Anatomy of Monastery – The Dormitory

Day room, Rievaulx Abbey

The day room, Rievaulx Abbey. The dormitory was above this room.

Having looked at a building that adjoined the dormitory last week, it’s time to look at the dormitory itself.

When you visit monastic ruins, you’ll often see signs saying ‘Dormitory Above’ or ‘Dormitory Over’. Dormitories were on the first floor, or second if you’re American, and haven’t tended to survive. Sadly, that means that I can’t show you any examples of extant dormitories. Some do exist, but not in the monasteries I’ve visited. That’s why my single photograph illustrating this post doesn’t even show a dormitory.

As I mentioned last week, another name for the dormitory is dorter, which is something else you might see on the signs. It had two sets of stairs: the night stairs leading into the abbey church and the day stairs. The latter usually came out into the cloister.

It was a long room, usually lit by a single light at night. All the monks slept in the same dormitory. One of the exceptions to this were the Cistercian houses where the lay brothers had a separate dormitory to the monks, in a different part of the monastic site. At Fountains Abbey, up to 400 lay brothers could sleep in the space provided. The other exception was the Carthusian order, whose monks slept in individual cells.

Privacy wasn’t much of a thing in the Middle Ages. Had it been, however, it’s unlikely that monks would have been permitted to enjoy it. Some orders did allow the dormitory to be partitioned into cubicles towards the end of the Middle Ages, but only the Carthusians allowed the monks their own cells for sleep.

These days, we’re encouraged to sleep in unheated bedrooms, but that was fairly unusual in the Middle Ages. In large houses and castles, the servants slept in the hall where there was usually a fire, and kings and lords slept in solars which also had a fire. In poorer houses people mostly slept in the same room as the fire or nearby. It must have been a shock for a monk to have to sleep in a room with no heating at all. Some dormitories were built over the day room, however, where there was at least one fire burning during the daytime in winter. The monks sleeping above it might have benefited from some residual heat.

In the early days of monasticism all the monks, including the abbot, slept in the dormitory, but that changed over the years. At first the abbot was allowed his own bedchamber; later he had a separate building to himself.

The monks removed only their outer garments for bed, sleeping in their habits. St. Benedict had prescribed that they sleep on a mattress with a blanket, a coverlet and a pillow.

Talking in the dormitory was forbidden and it was patrolled at night to ensure that the monks were quiet and that no illicit candles were burning. That would be the job of the circator, whom we met last week.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell


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, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

15 responses to “Anatomy of Monastery – The Dormitory

  1. I think it is correct that all levels should share within a religious order as they cite equality for all in the eyes of God.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is true that I prefer to sleep in an unseated room with a window open, but that is within a house with an insulated roof and walls, and has been heated all day. Plus I sleep under a nice warm quilt. Those dormitories must have been chilly! I suppose it warmed up a bit with all those people in it, but still-chilly, and just one coverlet? They were hardy. Thank you Too, for explaining why I have never seen a dormitory in ruins before, that all makes sense now.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Great info April,the only intact dormitory I know of up here is the one in Durham Cathedral which houses books and the like now, it has a gorgeous ceiling, but it was on the ground floor so I imagine that’s why it survived.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. When I was a youngster, interested in history and struck by anything in my reading that seemed particularly uncomfortable, painful or dangerous, my mother always used to say, “They bred ’em tough in those days”. It’s a line that came to mind when I read about the unheated dormitories – though I suppose woolen habits trapped a fair amount of body warmth.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for the US/UK story distinction! The monks were hardy fellows indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Anatomy of Monastery – The Dormitory — A Writer’s Perspective – sidewalk monastic

  7. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library | A Writer's Perspective

  8. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbot’s Lodgings | A Writer's Perspective

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