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What the St Gall Plan tells us about Medieval Monasteries

By Christine Axen

A blueprint for the Benedictine monastery of St Gall, in present-day Switzerland, invites viewers directly into the cloistered heart of a monastic complex. 

Drawn around the years 820 to 830 on a stitched-together rectangle of parchment measuring approximately 45 x 30 inches, the plan (Codex Sangallensis 1092) showcases an “ideal” monastery set out in a dense grid network, with utilitarian buildings stacked around the church and cloister. The two anonymous monk-artists from Reichenau, one of which may have been the abbot, drew confident lines of vermilion ink, enhancing geometric shapes with elegant flora, and labeled their imagined paradise with laconic Latin tituli. Although Abbot Gozbert’s ultimate rebuilding campaign at St Gall did not conform to the plan, nevertheless a closer look at it—the earliest depiction of such an architectural complex from the Middle Ages—can reveal much about the spiritual and practical life going on behind a monastery’s walls.

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In the center, a monumental double-apsed church, replete with altars dedicated to various saints and the seventh-century relics of St Gall, lies on an East-West axis with its square cloister to the South. Moving clockwise from the eastern apse, a viewer encounters an infirmary, gardens, workshops and mills, pilgrims’ lodgings, animal enclosures, and elite guesthouses. The plan features over forty structures, mostly single-story buildings nestled around the two-story center. While the motivation to create the plan may have been ideological—the pursuit of perfect monastic life on earth—nevertheless the artist’s attention to the accessibility of latrines, places to warm up, and animals located where their waste could fertilize adjacent gardens, also speaks to practicality and functionality.

The Plan of St Gall – images of the plan have been reoriented with North at the top

As self-sufficient institutions, monasteries had to contend with the physical labor necessary to meet the demands of food and supplies. Reliance on lay brothers, in this case an estimated 170 to support perhaps 120 monks, was unavoidable. Although “dead to the world,” monks and nuns interacted with the outside in some capacity, welcoming visiting patrons in the parlor, purchasing sumptuous fabrics for altar cloths, or hiring craftsmen and -women to produce the trappings befitting a wealthy monastery. Despite this porousness of the monastic enclosure, the St Gall plan reveals attention to regulating such interactions.

Controlled Spaces

Medieval monks and nuns were particularly concerned about access to the internal conclave, where only those following The Rule of St Benedict should enter. Regulating the flow of traffic was thus a key motivator in designing a monastic complex. How to facilitate monks and nuns traveling across a large area complicated by corridors and arcades while keeping them separate from outsiders like guests, pilgrims, and the poor?

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In the St Gall plan, the monks’ domestic spaces—dormitory, refectory, larder, kitchen—are carefully walled or gated off from the areas that outsiders might occupy. The purposeful placement of entry- and exit-ways (circled in white in the image above) create precise conduits through which individuals have no choice but to travel. For example, the creator of the plan seems to intend that monks could only access their dormitory on the second story via a passageway from the cloister’s northeast corner through the south transept. Though there is another apparent opening in the center of the eastern cloister arcade, this more logically would provide access to the warming room on the first story – or in any case was added as an afterthought.

The plan therefore underscores concerns about the inviolability of the dormitory that St Benedict himself expressed in Chapter 22 of his Rule: “the younger [monks/nuns] shall not have beds next to one another, but among those of the older ones” and “let them sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords” to maintain decorum as much as readiness for prayer. The same streamlined use of singular access points also governs the other rooms paired for sole use by the monks, e.g., between the monks’ kitchen and the dining space (refectory). A locked gate (likely on the western side of the cloister) would also help control access to the inner sanctum of the conclave.

The creators of the plan also carefully distinguish between the spaces used for the infirmary and the novitiate, where inductees to monastic life are trained. Both the ill and the novices have their own cloisters surrounded by dormitories and other useful rooms, and both have access to one half of the church that serves as the boundary between the cloisters. However, separate entrances to the churches from each cloister’s arcade obviate any accidental exposure or interaction between the groups, ensuring proper partitioning between those caring for the body and those focused on the soul.

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Daily Life

The St Gall plan also illustrates the resources necessary to meet St Benedict’s dietary allowances. In Chapter 40, the founder of the Benedictine order begrudgingly permits the measure of a “hemina of wine” per day (somewhere from a half-pint to a quart) “since the monastics of our day cannot be persuaded (that wine is by no means a drink for monastics,) let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to satiety.” St Gall, in a region still favored today for its beer production, sports three separate brewhouses and a cellar capacity of fourteen barrels for storage.

“Here beer is prepared by the brothers,” reads the titulus of the brewery area used for the daily supply of beer for the monastery. Two other brewhouses cater to honored guests and the pilgrims and poor, who received food and drink as alms. A hearth heated the room where the grain could be malted (using a kiln) while the adjacent area, separated by a wall, permitted cooling and filtering. Interestingly, the brewhouses share space with bakeries, so both the spillage of warmth and airborne yeasts could work to mutual advantage in the two central products of beer and bread.

Aside from food, monks and nuns needed to stay warm around the open cloister that was exposed to the elements. Even with the “thick and wooly” winter cowl and stockings recommended by St Benedict, monastic attire may fall short while hunching over a scriptorium desk or struggling to do needlework with chilled fingers. To counter this, the St Gall plan boasts a warming room (calefactoria domus) on the east side of the main cloister. A furnace built against the wall would funnel hot air under the floor, where it could be released through vents into the room above, seeping all the way up to the dormitory on the second story.

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A library, situated above the scriptorium next to the North transept, would house the devotional and theological books that comprised a monastic collection. True to the Benedictine motto of “pray and work” (ora et labora), monk- and nun-scribes copied out manuscripts as labor in service to God. The scriptorium in the St Gall plan reveals a convenient arrangement of seven desks in front of seven windows in the north and east walls, where the patterns of sunlight would be superior for scribal work.

Caring for the Sick

The plan addresses the medical needs of the monks and guests at St Gall.  In Chapter 36 of his Rule, St Benedict recommends “a special room” in which the sick can be bathed and cared for by “an attendant who is God-fearing, diligent, and solicitous.” Despite restrictions inherent in a regular life, St Benedict treats the ill with special generosity, permitting them to eat meat (versus the usual vegetarian diet) to help them regain strength. This kind of care, St Benedict says, must be done “before all things and above all things” in the monastery.

For practical purposes, all structures pertaining to the ailing are clustered together in the northeastern corner of the complex. Next to the infirmary, a physician’s lodgings and medicinal garden are blocked off by a wall. That the physician has private toilets and control of the cabinet of medical supplies speaks to his authority and prestige in the monastery. Another room with private toilets offers relief for the critically ill, who might not be strong enough to travel to separate facilities on the grounds.

In the herb garden, various plants were on hand to make tinctures, poultices, and other healing remedies. Though the labels are washed out from damage, the rectangular garden plots would have been planted with all manner of botanicals both familiar and folkloric: pepperwort, fenugreek, rosemary, mint, rue, lovage. In his contemporary text Hortulus, Walafrid Strabo—a monk at Reichenau and author of a Life of St Gall—cited sage’s “proven use for many a human ailment,” fennel’s laxative powers, and horehound’s ability to neutralize wolf’s bane poison (don’t try this at home!).  Wormwood “tames a raging thirst; fever it banishes…if fits of fainting worry you, seek its help.” Draughts of chervil treated with pennyroyal and poppy can ease stomach cramps. These and many other botanicals were grown separately from St Gall’s vegetable garden, and, as with the fictional herbalist Cadfael, were used skillfully to care for the ill.

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Guided by Galenic theories of the four humors, a bloodletting facility would be necessary to restore balance in sick brethren and those being cared for in the infirmary. Because of heat loss and weakness from letting blood (a hot, wet humor), the room features not only a central fire but also furnaces in each corner to distribute healing warmth to fragile bodies. The facility also offers twelve cots for reclining and a row of toilets in an adjoining room.

Nature

The animals on which the monks of St Gall would rely for labor, wool, milk, fertilizer, feather quills, and other products are housed at the West of the complex, near the servants who would care for and even sleep among them. Horses, sheep, goats, cows, oxen, and pigs each occupy their own enclosures. At the opposite end of the complex, geese and a chicken run about the vegetable garden, making the exchange of fertilizer for garden scraps an easy task.

The final major green space on the St Gall plan is the orchard. Here, fourteen types of trees, including quince, hazel, almond, pear, and chestnut, would provide shade and fruit. This bounty could be dried in a kiln room next to the grain mills and preserved for winter. The orchard also served as the final resting place for deceased brothers.  Located near the eastern apse where the main altar is, the plan depicts rectangular tombs interspersed with the sinuous stylized branches of the fruit trees. The departed monks’ names would be entered into the necrology to be prayed for in perpetuity.

A Plan for Paradise

Although some standard medieval interpretations of monastic spaces would not be cemented for some time—for example, viewing the cloister as a microcosm of Heavenly Jerusalem—the St Gall plan lays out an envisioned monastery that is both idealized and practical. It offers a model for construction and composition that takes into account monks’ and nuns’ bodily and spiritual needs. In labeling the ends of the church as “West Paradise” and “East Paradise,” the maker of the plan leaves no ambiguity about how he understood the role of monasteries in the world: yes, self-sufficient and labor-intensive, but also a space where the more difficult work of souls could be pursued in serene seclusion.

Dr. Christine Axen is a medievalist specializing in thirteenth-century Southern French religious history. She is a guide at the Met Cloisters and runs a weekly public history lecture series, History Happy Hour. She currently teaches at St John’s University in Queens, NY. You can follow Christine on Twitter @historyhappyhrs

Further Reading:

Explore the plan in-depth and read more at the website for Carolingian Culture at St Gall and Reichenau.

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