An abbey is a complex of buildings used by members of a religious
order under the governance of an abbot or abbess. It provides a place
for religious activities, work and housing of
Christian monks and
nuns. The concept of the abbey has developed over many centuries from
the early monastic ways of religious men and women where they would
live isolated from the lay community about them. Religious life in an
abbey may be monastic. An abbey may be the home of an enclosed
religious order or may be open to visitors. The layout of the church
and associated buildings of an abbey often follows a set plan
determined by the founding religious order. Abbeys are often
self-sufficient while using any abundance of produce or skill to
provide care to the poor and needy, refuge to the persecuted or
education to the young. Some abbeys offer accommodation to people who
are seeking spiritual retreat. There are many famous abbeys across
1 Monastic origins of the abbey
1.1 Ascetics and anchorites
1.2 Laurae and caenobia
1.3 Great Lavra, Mount Athos
1.4 Adoption of the
Roman villa plan
Abbey of St Gall
Benedictine abbeys in England
2.1 Westminster Abbey
2.2 St. Mary's Abbey, York
3 Reforms at the
Abbey of Cluny
3.1 English Cluniac houses
4 Abbeys of the Austin Canons
5 Augustinian abbeys
6 Cistercian abbeys
8 See also
10 External links
Monastic origins of the abbey
Main article: Monasticism
Ascetics and anchorites
The earliest known
Christian monasteries were groups of huts built
near the residence of a famous ascetic or other holy person. Disciples
wished to be close to their holy man or woman in order to study their
doctrine or imitate their way of life.
In the earliest times of
Christian monasticism, ascetics would live in
social isolation but near a village church. They would subsist whilst
donating any excess produce to the poor. However, increasing religious
fervor about the ascetic's ways and or persecution of them would drive
them further away from their community and further into solitude. For
instance, the cells and huts of anchorites (religious recluses) have
been found in the deserts of Egypt.
In 312 AD,
Anthony the Great
Anthony the Great retired to the
Thebaid region of
escape the persecution of the Emperor Maximian. Anthony was the best
known of the anchorites of his time due to his degree of austerity,
sanctity and his powers of exorcism. The deeper he withdrew into the
wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be
separated from him and built their cells close to him. This became a
first true monastic community. Anthony, according to Johann August
Wilhelm Neander, inadvertently became the founder of a new mode of
living in common, Coenobitism.
Laurae and caenobia
Main article: Pachomius
At Tabennae on the Nile, in Upper Egypt, Saint
Pachomius laid the
foundations for the coenobitical life by arranging everything in an
organized manner. He built several monasteries, each with about 1,600
separate cells laid out in lines. These cells formed an encampment
where the monks slept and performed some of their manual tasks. There
were nearby large halls such as the church, refectory, kitchen,
infirmary, and guest house for the monk's common needs. An enclosure
protecting all these buildings gave the settlement the appearance of a
walled village. This layout, known as the laurae (lanes), became
popular throughout Palestine.
As well as the "laurae", communities known as "caenobia" developed.
These were monasteries where monks lived a common life together. The
monks were not permitted to retire to the cells of a laurae before
they had undergone a lengthy period of training. In time, this form of
common life superseded that of the older laurae.
In the late 300s AD, Palladius visited the Egyptian monasteries. He
described three hundred members of the coenobium of Panopolis. There
were fifteen tailors, seven smiths, four carpenters, twelve
camel-drivers and fifteen tanners. These people were divided into
subgroups, each with its own "oeconomus". A chief steward was at the
head of the monastery.
The produce of the monastery was brought to
Alexandria for sale. The
moneys raised were used to purchase stores for the monastery or were
given away as charity. Twice in the year, the superiors of several
coenobia met at the chief monastery, under the presidency of an
"archimandrite" (the "chief of the fold" from the word, "miandra" (a
sheepfold)) in order to make their reports.
Chrysostom recorded the
workings of a coenobia in the vicinity of Antioch. The monks lived in
separate huts ("kalbbia") which formed a religious hamlet on the
mountainside. They were subject to an abbot, and observed a common
Great Lavra, Mount Athos
Great Lavra Monastery, Mount Athos
(Lenoir, who named it Santa Laura)
I. Monks' cells
The layout of the monastic coenobium was influenced by a number of
factors. These included a need for defence, economy of space, and
convenience of access. The layout of buildings became compact and
orderly. Larger buildings were erected and defence was provided by
strong outside walls. Within the walls, the buildings were arranged
around one or more open courts surrounded by cloisters. The usual
arrangement for monasteries of the
Eastern world is exemplified in the
plan of the convent of the
Great Lavra at Mount Athos.
With reference to the diagram, right, the convent of the Great Lavra
is enclosed within a strong and lofty blank stone wall. The area
within the wall is between three and four acres (12,000 and
16,000 m²). The longer side is about 500 feet (150 m) in
length. There is only one entrance, which is located on the north side
(A), defended by three iron doors. Near the entrance is a large tower
(M), a constant feature in the monasteries of the
Mediterranean area). 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 the larger by far, contains the granaries and
storehouses (K), the kitchen (H) and other offices connected with the
refectory (G). Immediately adjacent to the gateway is a two-storied
guest-house, entered from a cloister (C). The inner court is
surrounded by a cloister (EE) from which one enters the monks' cells
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 (cross
shaped) building, about 100 feet (30 m) square, decorated within
with frescoes of saints. At the upper end is a semicircular recess,
similar to the triclinium of the
Lateran Palace in Rome, in which is
placed the seat of the hegumenos or abbot. This apartment is chiefly
used as a meeting place, with the monks usually taking their meals in
their separate cells.
Adoption of the
Roman villa plan
Monasticism in the West began with the activities of Benedict of
Nursia (born 480 AD). Near Nursia, a town in Perugia, Italy, a first
abbey was established at
Monte Cassino (529 AD). Between 520 and
700 AD, monasteries were built which were spacious and splendid. All
the city states of
Italy hosted a
Benedictine convent as did the
cities of England,
France and Spain. By 1415 AD, the time of the
Council of Constance, 15,070
Benedictine monasteries had been
Benedictine monasteries, including the first at Monte
Cassino, were constructed on the plan of the Roman villa. The layout
Roman villa was quite consistent throughout the Roman Empire
and where possible, the monks reused available villas in sound repair.
This was done at Monte Cassino.
However, over time, changes to the common villa lay out occurred. The
monks required buildings which suited their religious and day-to-day
activities. No overriding specification was demanded of the monks but
the similarity of their needs resulted in uniformity of design of
abbeys across Europe. Eventually, the buildings of a Benedictine
abbey were built in a uniform lay out, modified where necessary, to
accommodate local circumstances.
Abbey of St Gall
The church of the
Abbey of St Gall
The plan of the
Abbey of Saint Gall
Abbey of Saint Gall (719 AD) indicates the general
arrangement of a
Benedictine monastery of its day. According to the
Robert Willis (architect) (1800–1875) the Abbey's lay out
is that of a town of individual houses with streets running between
them. The abbey was planned in compliance with the
that, if possible, a monastery should be self-contained. For instance,
there was a mill, a bakehouse, stables, and cattle stalls. In all,
there were thirty-three separate structures; mostly one level wooden
Abbey church occupied the centre of a quadrangular area, about 430
feet (130 m) square. On the eastern side of the north transept of
the church was the "scriptorium" or writing-room, with a library
The church and nearby buildings ranged about the cloister, a court
about which there was a covered arcade which allowed sheltered
movement between the buildings. The nave of the church was on the
north boundary of the cloister.
On the east side of the cloister, on the ground floor, was the
"pisalis" or "calefactory". This was a common room, warmed by flues
beneath the floor. Above the common room was the dormitory. The
dormitory opened onto the cloister and also onto the south transept of
the church. This enabled the monks to attend nocturnal services. A
passage at the other end of the dormitory lead to the "necessarium"
On the south side of the cloister was the refectory. The kitchen, at
the west end of the refectory was accessed via an anteroom and a long
passage. Nearby were the bake house, brew house and the sleeping-rooms
of the servants. The upper story of the refectory was called the
"vestiarium" (a room where the ordinary clothes of the monks were
On the western side of the cloister was another two-story building
with a cellar on the ground floor and the larder and store-room on the
upper floor. Between this building and the church was a parlour for
receiving visitors. One door of the parlour led to the cloisters and
the other led to the outer part of the Abbey.
Against the outer wall of the church was a school and headmaster's
house. The school consisted of a large schoolroom divided in the
middle by a screen or partition, and surrounded by fourteen little
rooms, the "dwellings of the scholars". The abbott's home was near the
To the north of the church and to the right of the main entrance to
the Abbey, was a residence for distinguished guests. To the left of
the main entrance was a building to house poor travellers and
pilgrims. There was also a building to receive visiting monks. These
"hospitia" had a large common room or refectory surrounded by bed
rooms. Each hospitium had its own brewhouse and bakehouse, and the
building for more prestigious travellers had a kitchen and storeroom,
with bedrooms for the guests' servants and stables for their
horses. The monks of the
Abbey lived in a house built against the
north wall of the church.
The whole of the southern and western areas of the
Abbey were devoted
to workshops, stables and farm-buildings including stables, ox-sheds,
goatstables, piggeries, and sheep-folds, as well as the servants' and
In the eastern part of the
Abbey there was a group of buildings
representing in layout, two complete miniature monasteries. That is,
each had a covered cloister surrounded by the usual buildings such as
the church, the refectory, the dormitory and so on. A detached
building belonging to each contained a bathroom and a kitchen.
One of the miniature complexes was called the "oblati". These were the
buildings for the novices. The other complex was a hospital or
infirmary for the care of sick monks. This infirmary complex included
a physician's residence, a physic garden, a drug store, and a chamber
for the critically ill. There was also a room for bloodletting and
purging. The physic garden occupied the north east corner of the
In the southern most area of the abbey was the workshop containing
utilities for shoemakers, saddlers (or shoemakers, sellarii), cutlers
and grinders, trencher-makers, tanners, curriers, fullers, smiths and
goldsmiths. The tradesmen's living quarters were at the rear of the
workshop. Here, there were also farm buildings, a large granary and
threshing-floor, mills, and malthouse. At the south-east corner of the
Abbey were hen and duck houses, a poultry-yard, and the dwelling of
the keeper. Nearby was the kitchen garden which complemented the
physic garden and a cemetery orchard.
Every large monastery had priories. A priory was a smaller structure
or entities which depended on the monastery. Some were small
monasteries accommodating five or ten monks. Others were no more than
a single building serving as residence or a farm offices. 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 monk.
Benedictine abbeys in England
Many of today's cathedrals in
England were originally Benedictine
monasteries. These included Canterbury, Chester, Durham, Ely,
Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Winchester, and
Shrewsbury Abbey in
Shropshire was founded as a
Benedictine monastery by the
Normans in 1083.
Cloisters, Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey was founded in the tenth century by
St. Dunstan who
established a community of
Benedictine monks. The only traces of
St. Dunstan's monastery remaining are round arches and massive
supporting columns of the undercroft and the Pyx Chamber.
The cloister and buildings lie directly to the south of the church.
Parallel to the nave, on the south side of the cloister, was a
refectory, with a lavatory at the door. On the eastern side, there
was a dormitory, raised on a vaulted substructure and communicating
with the south transept and a chapter house (meeting room). A small
cloister lay to the south-east of the large cloister. Beyond that was
an infirmary with a table hall and a refectory for those who were able
to leave their chambers. At the west entrance to the Abbey, there was
a house and a small courtyard for the abbott. 
St. Mary's Abbey, York
St Mary's Abbey, York
St Mary's Abbey, York was built in England's north by the
Order of Saint Benedict. It followed the common plan. The entrance to
the abbey was through a strong gate on the northern side. Close to the
entrance was a chapel. This was for visitors arriving at the
make their devotions. Near the gate was the hospitium (guest hall).
The buildings are completely ruined, but the walls of the nave and the
cloisters are still visible on the grounds of the
Abbey was surrounded by fortified walls on three sides. The River
Ouse bordered the fourth side. The stone walls remain as an excellent
example of English abbey walls.
Reforms at the
Abbey of Cluny
Abbey of Cluny
Abbey of Cluny in lights
Abbey of Cluny
Abbey of Cluny was founded by
William I, Duke of Aquitaine
William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910
AD at Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, France. The
Abbey was built in the
Romanesque style. The
Abbey was noted for its strict observance of the
Rule of Saint Benedict. However, reforms resulted in many departures
from this precedent. The
Cluniac reforms brought focus to the
traditions of monastic life, encouraging art and the caring of the
Cluniac reforms quickly spread by the founding of new abbey
complexes and also by adoption of the reforms by existing abbeys. By
the twelfth century, the
Abbey of Cluny
Abbey of Cluny was the head of an order
consisting of 314 monasteries.
The church at the
Abbey was commenced in 1089 AD by St. Hugh, the
sixth abbot. It was finished and consecrated by Pope Innocent II
around 1132 AD. The church was regarded as one of the wonders of the
Middle Ages. At 555 feet (169 m) in length, it was the largest
Christendom until the completion of
St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica at
Rome. The church consisted of five naves, a narthex (ante-church)
which was added in 1220 AD, and several towers. Together with the
conventual buildings, it covered an area of twenty-five acres.
In the Dechristianization of
France during the French Revolution in
1790 AD, the
Abbey church was bought by the town and almost entirely
English Cluniac houses
Interior facing east, Paisley Abbey
The first English house of the Cluniac order was built at Lewes,
Sussex. It was founded by
William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey in
about 1077 AD. All but one of the
Cluniac houses in Britain
Cluniac houses in Britain were known
as priories, symbolizing their subordination to the
Abbey of Cluny.
All the Cluniac houses in
England and Scotland were French colonies,
governed by French priors who travelled to the
Abbey of Cluny
Abbey of Cluny to
consult or be consulted (unless the abbot of
Cluny chose to come to
Britain, which happened rarely). The priory at Paisley was an
exception. In 1245 AD it was raised to the status of an abbey,
answerable only to the Pope.
Abbeys of the Austin Canons
The nave of St. Botolph's Priory, Colchester
The Austin canons were an order of regular clergy within the hierarchy
of the Catholic church. They held a position between monks and secular
canons. They were known as "Black canons" because of the colour of
their habits. In 1105 AD, the first house of the order was established
at St. Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex.
The canons built very long naves to accommodate large congregations.
The choirs were also long. Sometimes, as at Llanthony and
Christchurch, Dorset(Twynham), the choir was closed from the aisles.
At other abbeys of the order, such as Bolton or Kirkham, there were no
aisles. The nave in the northern houses of the order often had only a
north aisle (this is the case at Bolton, Brinkburn and Lanercost). The
arrangement of the monastic buildings followed the ordinary plan. The
prior's lodge was usually attached to the southwest angle of the
The Austin canons' house at
Thornton, Lincolnshire had a large and
magnificent gatehouse. The upper floors of the gatehouse formed the
guest-house. The chapter-house was octagonal in shape.
The plan of the
Abbey of St Augustine's at
Bristol (now the Bristol
Cathedral) demonstrates the arrangement of the buildings by this
order. The plan departs very little from the ordinary Benedictine
FIG. 11.--St Augustine's Abbey,
B. Great cloister.
C. Little cloister.
D. Chapter house.
I. Kitchen court.
L. Abbot's hall.
P. Abbot's gateway.
S. Friars' lodging.
T. King's hall.
X. Barns, stables, etc
Main article: Premonstratensians
The Premonstratensian regular canons, or "White canons", were of an
order founded in 1119 AD by Norbert of Xanten.The order was a reformed
branch of the Augustinian canons. From a marshy area in the Forest of
Coucy in the diocese of Laon, the order spread widely. Even in
Norbert's lifetime, the order had built abbeys in Aleppo,
Syria and in
the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Of the
Abbey of Saint Samuel, Denys Pringle
wrote, "The Premonstatensian 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." It long maintained its rigid austerity, though
in later years the abbey grew wealthier, and its members indulged in
more frequent luxuries.
Just after 1140 AD, the
Premonstratensians were brought to England.
Their first settlement was at Newhouse, Lincolnshire, near the Humber
tidal estuary. There were as many as thirty-five Premonstratensian
abbeys in England. The head abbey in
England was at Welbeck but the
best preserved are
Easby Abbey in Yorkshire, and
Bayham Old Abbey
Bayham Old Abbey in
The lay out of
Easby Abbey is irregular due to its position on the
edge of a steep river bank. The cloister is duly placed on the south
side of the church, and the chief buildings occupy their usual
positions around it. However, the cloister garth (quadrangle), as at
Chichester, is not rectangular, and thus, all the surrounding
buildings are positioned in an awkward fashion. The church follows the
plan adopted by the Austin canons in their northern abbeys, and has
only one aisle to the north of the nave, while the choir is long,
narrow and without an aisle. Each transept has an aisle to the east,
forming three chapels.
The church at
Bayham Old Abbey
Bayham Old Abbey had no aisles in the nave or the choir.
The latter terminated in a three-sided apse. The church is remarkable
for its extreme narrowness in proportion to its length. While the
building is 257 ft (78 m) long, it is not more than
25 ft (7.6 m) wide. Premonstratensian canons did not care to
have congregations nor possessions. Therefore, they built their
churches in the shape of a long room.
Abbey of Sénanque
Jumièges Abbey, Normandy
The Cistercians, a
Benedictine reform group, were established at
Cîteaux in 1098 AD by Robert of Molesme,
Abbot of Molesme, for the
purpose of restoring, as far as possible, the literal observance of
the Rule of Saint Benedict. La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux, and
Morimond were the first four abbeys to follow Cîteaux's example and
others followed. The monks of Cîteaux created the well known
vineyards of Clos-Vougeot and Romanée in Burgundy.
The Cistercian principle of rigid self-abnegation carried over to the
design of the order's churches and buildings. The defining
architectural characteristic of the Cistercian abbeys was extreme
simplicity and plainness. Only a single, central tower was permitted,
and that was usually very low. Unnecessary pinnacles and turrets were
prohibited. The triforium was omitted. The windows were usually plain
and undivided, and it was forbidden to decorate them with stained
glass. All needless ornament was proscribed. The crosses were made of
wood and the candlesticks of iron.
The same principle governed the choice of site for Cistercian abbeys
in that a most dismal site might be improved by the building of an
abbey. The Cistercian monasteries were founded in deep, well-watered
valleys, always standing at a stream's edge. The building might extend
over the water as is the case at Fountains Abbey. These valleys, now
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. Clara Vallis of St Bernard, now the "bright
valley" was originally, the "Valley of Wormwood". It was an infamous
den of robbers.
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.
List of abbeys and priories
^ a b c Birt 1907
^ Venables 1911 cites Church History, iii. p. 316, Clark's
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Venables 1911.
^ a b c "Abbey". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-Ak - Bayes (15th ed.).
Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2010. pp. 11–12.
^ a b Newcomb, Rexford (1997). "Abbey". In Johnston, Bernard.
Collier's Encyclopedia. I A to Ameland (First ed.). New York, NY: P.F.
Collier. pp. 8–11.
Westminster Abbey organisation website.
Abbey Archived May 4, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. York
^ a b Alston, George Cyprian. "Congregation of Cluny." The Catholic
Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 4 May
^ Pringle, Denys, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem:
L-Z (excluding Tyre), Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998, p.86
^ Gildas, Marie. "
Abbey of Cîteaux." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol.
3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 4 May 2014
^ Venables 1911 cites Milman's Lat. Christ. vol. iii. p. 335.
Birt, Henry Norbert (1907). "Abbey". In Herbermann, Charles G. The
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company.
Klein, Ernest, ed. (1987). A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of
the Hebrew Language for Readers of the English Language. Jerusalem,
Israel: Carta. ISBN 965-220-093-X. LCCN 88140194.
Klein, Ernest, ed. (1966). "Abbey". A Comprehensive Etymological
Dictionary of the English Language: Dealing With the Origin of Words
and Their Sense Development thus Illustrating the History of
Civilization and Culture. I: A-K. Amsterdam, The Netherlands:
Elsevier. LCCN 65013229.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Venables, Edmund (1911). "Abbey". In Chisholm,
Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Abbey.
Monastery and abbey index on sacred-destinations.com
Abbeys of Provence,
France (in French)
Abbey Pages on historyfish.net - info on abbeys and monastic life,
images from Photochrom collection
Consecrated life in the Catholic Church
Society of apostolic life
Vow of silence
Vow of enclosure
Liturgy of the Hours
Master of novices