The Rule of the Cloister – Insight into medieval monasticism.

Of the many who are able to talk peaceful platitudes of the World and the Cloister, few probably could explain how they come to use the latter term. We are familiar with the appearance of the medieval cloister; we know that the monks wrote and studied in it; we have romantic (and incorrect) imagines of cowled figures pacing them in moonlight meditation; but why the cloister should be taken to denominate the whole monastic life is not apparent from any of these things. 

Surely the grandest of the monastic buildings was the church; and the one most significant of monastic rule was the chapter-house: yet, from the days when Chaucer rhymed “‘cloister” with “oyster,’” to our own, it has been chosen as the symbol of the monastic life. Like Aaron’s rod, it has swallowed up the rest. Why is this?

Cloister St. Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury XI century

A 1904 publication of the Henry Bradshaw Society [1] “Customary of the Benedictine Monasteries of Saint Augustine, Canterbury, and Saint Peter, Westminster, Vol. I and Vol. II,” throws a vivid light on the function of the cloister in the monasticism of the middle ages. The object of the following sketch is to extract the information given on this point, and to present some picture of the daily life in St. Augustine’s cloister, The 396 pages of the book does not give us all the information we could wish for. There is much repetition, and unfortunately there are considerable portions missing. The life of the novice is treated very completely; but the life of the professed monk was apparently in the lost pages. In spite of this, the material is so abundant that we shall confine ourselves strictly to the cloisters, and to the source immediately before us. Doubtless competent hands will be found to deal with the rich material which the volume offers and the interesting questions it suggests. 

The present day requires no apology for minuteness of details. We are full of praise for a commander who looks after the shoe-strings of his troops; we cannot then find fault with the legislator who directs that nuts be split with the knife in the public refectory, and not cracked. Every domestic incident affects the order and decorum of a religious house, and may not be left to hazard. Moreover, for a religious community there is a further end in view than the smooth running of the domestic machine; the spiritual life is never lost sight of in the temporal. Every minutia of observance is made, and not inaptly, to symbolise some phase of the inner life. Thus, the three blows struck on the wooden tablet at the close of chapter are to recall the stages of life— “our tearful entry into this world, the difficult state of our pilgrimage, and our sad and horrible departure from this life” (p. 239). 

We are not concerned with providing an explanation or making suggestion with regard to the structure of the book. We may notice, however, the continual reference to the older custom, the lament over the departure from the “right and ancient” method, the ejaculation “si sic nunc!” and the groan that “nowadays nobody cares,” “non curant modo fratres” (p. 216), We are reminded that such is the way of the reformer; and that we should not draw too stringent a conclusion from it as to the state of discipline; that even their great legislator, St. Benedict, laments the degeneracy of his day, when the Psalter, which was the daily prayer of older times, was only gone through once a week. 

Artist’s Impression of the Cloister

Of the cloister of St. Augustine’s nothing remains. One page of the MS. which had been left blank was filled by a later hand with measurements of the buildings; but, provokingly enough, while there are two entries “longitudo claustri sub tecto” and “latitudo” &c., there are no figures set against them. The Customary gives many structural indications, which will be interesting to collate with the results of the excavations now taking place. The abbey buildings lay to the north of the church. Against the East cloister were the chapter-house and dormitory; the refectory bounded the North cloister, The abbot’s chamber and the two locutories (parlours) closed in the West cloister; the South cloister lay along the church. Various sections of the cloister had to be kept in repair by different officials: the celerarius (or procurator, as we call him) was to see to the roof of the cloister next to the abbot’s chamber and refectory; the sacristan, Or secretary as he is sometimes called, has charge of the roof of the cloister next to the church and chapter-room, which can only mean the south cloister, The sacristan also is to see to the roof of the cloister from the abbot’s locutory to the door of the community locutory, which is described as ‘versus austrum,’ but which seems to indicate the west cloister. 

The life of the cloister begins with the first hour of the day. At midnight the bell, ‘by ancient custom,’ clangs out the summons to matings; and shortly afterwards the door of the church opens, and the sacristan’s assistant, who has been sleeping with his companions in the church to keep watch over its treasures, lights the four cressets which hang in the cloisters — at the door leading into the church, at the choir door, at the foot of the dormitory steps and at the refectory door. The cloisters shew weirdly in this scanty lighting, and the dark figures which soon appear add to the sombre effect. They move noiselessly, for the strictest silence is to be observed until after prime; moreover, they are forbidden to wear their leathern day shoes. The hood is drawn down until it conceals half the face: lest there should be any uncertainty as to the regulation, they are bidden to lower it to the bridge of the nose. One group by exception moves in procession, with a space of some five or six feet between each couple. These are the novices, who are never to be seen singly, or unaccompanied by their master, until their year’s probation is ended. Occasionally, at rare intervals let us believe, a monk may be seen walking with hood thrown back, a lantern in the right hand held high above the head, so that the light falls on the face. He is doing the penance of the lantern for some grave fault against discipline. On still rarer occasions a hooded figure lies prostrated at the door of the church. The brethren pass over him with the inward prayer, “Misereatur tui Deus,” for he is guilty of grave crime. When the last of the community has passed into the church, he rises and enters. Presently the chant tell us that the office has begun — the gradual psalms, or the three prayers which precede matins When they are ended the church door opens, and a figure bearing a lantern enters the cloister. This is the prior or sub-prior, or one of the custodians of the order, who makes the round of the cloisters and dormitory to see that no one is absenting himself from the office. After matins the community return to the dormitory in procession, the due spacing between the couples always being observed; the custodians again makes the circuit of the cloisters, and the cressets are extinguished.

Canonical Hours

At daybreak, and so earlier or later as the season runs, the life of the cloister begins again with the offices of lauds and prime. Some of the brethren will wash their hands before office at the lavatory by the refectory door. Others, with the novices will wash them after prime. As the light increases we see that there are two lavatories; one at the church door for use of those who are to vest for the church services; the other, by the refectory door, for general use. Near this five towels are hanging: four for the public, and one set apart for the sub-prior, who is so intimately connected with the discipline of the cloister that he is known as the “prior claustri.”[2] The refectorian has to see to the renewal of these towels every Sunday before the procession, and whenever necessary. The novices wash in due order and then take their rank opposite the door of the locutory, where they dress their hair with the combs hanging at their belts. Then they take their places in the cloister for their studies. 

Geum urbanum – Buds and flower

The cloisters are more furnished than is generally thought. Seats are ranged under the windows and against the walls, and are furnished with mats. Each window has its carrels, wooden writing desks, more or less ornamented. These are necessarily limited in number, and their possession is to be envied. Hence, those who have them are enjoined to lend them to the less fortunate. When one of their number dies it is forbidden to sell his carrel, but it must be handed on to someone who requires it, and can put it to fitting use. The cantor, who has charge of all the abbey books, has his desk in a prominent position under one of the windows, opposite to the aumbry (almeriolum) containing the books used for the choir offices. The sub-cantor has his seat close by the book press, and is to assist the cantor in distributing the books. From St. Dustan’s [of Canterbury]  day, May the 19th, until Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael [Michaelmas] on September 29th, the cloister is strewn with “green rushes”; the almoner is to see to their provision. Probably during the remaining months, when such a precaution would be more necessary, straw or hay would be found for the purpose by the same official, though there is no mention of this. On Holy Saturday morning the almoner is to strew the cloister with “herb benet” [Geum urbanum,] Colewort or wood-avens, having yellow, strawberry-like flowers followed by distinctive fruits with burrs, and was credited with the power to expel evil spirits [and to protect against rabid dogs and venomous snakes]. Christianity easily incorporated the plant into its belief system  because the leaves of herb benet grew in threes and its petals in fives [reminiscent of, respectively, the Holy Trinity and the Five Wounds.] [3] 

Everyone who could be accommodated had a fixed place in the cloister, appointed to him by the prior. The abbot, by ancient custom, and “as his eminent dignity required,” had his seat at the head of the east cloister, next to the door of the chapter house; the prior in the north cloister, next to the door of the locutory, the others following him in order of seniority; the sub-prior sat in the east cloister, next to the lesser lavatory; the third prior sat in the middle of the west cloister. The novices and the younger monks who were still bound to the repetition of liturgical tasks, and those who had no assigned seat, were to find place in the West cloister. The East cloister was reserved for confession, and none might sit in it save the abbot and sub-prior, and anyone who was condemned in penance to sit at the chapter door during the time of talking. It was an ingenious device to place the culprit in a “splendid isolation” in the portion reserved for the abbot.

Before sitting down to work the novices always recited the “De Profundis” and a collect, as an exercise in deliberation. They were not to be more than three together over a book. Those who practised the chant or recitation for choir had to sing or recite as loudly as they did in church. Each one began his task to the novice master, who might hear them to the end or dismiss them to another official. Other memory work must be gone through in a more moderate tone. They would rarely be at loss for ‘by heart” matter during their noviciate; for they had to learn the Rule, the Psalter, the hymns and canticles, and other liturgical offices. We are not surprised to be told that they were not to join any classes during their probation. It might be that such of them as were priests when they took the habit had already learnt much of this; nevertheless, at this hour they must not study anything but the psalms or hymns. After prime, the novices had the cloister to themselves for the most part, as the juniors were engaged in singing the mass “pro ecclesia.” In the East cloister, however, were to be seen the confessors, who had at this time especially to be prepared to hear confessions. 

At nine the bell calls the community to the church for tierce and the Mass of our Lady. Afterwards they file through the cloister to the chapter-house for daily chapter. Before the accusation of faults begins the novices leave the chapter-house, either to go to their own chapter of faults, or to the dormitory to study. 

St Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury, Kent, Southern England, believed to be the oldest Benedictine monastery in the UK. UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nobody may remain in the cloister during the chapter. When it is ended the community assemble in the cloister for “‘parliamentum,” a talk; and surely by this time they have earned it. The novice-master rattles the hasp of the dormitory door and the novices descend to the cloister. Even this relaxation has its forms and ceremonies. Before it commences the prior says “Benedicite” loudly enough for everyone to hear. [4] If a monk come after this he must say “Benedicite” before joining in the talk. The conversation is “de ordine” of rules or regulations, or at least of something unto edification. Any jocularity is strictly forbidden, and we need not say, any quarrelling or accusation. They must do penance in chapter if they slip into a strong expression. This injunction might surprise us if we did not know something of the language of the times. If they did lapse, it was not for want of a strict training; for when novices, they had been taught to use no more forcible expression than ‘‘believe me,” “surely,” or “‘plainly.” Nobody might read during the conversation; nor should anybody write except for public urgency. At no time must they to speak whilst standing in the cloister. If the abbot should pass they must rise and do reverence; but as the occasion is semi-liturgical, they shall not rise to the prior, though they do so on other occasions. The novices are in the East cloister, strictly apart; no professed monk may speak with them, expect to admonish them, and that only by permission of the novice-master. If they sit in couples, there must be an empty seat between them. Their novice-master is always to be present; evidently every precaution is taken to prevent any conversation which might shake their serious purpose. Parliament is the appropriate time for nail-trimming. There are two ways of doing this, After the superior has said what he has to say of religion and rule, the individual rises and sits apart with averted face, and so pares his nails, and if necessary cleans and polishes his knife. Otherwise he asks permission of his neighbour on either hand, without leaving his place for the purpose. But (believe one who knows) the former would seem to be more courtly (curialis) and honest. Perhaps some careful antiquarian may one day achieve reputation by detecting the traces of the knife-sharpening in some cloister. The language spoken is French. This again is explained by the semi-liturgical aspect of the function; even as, when the Rule of St. Benedict was expounded, it must be in French, not in English. 

Talking was again allowed after dinner; but considerable restrictions were placed even on this innocent relaxation. On Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, and on Thursday and Saturday in addition in Lent, no talking was allowed. Nor was it permitted while a dead body lay in the monastery or church. Laypersons were kept out of the cloister as much as feasibly possible, though there is much lament over their frequent passage there: even females were brought through so late as after supper, and it is this occurrence that draws out the delightful “non curant modo fratres!”  The cause is obvious, as it was the way from the abbot’s guest-house to the church. Let the community take no notice of the passers-by, unless it be royalty or some very exalted personae. As the guest-master leads his guests to the church, we observe that they kneel and kiss the “limen,” i.e., the lowest step of the fight leading from the cloister. It is pleasing to learn that careful and particular hospitality was shown to the relatives of the monks. 

Talking ceased when the bell rang for High Mass. Sometimes after the Gospel of the High Mass, a small group passes through the cloister to the dormitory, where they wait for the doctor, who is to bleed them. The frequent legislation on the subject shows that it was a common occurrence; and when we learn that they were bled every seven weeks, and that only a portion of the large community would be bled at a time, we can surmise its frequency. After the “Agnus Dei,” another small group passes to the refectory. These are the waiters at table, who, by the wise provision of St. Benedict, are allowed to take “mixtūra,” a little food [the main ingredient being rye] and drink to fit them for their labours after their long fast. Between High Mass and sext the time was used for study in the cloister. In silence time the brethren might not sit face to face, but were to sit sideways, looking on their neighbour’s back. The novices were instructed how to hold their books: the left hand, covered by the sleeve of the cassock, was to be placed under the book and rested on the knees; the right to be kept uncovered to turn over the pages. Those who wrote in the carrels must not treat of mundane subjects, and the custodians were to go about frequently to see all the regulations were observed. The novice-master, in particular, should not write, or engage in any occupation which might distract his attention from this charge. At midday they went to the church for sext, and then returned to the cloister to wash their hands before dinner, their first meal.

After dinner they passed again through the cloister to the church, reciting the “Miserere.” On returning to the cloister they again washed their hands, and in Lent sat in the cloister to read. In summer they retired to the dormitory for the “meridiana,” a siesta which they took lying on their beds, reading, or if they wished, sleeping. This was not so much a concession to the sultry weather, as the natural result of a morning longer by one or two hours than it was in winter, At 3 p.m. they passed to the church for none, and after none they again studied in the cloisters, or occupied themselves in manual labour until vespers. After vespers they studied again until supper, after which they read in the cloisters or meditated, as the light permitted, until the ‘‘potus caritatis” which was allowed during Lent, or until compline, From compline they went in procession to the dormitory: the custodians made the round of the cloisters, the cressets were extinguished, and the day’s work was ended. The solemn [or great] silence has begun which cannot be broken, save under the most urgent request, until prime the next morning. After this, two events alone can justify the presence of any of the community in the cloisters. The one, when the tocsin tells that fire or flood threatens the town, and the monks sally forth in all haste to work for the public safety. The other occasion is when they hear the ominous sound of the wooden tablet, one single blow, followed by a succession of sharp strokes, telling them that a brother is entering on his agony. Rapidly they dress and pass to the infirmary, silently repeating the “Credo” with inward groaning, to speed their brother in his passage from the cloister to the shroud. 


Two obligations remain to be described, which —though not a daily recurrence— are essentially characteristic of the cloister. The first being the washing of feet, which takes place before dinner every Saturday, or if that day proves to be inconvenient, on a Thursday. There is a daily ‘mandatum”, which is entirely ritualistic in character, and with which we are not concerned, as it takes place in the chapter house. But the weekly washing is purely practical. The under-chamberlain is to provide one can of warm water and four basins for the dignitaries and the old, and he is to see that the basins are sound and clean within and without. The rest of the community brought their own basins. The Strictest silence is observed, and every precaution taken to secure a modest propriety. At this time laypersons are not to be allowed into the cloister under any circumstances. No cleaning or sharpening of knives is permitted at this function. The second ceremony is the fortnightly shaving. If it occurs on a feast day, the shaving is done beforehand.

St. Augustine of Canterbury

The old custom was for the brethren to shave one another; but for once the old custom is not pronounced the better, and professional barbers are allowed to supersede the monastic amateur. The seniors were to be shaved first, for the stated reason that the razors are sharp and the towels dry. Novices are to go to the dormitory to bring their own towels, unless —there is a suspicion of sarcasm about this— there is a necessity to make haste, when the novice-master had best go for them himself. Due notice is to be given to the community, so that they may be prepared, and penalties are mentioned for anyone who knowingly absents himself. Without excuse or permission. 

Such was the Rule of the Cloister St. Augustine’s. In this manner of astuteness every little domestic detail was lifted into the realm of ritual, the vulgar element of necessity refined, and the whole round of life brought into the “schola divini servicii” of their law-giver. Nothing has been said of the church services, of the discipline of chapter, of the monastic refectory, and of the administrative work of the many officials and dependants. I believe that I have conveyed enough information to demonstrate why the cloister became closely associated with monastic life; and also I trust, to convince you that the monks of St. Augustine’s endeavoured to carry out the vows which they had pledged themselves to at the abbey’s altar; in the robust English of their day —“to steadfastness and a chaste life before God and all His Hallowen; to be buxom and live without property all their life-time.”  

Seal of the Abbot of Saint Augustines Monastery, Canterbury

[1]   Customary of the Benedictine monasteries of Saint Augustine, Canterbury, and Saint Peter, Westminster, Edited by Thompson, Edward Maunde, Sir, GCB FBA [† 1917], vol. 1. Text of the Cotton MS. Faustina C. xii. 1902, [it will interest our readers to now that the existence of this MS. was intimated to the editor by the English Roman Catholic historian and Benedictine postulant Bro. Edmund Bishop at Downside Abbey. 

[2]  The prior in called prior simply, or if distinction be required, “prior major” or “prior conventualis.”]

[3]   Possibly the derivation of the name came from this Benedictine use of it; the German form (Benediktinkraut) seems to point to that rather than the commonly received suggestion of “blessed.”

[4]   How this would tickle Elia: it is nothing else but grace before talking!