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Cloister and Living Quarters in a Medieval Monastery

The parts and functions of the Medieval Monastery, using the groundplan for Beaulieu Abbey as a basemap.  Return to the Parts of a Monastery page to view the map, room labels, and basic information about the abbey.  Scroll down for individual explanations of the basic rooms, parts, and functions of a medieval abbey.   For information about the parts of the abbey church, see Parts of the Church. 

Living Quarters (previous page)
Monks Frater and Lay Frater (Refectory)
The Kitchen
The Cellars
The Infirmary (and Misericorde)
Calefactory (Common Room or
                     Warming House)
Living Quarters (Scroll Down)
Monks Dorter and Lay Dorter                    
The Lavatory
The Cloister
Chapter House
Fish Ponds and Grounds 


  The Dorter             

The Dorter is also called the Dormitory, and it is where the monks slept.  At first, all the monks slept together (on the cave floor, if the group gathered around a hermitage such as that at Knaresborough or those in Egypt).  The communal lifestyle focus meant that members ate and prayed together, and slept in the same room.  Even priors and abbots shared an open and communal dormitory at first.  The exception was the Carthusians, who from their inception each had a separate cell for sleeping (and for most everything else).  Theirs was more a community of hermits than a usual type monastery.

As the monastic Orders developed, and the centuries passed, sleeping arrangements changed.  The communal hall became divided by screens, and then into separate cubicles along the dormitory hall.  Gasquet explains “Every monk had a little chamber to himself.  Each chamber had a window towards the Chapter, and the partition betwixt every chamber was close wainscotted, and in each window was a desk to support their books.”  Also, the lavatory (or rere-dorter) was usually close by the dorter and easily accessible.

Come the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the abbots and priors of larger religious houses found an increasing need to act as hosts for important guests.  To preserve the tranquility of the dormitory, the abbot or prior constructed separate accommodations, some quite sumptuous, that allowed him to entertain guests to the monastery in the style the gentility were accustomed too, without disrupting the austerity of monastic life for the others in the cloister. 

Wenlock Priory. 
Infirmary (below) with
Prior's rooms (above).
Image from
Home of the Monk
by Rev. D. H. S. Cranage.

Because monastics rose at night for prayers, cresset lights (literally a bowl-like depression in a stone which was filled with oil and lighted with a wick) or cresset-style lanterns (that bowl now hanging near the wall or from a stout stick) burned at night to ensure the monks could see a little.  Gasquet refers to this as a kind of act of futility, remarking that this kind of light served mainly to make the darkness more visible.

The monastics rose from their beds at the sound of a bell, and in some instances prayed right there at the bedside.  Traditionally, however, they processed down the night stair (a back way, and all indoors, from the cloister to the church) where they took up their places in the choir and began their nightly worship. Because churches were cold at night, special warm night clothing and warm, felted wool “night boots” were worn.

No doubt the habit of rising at night was difficult for some, and the succentor (a monastic officer) was responsible for making sure everyone got up and going.  And here was a second use for those lovely cresset-lanterns.  Says Gasquet “if during the course of the night Office [the succentor] should see any of the brethren drowsy or forgetting to recite, it was his duty to take his lantern and go towards them, in order to remind them that they were to be more alert as "watchmen keeping their vigil in the Lord's service."

As for pajamas, in the middle ages people slept without any.  Some monks may also have slept this way.  But, also in the middle ages, those of ‘virtue’ demonstrated their piety by sleeping in their shifts.  The shift or shirt was the long undergarment worn closest to the skin.  Shifts and Shirts in the middle ages were full length (for women) and full length or calf length for men.  The garment tied at the neck and had long sleeves.  It was usually made of linen.   My guess is, however, that despite the piety issue of sleeping in the “altogether,” monastics often slept without a shirt or shift, like everyone else.  Interestingly, Gasquet writes that the novice was “instructed how to get into his bed in order to observe due modesty, and how to rise from it in the morning, in the common dormitory.”

Additionally, lay brothers and Professed Monks slept in separate dormitories. 

  The Lavatory                       
Ritual surrounded every aspect of the monastic life, including grooming.  As a group of educated men and women, monastics understood the need for sanitation and cleanliness well before science ‘discovered’ bacteria as a primary source of contagion.  Smell was long understood to carry contagion, and even the generals of ancient Rome understood that communal latrines must be dug far away from sources of clean water.

Personal cleanliness in a monastery included the everyday washing before meals and other ceremonial or official activities, Saturday foot washing, barbering (hair tonsuring and shaving), tub bathing (four times a year), and toileting.  Washing before the communal meal was done right outside the dining room (called the frater or refectory) where a sink flowing with water (heated in winter) also included clean sand where the monks could wash their knives (the primary eating utensil of the middle ages) before heading in to their meal.  A cupboard (aumbry) near the sink held clean linen towels.

Image from
English Monastic Life

F.A.Gasquet, 1904

In Beaulieu Abbey, which had separate facilities for lay monks and professed monks, each frater was equipped with its own sink and towel cupboard.  There was also a sink (laver) near the presbytery, where clergy could perform ritual ablutions (washing) before Mass.

Barbering was done in a common room, either in the cloister, dorter, or calefactory.  A skilled monk or a paid professional, with strop, razor and brushes, shaved each member of the community one at a time while the rest recited psalms and other prayers.  Each monk received the ‘tonsure’ haircut that was characteristic of their Order, and the ritual was repeated every three weeks and before important feasts or festivals.

Image from
English Monastic Life

F.A.Gasquet, 1904

Toileting was done in the rere-dorter, a room near the monks' dorter that was easily accessible during the night.  Toilets were holes in a long plank along which the monks sat.  Waste ran down through pipes or channels into running water and was swept away.   Warm water was supplied during the winter for washing and clean towels as well.  Bathing used this similar system of waste water drawn away, the bathing tubs lined with fresh clean hay and the monks supplied with soap, herbs, towels, and warm water.

Glouchester, lavatory
Image from
The Home of the Monk
by Rev. D. H. S. Cranage

The final ‘health’ ritual was that of bloodletting.   (For more about this, see INFIRMARY.)

  The Parlour              

The parlour was a room within the cloister where members of the monastic community could visit with each other during times of respite, could convalese after being bled (see infirmary) and after illness, and, most importantly, the place where the rule of silence could be eased so that monks and nuns could visit with members of their families. 

In addition, families of monks and nuns often provided financial support to the monastery through donations of money, goods, and other forms of patronage. 

In the case of nuns, a 'dowry' was paid by the family to the monastery so that she might be admitted to the convent.  This dowry helped support her for her lifetime at the monastery.  In addition to the dowry, relatives of nuns could provide clothing, bring small gifts (even such as parrots, dogs, or marmosets for the nun to keep as a pet) and bring food, also.  These things not only helped offset the maintainance cost for each nun, but they were a reminder of social status, as many nuns came from wealthy and influencial local families.  (These kinds of gifts are also what bishops most complain about during visitations to women's convents.)  As the financial health of some women's establishments declined in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, gifts or food and warm clothing became even more important, and, indeed, essential.

The other primary visitor to the parlor would have been the parents of the girls who were enrolled in women's covents for their schooling.  It was very common for parents with some extra money to send their daughters to convents to be educated. Lessons would include embroidery, weaving, and sewing, religious education, and (though not always) reading.  Primary languages, depending on the era, were Latin, Greek, French and later, English. 

Dance was a vital component to the medievel education, and later boy's schools devoted four or more hours each day to its study.  And, as boys didn't grow up to dance with each other, I imagine girls received similar instuction.  Though I can't imagine nuns teaching this subject, it must also have been taught at some point, either at the convent, or at home. 

  The Cloister               
    Latin, claustrum, or ‘enclosed place.’  A square or rectangular central courtyard, usually built on the south side of the church, surrounded on all sides by the inner (claustral) rooms of the monastery, such as the Chapter Room and monastic kitchens.  

[Bavon Abbey, ruins.]

The large center of the cloister was open to the elements, and often included a well and herb gardens planted with medicinal, and other plants useful to the monastery (such as sweet woodruff which could be mixed with rushes for strewing the floors of the church, dormitory, and choir).  The center open square of the cloister, called the cloister garth, was surrounded by a covered, often colonnaded, walkway on all four sides, this walkway called the alley.  Whether the alley was open to the outdoors or not depended on the style and location of the monastery, with weather an obvious consideration.  Monasteries in cold climates built a sheltering alley, either sealing it behind unglazed windows or using protective wooden shutters.   The alley, or walkway, was also referred to as the ‘Promenade’ as it was along this walkway that the monks would sing and walk in procession.

[Monks Promenade, Mont Saint Michel, France. Detroit Publishing, photochrom, 1905.]

  A second story above the cloister often overhung the alley to form the roof and overlook the inner courtyard.  The upstairs spaces were protected workspaces for the monks, and protected with glass and shuttering from the cold and damp.  The northern side within the cloister particularly, which received the best natural light, was the primary location for books and carrels (desks and workspaces), though there could be carrels along the east and west sides as well.

[Convent of San Martino, with burying ground, Naples, Italy. Detroit Publishing, Photochrom, 1905.]

       While ‘cloister’ refers specifically to this one large central court area, the word ‘cloister’ was also used in general to refer to the enclosed rooms and places inside the monastery itself.  The general living and working quarters of the monks and nuns, especially those places where silence was to be observed and maintained, were all often referred to in general as ‘the cloister.’  In order to communicate silently, monastic men and women developed a signing system, a language of hand signals and other gestures.    

  The Chapter House     
The chapter house was the central meeting place of the members of the monastic community, either monks or nuns, and the place where the official business of the monastery was conducted, both spiritual and secular.  The Chapter meetings served the functions of keeping the governance of the monastery in check, allowing all true members to participate and have their chance to speak and participate, and reinforcing the communal living and discipline standards of the Order.

Image from
English Monastic Life

F.A.Gasquet, 1904

Chapter Meetings included a short devotion, the confession of sin, and the meting out of punishment, which, if it were corporal, was administered during the meeting itself. Key monastic officials, presided over by the abbot, carried out the monastery business, but in front of the brethren so all would be included in the process overall. Signing official orders and documents was a shared responsibility, with the seal of the monastery kept in a chest belonging to the community, to be opened and used only in chapter. (Individual monastic establishments, of course, might differ.)

Images from
English Monastic Life
F.A.Gasquet, 1904

The size of the monastery, the Order and Rule of the monastery, and the wealth of the establishment, could make considerable differences to both the manner of Chapter Meetings and the grandeur of the Chapter House.  In large, wealthy abbeys, the Chapter Room could be quite large, round in shape, or polygonal for better acoustics.  The monks would enter from the cloister walkway, and the door, called a Vestibule, could be extraordinarily elaborate and ornately carved.  Wealthy abbeys were run by wealthy, often titled, abbots and they often ran extensive businesses.  Some abbeys even built castles to protect their shipping and commerce interests.

[Vestibule of the cathedral, Dalmatia. Detroit Publishing, photochrom, 1905.]

Other abbeys (though these could still be very wealthy) focused on austere living, or were smaller priories and so lacked the resources of the larger abbeys. The Chapter House in this instance would be plain and rectangular and perhaps be fitted with benches along the wall for seating. The focus in this case was less on running extensive commercial enterprise and more on the devotional life of the brethren or sisters.

Image from
English Monastic Life

F.A.Gasquet, 1904

  Fish Ponds and Grounds 

Monasteries were self-sustaining communities.  Included in the monastic "grounds" were not only the church and cloister, but surrounding farms, rows of market shops, manor homes (and their farming fields), village churches, many hospitals, whole villages (including leper colonies), and even castles.  Large powerful abbeys were financial powerhouses and that included, sometimes, extensive trade that would be protected by garrisons of men-at-arms, and, the building of castles.

Castles were not the norm, however.  The basic English monastery included the monastery grounds, a manor or two, extensive farming fields, a communal kitchen and bakery and gristmill (for grinding barley and wheat and making bread), and, a village.  A monastery, then, ran similarly to any other feudal enterprise, a 'lord' at the top with 'surfs' and bond servants at the bottom.  To be fair, however, communities headed by monastics fared far better than the average community under a secular 'lord.'  Many stories tell of miracles performed by abbots to feed their communities during famine, and the lengths they went to provide hospital and other kinds of care to widows, orphans, and the infirm.

The average monastery estate would have fish ponds stocked with fish, tithe barns which held the monastery's share of the grain raised on the estate, retting ponds for linen, tanning sheds, everything needed for self-sufficiency on a normal estate.  Manors owned by the monastery were often run by monastic officials who sometimes also lived in them.  These manor-farms could be adjacent to the monastery itself or some distance away.  Wool was a vital part of the English economy in many places.  All the sheep of the village shared the monastic pasture ranges, just as all the pigs ate from the mast of the forest floor.  But the monastery not only had their own pigs and sheep, but took a tithe or rent portion also from those who lived on their estates or under their purview.

Village churches could also be purchased and owned by monastic institutions.  Often, local churches were owned by secular lords and ladies, so it make sense that monasteries could own them also.  In a nutshell, then, all the things required to run a medieval estate and community, and all the basic systems of feudalism, could be found also in the monastic system.

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