-juris ) monasteries (1917 Codex iuris canonici cc.488n8; 494.1; elsewhere consistently), monasteries of nuns (c.497.1), exempt monastery (c.645), and similar terms. Popular designations are derived either from the superior's rank (abbey, priory) or from the nature of the work undertaken by the community (sanctuary, shrine, mission, house of studies). Both practices tend to reserve the use of the colorless "monastery" to legal terminology and scholarly treaties.

Simplicity marks the monastery's government. This was the desire of the great founders in their earliest establishments; it remains essentially unchanged today, in vivid contrast to the complexity and legal structure of the centralized orders. The impracticality of the hermits' vocation, and especially its moral deficiency in that it had offered no opportunity for the practice of charity (Basil, Long Rules, 7), were soon realized. The cenobitic ideal made capital of mutual cooperation and showed the great wisdom of centering everything about "the aid of many brethren" (Benedict, Rule of Monks 1, passim ) working under the common father, the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in their midst.

The monastery's basic similarity with the human family, united in Christ, especially through the father, did not, surprisingly, command immediate attention. St. Basil emphasized it; St. Benedict, composing his Rule a century and a half later, with less copious, but far more judicious employment of scriptural sources, especially of the OT, was the first to make it his central theme. It was for the abbot, the spiritual father and Christ's representative living with his men, that Benedict's Rule was primarily written. Through him they became brothers to one another; under his spiritual formation and leadership they worked out the goals that constituted their ideal.

The monastery for which Benedict legislated was a group of men intent on seeking God (ch. 58); they were united in virtuous zeal (ch. 72) in serving Christ; they did so under "the guidance of the Gospel" (prologue), the precepts of the Rule, and the abbot's adaptation of the Rule's principles to existing conditions. The abbot's

powers are today regulated largely by decrees of monastic congregations and more general pronouncements of the Church.

Ideally the group in a Benedictine monastery is to be large enough to facilitate corporate practice of monastic virtues on a generous scale (charity, obedience, humility, considerateness for others, serving Christ in them), yet small enough to preserve the character of a true family. Living under one roof, inspired and drawn forward by a man whom they elect for life as their abbot, the monks pray together (ch. 818, and elsewhere), work together (ch. 48), eat at a common table, serving one another in charity (ch. 35), vie with one another in the spirit of obedience (ch. 7172), and assist one another in all things. Many famous abbeys of the past were modest in size; it was exceptional for membership to exceed 100; few today are larger.

So attached was Benedict to simplicity and unity of government in his monastery that his Rule provides for a sole superior. Reluctantly he conceded (ch. 65) the probable need of a prior, who is actually not a superior, but performs assigned tasks for the community at large and represents the abbot in his absence. By stated preference Benedict would rather have conducted the affairs of the community through deans, seniors who had charge of 10 monks each (ch. 21), in order to rule out all occasion of pride and vainglory. Today's share in the active apostolate requires the appointment of many officials with responsibilities in limited areas, but there remains the one superior, the abbot.

All monasteries are solemnly blessed in honor of a sacred mystery or a heavenly patron, particularly the Blessed Virgin, one of the Apostles, or saintly heroes of monastic life. Such is the nature of stability, however, that even some of the most famous houses in history and those currently thriving are almost invariably referred to by the name of the town where they are located rather than by their official name. Rarely will one know the patrons

of Ligugé, Monte Cassino, Metten, Cluny, or, today, Maredsous, Clérvaux, or Chevtogne. Locally they are the "abbey," the "priory," or the "monastery." Even in official documents they are referred to by the name of the local town.

Bibliography: st. basil, "Long Rules," in Ascetical Works, tr. m. m. wagner (New York 1950) 223337. S. Benedicti regula monasteriorum, ed. e. c. butler (3d ed. Freiburg 1935). The Rule of Saint Benedict, ed. and tr. j. mccann (Westminster, Md. 1952). w. k. l. clake, St. Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism (Cambridge, Eng. 1913). j. c. dickinson, Monastic Life in Medieval England (New York 1962). É. jombarte, Dictionnaire de droit canonique ed. r. naz, 7 v. (Paris 193537) 6:928933. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. carroll, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753).2.2:30473248; ibid 11.2:17741947. p. schmitz, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 6:344346. c. butler, Benedictine Monachism (London 1927). d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 9431216 (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1962) 330.

[b. a. sause]


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monasteries, or religious communities of men or women living apart from secular society, had their origin in the early church in Egypt where hermits (the word monk is derived from the Greek monos, one alone) came together to live a common life of contemplation and work under the direction of an abbot (from Aramaic abba, father), such as Pachomius, generally regarded as monasticism's founder. Pachomius' codification of the monastic way of life (or ‘rule’) was followed by several others including those of Basil (most influential in the eastern church), Augustine of Hippo, Caesarius of Arles, and Benedict of Nursia or Monte Cassino. His rule later became dominant in the West. Monastic communities spread rapidly with the expansion of Christianity following the conversion of Constantine. The first monasteries in the British Isles were established in the 5th cent. in Ireland, probably from Gaul, where the most influential figure was Martin of Tours (d. 397). Thereafter communities spread throughout Celtic Britain, notable centres being at Iona under St Columba, at St Davids, and later at Lindisfarne (or Holy Island). Monasticism was introduced into Anglo-Saxon England by Augustine of Canterbury, himself a monk, the first community being St Augustine's, Canterbury (c.598). By c.650 many monasteries had been founded throughout Britain: some were communities of men and women, the most famous being Whitby ruled by its abbess, Hilda. They followed a wide variety of rules and customs. Attempts to standardize these under the rule of Benedict were made by Wilfrid of Ripon and Hexham, Benedict Biscop of Jarrow-Monkwearmouth, Theodore of Canterbury, and others, but were not wholly successful. The Viking raids that began in 787 and continued for over a century destroyed all the northern and eastern houses, while in areas less affected most fell under the control of secular lords, who appropriated their property and appointed members of their family as lay abbots. Recovery accompanied Anglo-Saxon political recovery under the Wessex dynasty. Monasteries were founded, or refounded, often with support from the continent, particularly from Flanders and Lorraine, where there was a new reformed monasticism that looked for a more rigorous communal life, greater austerity, and freedom from secular authority, though operating in association with lay patrons and advocates. The nature and extent of the 10th-cent. reform, led by three monk-bishops, Dunstan of Canterbury, Æthelwold of Winchester, and Oswald of Worcester, who produced (c.970) with the support of King Edgar a new codification of the rule, the Regularis concordia, remains controversial, as does the state of Anglo-Saxon monasticism prior to the Norman Conquest. By 1066 there were some 35 male houses and 10 nunneries. Many, especially the former, were wealthy landholders, such as Winchester, St Albans, Bury St Edmunds, or Worcester, while the nunneries included great aristocratic institutions at Shaftesbury and Wilton. Virtually all were concentrated in the old kingdom of Wessex, the west midlands, and the Fens.

The Norman Conquest resulted in the seizure of some monastic lands by the invaders, but generally set-backs were temporary and monasticism was invigorated by new foundations such as Chester, Shrewsbury, St Mary's York, and Durham, as well as by the reforms of Lanfranc of Canterbury, whose Constitutions were widely adapted. These reflected contemporary good practice in Norman monasticism, and were influenced by Cluny, whence a number of priories were also established. The late 11th and 12th cents. also saw an increase in the number of houses for women, some of which belonged to new orders, such as the Gilbertines and that of Fontevraud. In 1128 the first Cistercian community in Britain was established at Waverley (Surrey). Cistercian monasteries and, to an even greater extent, Augustinian priories constituted the most numerous foundations of the 12th cent.

Thereafter monastic foundations declined markedly: few patrons had the necessary resources to endow a new community, though they might continue to support an existing one linked to their family or by tenurial relationship, while the crown became increasingly concerned at the loss of services and control occasioned by grants of land (in ‘mortmain’) to the church. Ecclesiastical patronage was especially directed at the new mendicant orders of friars, and chantries, frequently established in cathedrals and other churches to pray for the souls of donors and their families, tended to replace monasteries in the pious affections of the laity. Nevertheless the economy of most monasteries, some of which like Winchester and Christ Church, Canterbury, led the way in agricultural and administrative innovation, prospered during the 13th cent. The next century, however, saw serious structural crises consequent upon the Black Death, exacerbated in some instances by the Anglo-Scottish wars. The spiritual and intellectual condition of the late medieval monasteries is more controversial, but there is little doubt that there was decline from the ‘golden age’ of the 12th and 13th cents., as friars took the lead in theological debate and universities began to replace monasteries as educational centres. By the time of the dissolution (1536–40) many monasteries were finding it difficult to attract sufficient recruits, though the Valor Ecclesiasticus (1535) revealed that many communities still enjoyed considerable revenues.

A few monasteries, notably Douai, were established on the continent by English Benedictine monks early in the 17th cent. and the Douai community returned to England after the French Revolution, a time when other continental monasteries transferred to England, forming the nucleus for the re-emergence of Roman catholic monasticism in England, while a number of Anglican communities were founded through the influence of the Oxford movement.

Brian Golding


Burton, J. , Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000–1300 (Cambridge, 1994);
Knowles, D. , The Monastic Order in England (2nd edn. Cambridge, 1963);
The Religious Orders in England (3 vols., Cambridge, 1948–59);
Lawrence, C. H. , Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (1989).


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monastery. Building or group of buildings arranged for the occupancy of members of a religious Order, or of persons desiring religious seclusion. European medieval monastic architecture derives from C6 types evolved under the rules of the Order founded by St Benedict, of which the C9 plan of St Gall, Switzerland, is the earliest surviving drawn example, with cloister, chapter-house and dorter, refectory, and infirmary set well away to the south-east. In terms of architectural organization the Benedictine plan was of a high order, and was the basis for the Cistercian monastic plan, of which Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal, Yorkshire (mostly C12 and C13), is a fine example.


Braunfels (1972);
Horn & and Born (1979);
Jane Turner (1996)


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mon·as·ter·y / ˈmänəˌsterē/ • n. (pl. -ter·ies) a community of persons, esp. monks or nuns, living under religious vows. ∎  the place of residence occupied by such persons.


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monastery XV. — ecclL. monastērium — ecclGr. monastḗrion, f. monázein live alone, f. mónos alone.
So monastic XVI. — (O)F. monastique or late L. monasticus — Gr. monastikós.