An abbey is a type of monastery used by members of a religious order under the governance of an abbot or abbess. Abbeys provide a complex of buildings and land for religious activities, work, and housing of Christian monks and nuns. The name derives from the late Latin abbatīa, ‘what belongs to the abbot’: the term initially referred only to the office of the person who ruled the monastic community (precisely an abbot or an abbess), but soon assumed the broader meaning of the complex of goods that were administered by this religious office. In fact very often by “abbey” in toponymy is meant not only the building itself, but also the settlement that developed around it.
The first organic arrangement of an abbey organized around the open space of a cloister is perhaps to be referred to the Benedictine communities of the early Middle Ages around the 7th-8th centuries; in Italy, at Montecassino, Pomposa, Farfa, Bobbio. The cloister was presumably born from the displacement on the side of the church of the early Christian quadriporticus, which gathered around itself the fundamental bodies (chapter, refectory, dormitories). The first great flowering of the abbey system, favored for political reasons by the Carolingians and Ottonians, is documented by the so-called “plan of St. Gallen” (ca. 820), still preserved today: in addition to the great variety of the buildings, the geometric-modular regularity of the whole is striking, symbolic of a supreme harmony between the worldly and the heavenly (city of God, Heavenly Jerusalem).
With the abbeys of Carolingian foundation (St. Denis, St. Riquier in Centula, Fulda, Echternach, Reichenau, S. Juan de la Peña, S. Antimo), the Benedictine scheme was stabilized. Around the cloister with its central well and garden (“paradise”), located to the north or south of the basilica, there followed the chapter house with the abbot’s house above it and the dormitory, the refectory and the kitchen (sometimes in a separate building), the novitiate and the functional and representative rooms, the porter’s lodge, the bursar’s office, and possibly the hospice or guesthouse.
In the Romanesque and proto-Gothic ages, the most elaborate forms of this scheme were achieved by the Cluniacs, especially after the return of Hugh of Cluny from Montecassino (1083) and after the third, colossal reconstruction of Cluny (from 1088). Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cluniac Romanesque style spread from France (Moissac, La Charité-sur-Loire) to Italy (S. Fede di Cavagnolo, Vezzolano), Switzerland (Hirsau, Sciaffusa), Spain and England.
In the second-third decade of the XII century, Bernard of Clairvaux reacted to the grandeur and splendor of the Cluniac abbeys by dictating the “rule” on which Cistercian architecture is based: simplicity, organicity, geometric modules, structural rigor. The most perfect example preserved is the abbey of Fontenay (consecrated in 1147). Within a few decades, the Cistercian system expanded impetuously in Germany, Poland, Austria (Heiligenkreuz, 1135), Sweden (Alvastra, 1143), Denmark (Ringsted, 1160), the Netherlands, Spain (Moreruela, 1131), England (Kirkstall, 1153), Italy (Chiaravalle Milanese, 1135; S. Clemente a Casauria, 1176; Casamari, 1203; Fossanova, 1208).
A late innovation is the system of Carthusian monasteries with two cloisters and single, isolated cells. It should be noted, especially in Spain, Portugal and England, the resumption of the abbey system with cloisters and chapter house in the large secular episcopal complexes. Most of the abbeys fell into decline during the Renaissance: one of the greatest examples in the 16th-17th centuries was Montecassino. A last flowering took place in the mature baroque of the Germanic world (Einsiedeln-Melk, Sankt Florian).
The term “abbey” was first of all used to indicate the office of abbot, i.e. the person who presides over and governs (abbas de regimine) a community of monks (cenobio or monastery sui iuris). It was later used to indicate the same monastic communities, particularly those living in the West, according to the rule of St. Benedict (VI century). The same name was then used to indicate the buildings that house the community (and the church of the monastery itself) and the goods that make up the often considerable patrimony of the monastery and the territory over which the abbot exercises jurisdiction.
The original autonomous or autocephalous organization of the abbey already underwent various vicissitudes in the early Middle Ages, namely the subjection of the community and its goods to the power of kings, emperors and lay feudal lords, and later the centralization of several communities, thus forming a congregation of monasteries, under a mother abbey and a single main abbot (for example, the congregation of Cluny already in the tenth century). Later, abbeys were often enfeoffed and given in benefice or in commenda to secular clergymen or even to laymen.
The Codex iuris canonici of 1917, in addition to individual provisions on abbots, enunciates broader norms on the abbatia nullius (or nullius diocesis), i.e. on those abbeys which, for various historical reasons, are not only exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishop but whose abbot in turn exercises in the surrounding territory his own jurisdiction similar to that of the bishop (thus the Benedictine abbeys of Subiaco, Montecassino, Cava dei Tirreni, Montevergine, Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Italy, Einsiedeln in Switzerland, Pannonhalma in Hungary, the Basilian abbey of Grottaferrata, near Rome, etc.).
The governing bodies of the abbey, usually elective, can be different, even if in part provided for by the rule of St. Benedict. In addition to the abbot, there is the prior or provost, the cellarer or treasurer and a council or chapter or congregation of monks.