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.
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 cafés 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.