Inside a medieval monastery

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A monastery is a building inhabited by a community of men or women, devoted to the service of God and bound by a three-fold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience to a superior, and to a rule. The majority of medieval monks followed the Rule of St Benedict, written in the 6th Century. The standard features of the monastic plan were a smooth blend of spiritual necessity and common sense. The dominant building was the church, as it was where the monks spent the largest part of their waking hours in worship. Next to the church stood the cloister garth (garden), lined by four walkways which provided covered access to the surrounding buildings. These included the chapter house, dormitory, latrines, refectory and kitchen. Store rooms, an abbot’s house and guests’ quarters might also be attached. The infirmary, or monastic hospital, often stood to the east of the main buildings to provide peace and quiet to its patients. Many other buildings stood in the precinct, such as chapels, barns and stables, and most monasteries were surrounded by a high precinct wall, entered through an impressive gatehouse.


Built from stone and intended to both glorify God and remain serviceable for centuries, monasteries were constructed using the prevailing style of the day, often pushing architecture to the limit. Walls and vaults were built from stone, roofs were covered in lead, windows were glazed, and the floors covered with encaustic tiles. Monasteries not only acted as houses of prayer and pilgrimage destinations, but also cultural centres, providing education and employment. Many towns, such as Abingdon, Oxford, St Albans, Reading, Westminster and Chester (the list goes on) only exist because they grew up around a monastery. In a very real sense, monasteries physically defined the urban geography of modern Britain.