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A double monastery (also double house) is a monastery combining a separate community of monks and one of nuns, joined in one institution.[1] More common in the monasticism of Eastern Christianity, where they are found since the 4th century, in the West the establishment of double monasteries became popular after Columbanus and were found in Anglo-Saxon England and Gaul.[2] Double monasteries were forbidden by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, though it took many years for the decree to be enforced.[3] In a significantly different way, double monasteries were revived again after the 12th century,[2] when a number of religious houses were established on this pattern, among Benedictines and possibly the Dominicans. The 14th-century Bridgittines were consciously founded using this form of community.

Examples include the original Coldingham Monastery in Scotland, Barking Abbey in London, and Einsiedeln Abbey and Fahr Monastery in Switzerland, controlled by the abbot of Einsiedeln.[4] In general, monks and nuns lived in separate buildings but were usually united under an Abbess as head of the entire household, and would have chanted the Liturgy of the Hours and attended Mass together in the Chapel. Either an abbess or an abbot would normally have control over both houses, and it was only in exceptional circumstances that each would have its own superior.


The double monasteries of the 7th and 8th centuries had their roots in early Christian religious communities. The trend of early female monasticism, while not as well-documented as that of its male counterpart, began in the fifth century with the founding of a female monastery in Marseille by John Cassian in 410,[5] which preceded several female monasteries in Rome. St. Basil and Pachomius both established female religious communities in close proximity to those of men in the East.[6] In 512, Bishop Caesarius of Arles founded the monastery of St. John the Baptist for his sister and her religious community of women.[7] It is this latter monastery and the Rule that Caesarius established that served as the framework for the evolution of the double monastery.

According to Caesarius, women should be in charge of women's monasteries. The abbess of the monastery should be "superior in rank" and "obeyed without murmuring".[8] Caesarius ensured that the abbesses of his monastery would be free from forced obedience to their diocese's bishop by obtaining a Papal letter exempting his female monastery from episcopal rule.[9] He also wrote the Regula sanctarum virginum, the first known rule specifically created for a female monastery. This rule featured a combination of old and new restrictions on monastic life, including the surrendering of private property, obedience to one's abbess, and strict enclosure for life, which served the dual purpose of protecting the chastity of the monastery's inhabitants and preventing the intrusion of the secular world.[5]

By the 7th century, the Irish missionary St. Columbanus had established his most famous monastery in Gaul, Luxeuil Abbey. St. Balthild, the Queen Regent of Neustria and Burgundy following the death of her husband Clovis II in 657, directly patronized this establishment, promoting the example of Luxeuil's mixed rule—the combination of Benedictine and Columbanian monasticism—throughout medieval Europe.[10] Balthild was responsible for the foundation of an abbey of nuns at Chelles around 659, the double monastery where she retired following her vacation of the regency of the Merovingian throne.[11] Around this same time, the brother of the secular bishop Audoens, Ado, formed the famous double monastery of Jouarre, also in Gaul.[12] These two monasteries shared many of the same features: they both housed male and female religious communities within the same enclosure, though these groups lived apart, and they shared a common church for liturgical offices. Both monasteries were administered by a single head, typically an abbess, a reflection of Caesarius of Arles’ view of the control of female houses.[6] While the inspiration for these religious houses came from Columbanus’ missions in Gaul, he himself never established female religious institutions. The amount of influence Irish monasticism might have played in the foundation of these Frankish double houses is unclear; in the 5th century, the monastery of St. Brigit of Kildare was a community of men and women living together without strict separation, but there is little evidence of whether this was tradition or anomaly.[13]

Regardless of Columbanus’ own involvement, that of his successors, Eustace and Walbert of Luxeuil, is well-documented. The Rule of a Father for Virgins, attributed to the latter abbot, establishes the role of abbess as very similar to that of abbot. In this Rule, Walbert asserts that abbesses share many of the powers of an abbot, including the ability to hear confessions from their nuns and absolve them of their sins.[6] These abbesses were often of noble birth, either direct or distant descendants of the family that founded the monastery.[6] Between the start of the 6th century and the mid-8th century, when double monasteries went into decline, over one hundred double or female monasteries were founded in Gaul.[13]

The double monasteries of Anglo-Saxon England were heavily influenced by the monastic systems of Gaul.[14] Hilda of Whitby, the abbess of the most famous double house in England, originally intended to join her sister at Chelles in 647, where many other daughters of English nobility were educated.[9] Instead, she remained in England, where Bishop and later Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne trained her in monasticism. Here she continued the Gallic tradition of noble female heads of double monasteries at Whitby Abbey, which she directly modeled after a combination of Aiden’s influence and the Rule followed by contemporaries at Chelles and Jouarre.[15] In 664, Hilda hosted the Synod of Whitby, which brought together representatives from the Celtic and Roman churches to resolve ecclesiastical differences between the two, including the Easter Controversy by order of King Oswiu.[16][17] Whitby became known as a school for bishops, and produced five during Hilda’s supremacy, according to the Historia of Bede.[18] The prominent position held by double monasteries in England is further reinforced by the fact that Whitby served as a retiring-place and burial ground for various Anglo-Saxon kings in the seventh century, while also fostering significant cultural achievements, like the poems of Cædmon.[17][19]

Beyond Whitby, Anglo-Saxon England cultivated double monasteries like that of Ely, which was sounded by Queen (and later Saint) Etheldreda of Northumbria. After spending twelve years refusing to consummate her marriage, Etheldreda was granted the land for Ely by her husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria.[4] Another renowned double house, Barking Abbey, followed the Gallic tradition of separation of the sexes with one exception: under Hildelith, abbess of Barking, both male and female burials were combined into a single mass grave.[20] Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the continent founded double houses there--one example is the double monastery in Heidenheim, Bavaria, founded by Saint Willibald around 742 and later led by his sister, Saint Walpurga.[21]

A characteristic unique to Anglo-Saxon religious establishments was the contemporary institution of double monasteries and double minsters. Although both institutes housed both sexes, a double minster served as a church, often royal or magnate in nature, with an attached community of priests, nuns, and monks, rather than an enclosed religious community.[22] Unlike double monasteries, double minsters often centered upon providing pastoral functions for the surrounding laity. This distinction is most obviously seen with the contemporary dichotomy of sanctimonialis- a nun- and canonica-women living under a religious rule, but who has not necessarily taken orders.[22]

Double monasteries were not exclusively found in the West, however. During the 8th century, some cases of double monasteries were documented in the Byzantine Empire. These monasteries were not physically enclosed communities, and featured separate churches for nuns and monks. The most notable of these establishments is the monastery of Mantineon, founded by Anthusa of Mantineon during the reign of the patriarch Nicephorus.[23] Mantineon featured a school for boys in the male monastery, and unlike its Gallic and Anglo-Saxon counterparts, the male and female sections of the monastery featured very different lifestyles. They did, however, rely upon each other, and established a center of activity between the two churches that allowed both monks and nuns to exchange skills and goods.[24] Like Western double monasteries, the establishment of medieval Byzantine double houses peaked by the mid-eighth century.[23]

By the end of the 8th century, the double monastery as an institution entered a deep decline. The most obvious doctrinal explanation for this shift lies in the twentieth canon of the seventh ecumenical synod declared at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. This canon reads, in part:

“Double monasteries are henceforth forbidden. If a whole family wishes to renounce the world together, the men must go into convents for men, the female members of the family in convents for women. The double monasteries already existing may continue … but must observe the following ordinance: Monks and nuns may not reside in one building, for living together gives occasion for incontinence. No monk may enter the woman’s quarter, and no nun converse apart with a monk."[25]

By banning further establishment of double monasteries and limiting their applicant pool, the Second Council of Nicaea effectively ensured that double monasteries throughout both England and Gaul would not exist within a century. This ecclesiastic order was not the only limit on the expansion of the double house system. In England, the effects of constant Viking raids combined with the general decline of a cloistered life during the early 9th century all led to a sharp decrease in the populations and activities of these double houses.[26] The Danish invasions of the 9th century led to the destruction of the double monasteries of Whitby, Barking, and Ely by 870.[27] Often, former double monasteries were eventually converted into all-female convents.

Beginning in the late 10th century, Anglo-Saxon England experienced a revival of monasticism. Alfred the Great and his queen, Elswitha, both established women’s monasteries, though by the time of the Norman Conquest there remained only a few nunneries and no double monasteries in England.[27] In this new wave, the Regularis Concordia was compiled, which was a form of standardized monastic rule. This rule contained explicit instructions regarding the separation of the sexes, forbidding men to enter convents or disturb a nun at prayer.[26] By the twelfth century, double monasteries experienced a faint resurgence, especially in England under Gilbert of Sempringham’s rule. He established a total of thirteenth mixed houses by the end of that century.[28] These new monasteries were not without controversy, however. Scandals involved with these new monasteries ranged from the secular- pregnant nuns- to the ecclesiastical—Pope Alexander threatened Gilbert with excommunication for promoting in a banned form of religious community, and only the intervention of King Henry and prominent English bishops allowed Gilbert to continue his double monasteries.[28]

Double monasteries continued on in Frankish society, but both sections, male and female, eventually shifted into a community of canons and canonesses, rather than monks and nuns.[29] In Sweden, on the other hand, double monasteries experienced a great revival during the late fourteenth century with the spread of the Order of the Holy Savior- also known as the Bridgettines after their founder, Birgitta of Sweden.[27] While double monasteries never again reached the heights of influence and ubiquity they achieved had during the mid-seventh century, the later Middle Ages saw the re-emergence and evolution of these double houses, as well as their spread across Europe.

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