The Sacred Landscapes of Medieval Monasteries: An inter-disciplinary study of meaning embedded in space and production

Ruined medieval wall against a blue sky on a frosty morning.


Rising above the Lincolnshire Fens, the ruined south transept wall seems to be all that remains of Kirkstead Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1139. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Medieval monasteries like this were an integral part of the landscape in which they sat, and had an effect on the landscape and society around them. Professor Emilia Jamroziak and Dr Kathryn Dutton are part of a collaborative team unearthing these histories.

What is a Cistercian?

The Cistercian Order of monks was established in the early twelfth century. Cistercian monks live a life of contemplation, work and prayer. Find out more about Cistercian spirituality, daily life, and the history of the Cistercians in Yorkshire here.

Sacred Landscapes

The Sacred Landscape of Medieval Monasteries’ is an AHRC-funded project where the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the University of Leeds are working together to find out how the makers of individual monasteries – the monks, the religious orders to which they belonged, their patrons, and the communities in which they were located – designed these institutions into the fabric of the world around them, and how that environment was altered physically to create a monastic world that was both separated from and connected to the social world around them.

For example, physical barriers like ditches and walls were constructed to create separation and control access to the monastic enclosure through a gate and gatehouse, but the chapel in the gatehouse was traditionally a space which was accessible to the local laity who were not able to access the monastic church. Gatehouses, therefore, kept people out, but also welcomed them into the monastery.

The Sacred Landscapes project brings together history, archaeology, and historical geography to show how monasteries were laid out in relation to existing topographies and to explore the motivations for these actions, such as estate economy and political patronage. Two regions are under study. The team at the University of Wales, are focusing on Strata Florida in Wales while Professor Jamroziak and Dr Dutton at Leeds are bringing the history of Kirkstead Abbey to life, working in close cooperation with archaeologists Professor David Stocker and Dr Paul Everson.

Cartularies, Chapels and Co-Operation

Professor Jamroziak and Dr Dutton are using the rich documentary history of Kirkstead, which is in the form of a cartulary. They have been exploring how monastic record keeping is related to the physical landscape and its alteration. This means examining how different spaces both within and outside the walls of the monastery were important for the relationship of the religious community to its social environment.

What is a cartulary?

Cartularies are volumes of copes of documentary records containing accounts, transactions and other documents relating to institutions or people. Find out more here. The Kirkstead Abbey cartulary is a book containing legal documents about the abbey from when it was functional. The cartulary is held at the British Library. You can read the catalogue entry here.

A small medieval church in a graveyard.

St Leonard’s Without, Kirkstead. Copyright David Hitchborne via and licensed for reuse under CC-SA 2.0 license.

Their research has shown some unexpected results, and new interpretations of the history of this area. For example, it has long been thought that the chapel of St Leonard, which survives today as St Leonard’s Without, was built either as a gatehouse chapel, or as a commemorative chantry chapel to the de Tateshale family, who were patrons of the abbey. However, Jamroziak and Dutton have been able to show that the chapel was in fact founded by the monks, only later becoming a centre of lay worship and pilgrimage. Later on, as a focus for donations, it became an important source of revenue for the monks in times of hardship.

Jamroziak and Dutton have also found evidence of the monks of Kirkstead taking an active role in the management of the landscape around them, even when this meant acting in unexpected ways. It has traditionally been thought that hunting was considered something which monks shouldn’t take part in. However, the sources show that the abbots of Kirkstead took part in hunting with their de Tateshale patrons. Furthermore, in the 1250s, the abbots sought a series of cooperative legal solutions to the challenges of being situated in a hunting landscape and in 1298-9 secured from the king a licence from the king to operate their own deer park.

While there are few physical remnants of Kirkstead Abbey, this project shows that there is more to the history of this place than we can see above the surface.

Read more

There will be more stories from Kirkstead revealed in the forthcoming book Kirkstead Abbey and the Cistercian World: Re-evaluating Cistercian History and Archaeology, which is being co-written by the project team.

Dr Dutton is also preparing an edition of the Kirkstead Cartulary which will help to bring this fascinating source to a wider audience. This related project is funded by a Nigel Burn Large Grant from the Lincoln Record Society, and will be published in the Kathleen Major Series by Boydell and Brewer.

Find out more on the project page on the AHRC website.