What is a Cloister? - Medieval Architecture
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Cloisters

moissac cloister
Cloister at Moissac (ca. 1100 AD, southern France)

Cloisters were a medieval kind of building that developed out of Greek and then Roman peristyles.

A cloister is a courtyard garden inside a building. Often people grew herbs or fruit or flowers in the garden. Around the sides of the courtyard there is a covered walkway, with a waist-high wall between you and the garden in the middle. On top of the waist-high wall, small columns hold up the roof of the walkway.


Cloister of Munster, in Bonn, Germany
(1170s AD

Christian monks built this cloister in the time of Friedrich Barbarossa). Munster means"monastery", and the town was named after this church and its cloister, where the monks lived. Cloister means a closed space, and some cloisters were enclosed so that nuns and monks could get some fresh air and have a garden without anyone seeing them or distracting them from their prayers. But other cloisters were just private courtyards, where people could hang out without danger of being attacked by enemies.

The first medieval cloisters, like early Islamic mosques, often re-used small columns from Roman buildings, to show how Christianity had beaten the Roman gods (and to save money). A little later on, cloisters used Romanesque arches; later on people began to build Gothic style cloisters. But by the time of the Renaissance, life in Europe wasn't so dangerous anymore, and cloisters went out of fashion. Instead people designed bigger, more open, and less protected gardens.

Learn by doing: growing herbs
More about Medieval Architecture

Bibliography and further reading about medieval architecture:

Medieval architecture
Medieval Europe
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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