Layout of a medieval abbey or monastery

The building layout of medieval abbeys followed a common plan. An example of the plan is shown below and the text below the plan describes the function of each section. Many Cistercian and Benedictine abbeys were built in this way. Variations to the plan did occur where drainage and conditions of the site forced a change to be made. Abbeys of the Carthusian order were based on a different layout because the monks lived solitary lives in small cells with gardens arranged around a central cloister.

The Church

The layout of the cruciform (cross) shaped church is common to the majority of abbeys, cathedrals and churches in the country. Each section of the church has its own name.

At the west end of the church is the narthex. This is usually a covered porch infront of the main west doors. Once inside the church the nave begins. The nave forms the bulk of the church and reaches from the west end to the choir and the north and south transepts . In a cathedral the choir usually starts to the east of the transepts but in abbeys where the buildings are shorter the choir starts further to the west. Further to the east is the presbytery and finally the high altar .

Two classes of monk lived in the abbey. The first known as lay monks or lay brothers were the secular members of the abbey and were not bound by the stricter monastic rules of prayer. The lay monks did the day-to-day tasks needed to run the abbey. The other monks were the monastic or choir monks. These monks dedicated their time to prayer and learning. The lay brothers worshiped at the west end of the nave while the monastic monks worshipped at the east end. A screen, known as the pulpitum, separated the choir from the nave.

Additional altars are located in the transepts as well as the high altar. These altars were founded by wealthy people or organisations who wanted prayers said to a favourite saint or for prayers to be said for themselves and their families.

Image taken from virtual abbey

The Cloister

The cloister is a rectangular covered walkway built around a central garden or garth . The cloisters were used by the monks for exercise, study and movement under cover between the different parts of the abbey. Cloisters are usually located on the south side of the nave where it is naturally sunnier and warmer, but some abbeys have their cloisters situated to the north due possibly to building constraints. At the east end of the north cloister leading to the nave is the east processional doorway. This route was used by monks as they moved from the church on important processions. They walked down the north cloister and into the nave again via the west processional door.

Image taken from virtual abbey

The East Range

The two storey buildings on the east side of the cloister are an extension of the southern transept . These buildings were used by the choir monks of the abbey and the religious leaders of the church. The upper floor of the east range was main used as a dorter (dormitory) for the choir monks . Access to the upper floor from the church is via the night stairs that lead from the southern transept of the church. Using the night stairs the choir monks could walk directly from the sleeping quarters into the church during the early hours to say prayers. On the ground floor of the east range accessible only from the south transept is the sacristy that is used to store the church valuables while they are not in use. Alongside the sacristy and accessible from the cloister is the library .


The Chapter-house is usually located at the centre of the east cloister wall. This is where the Dean and Chapter met to discuss the running of the abbey. The chapter-house had rich decorations, both inside and on the doorway leading to it. This reflected the importance of the room to the church and its members. The roof of the chapter-house was normally vaulted. Around the edge of the room was a series of stone benches on which the members would sit.

The monastery needed a toilet (reredorter) and this is located in the east range. An important factor when sighting the abbey was the availability of fresh flowing water . Water is needed for drinking and can be used to flush away waste. In some locations the monks built extensive water ducts to channel the water to where it was required. A channel runs directly under the reredorter to take away the waste.

The West Range

The west range of the abbey was run by the secular members of the abbey. Entrance to the abbey was through the west range and this is where visitors would be greeted and where guest rooms were provided. A monk known as the cellarer worked in this area and he was responsible for ensuring the abbey was supplied with all that the abbey required. The cellarer would visit the local towns and fairs to buy supplies. He would offer a fair price for goods especially to those who needed the money. The lower floors to the west range was usually where the supplies were stored. The upper floor of the west range was the usual location of the lay monks dorter (dormitory or sleeping quarters). They had a flight of night stairs leading from their dorter into the west end of the church.

The South Range

The kitchen is one of the rooms located in the south range of the abbey. This range os rooms and buildings was where the monks dined. Known as the refectory or frater the range has a kitchen, a dining room and a warming room . The warming room was one of the few rooms in the abbey where there was a fire.

Further Buildings

At many locations abbeys consisted of more buildings than shown in the above plan. There was usually a simple hospital (or infirmary) where sick monks or travellers could be tended to. Workshops, bakeries and guest houses could also be found.

Virtual medieval Abbey

View walkthroughs of the TimeRef Virtual Medieval Abbey below or explore it yourself.


4Transepts North & South
6High Altar
7More Altars
9Garden / Garth
10East Range
11Choir Monks Dorter
12Night Stairs
17Water supply
18West Range
19Night Stairs
21Dining Room
22Warming Room