Medieval Monasteries

The cloister of Saint-Pierre, Moissac, France, built about 1100. Photograph by Salvador Busquets.

The cloister of Saint-Pierre, Moissac, France, built about 1100. Photograph by Salvador Busquets.


Drawing of Rievaulx Abbey showing monks worshipping in the church of the Cistercian monastery. © English Heritage Photo Library.

Drawing of Rievaulx Abbey showing monks worshipping in the church of the Cistercian monastery. © English Heritage Photo Library.

'Monasticism' is literally the act of 'dwelling alone'. It involves withdrawing from the world in order to pursue a life of worship. A community that follows monastic practices lives in a monastery (or in the case of women, in a nunnery). Monks and nuns are governed by religious vows and monastic rules.

Christian monasticism developed in Egypt in the 3rd century when some Christians chose poverty and isolation as a way of getting closer to God. Communities copying the strict way of life of these holy men quickly spread across Europe and became an important part of medieval European society. By the mid-12th century, there were around 500 monasteries in England.

Everyday life would have differed depending on what order a monk belonged to, but there were also similarities across many houses.

Each day monks carried out a schedule of prayers and services known as the Work of God, or Opus Dei. They spent most of their time in church and attended eight services spread throughout the day. The day started about two o'clock in the morning with the first service and ended at about seven o'clock at night after the final service, when the monks went to bed.

Between the services, the monks carried out work of various kinds. The daily running of a monastery involved a range of tasks, but as time went by, these were gradually undertaken by servants and lay brothers. Lay brothers were men who lived within a monastic community and carried out manual labour. They were not monks, even though they had made religious vows. Some monks had specific responsibilities. The cellarer, for example, managed the monastery's food and drink supply. He was sometimes permitted to miss services if he was occupied with his daily duties.

The Rule of St Benedict

As monastic communities developed so did the need for principles to guide those living within the monastery. In the 6th century, St Benedict (480–550) created his famous Rule as a guide to running a monastic community. It covered every aspect of life, from worship to everyday practical issues:

'Let those who receive new clothes always return the old ones, to be put away in the wardrobe for the poor. For it is sufficient for a monk to have two tunics and two cowls, for wearing at night and for washing'.
The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 55

The only surviving part of the great church built at Cluny, France, constructed from about 1088. It was originally part of the transept. Photograph by Marianne Serra.

The only surviving part of the great church built at Cluny, France, constructed from about 1088. It was originally part of the transept. Photograph by Marianne Serra.

The Rule of St Benedict became the most influential of the Christian monastic rules. It is still used by a number of orders, including the Benedictines. The earliest Benedictine monasteries were independent and autonomous but were united by the observance of the same Rule. Until the end of the 11th century the Benedictines were the only monastic order in Western Europe.

Founding or making donations to a monastery was a way to safeguard the souls of the donor and their family, in this life and the next. As a result, many Benedictine monasteries became wealthy, and this was reflected in their architecture and furnishings.

The Benedictine monastery of Cluny in France was founded in 910 by William, Duke of Aquitaine. Over time, it became an affluent and powerful institution, the centre of a monastic organisation that included many hundred Cluniac monasteries across Western Europe. Cluny was one of the grandest and most magnificent Benedictine monasteries in medieval Europe. When the third abbey church at Cluny was completed in the early 12th century it was said to be the largest church in Christendom.

Cistercian monasteries

The church of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx Abbey Yorkshire, UK, founded in 1132 and abandoned during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41). © English Heritage Photo Library.

The church of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx Abbey Yorkshire, UK, founded in 1132 and abandoned during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41). © English Heritage Photo Library.

The Cistercian order was founded as a reaction against the increasing wealth and opulence of many Benedictine monasteries. It began in 1098 when Robert, Abbot of Molesme, left his Benedictine monastery with twenty fellow monks and founded a new monastery in the solitude of Cîteaux, near Dijon in France. They wanted to restore monastic life to what they perceived as the original spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. This new approach to monasticism spread rapidly, and by the year 1200 there were over 500 Cistercian houses across Western Europe.

The Cistercians followed the Rule of St Benedict, but observed it more literally, placing a stronger emphasis on simplicity, austerity and isolation. As a result, they founded their monasteries in isolated, often uncultivated, locations. The focus on simplicity was reflected in Cistercian architecture and furnishings. Precious materials were often replaced by more inexpensive ones. The architecture was plainer, reflecting the ideals of the order, although often impressive in scale and effect. Early Cistercian churches had very little decoration, though as time went on, more ornament appeared.

The monastic cloister

The cloister usually had four covered walkways lining the four sides of a courtyard. In medieval times, it was often located south of the church. This meant that the north walkway received enough light to make it a suitable place for reading and writing. As a result, it was often used as a scriptorium where the monks would copy or produce manuscripts. The medieval monastic cloister also had other functions. It connected various buildings and provided a sheltered link between the different parts of the monastery. Sometimes the cloister was also used for religious processions. The columns of the cloister walkways often supported capitals carved with ornament and narrative, particularly scenes from the Bible.

Limestone capital from the cloister of the Benedictine monastery Sainte-Marie de Lombez, France, about 1140–50. Museum number. A.58-1935.

Limestone capital from the cloister of the Benedictine monastery Sainte-Marie de Lombez, France, about 1140–50. Museum no. A.58-1935.

Drawing showing how the cloister of Battle Abbey might have appeared in the 13th century, with the north cloister being used as a scriptorium. © English Heritage Photo Library.

Drawing showing how the cloister of Battle Abbey might have appeared in the 13th century, with the north cloister being used as a scriptorium. © English Heritage Photo Library.

Although there were many monasteries in Britain during the Middle Ages, very little can be seen of them today. In 1534 Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) proclaimed himself supreme Head of the Church, starting the Reformation in England and Wales. This had devastating consequences for the monasteries. Most were closed, and their land and wealth taken. The buildings were destroyed or adapted to secular use.

Peterborough Cathedral, re-built between 1118 and 1238. Photograph by Richard Gunn.

Peterborough Cathedral, re-built in its present form between 1118 and 1238. This was originally a monastic church, but when the monastery closed in 1539, it became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough. Photograph by Richard Gunn.

Monasteries after the Reformation

Hundreds of monasteries disappeared during a short period, but some monastic churches survived through being converted to cathedrals or parish churches. Many are still in use today, for example, Peterborough Cathedral. This was originally a monastic church, but when the monastery closed in 1539, it became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough.

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