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Definition: monastery from Collins English Dictionary

n pl -teries

1 the residence of a religious community, esp of monks, living in seclusion from secular society and bound by religious vows

[C15: from Church Latin monastērium, from Late Greek monastērion, from Greek monázein to live alone, from monos alone]

› monasterial (ˌmɒnəˈstɪərɪəl) adj

Summary Article: monastery
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

An abbey, priory, or convent for monks, friars, or nuns. An abbey (as the name implies) is under the rule of an abbot or abbess; similarly a priory is ruled by a prior or prioress. In cathedral monasteries the bishop was the abbot, and the superior of the establishment was a cathedral prior.

Early monasteries In its early stages, when monasticism was practised by hermits, monasteries were merely groups of cells or huts. St Pachomius, the founder of coenobite monasteries, built his first monastery in Egypt in c. 320 in the form of a village with rows of huts large enough to accommodate three monks in each, and with a common refectory and a church. Under his rule the monks worked at different trades such as tailoring and carpentry so that workshops formed part of the buildings, the produce being shipped to the nearest large town and sold to support the community.

As time went on and the number of convents grew, experience led to the formation of a regular plan; the monasteries were made more compact, which also helped to guard them from outside attack, and were encompassed with means of defence, the monks erecting massive buildings containing all the necessary accommodation and surrounded with high walls as a protection against a possible enemy.

Eastern monasteries The eastern or oriental monasteries differed in their architectural plan from those of the west. That of Great Laura, in Mount Athos, Greece, may be taken as a typical eastern monastery. It is enclosed with high stone walls, and occupies about 1 ha/2.5 acres of ground. The main entrance, which is composed of three iron doors, is on the north side, and is guarded by a tower, the only other entrance being a small postern on the south side. On entering, there is an outer courtyard with a chapel immediately opposite, and to the left the guest house with a cloister running along the front. The refectory, kitchens, and storehouses are also on this courtyard, which is the centre of the material life of the community, while the inner courtyard forms the centre of the religious life.

The church is placed almost in the middle of the inner courtyard, which is surrounded by cloisters on to which open the cells of the monks, and in front of it there is a marble fountain. Although the refectory stands on the outer courtyard, entrance is from the inner courtyard; it is a large cruciform building, and is decorated with frescoes representing various saints. In the eastern monasteries, this building is usually found sited near the church, in the place of a chapter house; meals are often taken in solitude in the cells.

Coptic monasteries adopted a different architectural plan, which did not include courtyards. The church occupies the north side of the building, and alongside it runs an immense gallery with the cells opening out on either side.

Western monasteries During the great monastic epoch in the West that resulted from the influence of St Benedict at Montecassino, a large number of monasteries were built.

The Benedictine monasteries all followed one architectural plan, which was modified according to the site. The buildings were erected in a series of groups; the church, as the centre of the religious life of the community, formed one side of a square cloister, around the sides of which were other buildings forming a necessary part of the monastic life: the chapter house, the dormitory, the common room, and the refectory. Another group was formed by the infirmary, with its garden and the school for the novices, while beyond the monastery enclosure lay the abbot's house and the outer school, with a guest house for distinguished visitors not far distant.

In large monasteries there were sometimes three guest houses: one of the type already mentioned, and another two for monks and poor travellers, placed on either side of the main entrance. The buildings associated with the material needs of the community (the kitchen, buttery, bakehouse, and brewhouse) lay to the south and west of the church, and the refectory was reached by a passage from the kitchen. Beyond these buildings were the workshop, stables, and farm buildings.

The great Swiss monastery of St Gall, founded in 720, was a typical Benedictine monastery, and the same plan is followed more or less faithfully in most of their buildings, with slight variations due to the locality. So, for instance, in England at Canterbury the cloister and monastic buildings are situated to the north of the church instead of the south as is usual, and at Worcester and Durham the dormitories show a slight difference in the arrangement. At Westminster Abbey and St Mary's Abbey, York, the normal Benedictine plan is adhered to.

The Cluniac order grouped their buildings somewhat differently, and in the plan of the abbey of Cluny, founded by William, Duke of Aquitaine, the cloister is placed considerably farther west than is usual, and the monastic buildings do not open out of it but are placed in a separate group. Moreover, Cluniac monasteries, except Cluny itself, were ruled by priors, not abbots, so that the abbot's establishment is lacking. There were not a great number of Cluniac houses in England; the one at Lewes was the first, but the best-preserved are at Castle Acre and Wenlock.

Cistercian monasteries were characterized by their plainness and simplicity, the outward expression of the rigid rule they adopted. Unnecessary decoration of any sort was forbidden, such as turrets, pinnacles, or stained glass, and the sites chosen were usually wild and desolate. The effect of these regulations was the production of a definite Cistercian style in which the buildings were divided into two wards, separated by a wall. In the outer were the barns, granaries, stables, workshops, and so on, and in the inner were the monastic buildings proper, with the church occupying the central position. The first Cistercian house to be founded in England was Waverley Abbey, near Farnham, of which little now remains. That of Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, is the best preserved, others being at Rievaulx, Kirkstall, Tintern, and Netley.

At Clairvaux, built in 1116, there were two cloisters, and on the east side beyond the monastic buildings there were gardens, orchards, and fishponds placed outside the monastery walls. The church was also built on a slightly different plan from those of other communities, with a very short east limb, which was, as a rule, square. It also invariably had two small chapels on the east side of the transepts, which were divided off with solid walls, and at Clairvaux there were nine chapels radiating round the apse, also divided by solid walls. The chapter house was always quadrangular, and was divided into two or three aisles by pillars or arches. The position of the refectory is also a characteristic; in the Benedictine houses it was placed parallel to the nave of the church on the side of the cloister farthest removed from it, and it ran east and west, but in the Cistercian houses it was placed at right angles to the church, and ran north and south.

The Augustinian (or Austin) canons followed the Benedictine plan in principle. A characteristic of their buildings is the immense length of their churches, which were devised to accommodate large congregations. At Llanthony and Christ Church (Twynham) the choir is shut off from the aisles. Sometimes there are no aisles at all, as at Bolton and Kirkham, while at Brinkburn and Lanercost there are only north aisles. The abbey of St Augustine at Bristol was typical of the Austin canons, their church now being used as the cathedral.

The Premonstratensians (so called from their first abbey at Premontre in France) followed the building plan of the Austin canons. The first English establishment was at Newhouse in Lincolnshire in 1140, but the best-preserved are those of Easby, North Yorkshire, and Bayham, East Sussex.

The Carthusian plan was distinct from all others, as many aspects of Carthusian life were modelled on that of a hermit. The monastery (called in English the ‘charterhouse’) was arranged in a series of detached cells or small cottages, each containing a living room, work room, and so on, with a small garden surrounded by a wall, and opening on to a corridor, which in its turn opened on to a cloister connecting the whole. These cells occupied three sides of the cloister, and on the west lay the church, the chapter house and refectory, with the other necessary offices. The best preserved of English medieval charterhouses is that of Mount Grace in North Yorkshire, though that of Witham in Somerset is the earliest. Others were at Sheen, Richmond, and the famous Charter House in London. The modern charterhouse at Parkminster, Sussex, is built according to the old plan.

A medieval experiment that has never been revived is that of double monasteries, the first examples of which occur in Gaul in the 7th century. In these, two separate communities of monks and nuns occupied adjacent buildings and often worshipped in the same church. English examples were Whitby and Ely in Anglo-Saxon times.

The monastic buildings of the mendicant orders formed a distinct class. They were usually planted in large towns, and were of necessity adapted to the sites chosen, so that there was seldom any regularity in the buildings, and their best efforts were concentrated on their churches, which were built with a view to accommodating large congregations. These were generally long rectangular-shaped buildings without any transepts, the nave being divided into two parts, one for the community and the other for the congregation. The east end was, as a rule, square.

Destruction of the monasteries The destruction of the monasteries in Britain was the work of Henry VIII and his adviser, Thomas Cromwell. They saw in the monastic property vast possibilities of wealth. The Act of Dissolution, passed in 1536, suppressed all monasteries with an income of less than £200 a year, but though this still left the larger monasteries free, they fell into the king's hands in 1539 through the Act of Suppression and the attainder (loss of estates and rights) of individual abbots. The properties were acquired by nobles who often used them as quarries for materials for building their own houses.

Modern monasteries The principal modern monasteries in Britain and the Republic of Ireland, established since the end of the 18th century, are as follows: Benedictine: Downside, Ampleforth, Douai, Buckfast, Prinknash, Ealing, and Quarr; Cistercian (Trappist): Mount Melleray, Roscrea (both in Ireland), Mount St Bernard, Nunraw; Carthusian: Parkminster.


Education in Tudor times



Buddhist monastery, Lamayuro


Greek monastery

monastery at Athos

monastery, Macedonia

St Michael's Mount


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