Anatomy of a Monastery


Having looked at castles in detail, I thought it might be useful to look at monasteries in a similar way. Although castles feature in most of my novels, my characters rarely have anything to do with monasteries. In reality, though, medieval people were far more likely to be familiar with a monastery than they were to know about castles. There were monasteries and monastic institutions everywhere, while castles tended to be placed only at strategic locations. Monasteries were great landowners and many agricultural labourers had an abbot or abbess as their lord of the manor, which meant dealing with the monks and occasionally visiting the monastery. Monasteries provided hospitals for the sick and alms for the poor.

The layout of a monastery depended on the type of monk or nun who inhabited it and the amount of space available. The Cistercians tended to follow the same pattern in all their monasteries, but that wasn’t necessarily true of the Benedictines.

There were certain buildings and rooms that were essential for all monasteries and the most important of them were situated around the cloisters. The monastery had to have a church where the monks could worship; cloisters (and other places) where they could work; a refectory where they could eat; a dormitory where they could sleep and a chapter house where they could meet together. Typically there would be other buildings such as the abbot’s house and kitchen, an infirmary, latrines, a guest house, a treasury and, in Cistercian monasteries in particular, accommodation for lay brothers.

Over the next few weeks we’ll have a look at the various spaces within a monastery and what happened in them.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Buildings, Monastery

24 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery

  1. I’ll look forward to this series, I’ve visited a few monasteries up here and it’ll be good to read about how they were used.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Like many, my interest in monasteries started with the Cadfael novels, so I look forward to reading more about them.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m looking forward to this series!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I spent an entire January in England for a college class on English dialects.

    We were warned many landmarks were closed, but that open-air artifacts and churches would offer more than ample opportunities for study.

    They were so right! I wouldn’t trade that blustery month for any money! With the exceptions of Westminster and Canterbury, we had plenty of time, and all to ourselves. Ruins were more stark and imposing in 7°c drizzle. Also made our post-tour beef and ale delicious!

    We discovered that monks were expected to perform their offices and work, as well as sleep, in dank, drizzly, unheated, unglazed cells and rooms. Most were to have slept on straw, with one woolen blanket. Many were to have been unshod or wear only simple sandals or brogues. No underclothes unless it was a hair shirt: as if coarse wool wasn’t bad enough!

    Different houses had different rules. I had trouble keeping the Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Carthusians, Mendicants, etc. in order. Some were ascetic, others quite relaxed. I hope April will set me straight!

    We learned higher clerics (abbots, bishops, cardinals) lived in fine digs, with fireplaces, braziers, furs, forbidden foods: all separate from the brothers. They had special covered walkways to church and chapter house, with personal entrances. Plenty of servants saw to their comfort.

    April mentioned the kitchens, separate from those which prepared the brothers’ simple fare. These were often capable of providing for royal visitors and their meinies. It was expected of the elite clergy to house fine travelers in the manse. Hospitality rooms or buildings, adjacent to church, took in the visitors’ households. Lesser folk were sent to barns, outbuildings, or the homes of villeins. After the Dissolution, many of these fancy abodes were taken over by Tudor favorites and folks who purchased property rights from Henry VIII. (They STILL had to entertain royals, same as their clerical forebears.)

    I am eager to read April’s contributions. I’m very sure there’s updates on the things I learned in the 1980’s, and knowing her knack for ferreting, some surprises as well!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. As always when speaking of the Middle Ages, different things applied at different times and in different places. There are also records of nuns and monks whose clothing was far more flamboyant than the rules of their particular institution allowed. Every now and again there would be a reforming movement because life had become too easy for the monks.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Great idea for a series. As you said, the focus of historical accounts is more often on castles than monasteries. Looking forward to it!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Faith James

    Thank you so much for writing this! For NaNoWriMo, I’m working on a book that takes place in a monastery, so this will be super helpful. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  7. lydiaschoch

    Ooh, this sounds interesting! It’s part of the Middle Ages that I know virtually nothing about.

    Liked by 2 people

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