What's in a Monastery?

Lab Note #2
Mar 14, 2014

Sure, we know all about churches, but what is actually in a monastery? Cloistered monks can live inside the monastery walls for decades, so the buildings and structures have to serve the needs of the community fairly well. Some features are fairly ubiquitous (the church, cloister walk, refectory, dormitory, and chapter room), while some come as "optional extras" (a scriptorium, hospital, hotel, or crafts area).

The 1092 "St. Gall Plan" depicts an ideal monastic layout, with a full complement of specialized structures. Can you spot any recognizable features?

One of the easiest features to sport is the cloister garth, or walk. It is usually a rectangular open space, with a colonnade around the edges. The cloister garth often occupies the area just to the side of the monastic church, and serves as a transitional area between the church and other monastic spaces.

All monasteries need a chapter room (or chapter house). In most cases, the chapter room is just off of the cloister walk. This is the area where the monastic community holds their periodic meetings (called "chapter meetings", like fraternities and sororities today!). The rooms are usually roughly square or round and ringed with benches for seating. In some cases, the benches are built-ins made of stone, but in other cases, archaeologists find traces of the benches through wear marks on the floor. The monks sit around the room with the abbot seated on one side, presiding over the meeting where community grievances are aired and prayers read.

Even though monasteries have some "standard features", there is a ton of variation between the types. As you can see, not all cloisters or chapter rooms are the same!

Have you ever visited a monastery? Did you find any surprises? What do you expect from monastic buildings?

Stay tuned for more monasteries later this week!

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