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Medieval Convent or Nunnery

Middle Ages - Lords and Ladies

Medieval Convent or Nunnery
A convent or nunnery is a religious house, or monastery, for nuns. An abbey and a priory were religious houses where nuns lived. The Abbess was the head of an abbey who was elected by the nuns for life. A prioress was a nun in charge of a priory or ranking next below the abbess of an abbey. Each Medieval convent or Nunnery endeavoured to form an independent, self-supporting community whose nuns had no need of going beyond its limits for anything.

A Medieval convent or nunnery offered women and element of freedom as they were able to elect their own abbess or prioress. This was one of the few places in the Middle Ages where Medieval women held positions of authority. In course of time, as a convent increased in wealth and number of inmates. The term 'convent' comes from the Latin word 'convenire' meaning 'to come together'.

The Medieval Convent or Nunnery layout and buildings
The principal buildings of a large convent or nunnery were grouped around an inner court, called a cloister. These included a church, a refectory, or dining room, with the kitchen and buttery near it, a dormitory, where the nuns slept. There was also a library, a school, a hospital, and a guest house for the reception of strangers, besides barns, bakeries, laundries, workshops, and storerooms for provisions. Beyond these buildings lay vegetable gardens, orchards, grain fields, and often a mill, if the monastery was built on a stream. The high wall and ditch, usually surrounding a convent or nunnery, shut it off from outsiders and in time of danger protected it against attack.

Buildings and Rooms in a Medieval Convent or Nunnery
The following rooms would be included in a plan of a Medieval convent or nunnery. The descriptions of the rooms are as follows:

  • Cellarium - store-house of a convent or nunnery
  • Chapter-house - The chapter house was a room in which nuns met daily to hear a chapter of the monastic rule
  • Cloister - the cloister was a covered walkway in a convent or nunnery often situated around an quadrangle A cloister often comprised of a plain wall or colonnade on the outer side and a series of windows on the inner side
  • Dorter - a dorter was a dormitory. Sometimes the nuns slept in isolated rooms called cells on mattresses stuffed with starw
  • Frater - a frater was another term for a refectory (dining room)
  • Garderobe - a garderobe was a lavatory in a medieval building
  • Granary - A monastery storehouse for threshed grain
  • Infirmary - the infirmary was the part of a convent or nunnery which housed the nuns who were too sick or old to take part in the normal monastic life
  • Kitchen - The kitchen where food was prepared and cooked
  • Lavatorium - the lavatorium was a room which contained a trough with running water where nuns washed
  • Misericord - a misericord was the part of a convent where nuns were disciplined
  • Night Stair - A staircase used by the nuns to enter a church directly from their dormitory in order to attend late night and early morning services
  • Refectory - the refectory was dining hall of a convent or nunnery
  • Scriptorium - the scriptorium was the room in a convent used for illuminating or copying manuscripts
  • Warming-house - the warming house was the only room in a convent, apart from the infirmary and kitchen, where a fire was allowed. Also called a Calefactory

Medieval Convent and Nunnery Life
Medieval convent life consisted of a regular round of worship, reading, and chores. Every day was divided into seven sacred offices, beginning and ending with services in the convent church. The first service came usually about two o'clock in the morning; the last, just as evening set in, before the  nuns of the convent retired.

Uses of the Medieval Convent or Nunnery
A Medieval convent or nunnery was a farm, an inn, a hospital and a school. The uses of a Medieval convent included the following:

  • A Medieval convent performed many works of charity, feeding the hungry, healing the sick who were brought to their doors, and distributing their medicines
  • A Medieval convent or nunnery provided education for girls who wished to become nuns
  • A Medieval convent occasionally illuminated and copied the manuscripts of classical authors preserving valuable books that would otherwise have been lost

The convents and nunneries provided the only source of education for women during the Middle Ages although the knowledge the nuns were provided with was carefully screened by the Church hierarchy

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