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Monasteries & Abbeys in Europe

For well over a thousand years, one religion has dominated Europe. From its humble origins in the Levant, Christianity came to be the religion of millions of people, from northern Scandinavia to the Mediterranean islands. For many Christians, their faith is something readily practised as part of an ordinary life of work, marriage, and child-rearing. For others, living a Christian life has meant setting themselves apart from the everyday world, dedicating themselves to celibacy, austerity, and religious devotion. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the monasteries, nunneries, abbeys, and priories that have sprung up across the continent and which played a particularly prominent role during the Middle Ages.

What are Abbeys & Monasteries?

Throughout Christian history, certain individuals have embraced a life of celibacy and asceticism while living communally in a religious house. If men, these individuals are typically called monks; if women, they are called nuns. Although they share a life of religious devotion with priests, in Christianity the two roles are separate, as priests oversee public rituals, administer pastoral care to the lay community, and typically live amongst the people whom they serve, a role quite different from that of the monk or nun.

The term monasticism derives from the Greek word monachos, meaning “living alone”. In English, the term monastery usually denotes a religious house inhabited by monks; the terms nunnery or convent are typically used for religious houses for nuns. Those religious houses run by an abbot or abbess are termed an abbey, while those run by a prior or prioress are called a priory. An abbey may also have one or more priors or prioresses, although in these cases the latter are subordinate to the abbot or abbess.

A Brief History of Monasteries in Europe

Like Christianity itself, Christian monasticism originated in the Middle East. Inspired by the example set by Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, many Christians in the early centuries of the Common Era pursued solitary lifestyles. Called hermits or anchorites, these “Desert Fathers” lived alone in sparsely populated areas such as the Egyptian desert, places that allowed them to focus their attentions on religious devotion, prayer, and contemplation. Some adopted idiosyncratic approaches; in the 5th century, for instance, one Syrian anchorite, Simeon Stylites, reportedly spent almost forty years living atop a pillar.

Clustering in particular areas, the anchorites sometimes formed communities known as lauras, meeting together for religious services while spending the rest of their time alone. The argument that these individuals should actually live communally was subsequently made by Saint Pachomius of Egypt in the early 4th century, thus establishing a new approach – often called cenobitic monasticism – that would have major repercussions for Christian history.

Pachomius’ cenobitic monasticism soon spread to Palestine, Syria, and ultimately to Europe, where some societies enthusiastically took up the practice. Ireland for instance became a hub for spreading monastic lifestyles elsewhere in Western Europe, with the Irish Saint Columban establishing monasteries in Gaul (modern France) in the 590s and 600s and his countryman Saint Aidan founding the famous monastery at Lindisfarne in England in the 630s.

As Christianity spread northward among communities speaking Slavic, Germanic, and Finnic languages, so new monasteries formed during the Early Middle Ages. A particularly important monastic complex developed on Mount Athos in Greece during the 10th century, eventually becoming home to monks from various Orthodox Christian traditions.

Attempting to standardise monastic practices, sets of rules were set forth for monks to follow. One of the most prominent Christians to outline one such set of rules was Saint Benedict of Nursia, who lived in Italy during the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The Rule of Benedict emphasised a life of prayer and manual labour, with monks living communally and sharing their belongings. Benedict was sufficiently influential that in 1964 the Pope declared him to be the patron saint of all Europe.

The monastic order who followed Saint Benedict’s example became known as Benedictines and were one of several Roman Catholic groups active in medieval Europe. In the early 10th century, an influential reform movement stemming from the Benedictine Cluny Abbey in France produced the Cluniac Order, while a second Benedictine reform movement, this time stemming from France’s Citeaux Abbey, produced the Cistercians late in the 11th century. Each of these orders had its own particular approach to the monastic life and could often be identified by specific dress codes.

Several quasi-monastic military orders also formed in medieval Europe, their members taking monastic-style vows on issues like poverty and chastity. The early 12th century saw the emergence of both the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templars, the former focusing more on providing medical care and the latter on military objectives in the midst of the Crusades against Islamic forces in the Holy Land. The late 12th century saw the formation of the Teutonic Order, who later led a crusade against pre-Christian communities in the Baltic region. Many medieval buildings associated with these military orders still exist across Europe.

As the Middle Ages proceeded, several mendicant orders appeared, members of which were called friars. Unlike monastic orders, the mendicants took vows of poverty that often required begging for alms, and typically travelled to evangelise and assist the needy, rather than remaining within a closed monastery. The most prominent of these mendicant orders were the Franciscans, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1210, and the Dominicans, established by Saint Dominic in 1216. As with older monastic orders, these mendicant groups often produced reform movements whose members felt that the existing orders were failing to live up to their original intentions. It was for this reason, for example, that the Capuchins branched off from the Franciscans during the 16th century.

Religious houses were Europe’s main centres of learning and scholarship during the Middle Ages. Not only did they preserve the work of older writers such as Homer and Plato, but they were also places for the production of new material, whether beautiful illustrated manuscripts or important new writings on theology, hagiography, and history.

In addition, monastic orders played an important role in the medieval cult of saints, often producing holy relics to entice pilgrims to their monasteries – something that could prove a lucrative source of revenue. Religious houses also often owned considerable tracts of land, allowing hem to become incredibly wealthy. Some of this wealth was redistributed through charitable endeavours, with monasteries and convents providing alms to the poor as well as medical services to local communities and travelling pilgrims.

Monastic wealth was also ploughed into building projects, with new structures reflecting changing fashions. While the Romanesque style of architecture was popular across much of Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries, from the late 12th century the Gothic style began to spread, enabled by knowledge of more advanced construction techniques. Although allowing the religious houses to build beautiful structures and assist the needy, this wealth also brought problems, contradicting many of the ideals on which monastic orders had formed while also generating resentment from the broader population.

Arising in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation posed a major challenge to the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church across much of Europe. Emphasising active participation in the world, Protestantism was generally critical of monasticism. In Denmark, for instance, most monasteries were closed in the Lutheran Reformation of the 1520s and 1530s, while in England and Wales, King Henry VIII’s split from Rome led to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. With Protestantism in the ascendant, monasticism came to an end across much of northern Europe, with monastic buildings repurposed for other uses.

The Roman Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Revolution. Among the changes it introduced was the formation of the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, in the 1540s. The Jesuits were termed “clerics regular,” meaning that they were largely ordained priests rather than monks, however they still lived a communal life bearing similarities to that of the monastic orders. They would play a particularly important role in spreading Roman Catholicism in Asia and the Americas during the early modern period.

Further trouble came for Europe’s monasteries in the 18th century. Anti-Jesuit sentiment became increasingly widespread and in Austria, Emperor Joseph II closed many monasteries as wasteful. More violent was the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, when France’s religious orders were dissolved and many of its medieval monasteries ransacked. Growing numbers of French monks and nuns fled abroad, including to Britain, where improved religious tolerance facilitated the spread of new Roman Catholic religious houses in the 19th century.

Elsewhere in the continent, religious houses faced other problems. In much of Southeast Europe, largely Orthodox Christian peoples like the Serbians and Greeks came under the Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire, during which time their monasteries often served as centres of anti-colonial resistance. The Agia Lavra monastery was the site at which the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule symbolically began in 1821, while Crete’s Arkadi Monastery played a major role in the island’s anti-Ottoman revolt of 1866.

During the 20th century, monastic communities in much of Central and Eastern Europe persevered despite opposition from Marxist governments. Following the collapse of state socialism in the region, many monasteries experienced a revival, often being embraced as repositories of national and cultural identity. Several, such as the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria and the Studenica Monastery in Serbia, became UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe the decline of Christianity saw a concomitant decline for most religious houses. Conversely, the arrival of Asian religions with their own monastic traditions – most notably Buddhism and Hinduism – has resulted in the creation of new types of monastery on European soil.

What is there to See in Abbeys & Monasteries?

While the architecture of religious houses differ depending on when and where they were constructed, there are features that are common to many. Monasteries and convents will typically have dormitories or solitary cells where the residents sleep, as well as kitchens and refectories for the preparation and consumption of food.

Many religious houses will have a cloister, an open quadrilateral space surrounded by a covered walkway, which was often used in the Middle Ages for study and teaching. These walkways could be highly decorated, as at Gloucester Cathedral, a former monastery in England. The cloister was such a common feature of religious houses that the term “cloistered” came to be used in the English language to describe a monastic or otherwise sheltered lifestyle.

Another key facet of a Christian religious house is a church or chapel, the place where the monks or nuns can gather for worship. These are sometimes ornately decorated with frescoes and other artworks, and while this decoration has typically been lost in those northern monasteries destroyed by Protestant Reformers, it remains in many of the religious houses in Southern and Eastern Europe. In Moldavia, north-east Romania, for example, religious houses like the Voroneț Monastery are covered in fresco paintings depicting Christian themes.

With scholarship and learning having been an important facet of Christian monastic life, many medieval monasteries had scriptoriums where scribes could copy out manuscripts, as well as libraries where books were stored. One of the most impressive examples of the latter can be found at the Abbey of Saint Gall in Saint Gallen, Switzerland. Some religious houses also have historically important burial spaces for their deceased members. This can include catacombs or ossuaries, as at the Capuchin Crypt in Rome and the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev.

Where to See Monasteries & Abbeys in Europe

Monasteries & Abbeys in England

Throughout the history of English Christianity, there have been Christians wanting to spend their lives in religious devotion. Some have chosen to do so as hermits, while others have chosen a life of devotion as part of a community of monks or nuns, in what is often called a religious house. These religious houses had a profound influence across English society during the Middle Ages until being forcibly swept away in the Reformation of the 16th century, ultimately making a return, if on a smaller scale, during the Victorian era. While no longer a major facet of English life, the country’s monasteries, convents, abbeys, and priories offer an important and fascinating insight into this nation’s past.

Rows of lavender in near full bloom in front of the medieval abbey of Senanque.

Monasteries & Abbeys in France

Many of the abbeys and monasteries in France were established by wealthy nobles. Some of these would become centres of great intellectual and artistic activity. The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris had one of the most important libraries in Europe. During the French Revolution many of these institutions were destroyed or repurposed. Since then a number have been restored and attract many visitors. These are important historical landmarks that were  influential in the political and cultural development of medieval France.

Monasteries & Abbeys in Wales

Of the three countries that make up Great Britain, it is Wales that probably has the longest history of uninterrupted Christian practice, one that stretches from the era of the Roman Empire right through to the present day. During the Middle Ages, Wales was home to a rich monastic tradition and while this was stamped out during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, many ruined religious houses survive as important reminders of Wales’ medieval heritage.