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Double Monasteries

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Religious houses comprising communities of both men and women, dwelling in contiguous establishments, united under the rule of one superior, and using one church in common for their liturgical offices. The reason for such an arrangement was that the spiritual needs of the nuns might be attended to by the priests of the male community, who were associated with them more closely than would have been possible in the case of entirely separate and independent monasteries. The system came into existence almost contemporaneously with monasticism itself, and like it had its origin in the East. Communities of women gathered around religious founders in Egypt and elsewhere, and from the life of St. Pachomius we learn many details as to the nuns under his rule and their relation to the male communities founded by him. Double monasteries, of which those of St. Basil and his sister, Macrina, may be cited as examples, were apparently numerous throughout the East during the early centuries of monasticism. It cannot be stated with any certainty when the system found its way into the West, but it seems probable that its introduction into Gaul may be roughly ascribed to the influence of Cassian, who did so much towards reconciling Eastern monasticism with Western ideas. St. Caesarius of Arles, St. Aurelian, his successor, and St. Radegundis, of Poitiers, founded double monasteries in the sixth century, and later on the system was propagated widely by St. Columbanus and his followers. Remiremont, Jouarre, Brie, Chelles, Andelys, and Soissons were other well-known examples of the seventh and eighth centuries. From Gaul the idea spread to Belgium and Germany, and also to Spain, where it is said to have been introduced by St. Fructuosus in the middle of the seventh century. According to Yepes there were in Spain altogether over two hundred double monasteries.

Ireland presents only one known example — Kildare — but probably there were others besides, of which all traces have since been lost. In England most of the early foundations were double; this has been wrongly attributed by some writers to the fact that many of the Anglo-Saxon nuns were educated in Gaul, where the system was then in vogue, but it seems more correct to ascribe it to the religious influence of the missionaries from Iona, since the first double monastery in England was that of St. Hilda at Whitby, established under the guidance of St. Aidan, and there is no evidence to show that either St. Aidan or St. Hilda was acquainted with the double organization in use elsewhere.Whitby was founded in the seventh century and in a short time England became covered with similar dual establishments, of which Coldingham, Ely, Sheppey, Minster, Wimborne, and Barking are prominent examples. In Italy, the only other country besides those already mentioned where double monasteries are known to have existed, they were not numerous, but St. Gregory speaks of them as being found in Sardinia (Ep. xi), and St. Bede mentions one at Rome (Hist. Eccl., IV, i). The Danish invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries destroyed the double monasteries of England, and, when they were restored, it was for one sex only, instead of for a dual community. The system seems to have died out also in other countries at about the same time, and it was not revived until the end of the eleventh century when Robert of Arbrissel inaugurated his reform at Fontevrault and gave the idea a fresh lease of life. It is not surprising to find that such a system was sometimes abused, and hence it was always an object of solicitude and strict legislation at the hands of ecclesiastical authority. Many synodal and conciliar decrees recognized its dangers, and ordered the strictest surveillance of all communications passing between monks and nuns. Too close proximity of buildings was frequently forbidden, and every precaution was taken to prevent any occasion of scandal. Very probably it was this scant favour shown by the Church towards it that caused the gradual decline of the system about the tenth century.

In many double monasteries the supreme rule was in the hands of the abbess, and monks as well as nuns were subject to her authority. This was especially the case in England, e.g. in St. Hilda's at Whitby and St. Etheldreda's at Ely, though elsewhere, but more rarely, it was the abbot who ruled both men and women, and sometimes, more rarely still, each community had its own superior independent of the other. The justification for the anomalous position of a woman acting as the superior of a community of men is usually held to originate from Christ's words from the Cross, "Woman, behold thy son; Son, behold thy mother"; and it is still further urged that maternity is a form of authority derived from nature, whilst that which is paternal is merely legal. But, whatever may be its origin, the supreme rule of an abbess over both men and women was deliberately revived, and sanctioned by the Church, in two of the three medieval orders that consisted of double monasteries. At Fontevrault (founded 1099) and with the Bridgettines (1346), the abbess was the superior of monks as well as nuns, though with the Gilbertines (1146) it was the prior who ruled over both. In the earlier double monasteries both monks and nuns observed the same rule mutatis mutandis; this example was followed by Fontevrault and the Bridgettines, the rule of the former being Benedictine, while the latter observed the rule of St. Bridget. But with the Gilbertines, whilst the rule of the nuns was substantially Benedictine, the monks adopted that of the Augustinian Canons. (See BRIGITTINES; FONTEVRAULT; GILBERTINES.) Little is known as to the buildings of the earlier double monasteries except that the church usually stood between the two conventual establishments, so as to be accessible from both. From excavations made on the site of Watton Priory, a Gilbertine house in Yorkshire, it appears that the separation of nuns from canons was effected by means of a substantial wall, several feet high, which traversed the church lengthways, and it is probable that some similar arrangement was adopted in other double monasteries. No such communities exist at the present time in the Western Church.


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APA citation. Alston, G.C. (1911). Double Monasteries. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10452a.htm

MLA citation. Alston, George Cyprian. "Double Monasteries." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10452a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marie Jutras.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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