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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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The Monastery Gardens of Canterbury Cathedral


The year was 1165 -- an uneasy time for the Benedictine monks of the monastery of Christ Church at Canterbury Cathedral. Archbishop Thomas Becket had fled to France to escape the fury of Henry II, and his church was in turmoil.


So it is somewhat surprising that at such a tumultuous time a member of this religious community took it upon himself to map the waterworks of the monastery -- its wells, pools, water towers, fountains, basins, water pipes, drains, and gutters.

At least as remarkable is the fact that this ground plan somehow made its way into Eadwine's Great Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS R.17.1, fols. 284v–285r).

Eight hundred years later, we can scrutinize the 12th century ground plan to learn more about an early medieval English monastery -- not only its water system, but also its structures, green spaces, cloisters, and courts. This ground plan is a great treasure, for it is one of only two such documents that have survived from the early medieval period, the other being the plan of St. Gall.

The engineer who drew up this plan combined a bird's eye view with an idiosyncratic use of perspective that would have done Picasso proud.

Eadwine, from the
Great Psalter

The kitchen courtyard

As in the kitchen courtyard, shown at left, buildings and other structures were portrayed as though you were standing in front of each facade.

Pools and basins (lavers), in which the monks would wash their hands, were all drawn as if seen from above.

The mapping of the water system was done with the heavy lines of inflow pipes and outflow drains dissecting the precinct and its structures.

Nothing was drawn to scale. But even so, the Canterbury ground plan provides a unique overview of a 12th century monastery. Below is a simplified view, minus the details of the water system.

                             Kitchen courtyard

Ground plan of Canterbury c1165 CE

1.  Gate

2.  Northern plantings: Field (campus), vineyard
     (vineam), and orchard (pomerium)

3.  New Hall (aula nova), the abbot's guest house

4.   Brewery (braciniam)

5.   Bakery (pistrinium)

6.   Granary (granariam)

Green Court

7.   Monks' bathhouse (balneatorium)

8.   New prior's dwelling (nova camera prioris)

9.   Infirmary chapel (capella infirmorium)

10. Infirmary (domus infirmorium)

11. Infirmary privy (necessarium infirmorium)

12. Old prior's chambers (camera prioris vetus)

13. Monks' privy (necessarium)

14. Fish pond (piscina)

15. Cathedral church, dedicated in 1130 CE

16. Campanile

17. Well (puteus), the original monastery well

18. Laymen's cemetery (cimeterio laicorum)

19. Treasury (vestinariam)

20. Infirmary cloister and garden (herbarium)

21. Monks' heated common room

22. Great Cloister (claustrum)

23. Monks' chapter house (capitulum) at ground level,
     and dormitory (dormitorium) abvoe

24. Monks' common room (locutorium)


25. Cellerer's hall (cellariam)

26. Dining room (refectorium)

27. Kitchen (coquina)

28. Larder and pantry

29. Common room (locutorium)

30. Kitchen garden (locut ortum)

31. Guest house (domum hospitum)


Benedictine monasteries usually sited their cloisters on the sunnier south side of the church, but at Canterbury the conventual buildings are north of the cathedral.

The gardens

The monastery gardens included those found in two large cloisters, both directly north of the church. The great cloister (22 on the plan, above) was on the west, directly north of the nave of the cathedral. The smaller infirmary cloister (20) was farther east, and contained an area labeled herbarium, probably a garden of medicinal plants. The kitchen courtyard (30) also had its locut ortum, garden place. Another planting of some sort is indicated just inside the wall at the southeast corner of the monastery precinct, east of the cathedral and south of the fishpond (14. Finally, plantings (2) are also seen outside and to the north of the monastery precinct.



Domus hospitum

Bracinium et pastrinium


New hall
Aula nova
(showing staircase)
Norman staircase today at aula nova Guest house
Domus hospitum
Brewery and bakery
Bracinium et pastrinium

The fields northeast of the monastery

On the north, beyond the double walls -- a monastery wall and a city wall -- the ground plan shows a series of fields: Grain fields (campus), a vineyard (vinea), and an orchard (pomeria).

An irrigation line ran to these plantings from a tvrris or water tower located north and east of the fields.

From the tower's main water line, auxiliary lines carried water to the rows of grain in the fields. Likewise, lines took water from the main line to the vineyard and to the trees of the orchard. Each line had a stopcock, indicated by a circular device with a tail, to control the flow. Where the main line approached the city wall, it went beneath a small, arched bridge that may have protected the conduit as it passed through a moat at the wall's outer edge.


The Green Court

Leaving the open fields outside the walls, visitors could enter through the gate at the northwest corner of the monastery precinct. To their right was the elegant guest house, the Aula nova, New Hall, where aristocratic visitors were graciously entertained.

Just east of the hall were the monastery's brewery, bakery, and granary, separated from the monks' living quarters by the Green Court. This court was a large, open area, probably grassy. No plantings are indicated here, though it is likely that plantings existed.



Green court

The monks' bathhouse was located at the eastern edge of the Green Court, and the necessarium, or privy, was on the south. The privy, an impressive structure measuring 145' by 25', was essentially a monumental, 55-hole outhouse. Waste was carried away by a constantly flowing stream that ran below the building.

The Green Court today

The kitchen courtyard

The kitchen courtyard

The kitchen courtyard was located southwest of the Green Court.

A substantial kitchen, coquina, stood at the northeast corner of this courtyard. Built of stone and 47' on a side, it was crowned with a massive, pyramidal roof.

A small tower beside the high, arched doorway to the kitchen was labeled Camera ubi pistoi lavatur, “Chamber where fish are washed.”

A passageway led south from the kitchen to the infirmary complex. This passage had latticed arbors, or perhaps fences, along its north and east walls.

Across a small, square courtyard to the west was a small building with two windows, one labeled Fenestra ubi fercula administrantur, “Window where servings are distributed“; and the other, Fenestra per quam ejiciuntur scutelle ad lavandum, “Window through which the plates are sent out for washing.”

Directly to the west of the kitchen was a larger, open courtyard whose southern end is labeled locut ortum, “garden place.” At this courtyard's northeast corner, a tall vine is shown climbing a support beside the kitchen wall. Arcades graced the east and south walls, and an arched doorway in the south arcade led to the dining room.. In the northwest corner of this courtyard  was another guest house, domum hospitum, for the poor, and next to it, set into the north wall, was a tall, roofed entrance labeled “Gate between the guest hall and kitchen.”


The Great CloisterThe great cloister

The great cloister was directly north of the nave of the cathedral. It held an enclosed garden, surrounded on all sides by a graceful arcade, and reminiscent of the gardens found in Romano-British villas. This cloister was the heart of daily life in the monastery.

On its north side, the great cloister was bounded by the refectorium, the monks' dining hall. At the center of the north arcade (also seen from the front) was a roofed portico that housed a large laver (drawn as if seen from above) where the monks would wash their hands before and after eating. Through the portico monks could pass directly into the refectory.

To the east, the cloister was bounded by the monks' sleeping quarters (dormitorium), whose understory housed a heated common room or calefactorium. Just south of the dormitory was the chapter house, capitulum, which takes its name from its function. Each morning, the monks would gather here to listen to readings that would include the martyrology for that day, and also a chapter from their order’s rule. Then the business of the day would begin as problems were discussed and secular matters were handled.


The west side of the cloister was bounded by the cellerium, the hall of the cellerer, who was responsible for supplying the provisions that fed the members of this community -- lay and religious -- and their guests as well. This area also included a guest house for ordinary guests, visitors who were neither aristocrats nor paupers.

The cloister's south arcade was adjacent to the cathedral nave. Here monks could meditate in a vaulted common area or locutorium.

The locutorium (from Withers)


Infirmary cloister and herbariumInfirmary cloister

To the west of the great cloister was the smaller infirmary cloister (shown here with south being at the upper edge).

The west half of this cloister is labeled in the ground plan as an herbarium, and here multicolored rows of plants, most likely medicinal, can barely be discerned. The herbarium was set apart from the eastern half of the cloister by what appears to be a latticework arbor or fence. Additional latticework extends across the western edge of the cloister, with a gate at its southern end.


On the north and south sides of the herbarium are columned arcades. To the west rises the monks’ dormitory; its understory, the heated common room known as the calefactory, opened out onto this peaceful garden. 

To the east, adjoining the infirmary, was an open space with arcades on two sides.

At its southern edge was a stone-walled well, and beside that a water tower with a conical roof. If other water supplies failed, a caption explains, water would be drawn from the well and poured into the water tower, which could then supply all the work areas of the monastery. This water tower has survived the ages, and can still be visited today

Medieval water tower

The medieval
    water tower


Infirmary cloister arcade, from Withers

Norman window

Nova aula and Norman staircase

Infirmary chapel ruins

Infirmary cloister arcade

Norman window, cathedral

New hall and
Norman staircase

The plants shown on the ground plan

Plants at SE corner


Vine beside kitchen

Apple trees


Plants in SE corner of the monastery precinct Plants in the herbarium Vine climbing a support beside the kitchen Apple orchard
with red fruit
on the trees
Vines climbing stakes in the vineyard


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F.D. Drewitt


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