Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries

By Hill, Bennett | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries


Hill, Bennett, The Catholic Historical Review


Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries. By Megan Cassidy-Welch. (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers. 2001. Pp. xv, 293. euro;50.00.)

This provocative book explores the monastic culture of seven thirteenth-century Yorkshire Cistercian abbeys-Fountains, Rievaulx, Sawley, Kirkstall, Jervaulx, Roche, and Byland through the concept of space, with space understood in two senses; on the one hand, the visible, physical space, and, on the other hand, abstract or imagined space, such as heaven, purgatory, and hell. The work rests on careful study of the archaeological remains of these abbeys, on an analysis of relevant contemporary monastic texts, on an exceptional control of the vast secondary literature, and on the application of the ideas of theorists, such as Michel Foucault.

Dr. Cassidy-Welch focuses on the abbey church as the center of monastic psalmody and devotion; the cloister (usually) on the south side of the church as both the scene of communal rites, such as shaving, and rituals such as processions, and as the vision of paradise; the infirmary, as the place for bloodletting and of rest for the sick; and on the cemetery and all that relates to rituals surrounding death and burial. The conversi or lay brothers receive some consideration, though the reasons for their dissatisfaction, revolts, and violence do not get the attention that they deserve, given the brothers' importance for Cistercian economic culture. There is no mention of the monastic refectory, dormitory, or bathing places, though those parts of the compound obviously held significance for the physical, spiritual, and psychological health of the brethren.

The Chapter House has traditionally been understood as the place for the daily community meeting, or chapter, the place for the conduct of negotia, the business of the house, such as the lease, purchase, or sale of property; discussions about renovations or expansion of buildings; about the admission of novices to profession; the election of officials; about preparations for abbatial visitations and the implementation of visitorial recommendations. …

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