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What Is a Refectory?

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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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A refectory is a communal dining hall in a monastery, school, or convent. It is the only place where nuns and monks share limited social time because the rest of their day is normally spent in work or prayer. Usually a large open room with long tables and benches or chairs, the refectory is close to the kitchen to enable food to be easily served. Modern convents and boarding schools have similar arrangements, and some old church refectories are now open to the public.

In medieval monasteries, the refectory was sometimes referred to as a frater, a Latin word that means brother. Frater house or fratery were other terms used for the place where the brothers gathered for their simple meals. The kitchen and a buttery or dairy would be close by. Beyond these rooms, a convenient kitchen garden was usually located. A lavatory or basin stood outside the room for handwashing.

Medieval convents had refectories as well. A large wealthy monastery or convent would have a big refectory with windows and long benches where the monks or nuns ate. The Bellapais Abbey in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus had a spectacular refectory, nearly 99 feet by 33 feet (30m by 10m) in size. Eastern Orthodox refectories, or trapezas, were considered nearly as holy as the church itself and often housed an altar and precious religious icons.

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The abbess or abbot and visiting dignitaries usually sat at a raised table at the front of the room. A reader was employed to read aloud pertinent Gospels, a sermon, or homily while the monks or nuns ate, and was usually seated in a pulpit or an alcove adjoining the refectory. Meals were taken in silence except during special occasions, like feast days or holidays, when speaking would be permitted. Modern monasteries and convents may be in newer buildings with up-to-date facilities, but the same rules of conduct usually apply.

Contemporary use of the word refectory pertaining to a dining hall is largely found in the UK and primarily heard at universities. Boarding schools may still refer to their eating spaces as refectories, but the word cafeteria and a decidedly more casual atmosphere prevails. Seating is the same, with long tables and benches or chairs. The Church of England has several cathedrals and abbeys that have turned their old refectories into caf├ęs for extra income. These eateries, along with monasteries and convents that allow tourists to stay as paid overnight guests, offer the refectory dining experience to more than just the religious.

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ZipLine
Post 5

@literally45-- I think that, generally in monasteries, people only talk when it's necessary. So it is customary to be silent during meals. I don't know if this varies from one denomination to another. But I assume that it's the same for most. It's just the tradition, it has always been that way and will continue to be. A monk's life is completely devoted to religious practice, so idle talk is not something that a monk will engage in.

SteamLouis
Post 4

@Lostnfound-- Refectory isn't very common, but the other term for it, frater, is not uncommon. The word "fraternity" comes from the same word. If it's easier for you to remember, you can say "frater." I'm sure no one would give you strange looks if you said "the convent cafeteria" or "the monastery cafeteria" either.

Like the article also mentioned, modern refectories do look like regular dining areas and cafeterias. But if you get a chance, look up pictures of medieval refectories. They are very interesting.

In medieval refectories, the refectory was a long hall with the dining tables on both sides of the wall. So the center of the hall was empty and at the middle front was the abbott. So the setup was much different than what it is today.

literally45
Post 3

If the time spent in a refectory is the only time when nuns and monks may interact with one another, then why are they required to be quiet? Wouldn't they want to converse and discuss various issues, or even talk about the Bible at this time?

Lostnfound
Post 2

I don't know if this term has ever been used much in the United States. I've heard of it only in Britain. In the U.S., we usually use the term "dining hall" or "cafeteria."

I took a retreat at a Benedictine convent several years ago, and they called their dining area a dining hall. I think cafeteria is usually more often used on a school campus, at a hospital or at a company's building. It implies going through a line and choosing what one wants to eat from a variety of selections.

Grivusangel
Post 1

I first ran across the term in Rumer Godden's book, "In This House of Brede." I pretty much figured out the meaning from the context.

I have, in other books, seen the term "refection," meaning a light meal or snack.

It's certainly not a common word in the U.S. "In This House of Brede" takes place in a convent in the UK, so it makes sense that Godden used the term "refectory."

I've seen online where some church properties have turned their refectories into restaurants. These places are supposed to serve excellent food, and I'm sure staying in their guest houses would be a wonderful experience.

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