The Cloister                        
    Latin, claustrum, or ‘enclosed place.’  A square or rectangular central courtyard, usually built on the south side of the church, surrounded on all sides by the inner (claustral) rooms of the monastery, such as the Chapter Room and monastic kitchens.  

[Bavon Abbey, ruins.]
      The large center of the cloister is open to the elements, and often included a well and herb gardens planted with medicinal, and other plants useful to the monastery (such as sweet woodruff which could be mixed with rushes for strewing the floors of the church and choir).  The center open square of the cloister, called the cloister garth, was surrounded by a covered, often colonnaded, walkway on all four sides, with this walkway called the alley.  Whether the alley was also open to the outdoors or not depended on the style and location of the monastery, with weather an obvious consideration.  Monasteries in cold climates built a sheltering alley, either sealing it behind unglazed windows or using protective wooden shutters.   The alley, or walkway, was also referred to as the ‘Promenade’ as it was along this walkway that the monks would sing and walk in procession.  

[Monks Promenade, Mont Saint Michel, France.]
A second story above the cloister often overhung the alley to form the roof and overlook the inner courtyard.  The upstairs spaces were protected workspaces for the monks, and protected with glass and shuttering from the cold and damp.  The northern side of the cloister particularly, which received the best natural light, was the primary location for books and carrels (desks and workspaces), though there could be carrels along the east and west sides as well.

[Convent of San Martino, with burying ground, Naples, Italy]
     While ‘cloister’ refers specifically to this one large central court area, the word ‘cloister’ was also used in general to refer to the enclosed rooms and places inside the monastery itself.  The general living and working quarters of the monks and nuns, especially those places where silence was to be observed and maintained, were all often referred to in general as ‘the cloister.’  In order to communicate silently, monastic men and women developed a signing system, a language of hand signals and other gestures.    

Copyright (c) Richenda Fairhurst and, 2007  All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.  Keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.