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The cloister of Sénanque Abbey

An abbey (from Latin abbatia, from Latin abbās,[1] derived from Aramaic abba, "father"[2]) is a Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox Christian monastery or convent. Abbeys usually fall under the authority of an Abbot or an Abbess who serves as the spiritual father or mother of the community.

The term can also refer to a former abbey (for example, Westminster Abbey).


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The formation of monastic communities dates back to pre-Christian times, as witnessed by the Essenes.[citation needed] The earliest known Christian monasteries consisted of groups of huts built near the location of a famous ascetic or other holy person. As these communities of disciples grew, they attracted people who desired to study the ascetic's doctrine and imitate his or her way of life.[3]

In the earliest age of Christian monasticism, the ascetics were accustomed to living alone. Ascetics would typically live near a village church, supporting themselves while also donating their excess food to the poor. Increasing religious fervor and persecution drove them farther and farther away from civilization into solitude. The deserts of Egypt hosted some of the "cells" or huts of these anchorites.[citation needed]

Anthony the Great, who had retired to the Egyptian Thebaid during the persecution of Maximian, AD 312, was the most celebrated among them for his austerity, sanctity, and reputed power as an exorcist. His fame attracted followers, and the deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells around that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of anchorites living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Anthony, according to Johann August Wilhelm Neander, inadvertently became the founder of a new mode of living in common, Coenobitism.[4]


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At Tabennae on the Nile, in Upper Egypt, St. Pachomius laid the foundations for the coenobitical life by arranging everything in an organized manner. He built several monasteries, each containing about 1,600 separate cells laid out in lines as an encampment, where the monks slept and performed some of their manual tasks. There were large halls for their common needs, such as the church, refectory, kitchen, infirmary and a guest house. An enclosure protecting all these buildings gave the settlement the appearance of a walled village. It was this monastery layout, inaugurated by St. Pachomius, which finally spread throughout Palestine and came to be called the laurae, meaning "lanes" or "alleys." In addition to these congregations of solitaries, all living in huts apart, there were caenobia, monasteries wherein the inmates lived a common life, none of them being permitted to retire to the cells of a laurae before they had therein undergone a lengthy period of training. In time this form of common life superseded that of the older laurae.[3]

Palladius, who visited the Egyptian monasteries about the close of the 4th century, found among the 300 members of the coenobium of Panopolis, under the Pachomian rule, 15 tailors, 7 smiths, 4 carpenters, 12 cameldrivers and 15 tanners. Each separate community had its own oeconomus or steward, who was subject to a chief steward stationed at the head establishment. All the produce of the monks' labour was committed to him, and by him shipped to Alexandria. The money raised by the sale was expended in the purchase of stores for the support of the communities, and what was over was devoted to charity. Twice in the year the superiors of the several coenobia met at the chief monastery, under the presidency of an archimandrite ("the chief of the fold," from miandra, a sheepfold), and at the last meeting gave in reports of their administration for the year. Details concerning the coenobia in the vicinity of Antioch are found in the writings of Chrysostom. The monks lived in separate huts, kalbbia, forming a religious hamlet on the mountain side. They were subject to an abbot, and observed a common rule.[5]

Great Lavra, Mount Athos

Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos
(Lenoir, who named it Santa Laura)
Abbey 01.png
A. Gateway
B. Chapels
C. Guesthouse
D. Church
E. Cloister
F. Fountain
G. Refectory
H. Kitchen
I. Monks' cells
K. Storehouses
L. Postern gate
M. Tower

The necessity for defence from attacks (for monastic houses tended to accumulate rich gifts), economy of space and convenience of access from one part of the community to another, by degrees dictated a more compact and orderly arrangement of the buildings of a monastic coenobium. Large piles of building were erected, with strong outside walls, capable of resisting the assaults of an enemy, within which all the necessary edifices were ranged round one or more open courts, usually surrounded with cloisters. The usual Eastern arrangement is exemplified in the plan of the convent of the Great Lavra, Mount Athos.

This monastery, like the oriental monasteries generally, is surrounded by a strong and lofty blank stone wall, enclosing an area of between 3 and 4 acres (12,000 and 16,000 m²). The longer side extends to a length of about 500 feet (150 m). There is only one main entrance, on the north side (A), defended by three separate iron doors. Near the entrance is a large tower (M), a constant feature in the monasteries of the Levant. There is a small postern gate at L. The enceinte comprises two large open courts, surrounded with buildings connected with cloister galleries of wood or stone. The outer court, which is much the larger, contains the granaries and storehouses (K), and the kitchen (H) and other offices connected with the refectory (G). Immediately adjacent to the gateway is a two-storied guest-house, opening from a cloister (C). The inner court is surrounded by a cloister (EE), from which open the monks' cells (II). In the centre of this court stands the katholikon or conventual church, a square building with an apse of the cruciform domical Byzantine type, approached by a domed narthex. In front of the church stands a marble fountain (F), covered by a dome supported on columns. Opening from the western side of the cloister, but actually standing in the outer court, is the refectory (G), a large cruciform building, about 100 feet (30 m) each way, decorated within with frescoes of saints. At the upper end is a semicircular recess, recalling the triclinium of the Lateran Palace at Rome, in which is placed the seat of the hegumenos or abbot. This apartment is chiefly used as a hall of meeting, the oriental monks usually taking their meals in their separate cells.[5]


Benedictine monasteries

Monasticism in the West owes its extension and development to Benedict of Nursia (born AD 480). Nursia's rule diffused rapidly its parent foundation on Monte Cassino, the first abbey (529).[6] Through the whole of western Europe, every country witnessed the erection of monasteries that exceeded anything that had yet be seen in spaciousness and splendour. Few great towns in Italy were without their Benedictine convent. The covenants quickly rose in all the great centres of population in England, France and Spain. Many monasteries were founded between AD 520 and 700. Before the Council of Constance, AD 1415, no fewer than 15,070 abbeys had been established from this order alone. No special plan was adopted or followed in the building of the first caenobia. The monks simply copied the buildings familiar to them, the Roman house or villa, whose plan, throughout the extent of the Roman Empire, was practically uniform. The founders of monasteries had often merely to install a community in an already existing villa. When they had to build, the natural instinct was to copy old models. If they fixed upon a site with existing buildings in good repair, they simply adapted them to their requirements, as St. Benedict did at Monte Cassino. The spread of the monastic life gradually effected great changes in the model of the Roman villa. The various avocations followed by the monks required suitable buildings, which were at first erected not upon any premeditated plan, but just as the need for them arose. These requirements, however, being practically the same in every country, resulted in practically similar arrangements everywhere.[3] The buildings of a Benedictine abbey were uniformly arranged after one plan, modified where necessary to accommodate the arrangement to local circumstances.[5]

The plan of the great Abbey of Saint Gall, erected about AD 719, indicates the general arrangement of a monastery of the first class towards the early part of the 9th century. According to architect Robert Willis, the general appearance of the convent is that of a town of isolated houses with streets running between them. It was planned in compliance with the Benedictine rule, which enjoined that, if possible, the monastery should contain every necessity of life. It should comprise a mill, a bakehouse, stables, and cow-houses, so that the monks had no need to go outside.[5]

The general distribution of the buildings may be thus described:-The church, with its cloister to the south, occupies the centre of a quadrangular area, about 430 feet (130 m) square. The buildings, as in all great monasteries, are distributed into groups. The church forms the nucleus, as the centre of the religious life of the community. In closest connection with the church is the group of buildings appropriated to the monastic line and its daily requirements---the refectory for eating, the dormitory for sleeping, the common room for social intercourse, the chapter-house for religious and disciplinary conference. These essential elements of monastic life are ranged about a cloister court, surrounded by a covered arcade, affording communication sheltered from the elements between the various buildings. The infirmary for sick monks, with the physician's house and physic garden, lies to the east. In the same group with the infirmary is the school for the novices. The outer school, with its headmaster's house against the opposite wall of the church, stands outside the convent enclosure, in close proximity to the abbot's house, that he might have a constant eye over them. The buildings devoted to hospitality are divided into three groups,--one for the reception of distinguished guests, another for monks visiting the monastery, a third for poor travellers and pilgrims. The first and third are placed to the right and left of the common entrance of the monastery,---the hospitium for distinguished guests being placed on the north side of the church, not far from the abbot's house; that for the poor on the south side next to the farm buildings. The monks are lodged in a guest-house built against the north wall of the church. The group of buildings connected with the material wants of the establishment is placed to the south and west of the church, and is distinctly separated from the monastic buildings. The kitchen, buttery and offices are reached by a passage from the west end of the refectory, and are connected with the bakehouse and brewhouse, which are placed still farther away. The whole of the southern and western sides is devoted to workshops, stables and farm-buildings. The buildings, with some exceptions, seem to have been of one story only, and all but the church were probably erected of wood. The whole includes thirty-three separate blocks. The church (D) is cruciform, with a nave of nine bays, and a semicircular apse at either extremity. That to the west is surrounded by a semicircular colonnade, leaving an open "paradise" (E) between it and the wall of the church. The whole area is divided by screens into various chapels. The high altar (A) stands immediately to the east of the transept, or ritual choir; the altar of Saint Paul (B) in the eastern, and that of St Peter (C) in the western apse. A cylindrical campanile stands detached from the church on either side of the western apse (FF).[5]

The "cloister court",[5] (G) on the south side of the nave of the church has on its east side the "pisalis" or "calefactory", (H), the common sitting-room of the brethren, warmed by flues beneath the floor. On this side in later monasteries we invariably find the chapter house. It appears, however, from the inscriptions on the plan itself, that the north walk of the cloisters served for the purposes of a chapter-house, and was fitted up with benches on the long sides. Above the calefactory is the "dormitory" opening into the south transept of the church, to enable the monks to attend the nocturnal services with readiness, via the day-stair which lead to a cloister first or a night-stair which lead directly to the church.[6] A passage at the other end leads to the "necessarium" (I). The southern side is occupied by the "refectory" (K), from the west end of which by a vestibule the kitchen (L) is reached. This is separated from the main buildings of the monastery, and is connected by a long passage with a building containing the bake house and brew house (M), and the sleeping-rooms of the servants. The upper story of the refectory is the "vestiarium," where the ordinary clothes of the brethren were kept. On the western side of the cloister is another two-story building (N). The cellar is below, and the larder and store-room above. Between this building and the church, opening by one door into the cloisters, and by another to the outer part of the monastery area, is the "parlour" for interviews with visitors from the external world (O). On the eastern side of the north transept is the "scriptorium" or writing-room (P1), with the library above.[5]

To the east of the church stands a group of buildings comprising two miniature conventual establishments, each complete in itself. Each has a covered cloister surrounded by the usual buildings, i.e. refectory, dormitory, etc., and a church or chapel on one side, placed back to back. A detached building belonging to each contains a bath and a kitchen. One of these diminutive convents is appropriated to the "oblati" or novices (Q), the other to the sick monks as an "infirmary" (R).

The "residence of the physicians" (S) stands contiguous to the infirmary, and the physic garden (T) at the north-east corner of the monastery. Besides other rooms, it contains a drug store, and a chamber for those who are dangerously ill. The "house for bloodletting and purging" adjoins it on the west (U).[5]

The "outer school," to the north of the convent area, contains a large schoolroom divided across the middle by a screen or partition, and surrounded by fourteen little rooms, termed the dwellings of the scholars. The head-master's house (W) is opposite, built against the side wall of the church. The two "hospitia" or guest-houses for the entertainment of strangers of different degrees (X1 X2) comprise a large common chamber or refectory in the centre, surrounded by sleeping-apartments. Each is provided with its own brewhouse and bakehouse, and that for travelers of a superior order has a kitchen and storeroom, with bedrooms for their servants and stables for their horses. There is also an "hospitium" for strange monks, abutting on the north wall of the church (Y).[5]

Beyond the cloister, at the extreme verge of the convent area to the south, stands the "factory" (Z), containing workshops for shoemakers, saddlers (or shoemakers, sellarii), cutlers and grinders, trencher-makers, tanners, curriers, fullers, smiths and goldsmiths, with their dwellings in the rear. On this side we also find the farm buildings, the large granary and threshing-floor (a), mills (c), malthouse (d). Facing the west are the stables (e), ox-sheds (f), goatstables (gl, piggeries (h), sheep-folds (i), together with the servants' and labourers' quarters (k). At the south-east corner we find the hen and duck house, and poultry-yard (m), and the dwelling of the keeper (n). Hard by is the kitchen garden (o), the beds bearing the names of the vegetables growing in them, onions, garlic, celery, lettuces, poppy, carrots, cabbages, etc., eighteen in all. In the same way the physic garden presents the names of the medicinal herbs, and the cemetery (p) those of the trees, apple, pear, plum, quince, etc., planted there.[5]

Many of the present grand cathedrals were originally benedictine monasteries or abbeys. These were converted by Henry VIII and contain cloisters, chapter houses, and other abbatial buildings.[6] Some of these are Canterbury, Chester, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Winchester, and Worcester.[7]

Every large monastery had depending upon it smaller foundations known as cells or priories. Sometimes these foundations were no more than a single building serving as residence and farm offices, while other examples were miniature monasteries for 5 or 10 monks. The outlying farming establishments belonging to the monastic foundations were known as villae or granges. They were usually staffed by lay-brothers, sometimes under the supervision of a single monk.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey was founded in the 10th century by St. Dunstan and it shows hints of French architecture in its designs.[7] It is another example of a great Benedictine abbey, identical in its general arrangements, so far as they can be traced, with those described above.

The only traces of Dunstan's monastery to be seen today are in the round arches and massive supporting columns of the undercroft and the Pyx Chamber in the cloisters.[8] The cloister and monastic buildings lie to the south side of the church. Parallel to the nave, on the south side of the cloister, was the refectory, with its lavatory at the door.[5]

On the eastern side there are remains of the dormitory, raised on a vaulted substructure and communicating with the south transept. The chapter-house opens out of the same alley of the cloister. The small cloister lay to the south-east of the larger cloister, and still farther to the east we have the remains of the infirmary with the table hall, the refectory of those who were able to leave their chambers. The abbot's house formed a small courtyard at the west entrance, close to the inner gateway.[5]

St. Mary's Abbey, York

St Mary's Abbey, York, the largest and richest Benedictine establishment in the north of England, was first founded in 1055. It exhibited the usual Benedictine arrangements. The entrance was by a strong gateway to the north. Close to the entrance was a chapel, where is now the church of St Olaf, in which the new-comers paid their devotions immediately on their arrival. Near the gate to the south was the guest-hall or hospitium. The buildings are completely ruined, but the walls of the nave and the cloisters, are still visible on the grounds of Yorkshire Museum. The precincts were surrounded by a strong fortified wall on three sides, the river Ouse being sufficient protection on the fourth side. The stone walls still exist and are one of the best surviving examples of abbey walls which remain in the country.[9]

Abbey of Cluny

The Abbey of Cluny was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910, and was noted for its strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Abbey was built in the Romanesque style.

Reforms adopted at Cluny resulted in many departures from precedent, chief among which was a highly centralized form of government entirely foreign to Benedictine tradition. The reform quickly spread beyond the limits of the Abbey of Cluny, partly by the founding of new houses and partly by the incorporation of those already existing. By the twelfth century Cluny was at the head of an order consisting of some 314 monasteries.[10]

The abbey-church of Cluny was on a scale commensurate with the greatness of the congregation, and was regarded as one of the wonders of the Middle Ages. It was no less than 555 feet in length, and was the largest church in Christendom until the erection of St. Peter's at Rome. It consisted of five naves, a narthex, or ante-church, and several towers. Commenced by St. Hugh, the sixth abbot, in 1089, it was finished and consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1131-32, the narthex being added in 1220. Together with the conventual buildings it covered an area of twenty-five acres. At the suppression in 1790 it was bought by the town and almost entirely destroyed.[10]

English Cluniac houses

The first English house of the Cluniac order was that of Lewes, founded by the William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, c. AD 1077. All Cluniac houses in England were French colonies, governed by priors of that nation. All but one of the Cluniac houses in Britain which were larger than cells were known as priories, symbolising their subordination to Cluny. The exception was the priory at Paisley which was raised to the status of an abbey in 1245 answerable only to the Pope. The head of the Order was the Abbot at Cluny. All English and Scottish Cluniacs were bound to cross to France to Cluny to consult or be consulted unless the abbot chose to come to Britain, which happened rarely.

Cistercian abbeys

Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque

The Cistercians, a Benedictine reform, were established at Cîteaux in 1098 by St. Robert, Abbot of Molesme for the purpose of restoring as far as possible the literal observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux, and Morimond were the first four daughters of Cîteaux, which, in their turn, gave birth to many other monasteries. Cîteaux being the mother-abbey of the Cistercian Order, the abbot was recognized as head and superior general of the whole order. The monks of Cîteaux created the vineyards of Clos-Vougeot and Romanée, the most celebrated of Burgundy.[11]

The rigid self-abnegation, which was the ruling principle of this reformed congregation of the Benedictine order, extended itself to the churches and other buildings erected by them. The defining architectural characteristic of the Cistercian abbeys was the most extreme simplicity and a studied plainness. Only a single, central tower was permitted, and that was to be very low. Unnecessary pinnacles and turrets were prohibited. The triforium was omitted. The windows were to be plain and undivided, and it was forbidden to decorate them with stained glass. All needless ornament was proscribed. The crosses must be of wood; the candlesticks of iron. The renunciation of the world was to be evidenced in all that met the eye.[5]

The same spirit manifested itself in the choice of the sites of their monasteries. The more dismal, the more savage, the more hopeless a spot appeared, the more did it please their rigid mood. But they came not merely as ascetics, but as improvers. The Cistercian monasteries are, as a rule, found placed in deep, well-watered valleys. They always stand on the border of a stream; often with the buildings extending over it, as at Fountains Abbey. These valleys, now so rich and productive, had a very different appearance when the brethren first chose them as their place of retreat. Wide swamps, deep morasses, tangled thickets, and wild, impassable forests were their prevailing features.[5] The "bright valley," Clara Vallis of St Bernard, was known as the "Valley of Wormwood," infamous as a den of robbers. "[12]

See also:

Austin Canons

The buildings of the Austin canons or Black canons (so called from the colour of their habit) present few distinctive peculiarities. This order had its first seat in England at St. Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex, where a house for Austin canons was founded about AD 1105, and it very soon spread widely. As an order of regular clergy, holding a middle position between monks and secular canons, almost resembling a community of parish priests living under rule, they adopted naves of great length to accommodate large congregations. The choir is usually long, and is sometimes, as at Llanthony and Christchurch (Twynham), shut off from the aisles, or, as at Bolton, Kirkham, etc., is destitute of aisles altogether. The nave in the northern houses, not infrequently, had only a north aisle, as at Bolton, Brinkburn and Lanercost. The arrangement of the monastic buildings followed the ordinary type. The prior's lodge was almost invariably attached to the S.W. angle of the nave.[5]

Bristol Cathedral

Bristol abbey.png

FIG. 11.--St Augustine's Abbey,
Bristol (Bristol
A. Church.
B. Great cloister.
C. Little cloister.
D. Chapter house.
E. Calefactory.
F. Refectory.
G. Parlour.
H. Kitchen.
I. Kitchen court.
K. Cellars.
L. Abbot's hall.
P. Abbot's gateway.
R. Infirmary.
S. Friars' lodging.
T. King's hall.
V. Guest-house.
W. Abbey gateway.
X. Barns, stables, etc
Y. Lavatory.

The above plan of the Abbey of St Augustine's at Bristol, now the cathedral church of that city, shows the arrangement of the buildings, which departs very little from the ordinary Benedictine type. The Austin canons' house at Thornton, in Lincolnshire, is remarkable for the size and magnificence of its gate-house, the upper floors of which formed the guest-house of the establishment, and for possessing an octagonal chapter-house of Decorated date.[5]


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The Premonstratensian regular canons, or White canons, had as many as 35 houses in England, of which the most perfect remaining are those of Easby, Yorkshire, and Bayham, Kent. The head house of the order in England was Welbeck. This order was a reformed branch of the Augustinian canons, founded, AD 1119, by Norbert of Xanten, on the Lower Rhine, c. 1080) at Prémontré, a secluded marshy valley in the forest of Coucy in the diocese of Laon. The order spread widely. Even in the founder's lifetime it possessed houses in Aleppo and Kingdom of Jerusalem where "The Premonstrntensian abbey of Saint Samuel was a daughter house of Prémontré itself. Its abbot had the status of a suffragan of the patriarch of Jerusalem, with the right to a cross but not to a mitre nor a ring".[13] It long maintained its rigid austerity, until in the course of years wealth impaired its discipline, and its members sank into indolence and luxury. The Premonstratensians were brought to England shortly after AD 1140, and were first settled at Newhouse, in Lincolnshire, near the Humber. The ground-plan of Easby Abbey, owing to its situation on the edge of the steeply sloping banks of a river, is singularly irregular. The cloister is duly placed on the south side of the church, and the chief buildings occupy their usual positions round it. But the cloister garth, as at Chichester, is not rectangular, and all the surrounding buildings are thus made to sprawl in a very awkward fashion. The church follows the plan adopted by the Austin canons in their northern abbeys, and has only one aisle to the nave—that to the north; while the choir is long, narrow and aisleless. Each transept has an aisle to the east, forming three chapels.[5]

The church at Bayham was destitute of aisles either to nave or choir. The latter terminated in a three-sided apse. This church is remarkable for its exceeding narrowness in proportion to its length. Extending in longitudinal dimensions 257 ft (78 m), it is not more than 25 ft (7.6 m) broad. Stern Premonstratensian canons wanted no congregations, and cared for no possessions; therefore they built their church like a long room.[5]

The Premonstratension order still exists and a small group of these Chanones de Premontre now run the former Benedictine Abbey at Conques in southwest France, which has become well known as a refuge for pilgrims travelling the Way of Saint James, from Le Puy en Velay in Auvergne, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.[5]


The plan of a Coptic Orthodox monastery, from Lenoir, shows a church of three aisles, with cellular apses, and two ranges of cells on either side of an oblong gallery.[5]

See also



  1. Klein 1966, p. 2
  2. Klein 1987, p. 1
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Birt 1907
  4. Venables 1911 cites Church History, iii. p. 316, Clark's translation.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 5.20 Venables 1911.
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  7. 7.0 7.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  8. "Abbey History", Westminster Abbey
  9. "St.Mary's Abbey", York History
  10. 10.0 10.1 Alston, George Cyprian. "Congregation of Cluny." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 4 May 2014
  11. Gildas, Marie. "Abbey of Cîteaux." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 4 May 2014
  12. Venables 1911 cites Milman's Lat. Christ. vol. iii. p. 335.
  13. Pringle, Denys, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: L-Z (excluding Tyre), Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998, p.86


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