Monasteries tended to be built to largely similar plans. The cloisters of a monastery are usually on the south side of the church. Cloisters are built in a square shape and the middle is open to the elements – lovely on a sunny day not so great for the rest of the year. Each of the four sides of the cloister was called a walk and usually covered by some kind of roofing to protect the monks from wind and rain. Cloisters in modern cathedrals tend to be completely covered but this would not have been the case in medieval monasteries they would have been open to the elements. Monks would have studied here, dried their laundry and had their tonsures cut. The novice master would have taught the novices here as well. The tranquil ruins we see today do not give us a picture of the day-to-day business of the cloisters – albeit largely silent business. Benedictine monasteries and Cistercians used different layouts. This post is principally about Benedictine monasteries.
The north walk usually lies with its back to the church wall. This was the most important walk because it was south facing. It is on this wall that visitors to medieval ruins can often find stone benches or the remains of individual study areas called carrels. Gloucester Cathedral has some lovely stone built carrels rather than wooden enclosures. Light came through the upper part of the carrel.
There’s usually an entrance to the church at the top end of the east walk. There would usually also be a door leading in the direction of the infirmary. All along the rest of the east walk there were rooms for monks who held office within the monastery to go about their business such as the treasury. It was on this side of the cloister that most conversation occurred. The south walk led in the direction of the kitchens whilst the west range led to the areas of the monastery where the lay brothers and members of the public who had cause to be there might be found.
The dorter – the monks’ sleeping quarters are usually on the upper floor of the eastern range. There would usually be a parlour beneath the dorter as well as a common room or warming room with a fire and offices such as the treasury. The chapter house also lay in the east range but more of that in another post as they come in all shapes and sizes.
There were usually two sets of stairs leading to and from the dorter. There would be a day stairs- usually to be found near the chapter house in Benedictine monasteries but in Cistercian monasteries, especially the later ones they exit at the juncture with the south range of buildings. The night stairs led straight from the dorter into the transept of the church. My favourite examples of night stairs are those in Hexham (black and white photo to the right of this paragraph) and Wells Cathedral (picture at the start of this paragraph).
The dorter started off as a large room but later on was partitioned into cubicles with wooden wainscoting. The monasteries built later in the medieval period provided a small window for each cubicle.
It should be added that not every monastery was designed on the principle of the four ranges. In Durham the dorter is above the west range of buildings.
The reredorter lay beyond the dorter. Another name for the reredorter was the necessarium. The size of the reredorter depends on the wealth of the monastery in question and the water supply. The monks availed themselves of the facilities on the first floor, the drainage and engineering required to carry the waster off is usually an impressively deep ditch to modern eyes but in medieval times the covered in drain began its journey away from the monastery by running parallel to the undercroft.