The chapter house was the second most important building in the monastery range after the church. It was here that the monks met every day to discuss abbey business and to listen to a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict. The monks sat on stone benches around the walls as shown in the first picture showing the ruins of the chapter house at Rievaulx. It was here also that punishments were metered out to erring monks, important visitors greeted and Visitations conducted. It was here also that the abbots and monks of monasteries across the land surrendered their properties into the hands of Cromwell’s agents.
Burton and Kerr (page 80) emphasise how unusual the chapter house is at Rievaulx. Instead of being rectangular it has an apse (semi-circular end). It was also large enough to accommodate the lay brothers as well as the choir monks. The chapter house was built during the time of Abbot Aelred (abbot -1147-1167) but the shrine to Sir William of Rievaulx who was Aelred’s predecessor can still be seen behind a window of the chapter house.
Indeed in the earlier chapter houses it is perfectly normal to find the tombs of abbots as well as pavements bearing reference to patrons, even tombs of patrons in some cases. On a more prosaic level in Cistercian chapter houses libraries in the form of book cupboards built into the walls can also be found.
As with much else about monasteries the chapter house changed according to the period in which it was built. Early chapter houses are rectangular ground floor affairs beneath the dormitory but they became increasingly ornate as the medieval period advanced. The chapter house became a separate vaulted building, some with apses and others, which took on a polygon shape- sometimes the original rectangular chapter house became an outer room leading to the chapter house which projected out of the east range. Many chapter houses are separate from the church, with a slype or alleyway between the church and the chapter house but in other places, such as Chester the chapter house adjoins the church. Some chapter houses such as the ones at Southwell are heavily decorated. In Southwell it’s possible to spend hours in the chapter house looking for green men. Foliate heads of all sizes peer at you from the masonry where as at Wells, as the two photographs in this paragraph show, the vaulted ceiling and lantern of glasswork will have you craning your neck.
Burton, Janet and Kerr, Julie (2011) The Cistercians in the Middle Ages (Monastic Orders). Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer,
The Chapter House at Southwell is absolutely stunning – I spent ages looking at the carvings when I visited!
I took lots of photos but my camera wasn’t good enough so I ended up with many blurred images but it’s always an excuse to go back again. As you say the chapter house is absolutely stunning, I can’t think of another quite like it.