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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

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The dormitory

The monks' nightstairs at Kirkstall
© Abbey House Museum
Kirkstall abbey nightstairs  Abbey House Museum

The monks’ dormitory at Kirkstall extended over fifty metres and could have accommodated some 80-100 monks. It was situated on the first floor and accessed during the day by a staircase from the cloister; a second stairway connected the dormitory to the church and was used by the monks when they rose during the night to celebrate Vigils in the choir. The dormitory was originally covered by a high-pitched timber roof which was later replaced by one of a lower pitch.(1) A series of windows on either side provided light during the day; one or two lanterns also burned at all times to prevent misconduct. These lanterns were placed in such a way that they illuminated the reredorters, the monks’ latrine block, which was situated at the far end of the dormitory.(2)

A Cistercian cure for insomnia:
Look at your coarse woollen blanket and bedcovers and compare your bed to the grave, just as if you were entering it for burial … If you can sleep, all is well; if you cannot, experience has proved that if you say the Athanasian Creed seven times or the Seven Penitential Psalms, you will fall asleep.
[Stephen of Sawley, ‘Mirror for Novices’ , ch. 20 (p. 112)].

In accordance with chapter 22 of the Rule of St Benedict the monks slept fully clothed ‘as if to prepare for the Lord’. This was in part for reasons of modesty but also meant that when the bell for night Vigils sounded the monks did not have to waste time dressing but could simply climb out of bed and make their way to the choir stalls in the church. The monks lay on mattresses filled with straw, which were arranged around the room; there would have been a closet of sorts in the centre. Bedclothes were to be either black or white and pillows of a moderate size. At first all the monks slept in the dormitory, but the abbot later moved to his own lodgings. The sacrist of Kirkstall may have occupied the small chamber that adjoined the dormitory, so that he could rise before the others to sound the bell for Vigils and keep an eye on the goings on in church. In the fourteenth century the General Chapter conceded that priors and sub-priors might construct cells within the dormitory – rooms furnished with a lock - to give them greater privacy, and it is likely that at this time the other monks had some kind of a partition or screen to provide some seclusion.

What was sign language?

The monks were to observe the strictest silence in the dormitory at all times, and even sign language was forbidden here.

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