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.