Monasteries (Guest Post)


By Patricia Deegan

This is an article about the buildings and grounds of the monasteries rather than the religious people within them or their religious practises.

Although a number of the original Christian communities in Britain (the Celtic Church) had had monasteries, the monks during that period lived almost like hermits in separate cells within the monastery grounds. However there gradually came a movement within western Europe that led to a more communal way of life for those who took vows to be monks.

By the medieval period some monastic communities were quite large, with up to 150 professed religious members (monks) at their height, and were notable land owners, with one example being Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Other communities would have been simpler and not as rich, for example priories could have just eight monks. The ideal community was thought to be at least 12 monks or nuns in addition to the head of the community.

Somewhat confusingly, abbeys had a head called an abbot (or abbess if a convent) but their subordinate would be called a prior or prioress although the monastery was an abbey and not a priory. One definition of the difference between abbeys and priories is: “An abbey is a monastery governed by an abbot, while a priory is a monastery ruled by a prior under the auspices of the abbot of the mother abbey.”[1]

The term ‘convent’ is used to describe buildings used by nuns but originally, in it’s Latin form conventus, it actually referred to the buildings used by any religious order whether male or female.

There were even smaller communities, called a cell, of just two or three who were wholly subservient to the mother house (the founding house of a religious order). The initial legislation passed in 1535, the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act, gave the King the power to dissolve religious houses with annual incomes declared in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of less than £200.

There is an existing ninth century plan of a monastery, St Gall, in Switzerland which was quite a large and complex plan. This was a Benedictine monastery and most English monasteries were based on Benedictine plans. There is also evidence available from archaeology, and old records, of monasteries within England which help to show the likely layouts of medieval monasteries here.

Most religious houses would often have a gatehouse, in the enclosing walls, which acted as the main entrance. There would be various buildings and a church.

The main buildings for the monks or nuns were arranged in a square – often on the south side of the church but the geographical landscape they built on would sometimes dictate the layout. This square of buildings surrounded a central area of grass, which would sometimes have water at the centre of it and scented plants. This garden was known as the cloister garth. The covered paths, just in front of the buildings which edged the garden, with low walls and arches were known as cloisters.



The church, being the centre of their world, would be the grandest building of all and, as all Christian churches were, was orientated towards the east so people would pray towards the east from whence the Saviour would come. The main or high altar, would be in the sanctuary area (an especially holy area often slightly raised), within the apse (the semi-circular end to the building) on the east side and edged by a rail. This was considered especially holy as there was a belief in the literal physical presence of God in the Eucharist during mass and in the tabernacle the rest of the time. However, the term ‘sanctuary’ was also used for consecrated areas where ordinary people could claim asylum and protection, even from the law for a time. The entire church was often a place where sanctuary could be invoked. In Westminster abbey there was an entire separate building called St. Peter’s sanctuary within the abbey grounds, with a chapel and residential rooms, where sanctuary could be claimed.

The sacristy, a room where the vestments (clothing used by the priests in rituals) and holy vessels were kept, might be at the top of the church near the high altar.

I have attempted a plan to show the layout of a possible ‘average’ medieval monastery that might be found in England during the medieval and early Tudor period:

A: Gatehouse  - Entrance into the monastic grounds
B: Secular Buildings – including workshops and stables
C: Church
C1: High altar
C2:  Sacristy where clothing for the priest in the mass and the holy vessels were stored (some churches)
C3: Main entrance into the church for guests, servants and local people (if they were allowed to use the monastery church.
C4:  Entrance into the church from the cloisters for the monks
D: East range of buildings
D1: Library and scriptorium or sacristy
D2: Chapter House where the monks led for administration and discipline daily
D3: Slype which was a covered pathway through to the area behind the east range
D4: Parlour which was a day room and where monks could talk, if necessary, to each other

First floor: The dormitory for the monks
E: South range of buildings
E1: Calefactory where monks were permitted to warm themselves at a fire
E2: Refectory (frater) or dining room for the monks

First floor above E1: Muniment room where deeds and valuable documents were held
First floor above E2: Vestiary where communal clothing for the monks was held
F:  Kitchen in a separate building to reduce the risk of fire spreading
G: West range of buildings
G1: Refectory for the lay brothers (or the prior if this was a smaller monastery)
G2: Cellarium or store room for monastery supplies

First Floor: Dormitory for the lay brothers or accommodation for the prior in a smaller monastery
H: Cloisters or covered and arcaded pathway in front of the buildings comprising the monk’s accommodation
H1: East Cloisters
H2:  South Cloisters
H3: West Cloisters
H4: North Cloisters
I: Cloister Garth or garden in the centre of the cloisters. Often it would simply be grass but some had scented plants.
I1: Lavatorium or simple washing room with a basin of piped water and towels for monks to wash their hands before meals.
J: Hospitaller – the office of the monk who looked after any guests the monastery may have. the St Gall plan placed a small cell for him in this location and it would make sense for guests to have an accessible monk to raise any query or let him know of any problems without the guests having to make their way into the area dedicated to monks to find someone.
K: Hospitium – guest house.
L: Brewery
M: Bakehouse
N: Vegetable Garden
O: Abbot’s House
O1: Abbot’s necessarium or privy
P: Herbularius – the physic garden of medicinal plants
Q: Infirmary buildings (on site care for sick and elderly monks)
Q1: Infirmary privies
Q2: Main hall with beds
Q3: Infirmary chapel
Q4: Infirmary frater
Q5:  Infirmary kitchen
Q6: Herbarium  which was the workshop of the infirmarer (the monk in charge of the sick)
R: Balneary – bath house.
S: Reredorter or necessarium – communal latrines for the monks.
T: A fish pond – although monasteries were located near running water, there tended to be fishponds too. Presumably to ensure there was plenty of fresh fish.
U: Cemetery Orchard – useful trees (fruit and nuts) and a location for the bodies of the monks


The east building range of the cloisters would be likely to include:

* A library with a scriptorium, for copying books, in monasteries where this was an important part of their work. Though some monasteries did copying work in the cloisters, as these walkways tended to be wide enough to allow for a desk to be placed next to the arches (to get the natural light) and still have enough room left allow monks to easily go past the desks. Though some floor plans of monasteries, such as Roche abbey near Sheffield in Yorkshire, had the sacristy next to the church instead of a library. All five friaries in London had libraries.

* A chapter house where the monks would meet each day. Here they would discuss faults the monks had shown and be given penance, the duties would be assigned for the day and they would also a reading from the Rules (e.g. of St Benedict). In very large communities, the chapter house could be a separate polygon shaped building behind the east range. as was the case for Westminster abbey and their chapter house survives with the abbey church to this day.

* A slype, or covered passageway, which could be next to the chapter house or parlour, allowing access to the area behind the east range of buildings.

* A parlour was where necessary conversation could take place between monks – often there could be vows or regulations that enforced silence generally within the monastery. This room could also act as a day room for monks.

* On the first floor of this range was the dormitory (or dorter) where the monks slept and, at the end of the dormitory that was next to the church, were the night stairs into the church. These stairs would allow the monks to go straight into church, especially for Matins and Lauds.

The south building range of the cloisters would be likely to include:

* A calefactory – which was a warming room with a fire and useful for monks who had been working outside on cool or cold days. Other rooms in the monastery did not have fires in the early part of the medieval period, except for the infirmary, the guest house and the kitchen.

* A refectory – which was a dining room, also known as the frater. By the refectory was the lavatorium. This was not a toilet, as the name might suggest to modern people, but a trough full of water for monks to wash their hands in before their meal. As far as I can tell, it might be in the cloister next to the refectory and towels were made available or it might be in a separate building with octagonal basin in it, in the centre of the cloister garth.

* Near to the refectory (but not adjoining it, presumably to prevent the spread of fires) was the kitchen in a separate building.

* On the first floor, above the calefactory was the muniment room where documents and deeds were kept (at least it was in both Fountains and Netley abbeys). Why they put the room with flammable material above one of the few rooms with fires is unknown.

* On the first floor above the refectory, according to the St Gall plan, was the vestiary. This was where clothing was kept. As monks were not supposed to have private property, the clothing would have been communal too. Although they would not regularly wash their clothing, accidents would happen and habits would have needed replacing occasionally or washing so spare habits must have been kept. The cold winters of the late medieval and Tudor periods would have meant that cloaks and boots would have been needed for going outside. No matter how healthy and young the monks may have been, wearing the same open toed sandals that they had in summer, when the temperature dropped below freezing and their accommodation was generally unheated, would have led to illness and injury. Presumably the spare towels were kept there together with some additional blankets for the coldest parts of the year. I presume there must have been stairs at the west end of the south range as the muniment room can’t have been used as a passageway through to the vestiary as it held valuable documents.

Between the east and south ranges of buildings, on a few plans, there was a reredorter or necessarium, in the corner between the dormitory and refectory. These were the communal latrines. However, monasteries generally seem to have been built by a natural source of water such as a stream. Westminster abbey was built next to tributaries of the Tyburn river. This running water seems to have been a favoured way to deal with the human waste produced by the communities. Monasteries do not appear to have adopted the town practise of simply throwing their waste into channels down the middle of the road. Thus the course of the river involved would dictate where the latrines were to be placed, i.e. presumably downstream from where water was being extracted for washing, brewing or drinking and thus not in a set location each time a monastery was built.

Monasteries did also have a bath house called a balneary (such as Westminster abbey in London and Margam Abbey in Wales). Westminster abbey had hot water but the monks only bathed four times a year.

The west building range would be likely to include:

* A cellarium or store room for the monastery’s supplies.

* A refectory for the lay brothers (who had a simplified prayer schedule and did most of the manual work).

* Above this range was the dormitory for the lay brothers.

* However, in a smaller community without lay brothers, the accommodation for the abbot may be in the west range instead. This can be seen in the Priory of St Mary and the Holy Cross at Binham in Norfolk.

Although one of the vows of a monk was poverty, the abbot always had separate accommodation. In the St. Gall it is a fairly small house but the surviving late medieval abbot’s houses suggest they became bigger as time went on in bigger communities.

Bigger communities sometimes had a second square of buildings south of the main cloisters, in Westminster abbey this was called the “little cloister”. This might accommodate the novitiate (where trainee monks lived), the infirmary (for sick or elderly and frail monks) and even some guest accommodation could be ranged around that cloister garth. Westminster abbey noted that their main cloister garth itself was a simple square of green whilst their little cloister garth had a fountain, scented plants and turf seats for the recuperating or elderly monks in the infirmary.

Other plans, with a single set of cloisters, show the infirmary in a separate building slightly apart from the main accommodation. Presumably this was to reduce infections spreading. They may not have understood how illnesses could spread but their treatment of leprosy shows that they understood that diseases could be passed onto other people. The kitchen for the infirmary could prepare more meat for the infirm than monks were generally supposed to eat. On my plan I have placed the herbularius, the physic (an old word for medicine) or infirmarer’s garden, next to the infirmary and placed the herbarium (or infirmarer’s workshop) close to it. This would allow the infirmarer, the monk in charge of the sick, to dry the medicinal plants and store them. Also to create medicinal teas, balms, poultices, honeys and vinegars as they were required.

Where the novice’s accommodation would be in an average monastery, with only one set of cloisters, is not terribly clear from my searches. As they were likely to be separated from the fully professed brethren, it may well be male novices were accommodated with the lay brothers in the west wing until they took their final vows. However, an average convent might have had to place female novices in with the fully professed sisters as there simply wasn’t the space for a separate building for a few novices in a more modest land holding.

A community so small that it was termed a ‘cell’ of monks might live and work in a single building.

As well as the buildings for the monks, and the main other buildings mentioned above, there could be a number of other buildings for a self-sufficient community: stables for horses, workshops for crafts (such as candlemaking), probably some hives, maybe near the medicinal plant garden.

I have placed the orchard, with it’s cemetery in it, to the east of the church as it is in the St Gall Plan. This area was, as it’s names suggests, a place both for ‘useful’ trees (such as apples, pears, nuts, etc) and for deceased monks to be buried. Westminster abbey had a cemetery orchard but some monasteries had a separate cemetery on the east side of the church to their orchards. Fountains abbey had separate burial plots separated by stone partiions.

Bigger communities had farms and woods too and the orchard would have been much bigger.


Wikipedia: Leicester Abbey, Abbey, Dissolution of the Monasteries


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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Thank you very much for this detailed reconstruction of an average monastery.
    I’ve been looking for a document detailing the different buildings and rooms one can find in a convent/monastery, and this was very helpful.
    Thank you for taking the time to share it online!

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