The Tikse Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India

The term monastery (from Greek: μοναστήριον (monastērion) denotes the buildings of a community of monastics (monks or nuns).1 Monasteries may vary greatly in size from a small dwelling accommodating only a hermit to vast complexes and estates housing thousands. In most religions, monasteries are governed by community rules that stipulate the gender of the inhabitants and require them to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which life inside a particular monastery is socially separate from the surrounding populace can also vary widely; some religious traditions mandate isolation for purposes of contemplation removed from the everyday world, in which case members of the monastic community may spend most of their time isolated even from each other. Others are focused on interacting with the local communities in order to provide some service, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism. Some monastic communties are only occupied seasonally, depending both on the traditions involved and the local weather, and people may be part of a monastic community for periods ranging from a few days at a time to almost an entire lifetime.

The life within the walls of a monastery may be supported in several ways: by manufacturing and selling goods, often agricultural products such as cheese, wine, beer, liquor, and jellies; by donations or alms; by rental or investment incomes; and by funds from other organizations within the religion which in the past has formed the traditional support of Monasteries. However, today Christian Monastics have updated and adapted themselves to modern society by offering computer services, accounting services, management as well as modern hospital administration in addition to running schools, colleges and universities.


The word monastery comes from the Greek μοναστήριον "monasterion," from the root "monos" = alone (originally all Christian monks were hermits), and the suffix "-terion" = place for doing something. The earliest extant use of the term monastērion is by the first century C.E. Jewish philosopher Philo (On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).


A monastery may be an abbey (i.e., under the rule of an abbot), or a priory (under the rule of a prior), or conceivably a hermitage (the dwelling of a hermit). It may be a community of men (monks) or of women (nuns). A charterhouse is any monastery belonging to the Carthusian order. In Eastern Christianity a very small monastic community can be called a skete, and a very large or important monastery can be given the dignity of a lavra.

The communal life of a Christian monastery is called cenobitic, as opposed to the anchoretic (or anchoritic) life of an anchorite and the eremitic life of a hermit.

Buddhist monasteries are generally called vihara (Pali language). Viharas may be occupied by males or females. In Tibetan Buddhism, monasteries are often called gompa or lamaseries. The monks are sometimes (mistakenly) known as lamas. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a monastery is called a wat.

Jains use the term vihara. In Hinduism monasteries are called matha, mandir or koil.


The remains of Nalanda monastery in India.

The history of monasticism predates Christianity by a considerable period of time. When the first Christian cenobites banded together in the desert in the fourth century C.E., Buddhist monasteries had been in existence for seven hundred years or more, and had 2 Scholar Robert Thurman suggests that "It is quite likely that (Buddhist monasticism) influenced West Asia, North Africa, and Europe through lending its institutional style to Manicheism and Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity."3

Buddhist monasteries were known as vihara and emerged sometime around the fourth century B.C.E., from the practice of vassa, the retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks and nuns during the South Asian rainy season. In order to prevent wandering monks from disturbing new plant growth or becoming stranded in inclement weather, Buddhist monks and nuns were instructed to remain in a fixed location for the roughly three month period typically beginning in mid-July. Outside of the vassa period, monks and nuns both lived a migratory existence, wandering from town to town begging for food. These early fixed vassa retreats were held in pavilions and parks that had been donated to the sangha by wealthy supporters. Over the years, the custom of staying on property held in common by the sangha as a whole during the vassa retreat evolved into a more cenobitic lifestyle, in which monks and nuns resided year round in monasteries.

Near East

In the Near East, famous monastic communities were the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt.4The earliest known Christian monastic communities consisted of groups of cells or huts collected about a common centre, which was usually the house of some hermit or anchorite famous for holiness or singular asceticism, but without any attempt at orderly arrangement. Such communities followed the precedents already established in the region. Eventually, organization was introduced in the groups of huts. They were arranged in lines like the tents in an encampment, or the houses in a street. From this arrangement these lines of single cells came to be known as Laurae, Laurai, "streets" or "lanes."

Saint Anthony the Great, considered the Father of Christian Monasticism

In the earliest age of Christian monasticism the ascetics were accustomed to live singly, independent of one another, not far from some village church, supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands, and distributing the surplus after the supply of their own scanty wants to the poor. Increasing religious fervor, aided by persecution, drove them farther and farther away from the civilization into mountain solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with the "cells" or huts of these anchorites. Anthony the Great, who had retired to the Egyptian desert during the persecution of Maximian, 312 C.E., was the most celebrated among these monks for his austerities, sanctity, and power as an exorcist. His fame resulted in many followers collecting around him who imitating his asceticism in an attempt to imitate his sanctity. The deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells round that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of monks living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Anthony, as Johann August Wilhelm Neander remarks,5 "without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new mode of living in common, Coenobitism."

The real founder of cenobitic (koinos, common, and bios, life) monasteries in the modern sense was Saint Pachomius, an Egyptian living in the beginning of the fourth century. The first community established by him was at Tabennae, an island of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Eight others were founded in the region during his lifetime, numbering 3000 monks. Within 50 years of his death his societies could claim 50,000 members. These coenobia resembled villages, peopled by a hard-working religious community, all of one gender.

The buildings were detached, small and of the humblest character. Each cell or hut, according to Sozomen (H.R. iii. 14), contained three monks. They took their chief meal in a common refectory or dining hall at 3 P.M., up to which hour they usually fasted. They ate in silence, with hoods so drawn over their faces that they could see nothing but what was on the table before them. The monks spent any time not devoted to religious services or study in manual labor.

Palladius, who visited the Egyptian monasteries about the close of the fourth century, found among the 300 members of the coenobium of Panopolis, under the Pachomian rule, 15 tailors, seven smiths, gour carpenters, 12 camel drivers and 15 tanners. Each separate community had its own steward, who was subject to a chief steward stationed at the head establishment. All the produce of the monks' labour was committed to him, and by him shipped to Alexandria. The money raised by the sale was expended in the purchase of stores for the support of the communities, and what was over was devoted to charity. Twice in the year the superiors of the several coenobia met at the chief monastery, under the presidency of an archimandrite ("the chief of the fold," from miandra, a sheepfold), and at the last meeting gave in reports of their administration for the year. The coenobia of Syria belonged to the Pachomian institution. Many details concerning those in the vicinity of Antioch derive from Saint John Chrysostom's writings. The monks lived in separate huts, kalbbia, forming a religious hamlet on the mountain side. They were subject to an abbot, and observed a common rule. (They had no refectory, but ate their common meal, of bread and water only, when the day's labour was over, reclining on strewn grass, sometimes out of doors.) Four times in the day they joined in prayers and psalms.

The necessity for defense from hostile attacks (for monastic houses tended to accumulate rich gifts), economy of space and convenience of access from one part of the community to another, by degrees dictated a more compact and orderly arrangement of the buildings of a monastic cenobium. Large piles of building were erected, with strong outside walls, capable of resisting the assaults of an enemy, within which all the necessary edifices were ranged round one or more open courtyards, usually surrounded with cloisters. The usual Eastern arrangement is exemplified in the plan of the convent of the Holy Laura, Mount Athos.

Monasticism in the West owes its extension and development to Saint Benedict of Nursia (born 480 C.E.). His rule was diffused with miraculous rapidity from the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino through the whole of Western Europe, and every country witnessed the erection of monasteries far exceeding anything that had yet been seen in spaciousness and splendour. Few great towns in Italy were without their Benedictine convent, and they quickly rose in all the great centres of population in England, France and Spain. The number of these monasteries founded between 520 C.E. and 700 is amazing. Before the Council of Constance, 1415 C.E., no fewer than 15,070 abbeys had been established of this order alone. The buildings of a Benedictine abbey were uniformly arranged after one plan, modified where necessary (as at Durham and Worcester, where the monasteries stand close to the steep bank of a river) to accommodate the arrangement to local circumstances.

We have no existing examples of the earlier monasteries of the Benedictine order. They have all yielded to the ravages of time and the violence of man. However, we have preserved to us an elaborate plan of the great Swiss monastery of Saint Gall, erected about 820 C.E., which puts us in possession of the whole arrangements of a monastery of the first class towards the early part of the ninth century. Benedictine rule enjoined that, if possible, the monastery should contain within itself every necessary of life, as well as the buildings more intimately connected with the religious and social life of its monks. It should comprise a mill, a bakehouse, stables, and cow-houses, together with accommodation for carrying on all necessary mechanical arts within the walls, so as to obviate the necessity of the monks going outside its limits.

Abbey of Jumièges, Normandy

The history of Christian monasteries is one of alternate periods of decay and revival. With growth in popular esteem came increase in material wealth, leading to luxury and worldliness. The first religious ardor cooled, the strictness of the rule was relaxed, until by the tenth century the decay of discipline was so complete in France that the monks are said to have been frequently unacquainted with the rule of Saint Benedict, and even ignorant that they were bound by any rule at all.

Cluny, France

The reformation of abuses generally took the form of the establishment of new monastic orders, with new and more stringent rules, requiring a modification of the architectural arrangements. One of the earliest of these reformed orders was the Cluniac. This order took its name from the little village of Cluny, 12 miles N.W. of Macon, near which, about 909 C.E., a reformed Benedictine abbey was founded by William, duke of Aquitaine and count of Auvergne, under Berno, abbot of Beaume. He was succeeded by Odo, who is often regarded as the founder of the order. The fame of Cluny spread far and wide. Its rigid rule was adopted by a vast number of the old Benedictine abbeys, who placed themselves in affiliation to the mother society, while new foundations sprang up in large numbers, all owing allegiance to the "archabbot," established at Cluny.

By the end of the twelfth century the number of monasteries affiliated to Cluny in the various countries of western Europe amounted to 2000. The monastic establishment of Cluny was one of the most extensive and magnificent in France. We may form some idea of its enormous dimensions from the fact recorded, that when, in 1245 C.E., Pope Innocent IV, accompanied by 12 Cardinals, a patriarch, three archbishops, the two generals of the Carthusians and Cistercians, the king (St Louis), and three of his sons, the Queen mother, Baldwin, count of Flanders and emperor of Constantinople, the duke of Burgundy, and six lords, visited the abbey, the whole party, with their attendants, were lodged within the monastery without disarranging the monks, 400 in number. Nearly the whole of the abbey buildings, including the magnificent church, were swept away at the close of the eighteenth century. When the annexed ground-plan was taken, shortly before its destruction, nearly all the monastery, with the exception of the church, had been rebuilt.

The first English house of the Cluniac order was that of Lewes, founded by the earl of Warren, c. 1077 C.E. All Cluniac houses in England were French colonies, governed by priors of that nation. They did not secure their independence nor become "abbeys" till the reign of Henry VI. The Cluniac revival, with all its brilliancy, was but short-lived. The celebrity of this, as of other orders, worked its moral ruin. With their growth in wealth and dignity the Cluniac foundations became as worldly in life and as relaxed in discipline as their predecessors, and a fresh reform was needed.

Cistercian Revival

Cistercian Abbey of Senanque

The next great monastic revival, the Cistercian, arising in the last years of the eleventh century, had a wider diffusion, and a longer existence. Owing its real origin as a distinct foundation of reformed Benedictines to Stephen Harding (a native of Dorset, educated in the monastery of Sherborne), in the year 1098, it derives its name from Citeaux (Cistercium), a desolate and almost inaccessible forest solitude, on the borders of Champagne and Burgundy. The rapid growth and wide celebrity of the order are undoubtedly to be attributed to the enthusiastic piety of St Bernard, abbot of the first of the monastic colonies, subsequently sent forth in such quick succession by the first Cistercian houses, the far-famed abbey of Clairvaux (de Clara Valle), 1116 C.E.

The rigid self-abnegation, which was the ruling principle of this reformed congregation of the Benedictine order, extended itself to the churches and other buildings erected by them. The characteristic of the Cistercian abbeys was the extremest simplicity and a studied plainness. Only one tower-a central one-was permitted, and that was to be very low. Unnecessary pinnacles and turrets were prohibited. The triforium was omitted. The windows were to be plain and undivided, and it was forbidden to decorate them with stained glass. All needless ornament was proscribed. The crosses must be of wood; the candlesticks of iron. The renunciation of the world was to be evidenced in all that met the eye.

The same spirit manifested itself in the choice of the sites of their monasteries. The more dismal, the more savage, the more hopeless a spot appeared, the more did it please their rigid mood. Yet they came not merely as ascetics, but as improvers. The Cistercian monasteries are, as a rule, found placed in deep well-watered valleys. They always stand on the border of a stream; not rarely, as at fountains, the buildings extend over it. These valleys, now so rich and productive, wore a very different aspect when the brethren first chose them as the place of their retirement. Wide swamps, deep morasses, tangled thickets, wild impassable forests, were their prevailing features. The "bright valley," Clara Vallis of Saint Bernard, was known as the "valley of Wormwood," infamous as a den of robbers. "It was a savage dreary solitude, so utterly barren that at first Bernard and his companions were reduced to live on beech leaves." - (Henry Hart Milman. Hist. of Lat. Christ. vol. iii. 335.)

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the formal process between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monastic communities in England, Wales and Ireland and confiscated their property. He was given the authority to do this by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539).

The Dissolution of the Monasteries did not take place in political isolation. Other movements against the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church had been under way for some time, most of them related to the Protestant Reformation in Continental Europe.

By the time Henry VIII launched his campaign against the monasteries, royal confiscations of the property of religious houses had a history stretching back more than 200 years. The first case was that of the so-called 'Alien Priories'. As a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066 many French abbeys had substantial property and dependent daughter monasteries in England. Some of these were merely agricultural estates with a single foreign monk in residence to supervise things; others were rich foundations in their own right (i.e. Lewes Priory which was a daughter of Cluny and answered to the abbot of that great French house). Due to the fairly constant state of war between England and France in the later Middle Ages successive English governments had objected to money going overseas to France from these Alien Priories ('trading with the enemy') from whence the French king might get hold of it, and to foreign prelates having jurisdiction over English monasteries. The king's officers first sequestrated the assets of the Alien Priories in 1295-1303 under Edward I, and the same thing happened repeatedly for long periods over the course of the fourteenth century, most particularly in the reign of Edward III. Those Alien Priories that had functioning communities were forced to pay large sums to the king, while those that were mere estates were confiscated and run by royal officers, the proceeds going to the king's pocket. Such estates were a valuable source of income for the crown. Some of the Alien Priories were allowed to become naturalised (for instance Castle Acre Priory), on payment of heavy fines and bribes, but for the rest their fates were sealed when Henry V dissolved them by act of Parliament in 1414. The properties went to the crown; some were kept, some were subsequently given or sold to Henry's supporters, others went to his new monasteries of Syon Abbey and the Carthusians at Sheen Priory and yet others went to educational purposes, a trend Henry's son Henry VI continued with his donations to, for example, Eton College.

The royal transfer of monastic estates to educational foundations proved an inspiration to the bishops, and as the fifteenth century waned such moves became more and more common. The victims of these dissolutions were usually small and poor Benedictine or Augustinian men's houses or poor nunneries with few friends, the great abbeys and orders exempt from diocesan supervision such as the Cistercians were unaffected. The beneficiaries were most often Oxford University and Cambridge University colleges, instances of this include John Alcock, Bishop of Ely dissolving the Benedictine nunnery of Saint Radegund to found Jesus College, Cambridge (1496), and William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester acquiring Selborne Priory in 1484 for Magdalen College, Oxford. In the following century Lady Margaret Beaufort got hold of Creake Abbey (whose population had all died of Black Death in 1506) to fund her works at Oxford and Cambridge, an action she took on the advice of such a staunch traditionalist as John Fisher Bishop of Rochester. In 1522, Fisher himself is also found dissolving the nunneries of Bromhall and Higham to aid St John's College, Cambridge. That same year Cardinal Wolsey dissolved St Frideswide's Priory (now Oxford Cathedral) to form the basis of his Christ Church, Oxford; in 1524, he secured a Papal bull to dissolve some 20 other monasteries to provide an endowment for his new college.

Renunciation of vows

While these transactions were going on in England, elsewhere in Europe events were taking place which presaged a storm. In 1521, Martin Luther had published 'De votis monasticis' (Latin: 'On the monastic vows'), a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. These views had an immediate effect: a special meeting of German members of the Augustinian Friars, (of which Luther was part) held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows and resign. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg, all but one man did so at once.

News of these events did not take long to spread among reform-minded - and acquisitive - rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, took action. In Sweden in 1527, King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet to allow him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase the royal revenues, and also to force the return of some properties to the descendents of those who had originally given them. This plan enriched the king greatly and soon deprived the Swedish religious houses of their means of economic support, with the result that some collapsed immediately while others lingered for a few decades before fading away by about 1580. In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his move in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the extremely wealthy and unpopular friars. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars and allowed monks and nuns to abandon their houses to the crown, which was soon gathering in the former abbey lands. Danish monastic life was to gradually vanish in a similar way to that of Sweden.

In Switzerland, too, monasteries were under threat. In 1523, the government of the city-state of Zurich allowed nuns to marry if they wished, and followed up the following year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory and using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The former inhabitants were offered help with learning a trade for their new secular lives and granted pensions. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this ultimately failed and St Gall survived.

It is unlikely that these moves went un-noticed by the English government and particularly by Thomas Cromwell, shortly to become Henry VIII's chief minister and to promise to make his sovereign wealthier than any

Henry VIII had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in February 1531. In April 1533, an Act in Restraint of Appeals eliminated the right of clergy to appeal to "foreign tribunals" (Rome) over the King's head in any spiritual or financial matter.

In 1534, Henry had Parliament authorise Thomas Cromwell, to "visit" all the monasteries (which included all abbeys, priories and convents), ostensibly to make sure their members were instructed in the new rules for their supervision by the King instead of the Pope, but actually to inventory their assets (i.e. Valor Ecclesiasticus). A few months later, in January 1535 when the consternation at having a lay visitation instead of a bishop's had settled down, Cromwell's visitation authority was delegated to a commission of laymen including Dr. Richard Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle. This phase is termed the Visitation of the Monasteries."

In the summer of that year, the visitors started their work, and "preachers" and "railers" were sent to deliver sermons from the pulpits of the churches on three themes:

  • The monks and nuns in the monasteries were sinful "hypocrites" and "sorcerers" who were living lives of luxury and engaging in every kind of sin;
  • Those monks and nuns were sponging off the working people and giving nothing back and, thus, were a serious drain on England's economy;
  • If the King received all the property of the monasteries, he would never again need taxes from the people.

Meanwhile, during the autumn of 1535, the visiting commissioners were sending back to Cromwell written reports of all the scandalous doings they said they were discovering, sexual as well as financial. A law that Parliament enacted in early 1536, relying in large part on the reports of impropriety Cromwell had received, provided for the King to take all the monasteries with annual incomes of less than £200, and that was done: the smaller, less influential houses were emptied, their few inhabitants pensioned and their property confiscated. Monastic life had already been in decline. By 1536, the 13 Cistercian houses in Wales had only 85 monks among them. Their reputation for misbehaviour was likely overstated, however.

These moves did not raise as much capital as had been expected, even after the king re-chartered some of the confiscated monasteries and confiscated them again. In April 1539, a new Parliament passed a law giving the King the rest of the monasteries in England. Some of the abbots resisted, and that autumn the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading were executed for treason. (The Carthusian priors of Beauvale, London, and Axholme, had been executed in 1535 for refusal to recognise Henry's Act of Supremacy.) St. Benet's Abbey in Norfolk was the only abbey in England which escaped dissolution, but was united with the with the bishopric of Norwich, under the Church of England.

The other abbots signed their abbeys over to the King. Some of the confiscated church buildings were destroyed by having the valuable lead removed from roofs and stone reused for secular buildings. Some of the smaller Benedictine houses were taken over as parish churches, and were even bought for the purpose by wealthy parishes. The tradition that there was widespread destruction and iconoclasm, that altars and windows were smashed, partly confuses the damage done in the 1530s with the greater damage wreaked by the Puritans in the next century. Relics were discarded and pilgrimages discouraged. Places like Glastonbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds, Shaftesbury and Canterbury, which had thrived on the pilgrim trade, suffered setbacks.

Henry needed more money; so many of the abbeys now in his possession were resold to the new Tudor gentry, aligning them as a class more firmly to the new Protestant settlement.

Ruins of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

The abbeys of England, Wales and Ireland had been among the greatest landowners and the largest institutions in the kingdom. Particularly in areas far from London, the abbeys were among the principal centres of hospitality, learning, patronage of craftsmen and sources of charity and medical care. The removal of over 800 such institutions virtually overnight left many gaps.

It is unlikely that the monastic system could have been broken simply by royal action, if there had not been a strong feeling of resentment against the church amongst the gentry and the mercantile population. Anti-clericalism was a familiar feature of late-medieval Europe, producing its own strain of satiric literature that was aimed at a literate middle class.6

Cultural losses

The related destruction of the monastic libraries was one of the greatest cultural losses caused by the English Reformation. Worcester Priory (now Worcester Cathedral) had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them have survived intact to the present day. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three surviving books. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cartload, including irreplaceable early English works. It is believed that many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were lost at this time.

Monastic hospitals were also lost, with serious consequences locally. Monasteries had also supplied charitable food and alms for the poor and destitute in hard times. The removal of this resource was one of the factors in the creation of the army of "sturdy beggars" that plagued late Tudor England, causing the social instability that led to the Edwardian and Elizabethan Poor Laws. In addition, monastic landlords were generally considered to be more lax and easy-going than the new aristocrats who replaced them, demanding higher rents and greater productivity from their tenants.

The destruction of the monastic institutions was unpopular in some areas. In the north of England, centering on Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the suppression of the monasteries led to a popular rising, the Pilgrimage of Grace, that threatened the crown for some weeks. The demand for the restoration of some monasteries resurfaced later, in the West Country Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.

Many of the dismantled monasteries and friaries were sold for nominal amounts (often to the local aristocrats and merchants), and some of the lands the King gave to his supporters; there were also pensions to be paid to some of the dispossessed clerics. Many others continued to serve the parishes. Although the total value of the confiscated property has been calculated to have been £200,000 at the time, the actual amount of income King Henry received from it from 1536 through 1547 averaged only £37,000 per year, about one fifth of what the monks had derived from it.

In 1536, there were major popular risings in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and, a further rising in Norfolk the following year. Rumors were spread t