Life at Kirkstall Abbey
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 Life at Kirkstall Abbey


The monks who lived at Kirkstall for almost four centuries were Cistercians, a religious order of the Catholic Church who live according to the Rule of St Benedict. The Cistercians were famous for how closely they followed the Rule, for their desire to separate themselves from society, their austerity, and community spirit.

The Cistercians were careful about whom they allowed to enter their abbeys. Besides building a wall around the monastery and posting a monk to watch the gate, they situated their abbeys away from large settlements, often in valleys. The monks moved to Kirkstall from Barnoldswick partly because too many people came close to the abbey, which disrupted the monks’ ‘peace and quiet’.

Cistercian monks concentrated on learning about God and living life according to the example of Jesus and his disciples. Ultimately, a monk hoped to gain entrance to heaven as a reward for a harder life on earth. A monk’s duties involved saying prayers frequently, reading the Bible or other religious texts, and not becoming involved with society. This form of life is called ‘contemplative’ because it involves thinking about what sort of person you are, and self-improvement.


Cistercian monks were famed for their harsh living conditions. The monks of Kirkstall would have felt the winter chill, as they wore robes called ‘habits’, but no other layers. Monks were permitted to warm themselves next to a fire for only a few minutes each day, in one room set aside for that purpose. Cistercians did not sleep very much, and would wake around 01:30 to pray.

The monks did not eat for at least nine hours after waking. In summer they ate only lunch and a light supper, reduced to just one meal in winter. The Cistercian way of life did not allow monks to live in comfort, but provided just enough to keep a monk going in his duties.

Cistercians lived communally and no monk was supposed to act alone. Living together helped monks keep each other strong, remain focused, and resist temptation. Medieval Cistercians helped each other by describing their lifestyle in an inspirational way. They wrote books and preached sermons describing Cistercian monks as a spiritual army at war with the Devil, and the monastery as a fortress to be guarded. ​​​

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The Rule of St Benedict

More information on the Rule of St Benedict can be found on the websites listed below:

New Advent website - Information on the Rule

The Order of St Benedict website: English translation of the Rule

Monastic Life

For more information about what it was like to visit a Cistercian abbey in the Middle Ages download or view our illustrated online guides: 
Kirkstall Abbey in the Middle Ages' (PDF, 4MB)
'Visiting Kirkstall Abbey Guesthouse' (PDF 6MB) - poster showing the layout of the guesthouse and revealing how visitors would have experienced their stay in abbey