History Podcasts

Medieval Monastery

Medieval Monastery

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

A medieval monastery was an enclosed and sometimes remote community of monks led by an abbot who shunned worldly goods to live a simple life of prayer and devotion. Christian monasteries first developed in the 4th century in Egypt and Syria and by the 5th century the idea had spread to Western Europe.

Such figures as Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. c. 543), the founder of the Benedictine order, established rules by which the monks should live and these were, to various degrees, imitated and followed in subsequent centuries, including in those monasteries which survive today. Although their members were poor, the monasteries themselves were rich and powerful institutions, gathering wealth from land and property donated to them. Monasteries were also important centres of learning which educated the young, and, perhaps most significantly for today's historians, laboriously produced books and preserved ancient texts which have greatly enhanced our knowledge of not only the medieval world but also classical antiquity.


Origins & Development

From the 3rd century CE there developed a trend in Egypt and Syria which saw some Christians decide to live the life of a solitary hermit or ascetic. They did this because they thought that without any material or worldly distractions they would achieve a greater understanding of and closeness to God. In addition, whenever early Christians were persecuted they were sometimes forced by necessity to live in remote mountain areas where the essentials of life were lacking. As these individualists grew in number some of them began to live together in communities, continuing, though, to cut themselves off from the rest of society and devoting themselves entirely to prayer and the study of scriptures. Initially, members of these communities lived together in a place known as a lavra where they continued their solitary lives and only gathered together for religious services. Their leader, an abba (hence the later 'abbot') presided over these individualists – they were called monachos in Greek for that reason, which derived from mono meaning 'one', and which is the origin of the word 'monk'.

One of the earliest ascetics to begin organising monasteries where monks lived more communally was Pachomios (c. 290-346), an Egyptian and former soldier who, perhaps inspired by the efficiency of Roman army camps, founded nine monasteries for men and two for women at Tabennisi in Egypt. These first communal (cenobitic) monasteries were administered following a list of rules compiled by Pachomios, and this style of communal living (koinobion), where monks lived, worked, and worshipped together in a daily routine, with all property held in common, and an abbot administering them, became the common model in the Byzantine period.

The next step on the road to the type of monastery that became standard during the Middle Ages was made by Basil of Caesarea (aka Saint Basil or Basil the Great, c. 330-c. 379) in the 4th century. Basil had seen for himself the monasteries in Egypt and Syria and he sought to reproduce them across the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. Basil added an extra dimension with his belief that monks should not only work together for common goals but also contribute to the wider community. Byzantine monasteries were independent organisations with their own set of rules and regulations for brother monks.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

The Benedictine Order

From the 5th century CE the idea of monasteries spread across the Byzantine Empire and then to Western Europe where they adopted their own distinct practices based on the teachings of the Italian abbot Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 543), regarded as the founder of the European monastery model. Benedict himself founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy. The Benedictine order encouraged its members to live as simple a life as possible with simple food, basic accommodation and as few possessions as was practical. The monks were expected to live together in a shared community of mutual aid and watchfulness, participating in the physical labour needed to make the monastery economically self-sufficient as well as undertake religious studies and prayer. There was a set of regulations – collectively known as the monastic Rule (regula) – that monks had to follow, although their severity and practical application was largely down to the individual abbots who ruled with absolute authority in each monastery. Women too could live the monastic life as nuns in abbeys and nunneries.

Greatly helped by tax relief and donations, monasteries grew in sophistication and wealth, so as the Middle Ages wore on physical labour became less of a necessity for monks because they could now rely on the efforts of lay brothers, hired labourers of serfs (unfree labourers). Consequently, monks in the High Middle Ages were able to spend more time on scholarly pursuits, particularly in producing such medieval monastic specialties as illuminated manuscripts.

The Cistercian Order

From the 11th century new orders began to appear, most notably the Cistercian order (formed in 1098), largely because some monks wanted an even stricter lifestyle for themselves than the Benedictines could offer. The Cistercian order put much more emphasis on religious studies and minimised the physical labour monks were expected to perform. Such labour as working the monastery's agricultural lands or baking bread was done, instead, by hired labour or lay brothers who were not full monks. In keeping with their more severe lifestyle, Cistercian monasteries were also located in more remote locations than Benedictine ones and had plain buildings with a minimum of carved stonework, interior decorations, and even comforts.

From the 13th century, there developed another branch of the ascetic life consisting of friars who rejected all material goods and lived not in monastic communities but as individuals entirely dependent on the handouts of well-wishers. Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1260) famously established a mendicant (begging) order, the Franciscans, which was then imitated by the Dominicans (c. 1220) and subsequently by the Carmelites (late 12th century) and Augustinians (1244).

Daily Life

Monasteries varied greatly in size with the smaller ones having only a dozen or so monks and perhaps being led by a prior instead of an abbot. Larger ones such as Cluny Abbey in France (founded c. 910), boasted 460 monks at its peak in the 12th century but around 100 brothers seems to have been a typical number for most monasteries. The abbot was selected by the senior monks and had the job for life. He was assisted by a prior and those monks that were given specific administrative duties, the obedientiaries, who looked after various aspects of the monastery such as the church, religious services, the library, income from estates, the food stores or the wine cellar. The abbot represented the monastery in the outside world, for instance at gatherings of the order or at meetings concerned with the management of the monastery's estates.

Ordinary monks lived simple lives, of course. With monks usually not being permitted to leave the monastery, their day was spent on agricultural tasks and religious studies which included reading set texts, copying books to create new illuminated manuscripts, teaching oblates (young males) or novices (trainee monks), and saying prayers (which was officially classified as 'work' or rather 'God's work'). The day, and even the night, was regularly punctuated by religious services and the morning chapter meeting when all the monks met to discuss the affairs of the monastery. Expected to go about their business mostly in silence, wear simple rough clothing and forgo all but the most basic items of personal property, the monks' one perk was decent food and drink throughout the year, taken in one main meal each day (or two in winter).

The heart of the monastery was the cloister, an arcade around an open square space.

The Monastery's Buildings

Monasteries varied in size and so their need for certain buildings differed. Indeed, sometimes geography dictated architecture such as with the remote mountain-top monasteries at Meteora in Greece or the Benedictine abbey on the tidal islet of Mont-Saint-Michel in France. However, many did share essential architectural features and the ground plans at the heart of a European monastery were remarkably consistent throughout the Middle Ages. Monasteries often had high encircling walls but whether these were primarily aimed at keeping ordinary people out or the monks in is a moot point. Access from outside was through the main gate.

The heart of the monastery was the cloister: an arcade around an open square space. Access to the cloister was usually restricted and nobody outside the monastic community was permitted to enter it without permission. The cloister was one of the few areas the monks could talk freely and here the novices were taught and chores were done such as sharpening one's knife on the monastery's whetstone or washing clothing in large stone basins.

Adjoining the cloister was the church with a belfry tower, important for calling the monks to service. There were storehouses, extensive cellars for food and wine storage, and perhaps stables, too. There was a chapter house for the daily general meeting, a library and, facing south for the best light, a scriptorium where the books were made by the monks. Communal meals were taken in the refectory with its long wooden dining tables. Adjoining the refectory were kitchens, a bakery and a garden where vegetables and herbs were grown and fish were kept in a pond. Also next to the refectory was the calefectory, the only heated room in the monastery (besides the kitchens), where monks could go and warm themselves up for a short while in winter. There were separate dormitories for the monks, the oblates, and the novices.

Beyond the cloister were ancillary buildings which depended on the size of the monastery. There might be an infirmary for the aged and sick with its own kitchens. The lay brothers lived in their own accommodation block, typically in an outer courtyard, which usually had its own kitchen as there food could be prepared that the monks were not allowed to eat. There might be an additional accommodation building for travellers and workshops where certain skilled workers such as tailors, goldsmiths or glazers worked. There could also be a cemetery for the monks only and another one for important lay locals.

The sanitation of a fair-sized monastery was amongst the best to be found anywhere in the medieval world. Cluny had a latrine block with an impressive 45 cubicles which emptied into a drainage channel through which ran water diverted from a nearby stream. There might also be a bathhouse in the larger monasteries, even if frequent bathing was frowned upon as an unnecessary luxury for monks.

Monasterial Power

A large monastery was much like a medieval castle or manor house in that it controlled a surrounding area of land and essentially contained all the elements one would find in a small village of the period. In the manorial system of Europe, land was typically parcelled out into areas known as manors – the smallest estate which had a few hundred acres and so was capable of providing an income to a lord and his family. A monastery acquired manors through donations and so could end up managing many disparate estates with their income all flowing into the monastery's coffers. Other donations might include properties in towns or even churches and so more cash came from rents and tithes. The rich made such donations to increase their local prestige; it is not coincidental that in England and Wales, for example, 167 castles and monasteries were built next to each other between the 11th-15th century. In addition, by helping to establish a monastery a lord could benefit materially from its produce and could perhaps safeguard his soul in the next life, both through the action of his donation and the quota of prayers said in his name as a result of it. Added to their income from donations, land rents and the sale of goods produced from such land, many monasteries raked in money from holding markets and producing craft-goods, while some even had the right to mint their own coinage

Monasteries, as institutions full of educators and scholars, also proved useful tools to the state. Monarchs frequently used monks, with their skills in Latin and document-making, in their royal writing offices or a monastery itself performed that function. We know, for example, that Winchombe monastery in Gloucestershire, England and the abbey of Saint-Wandrille near Rouen in France, were used as a royal archive in the 9th century for their respective kingdoms. In addition, large monasteries educated the aristocracy and often had specialised teaching facilities such as at Whitby Abbey in North-East England, which educated a long line of bishops and counted Saint John of Beverley (d. 721) amongst its alumni.

Community Role & Legacy

A monastery provided local communities with spiritual guidance; very often its church was for wider public use, it gave employment, and its monks provided education, safe-guarded holy relics, entertained the pilgrims who came to visit, looked after orphans, the sick and aged, and daily gave out food, drink and alms to the poor. Monks produced and copied countless invaluable historical documents such as religious treatises, biographies of saints and regional histories. Their illuminated manuscripts have gained global renown and include such surviving masterpieces as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monasteries sponsored the arts, especially the production of frescoes and mosaics both inside the monastery and the wider world in order to spread the Christian message. Monasteries were vital (if not always successful) protectors of art and historical documents, too, especially in times of turmoil such as warfare, Viking raids or heresies like iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries CE when religious art was ruthlessly destroyed and seen as blasphemous. Due to these efforts, we can today read texts not only from medieval times but also antiquity thanks to the labour of copyist monks and the monasteries which preserved those texts.

Monasteries were such thriving and stable communities that many of them acquired a periphery of domestic and functional buildings where people permanently lived and worked to provide the monks with what they required. Consequently, many towns today are situated where they are because a monastery was once located there. Finally, there are many still-functioning medieval monasteries such as the ones at Meteora or Mount Athos in Greece, which are themselves a living connection with the past and which continue to provide assistance to society's most needy.

Medieval Monastery

Medieval Monastery
The Medieval monastery was established during the Middle Ages. The first type of Medieval monastery adhered to the Benedictine Rule, established by St. Benedict in 529AD. Different orders of monks were also established during the Middle Ages. The major orders of Medieval monks were the Benedictines, the Cistercians and the Carthusians. These monastic orders differed mainly in the details of their religious observation and how strictly they applied their rules. In the twelfth century four hundred and eighteen monasteries were founded in England in the next century, only about a third as many. In the fourteenth, only twenty-three monasteries were founded in England.

Medieval Monasteries

Thanks to the devotion of medieval people, monasteries in medieval England were even richer than kings and took over the running of the church.

One of the reasons monasteries were so rich was the free labour provided to them by locals, who would work on the church land due to their belief that this would help them avoid Hell and enter Heaven upon death.

In addition, medieval people would pay the church for baptisms, marriage and funerals, and would also provide a tithe - a tenth of their family’s annual earnings. As a result of these regular payments from vast numbers of people, the church was incredibly wealthy and gained a huge amount of land on which to construct monasteries.

Fountains Abbey Monastery

As with church, the monastic land was worked by locals for free. Historians believe the monasteries were aware that they were taking advantage of people’s beliefs by working them for their benefit, but it is thought that the monks living and working at the monasteries genuinely believed this labour was the only way to salvation for locals.

However, many monasteries did provide a number of duties for their communities, including having monks deliver healthcare in their own hospital. A number of monasteries also provided education centres such as Lindisfarne, which became well known for the cultured and reverent monks living there. In fact, it was only the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities that provided greater education during this time.

Map of a Medieval Monastery

Note: not all the places listed are visible on this plan.

1 Abbot or Prior's house
2 Almonry - where alms in the form of food or money were distributed to the needy by the almoner
3 Bakehouse
4 Brew House
5 Buttery The word has nothing to do with "butter", but comes from old French "boterie" and the Latin "botaria", meaning "cask or bottle". The buttery was a storage area for ale and wine.
6 Calefactory - a warming room
7 Cellarium - A storeroom, often underground
8 Cemetary
9 Chapels
10 Chapter House - the meeting rooms for the administrative body of the monastery. In England the chapter house was usually polygon-shaped, with a sharply pointed roof.
11 Church - usually the first part of the monastery top be completed in stone.
12 Cloister - an open area, often grassed, sometimes with a fountain in the centre.
13 Corn mill
14 Dormitory - often called "dorter" from the French "dortoir", the sleeping quarters of the monks.
15 Farm
16 Fish ponds
17 Fraterhouse - Sometimes called "frater" or "refectory" - the dining area.
18 Garden
19 Garderobes - latrines.
20 Guest Houses
21 Infirmary - the sickroom of the monastery, often with its own chapel and kitchens.
22 Kitchen - the kitchen was generally in a separate building because of the risk of fire.
23 Lay brothers dormitory - the lay brother was not a full-fledged monk. He took religious vows, but focused on a life of manual work, allowing the monks to spend more time in scholarship and contemplation.
24 Library - the precious books and manuscripts of the monastery were often chained to desks, so valuable were they.
25 Locutory - a room for conversation, also a place where monks might meet with people from the outside world.
26 Night Stairs - permitted passage from the dortoir to the church for night services.
27 Piggery
28 Prison cells - a monk or lay brother might be confined in a cell for major transgressions.
29 Quarry
30 Reredorter - Small rooms at the rear of the dorter (dormitory) with seats and running water.
31 Smithy - Located away from the main buildings because of the risk of fire.
32 Stables
33 Workshops

Medieval Monasticism as Preserver of Western Civilization

The term “Dark Ages” was once erroneously applied to the entire millennium separating late antiquity from the Italian Renaissance (500-1500 AD). Today’s scholars know better. There is a widespread acknowledgment among them (see David Knowles’ The Evolution of Medieval Thought, London: Longman, 1988) that the 14th century i.e., the century of Dante and Petrarca’s Humanism, not only was not part of the Dark Ages but was the essential precursor of the Italian Renaissance. It was the century when ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts preserved in monasteries were discovered and read and discussed once again thus paving the way for the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity which, in synthesis with Christianity, produces a unique new civilization.

Scholars have also become aware that the High Middle Ages (the first three centuries of the second millennium) were far from dark and intellectually retrograde. Those were the centuries of the cathedrals which still stand there as monuments to an incredibly complex and enlightened civilization, despite the designation of “gothic” as a disparaging term, the equivalent of retrograde and uncivilized, by Voltaire. As the founder of the European Union Robert Schuman used to quip: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” That statement is revealing and throws light on the fact that those centuries may have shaped the very identity of Modern Western European civilization. We ignore them at the risk of forever losing our cultural identity which, even for a great many Americans, is rooted in Western Europe.

But there is more scholars keep pushing further back the designation “Dark Ages” and have now excluded from it the eight, ninth and tenth centuries (the era of the so called Carolingian Renaissance, from 700 to 1000 AD). So the dubious distinction of Dark Ages, properly speaking, belongs to the sixth and seventh centuries (500 to 700 AD) which indeed were centuries of meager fruits in education, literary output and other cultural indicators. Those were the centuries of cultural retrogression, the centuries of the Barbarian invasions in Italy and elsewhere which effectively wrecked Roman civilization as we know it. Those invasions destroyed cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, institutions such as law, government, you name. It was in fact the Church that stepped in the vacuum and maintained a modicum of order within a crumbling civilization. As Christopher Dawson aptly writes: “The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.”

How was this accomplished? By the establishment of Western monasticism by St. Benedict of Nursia at Montecassino Italy (some fifty miles south of Rome) in 529 AD. St. Benedict’s immediate intention was not to do great deeds for European civilization but that was the result. At its height the Benedictine order boasted 37,000 monasteries throughout Europe. No wonder St. Benedicts has been declared the patron saint of Europe and the present Pope assumed his name at his elevation to the Papacy.

Besides praying and working out their salvation and preaching the gospel, what else did monks pursue in those monasteries? The practical arts, agriculture were two of their most significant enterprises. They literally saved agriculture in Europe. They taught the folks how to cultivate the land, especially in Germany where they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country. Manual labor was intrinsic part of their rule which proclaimed “ora et labora” (pray and work). In England they owned one fifth of all its cultivable land. The monks would introduce crops, industries and production methods with which the people were not yet familiar: the rearing and breeding of cattle, horses, the brewing of beer, the raising of bees and fruits. The corn trade in Sweden was established by the monks, in Parma it was cheese making, in Ireland salmon fisheries, and in many places vineyards.

From the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin the monks redirected the waters of St. Gervais and Belleville to Paris. They taught people irrigation on the plains of Lombardy which has always been some of the richest and most productive in Europe. They constructed technologically sophisticated water-powered systems at monasteries which were hundred of miles away from each other. The monasteries themselves were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe. Water-power was used to crush wheat, sieving flour, making cloth, and tanning. Not even the Roman world had adopted mechanization for industrial use to such an extent.

The monks were also known for their skills in metallurgy. In the 13th century they became the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France. They quarried marble, did glass-work, forged metal plates, mined salt. They were skilful clock-makers. One such clock installed in Magdeburg around 996 AD is the first ever. Another sits in excellent condition in London’s science museum. They also made astronomical clocks. One such was at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Alban it was designed by Abbot Richard of Wallingford. In short, monastic know-how pervaded Europe thus preventing a complete reverting to barbarism.

But there was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of the copying of ancient manuscripts. It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: those were rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.

The other place where the survival of manuscripts had priority were the schools associated with the medieval cathedrals. It was those schools of medieval times which lay the groundwork for the first University established at Bologna Italy in the eleventh century. The Church had already made some outstanding original contributions in the field of philosophy and theology (the various Church fathers among whom Plautinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Don Scotus) but she was also saving books and documents which resulted indispensable later on for the preserving of Western civilization.
The best know of those scholars of the Dark Ages was Alcuin, a polyglot theologian who worked closely with Charlemagne to restore study and scholarship in the whole of West-Central Europe. In describing the holdings of his library at York he mentions works by Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, Virgil. In his correspondence he mentions Horace, Ovid, Terence. And he was not alone. The abbot of Ferrieres (c. 805-862) Lupus quotes Cicero, Horace, Martial, Seutonius, and Virgil. The abbot of Fleury (c. 950-1104) demonstrated familiarity with Horace, Sallust, Terence, Virgil.

The greatest of abbots after Benedict, Desiderius, who eventually became Pope Victor III in 1086, personally oversaw the transcription of Horace and Seneca, Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and Ovid’s Fasti. His friend Archbishop Alfano (also a former monk at Montecassino) was familiar with the works of ancient writers quoting from Apuleius, Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Varro, Virgil. He himself wrote poetry imitating Ovid and Horace. Saint Anselm, as abbot of Bec, commended Virgil and other classical writers to his students.

The other great scholar of the so called Dark Ages was Gerbert of Aurillac who later became Pope Sylvester II. He taught logic but also ancient literature: Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Persius, Terence, Statius, Virgil. Then there is St. Hildebert who practically knew Horace by heart. Thus it is a great fallacy to assert that the Church encouraged the destruction of ancient pagan culture. To the contrary she helped preserve that culture which would have otherwise been lost.

There were monasteries, moreover, which specialized in other fields of knowledge besides literature. There were lectures in medicine by the monks of St. Benignus at Dijon, in painting and engraving at Saint Gall, in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic in certain German monasteries. Some monks after learning all they could in their own monastery would then travel to other monastic schools established during the Carolingian Renaissance. For instance Abbot Fleury went on to study philosophy and astronomy at Paris and Rheims.

Montecassino, the mother monastery, underwent a revival in the eleventh century which scholars now consider “the most dramatic single event in the history of Latin scholarship in the 11th century” (see Scribes and Scholars by L. D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, 1991). Because of this revival manuscripts which would have been forever lost were preserved: The Annals and Histories of Tacitus, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De Lingua Latina, Frontius De Aquis and thirty odd lines of Juvenal’s satire that are not found in any other manuscript in the world.

The devotion to books of those monks was so extraordinary that they would travel far and wide in search or rare manuscripts. St. Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth monastery in England, traveled widely on five sea voyages for that purpose. Lupus asked a fellow abbot permission to transcribe Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars and asked another friend to bring him Sallust’s accounts of the Catilinarian and Jugurthan Wars, the Verrines of Cicero and De Republica. He borrowed Cicero’s De Rhetorica and wrote to the Pope for a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintillian’s Institutiones, and other texts. Gerbert assisted another abbot in completing incomplete copies of Cicero’s and the philosopher Demosthenes. A monk of Muri said it all: “Without study and without books, the life of a monk is nothing.” So, we would not be far off the mark in asserting unequivocally that Western civilization’s admiration for the written word and the classics of antiquity have come to us via the Catholic Church which preserved them through the barbarian invasions.

Although education was not universal, many of the nobility were sent to monastery schools to be educated. One such as Thomas Aquinas who was educated by the monks of Montecassino before joining the Dominican order. St. Benedict himself instructed the sons of Roman nobles. St. Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany the same was done by St. Augustine and his monks in England and St. Patrick in Ireland. Irish monasteries developed as great centers of learning and transcription of manuscripts.

It was the monk’s commitment to reading, writing, and education which ensured the survival of Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the Barbarians. They laid the foundations for European universities and became the bridge between antiquity and modernity. Admittedly this is a mere cursory survey of a vast subject but hopefully it renders the idea.

A final footnote, for all it’s worth. The monastery of Montecassino was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The last time it was destroyed it was not by the barbarians of old but by super-civilized, super-enlightened modern man fighting a destructive war. It was raised to the ground by American bombers in 1944 under orders from an English general. The declared strategic objective was to dislodge the Germans who were thought to have taken refuge in the monastery (which turned out not to be the case). The result was that the Germans found the ruins of the monastery a more ideal place from which to continue the conflict. It would be safe to assume that neither the English general nor the bombers had read Virgil or Seneca and were aware of the cultural heritage they were about to destroy. One is left to wonder if Vico’s description of the “barbarism of the intellect,” which he considered more sinister than physical material barbarism of old, is indeed an appropriate designation for such a sad event. Be that as it may, the monastery, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, has since been rebuilt as a replica and it stands there on the hill beckoning the busy traveler on the autostrada del sole to come and rest in an oasis of peace and reason, beauty and truth.


Add to favorites

Founded in the early 7th century – re-organised substantially in the 11th/12th centuries
Founded by St Kevin (Cóemgen)
Also known as Gleann-Dá-Locha (the valley of the two lakes)

The Place

Glendalough, an extensive monastic complex, is located in a glacial valley consisting of two lakes (the Upper and Lower Lakes) which explains the Irish place name Gleann dá Locha ‘the valley of the two lakes’. This is an archaeologically and architecturally rich landscape that is matched by a wealth of historical documents. Evidence for human activity in the valley possibly goes as far back as the Neolithic Period. Recent excavations have uncovered industrial activity that may be contemporary with St Kevin’s reputed foundation of a ‘monastery’ around 600AD. Glendalough is one of the most important medieval ecclesiastical landscapes in Ireland and since the nineteenth century one of Ireland’s premier tourist attractions.

St Kevin (d. 618/622AD) is reputed to have founded Glendalough in the late 6 th or early 7 th century as a place of retreat from the world. His name Cóemgen ‘fair birth’ and those of his close relatives, all of whom include cóem ‘fair’ in their names, suggest that the life of the real St Kevin was enhanced by adding mythology to history, as was often the case with early Irish saints. Historically, St Kevin and Glendalough belonged to the royal dynasty of Dál Messin Corb who held lands from the Wicklow Mountains to the coast. Many churches with saints of the Dál Messin Corb in the region maintained links with Glendalough to the 12 th century. The medieval lives of St Kevin portray him as a hermit and a miracle-worker. A tradition of anchorites retreating from the world, possibly to the Upper Lake, was maintained in Glendalough during this early period. St Kevin’s miracles often portray him as close to nature, a characteristic described by the Anglo-Norman Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his description of Ireland written in the 1180s.

Glendalough was one of the main pilgrimage attractions of medieval Ireland. According to the life of St Kevin, to be buried in Glendalough was as good as being buried in Rome. Such a claim attracted the pious and the powerful and historical death notices and inscribed grave slabs record the deaths of kings, queens and ecclesiastics in Glendalough. As a centre of learning, its scholars produced manuscripts in Irish and Latin, including medieval astronomical and mathematical texts and chronicles. Pilgrims routes crossed the mountains, often marked by crosses or more elaborate markers such as the Hollywood Stone found in West Wicklow and now on display in the Glendalough Visitor Centre.

Glendalough reached its most powerful period between 1000 and 1150AD during the reigns of the Irish kings Muirchertach Ua Briain (of Munster), Diarmait mac Murchada (of Leinster) and Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair (of Connacht), all of whom had ambitions to be kings of Ireland. The most famous abbot of Glendalough Lorcán Ua Tuathail (Laurence O’Toole) became first archbishop of Dublin and died in Eu, France in 1180. All of these individuals were involved somehow in re-organizing the ecclesiastical settlement and in constructing the stone buildings that survive to the present day. Glendalough competed with Dublin and Kildare to become the most important church in Leinster and once it lost that position and was subsumed in 1215 into the Dublin diocese, it not only lost a privileged status but also its lands to new foundations such as the Augustinian foundation of Holy Trinity in Dublin.

Why visit here?

Glendalough has attracted pilgrims and visitors over many centuries for its hallowed surroundings, its traditions and its stunning scenery. A remarkable collection of ruined medieval churches is spread out over 3km along the valley. As a relatively unaltered group of up to nine Romanesque or earlier churches, it is unique in Ireland and Britain. It graveyard reflects the close ties between the church and the local community with families buried there for many generations.

Glendalough is located within the Wicklow National Park, a beautiful, largely untouched mountainous landscape of 20,000 hectares. There are a variety of hikes that you can do, ranging from a stroll around the lake to more strenuous 11km hikes. A trail guide is available from the Visitor Centre for a small charge and walking tours are run by local operators.

A 3D tour of the landscape

Click the image to explore Glendalough – a 3D Icon

What happened here?

Late 6th/Early 7th Century: The first monastery was founded at this site by St Kevin. A hermitage was located near the Upper Lake.

618 or 622: The reputed dates of St Kevin’s death.

7th to 12th centuries: The Irish annals record long lists of abbots, bishops, men of learning and other officials of Glendalough. Many of them belonged to families from the wider locality who maintained their noble status by holding onto monastic positions.

11 th century: Glendalough was attacked and burned on numerous occasions. While the surviving buildings at Glendalough are stone, early churches in Ireland were generally built of perishable materials such as timber, post-and-wattle or clay until the tenth century so that while fire would have been very destructive re-building would have been relatively easy.

1085: Gilla na Náem, bishop of Glendalough died, having become a Benedictine monk in Germany and later head of the monks at Wurzburg.

1111: At the Synod of Ráth Breasail, Glendalough was named as one of the five bishoprics of Leinster.

1128: Gilla Pátraic, coarb of Coemgen (‘successor of St Kevin’) was murdered

1152: Dublin was chosen one of the four archbishoprics of Ireland at the Synod of Kells, depriving Glendalough and Kildare of their privileged status in Leinster.

1162: O’Toole was named successor to Gilla na Náem but refused the honour. He was elected archbishop of Dublin in 1162. He died in Eu in Normandy in 1180 and was canonised in 1225.

1213: King John I of England made a grant of all the bishopric of Glendalough to the archbishop of Dublin. It was confirmed by Pope Innocent III in 1216, resulting in Glendalough becoming an archdeaconry in the diocese of Dublin and no longer a bishopric.

1398: Glendalough was burnt by the English.

15th century: As the English colony around the Pale lost territory in and around the Wicklow Mountains, attempts were made to revive the bishopric of Glendalough. A Dominican named Denis White held the title of Bishop of Glendalough from 1481 until 1497 when he made a formal renunciation of his rights in Dublin.

17th century: All the churches were in ruin and roofless when visited after the Dissolution.

Up to 19th century: Glendalough was still in use for its Pattern Day(patron saint’s day) celebrations and pilgrimages on 3rd June, St Kevin’s feast day. In 1862, this practice was ended by Cardinal Cullen, archbishop of Dublin (d. 1878) due to the superstitious practices of the pilgrims and the disreputable secular elements.

“The Patron (The Festival of Saint Kevin at the Seven Churches, Glendalough)” by Joseph Peacock (c.1783–1837), Ulster Museum (Image credit: National Museums Northern Ireland)

An account of the Pattern Day at Glendalough in 1779 by Gabriel Beranger paints quite a scene!

People “often spent a large portion of the night walking among the ruins, where an immense crowd usually had bivouaced [camped] … throughout the space of the sacred enclosure. As soon as daylight dawned, the tumbling torrent over the rocks and stones of the Glendasan river to the north of the churches became crowded with penitents wading, walking, and kneeling up St. Kevin’s Keeve, many of them holding little children in their arms … The guides arranged the penitential routes, or conducted tourists round the ruins …

Dancing, drinking, thimble-rigging, prick-o’-the-loop, and other amusements, even while the bare-headed venerable pilgrims, and bare-kneed voteens were going their prescribed rounds, continued…

Towards evening the fun became fast and furious the pilgrimages ceased, the dancing was arrested, the pipers and fiddlers escaped to places of security, the keepers of tents and booths looked to their gear, the crowd thickened, the brandishing of sticks, the ” hoshings” and ” wheelings,” and “hieings” for their respective parties showed that the faction fight was about to commence among the tombstones and monuments, and that all religious observances, and even refreshments were at an end…”

From the Memoir of Gabriel Beranger, and His Labours in the Cause of Irish Art, Literature, and Antiquities from 1760 to 1780, edited by William Wilde (1873)

Medieval Monasteries

Medieval monastic houses -whether for monks or nuns- needed to be endowed with land. Large abbeys often sent out groups of monks to establish a new monastic foundation rather like a strawberry plant sending out a runner to create lots more strawberry plants.

Groups of monks might be sent to look after land that was some distance from the mother house. These groups of monks, or nuns, were called cells (not to be confused with a small room where an individual monk or nun might sleep). Eventually if they became large enough they would be described as a priory. They might even grow to abbey sized proportions. On other occasions groups of monks or nuns might be sent with the specific purpose of building a new abbey if there was a sufficient endowment of land for that purpose. Abbeys might also found priories for nuns. These nuns would be dependent upon the mother-house for spiritual direction and for the way in which the rules were administered.

Whilst the monks in the cell, priory or even abbey looked to the original mother-house for spiritual guidance they would be referred to as a daughter house. Some mother houses even had granddaughter houses. Martin Heale has researched the extent to which daughter houses were expected to send some of their income back to the mother house. Interestingly, Heale also comments that the mother house did not expect to support the daughter house. They were required to be financially independent.

Sometimes a monastic house couple begin life belonging to one order but for one reason or another the abbey might be refounded by another order. Reading Abbey was founded as a Cluniac Abbey but was refounded at a later date as a Benedictine Abbey.

This page is an on-going project. I intend to list all abbeys in England and Wales that I come across as I continue my reading.

Click on the image for each order to open a new page containing the a list of monastic houses in alphabetical order with some additional information.


The so-called ‘Black Monks’ because of their habits were the first Roman order of monks to arrive in England.

What was medieval monasticism and what spiritual benefits did it offer to the medieval world?

Monasticism in Western Europe reached its zenith during the High Middle Ages of the late eleventh century and early twelfth century. Coming out of the ascetic tradition of the Desert Fathers at the end of the third century, monasticism grew to become a highly influential movement with centres of worship and learning throughout medieval Europe. In this paper I will describe the development of medieval monasticism and consider the spiritual benefits that it offered to men and women both inside and outside monastic communities. I will not provide a comprehensive analysis of the benefits. Instead I will look at examples from the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and manual work. I will conclude with a reflection on what spiritual benefit monasticism might offer the life of the church today.

Medieval monasticism

Christian monasticism originated in the ascetic practices of hermits and anchorites who withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude and prayer in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine during the third century.[1] The word monk is derived from the Greek word μόνος (mónos) meaning ‘alone.’[2] Jerome (c.347–420) stated that the first Christian anchorites were fleeing persecution under the Roman emperors.[3] He described those who lived this austere life as white martyrs, in contrast to the red martyrdom of those who died in the persecution.[4] Other commentators argue that asceticism was a way to prove their dedication to Christ when persecution had largely been replaced by tolerance following the conversion of Constantine.[5] The quest for spiritual perfection by withdrawing from the world came from the example of Christ.[6] Two strands of ascetical life developed during the fourth century which would later inspire and reinvigorate medieval monastic organisation.[7] Firstly, the eremitical life, as followed by the desert hermits under the inspiration of Antony (c.251–356) and secondly the cenobitical life within a community, originated by Pachomius (c.292–346).[8] Pachomius organised men’s and women’s monasteries in upper Egypt with colonies of several hundred monks and nuns under him as their abbot and living according to a rule.[9]

B. The spread of monasticism

Monasticism spread in the Eastern provinces during the fourth century and by the beginning of the fifth century accounts of the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers became available to Christians in Western Europe, including the Life of St. Antony by Athanasius (c.296–373) and the Conferences of Scythian monk John Cassian (c.360–435).[10] Leaving his Bethlehem monastery in about 385, Cassian travelled across Egypt visiting communities and learning from the anchorite abbots.[11] He later settled in Gaul where he founded monasteries for men and women based on these communities and wrote the Conferences, a collection of the reflections and experiences of the Egyptian abbots, and also the Institutes, which was the first teaching on cenobitic life in Western Europe.[12] Cassian thought the eremitic life was a higher calling and viewed the cenobitic life as for beginners. Although he acknowledged that communal living guarded the monk from the dangers of vanity and it ensured self-will was eradicated because he had to be subject to the abbot (Conference XIX).[13] Cassian thus established that communal life was an end in itself as a means of perfection.[14] Cassian’s writings became required reading for monks and shaped much of Western monasticism into the Middle Ages.[15] During the fifth century, monasticism became firmly established in Gaul and Italy and it began to be integrated into the institutional church under the patronage and protection of bishops.[16] By 600 there were at least 220 monasteries and convents in Gaul and around 100 in Italy.[17]

The life of a monk or nun was governed by the rule that was observed in his or her monastery. Initially these were based on the strict asceticism of the cenobitic communities in Egypt, such as those of Pachomius. Benedict of Nursia[18] (c.480–550) developed a less harsh rule, which he adapted from the Regula Magistri (Rule of the Master), following his experiences as abbot at monasteries in Subiaco and Monte Cassino.[19] The Regula Magistri was written by an unknown abbot, referred to as the Master, probably in a monastery near Rome in about 500.[20] Gregory the Great (c.540–604) wrote an account on the life of Benedict which helped to popularise Benedict and his Rule.[21] Gregory described Benedict as ‘a man whose life was worthy of veneration … and blessed by grace.’[22] He relates how Benedict was a hermit in a cave in Subiaco for three years when a group of monks pleaded for him to become their abbot.[23] A reluctant Benedict relented and introduced a rule which the errant monks found too strict and as a result tried to poison him.[24] He returned to his cave and later founded twelve monasteries in the region each of twelve monks.[25] In 530 Benedict moved to Monte Cassino and founded a large monastery and it was here that he wrote the Rule.[26] It was both a practical guide to the governance of a cenobitic community and an instruction for the spiritual life of a monk.[27] The Rule ordered the day with regular times for prayer, manual work and study, though not as harsh or burdensome as the Eastern ascetic practices.[28] The most important task was the communal prayer Benedict called opus dei (work of God) that took place eight times a day between 2 a.m. and sunset.[29] Monks studied the Bible and books by and about the Church Fathers, including the works of Cassian, by lectio divina (divine reading).[30] Benedict wanted to create a ‘scola,’ more like a military academy than a school or retreat centre, where monks could prepare for spiritual warfare.[31] In addition to the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Benedict added a fourth vow of stability in order to encourage monks to stay within their community.[32] At the time of Benedict’s death his Rule was only observed at Monte Cassino and it was not until later that it spread to other monasteries in Europe, in part due to the role played by Gregory.[33]

D. The growth of monasticism

Other forms of monasticism had developed elsewhere in Europe. In Britain and Ireland Celtic monasticism took root inspired by missionaries in the fifth and sixth centuries.[34] Drawing on the eremitical tradition the Celtic monasteries spread in northern Britain often in isolated areas under the strict Rule of Columbanus. [35] In the seventh century, many monasteries in Gaul and Spain followed the ‘mixed rule’ of Benedict and Columbanus.[36] Double monasteries also developed in Gaul with separate communities of men and women living in the same establishment.[37] Often this would be under an abbess with the monks providing the priests and helping with manual tasks.[38] During this period monastic schools were established, replacing the ancient systems of education following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.[39] Under the patronage of kings and emperors, monasticism continued to flourish throughout Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries with the Benedictine Rule becoming dominant.[40]

With growth came wealth and influence as monasteries accumulated land and endowments from benefactors.[41] Consequently the social composition of monasteries began to change and by the ninth century most monks in the larger communities came from noble birth.[42] The characteristics of monastic life also changed in some communities with opus manuum (manual work) being carried out by servants and tenants and more elaborate prayer performed by increasingly clerical monks.[43] Sometimes observance of the rule became lax and political instability in parts of Europe saw monasteries under attack by Viking, Magyar and Saracen invaders.[44] Many attempts were made to reform monasticism and revive a stricter observance of the Rule. In 909 Duke William of Aquitaine (875–918) founded a monastery at Cluny in Burgundy.[45] The Cluniac Order became the most influential force in the reform of monasticism for the following two centuries, building many new monasteries and reforming older communities based on the Benedictine Rule and answerable only to the Pope.[46] Cluny inspired other Benedictine revivals in the tenth century centred on Glastonbury and Abingdon in England and Gorze in Germany.[47]

By the eleventh century the elaborate Benedictine tradition that was practiced at Cluny was viewed as having departed too far from the desert asceticism of the early church and there was a desire to return to the vita apostolica (apostolic life).[48] The Carthusian order, named after the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France, were an eremitical movement formed in 1084 that were characterised by their solitude and silence.[49] The monks lived in their own cells within the community in order to emulate the desert hermitages.[50] The Cistercians, named after the French village of Cîteaux, were formed in 1098 as an attempt to return to the observance of the original Benedictine Rule.[51] Other reform movements seeking the vita apostolica in the eleventh and twelfth centuries included the Canons Regular, who followed the Augustinian Rule based on a letter by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) written in 423, the Victorines (1113) from the Paris Abbey of St Victor and the Premonstratensians (1121).[52] In the thirteenth century the Franciscan Order, founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181–1226), and the Order of Preachers, founded by Dominic de Guzman (1170–1221), were established as a reaction to the increased urbanisation in medieval society and outbreaks of heresy that arose at the time.[53] Medieval monasticism had reached its height and from the thirteenth century, in part due to falling revenue but also due to a reduction in monks joining, the movement fell into decline.[54]

The spiritual benefits of monasticism

Having looked at the story of medieval monasticism I now turn to the perceived spiritual benefits that the movement offered to men and women, inside and outside the monastery.

Jeffrey Bingham believes the main task of the monk, opus dei, was valued by those outside the monastery because, ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective’ (Jas 5:16).[55] He states that people found ‘confidence and peace’ as a result of the monks’ prayer support.[56] The prayer was pure, brief, frequent and based on Scripture, since according to Benedict prayers are not heard due to many words but because ‘the heart is pure and the spirit penitent.’[57] Benedictine patterns of worship influenced the liturgy of the Western Church and the structure of both Catholic and Protestant forms of service can find their roots in monasticism.[58]

Monks could spend up to three hours a day in lectio.[59] Scripture was the main source of study for the monk with the Psalms a particular favourite to the extent that sometimes the entire Psalter was committed to memory.[60] The first phase was the lectio (reading), followed by meditatio (meditation) leading to oratio (prayer) as a response.[61] In the monastic schools, child oblates were taught basic literacy and in some communities children from outside of the monastery were also taught.[62] The presence of learning in monastic scola would ultimately develop into scholasticism and the foundation of European universities.

George Ovitt argues that the opus manuum of early monasticism ‘influenced the course of Western economic, social and technological development.’[63] Monks believed their manual work was a personal act of worship but they accomplished major land improvements through the organisation and efficiency of communities working together.[64] Both the example they set and the projects they achieved provided a social legacy to the economic organisation of Europe.[65]

The spiritual benefit monasticism offers the life of the church today

One characteristic of monasticism that I believe would benefit both the church and society in general is that of silence. In an ever increasingly busy, noisy world that is full of information, new forms of media and entertainment the opportunity to pause and reflect is often lacking. The relatively recent reintroduction of communal one or two minutes silence at events to mark national tragedies shows, I believe, a fundamental human desire to have this space. Communal silence is an eremitic act in that the individual withdraws into the solitude of one’s own thoughts and yet it is practiced in a cenobitical way.

Medieval monasticism traces its origins to the white martyrdom of the desert ascetics who desired to lead a life of spiritual devotion by withdrawing from the world in order to reach perfection. Two forms of asceticism developed the eremitical life of the hermit, regarded as the highest calling, and the cenobitical life within community. The writings of Cassian and others led to the establishment of monasticism in Western Europe. The Benedictine Rule with instructions for spiritual life and community governance became dominant, although other rules were adopted and occasionally monasteries followed a mixed rule. Monasticism flourished but some felt at the cost of its ascetic roots and so there were many attempts to reform and revive the movement and return to the vita apostolica. Examples of the spiritual benefits of monasticism include the value of the prayer support that monks gave to those outside the community, the development of education and the organisation and efficiency of manual work which led to social transformation. Many forms of medieval monasticism have lasted until the present day and it has a significant legacy in the history of the church.


Benedict of Nursia. The Rule of St Benedict. Translated by Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

Bingham, D. Jeffrey. “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158(2001): 104-115.

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Cassian, John. Conferences of John Cassian. n.d. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/cassian/conferences.html> (12 December 2015).

Hamilton, Bernard. Religion in the Medieval West. London: Edward Arnold, 2003.

Lawrence, C. H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. 2nd ed. London New York, NY: Longman, 1994.

Leclercq, Jean. The Love of Learning and Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. Translated by Catharine Misrahi. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2007.

Ovitt, Jr., George. “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism.” Viator 17(1986): 1-18.

St Augustine. The Rule of St. Augustine. 14 January 1996. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/ruleaug.html> (12 December 2015).

Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998.

White, Carolinne, ed. Early Christian Lives. London: Penguin, 1998.

[1] C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (2nd ed. London New York, NY: Longman, 1994), 1.

[2] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 1.

[3] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 1 Anchorite from the Greek ἀναχωρέω (anachōréō) to withdraw.

[4] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 18.

[5] Carolinne White, ed., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), xiii.

[6] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 2.

[7] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 4.

[8] Eremitical means ‘desert’ from the Greek word ἔρημος (eremos) Cenobitical means ‘common’ from the Greek word κοινός (koinos) Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 4.

[9] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 8 Abbot (Abbas) is from the Aramaic abba meaning my father.

[10] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 11-12 Scythia Minor is now in modern day Romania.

[11] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 12.

[12] Gaul is mostly the region that is modern day France Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 13.

[13] Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 24.

[14] Benedict, The Rule of St Benedict, 24.

[15] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 13.

[16] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 17.

[17] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 221.

[18] Nursia is now known as Norcia, a town north east of Rome.

[19] Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West (London: Edward Arnold, 2003), 42.

[20] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 24.

[21] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 20.

[22] White, Early Christian Lives, 165.

[23] White, Early Christian Lives, 166,169 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 25.

[24] White, Early Christian Lives, 170.

[25] White, Early Christian Lives, 172.

[26] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), 25.

[27] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 23.

[28] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 31.

[29] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 32.

[30] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 35-36 Stewart, Prayer and Community, 38.

[31] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 31.

[32] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 42.

[33] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 42.

[34] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 44.

[35] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 45.

[36] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 53.

[37] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 51.

[38] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 52.

[39] Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2007), 12, 20.

[40] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 76.

[41] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 44.

[42] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 44.

[43] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 44 Jr., George Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” Viator 17 (1986), 1.

[44] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 44 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 83.

[45] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 45.

[46] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 45 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 86.

[47] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 103,106.

[48] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 150-151.

[49] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 160.

[50] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 161.

[51] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 174.

[52] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 165, 169.

[53] Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, 47.

[54] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 274.

[55] D. Jeffrey Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001), 105.

[56] Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” 105.

[57] Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” 106.

[58] Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 32.

[59] Stewart, Prayer and Community, 36.

[60] Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” 111-112.

[61] Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” 112-113.

[62] Stewart, Prayer and Community, 42.

[63] Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” 1.

[64] Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” 7.

[65] Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” 17-18.

Thank you for reading. I hope you have found something of interest and will want to return again sometime soon. If you like my writing and don't want to miss out, please subscribe to my newsletter. All I need is your email address. I don't like spam as much as the next person, so I promise not to pass on your details to anyone else and I won't bombard you with too many emails. You are free to unsubscribe at any time.

COLOUR YOUR OWN medieval monastery

Download this colouring sheet to create your own version of our medieval monastery history timeline poster! Read through the introduction to life in a monastery, then get creative with coloured pencils, pens or paints.


Find out what an illumination is, and how the beautiful letters that feature in the manuscripts created by medieval monks and nuns were created. Then, follow our instructions to design your own illuminated initials!


Can you make it to the top of the board? Find out if you've got what it takes to get the top job with this historical version of Snakes & Ladders! If you land on a ladder, follow it up to the space above. But if you land on a snake, follow it down. Download a game board, spinner and 3D players to play.

More things to make and do

Browse our best ideas and get hands-on and crafty with history. From model historical homes to costumes and coats of arms, there&rsquos plenty to be inspired by. Simply download our easy-to-use templates and instructions, and get making!

Medieval Monastic Orders- part I

During the later Anglo-Saxon period all monasteries were Benedictine. Benedictine monks follow the rules written by St Benedict in the early sixth century (535-540) for his monastic foundation at Monte Cassino. The rule covers what monks are and aren’t allowed to do as well as regulating their days and nights with regard to Divine worship, study, manual labour and prayer. However, as the medieval period went on many monks, such as the Benedictine in the manuscript image to the left of this paragraph developed a reputation for behaving in a decidedly unmonastic manner.

By the eleventh century, Cluny Abbey, which followed the rules of St Benedict, as indeed did every monastic order that followed, chose to reinterpret the rules. The order applied itself to the liturgy rather than educational and intellectual work expanded. In England, William Warenne founded the Cluniac abbey at Lewes just after the conquest. William the Conqueror requested more Cluniac monks to come from their mother abbey in Cluny to England but was unsuccssessful in the first instance. Gradually though more Cluniacs did arrive. William Rufus, not known for his piety, encouraged the Cluniacs to come to England as did his brother King Henry I who funded Reading Abbey which interestingly was inhabited initially by Cluniac monks but did not go on to become a Cluniac establishment. The royal family continued to support the Cluniac order. King Stephen founded the Cluniac priory at Faversham which became notable as the burial place for his family. In Yorkshire Pontefract was a Cluniac establishment. Despite this early popularity the Cluniacs did not prosper as an order in England as the centuries progressed not least because all Cluniac houses were daughter houses following the rule and direction of the mother-house in Cluny and thus aliens. Whilst the Plantagenets held a huge European empire it wasn’t a problem but as English monarchs found the size of their continental domains dwindling they didn’t want monks who looked to Europe for direction and preferred to sponsor home-grown talent.

The Cistericans, pictured left, were founded in 1098 by the monks of Citeaux who believed in austerity and hard work – again a reinterpretation of the rule of St Benedict and reforms designed to counter perceived laxity in other monastic houses. Their habit was made from unbleached wool. These were the so-called ‘White monks.’ They arrived in the south of England in 1128. In 1132 Walter Espec gave the white monks land at Rievaulx – the rest as they say, is history. Fountains Abbey is also a Cistercian foundation. Unlike the standard Benedictine monks they refused gifts and rights of patronage – in short anything that would have made them easily wealthy. Instead they cultivated the wilderness. An emphasis was placed upon labour. The great Yorkshire abbeys acquired land and farms over the next two hundred years extending south into Derbyshire and north into Cumberland. In 1147 Furness Abbey was founded. At that time Furness was in Lancashire rather than Cumbria as it is in present times.

The next influx of monastic types were the Charterhouse monks or Carthusians as they should be more properly named. This order was developed by the monks of Chartreuse. The first monastic foundations for this order were in Somerset at the turn of the twelfth century. They lived in isolation. Each monk had a cell and a cloistered garden. They did not see one another, even for Divine service as each stall was screened – together but alone. They arrived during the reign of King Henry II as part of the monarch’s penance for the death of Thomas Becket. The Carthusians restricted the numbers of monks in each priory to 13 monks composed of a prior and twelve monks and eighteen lay brothers. There was a vow of silence and they were vegetarians. The order did not really take off until the fourteenth century by which time monasticism was suffering on account of the Black Death: changing economy and social structures. In Yorkshire the Carthusians established Mount Grace Priory in 1398. Today its ruins remain the best preserved Carthusian monastery in England. The seated Carthusian on the right is an early eighteenth century portrayal and can be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of these orders only the Carthusians do not have nuns as well as monks.

So far, so good. Part two of Medieval Monastic orders will cover the canons and part three will cover friars.

Watch the video: Παναγία Βαρνάκοβα, το πληγωμένο μοναστήρι. Our Lady of Varnakova the wounded monastery (June 2022).


  1. Faekazahn

    I join. And I have faced it. Let's discuss this question. Here or in PM.

  2. Hampton

    Love has many faces. Love sometimes smiles, sometimes laughs, sometimes cries, and sometimes she, like an angry wild cat, grimaces, hisses and after a moment rushes in your face to scratch out your eyes. Fear this kind of love.

  3. Rosco

    Yes, really. I agree with told all above.

  4. Bragrel

    remarkably, very useful information

  5. Avedis

    Rather useful phrase

  6. Benoni

    What follows from this?

  7. Doukus

    Granted, this remarkable opinion

Write a message