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  • Adrian J. Boas

On a Place of Contemplation


One needs a quiet place to contemplate. For me it is a seat under the fig tree in my tiny garden with its three fountains. It is my personal cloister, isolated from the street by a thick wall of bay trees and brachychiton, the latter being a type of tree that in the past I regarded as plain and even unattractive, and have felt some animosity towards during its intensive leaf-dropping season, but now harbour more fraternal feelings, having discovered that it is a fellow expatriate from Australia. There is also morning glory, wisteria and honeysuckle and together they form a pleasant screen, a defence against the outer world with all its noise, bustle and threats. Within is a place of cool, speckled shade, of rushing and trickling water that takes the unpleasant edge off the external babel. Even the hum of the traffic beyond achieves a melodious effect. My only guests are thrushes, yellow bulbuls, bees and layabout cats.


The ideal courtyard is enclosed within a building. It is doubly separated from the outside world, buffered by the building that contains it. It is the ideal place for isolated contemplation, and it has other uses. It forms a safe, protected place from all forms of intrusion and preserves in cool silence its freedom from all undesired encroachment, whether man or the elements. Nothing can penetrate. We are not surprised to find courtyards included in most types of architecture, in many periods and in many regions.


The Franks in the Latin East were no exception. They incorporated courtyards in fortresses, monasteries, palaces, military order compounds, urban houses, farms and rural administrative buildings. In castles the courtyard was a place where a variety of activities would take place relating to the garrison's daily life. It might include space for a herb or kitchen garden or stables and could serve as a defended training and exercise ground. They also adopted the courtyard layout in their domestic buildings, borrowing the form of the traditional Arab house, a design that provided protection for the inhabitants from the harsh climate, but in Islam was mainly favoured because it provided complete privacy for the family members. The typical courtyard house had an indirect access from the street, and only from within the courtyard could one enter into the living area, and this, combined with a lack of ground-floor level windows on the street front enabled the inhabitants to enjoy complete privacy. Although privacy for medieval Europeans was not as central an aspect of family life as in Islam, the Franks in the Latin East became acquainted with the advantages of the houses they occupied at the time of conquest, and subsequently built houses of this type themselves. In many Frankish towns the courtyard house is the predominant type of domestic dwelling. In administrative buildings, both urban and rural, the courtyard had a practical function, once again as a protected workplace, and in the case of estate centres and farms as a place to keep livestock and store equipment and goods.


Cloister at the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem

But it was in the monastery (and perhaps in the pseudo-monastic military order compounds) that the courtyard took on its most significant role as the "cloister" (from the Latin word for enclosure, claustrum), a place of spiritual importance, a self-contained world where one could meditate and pray. The ideal of a cloistral monastery originated in a sixth century decree passed at the Second Council of Tours in 567.* Monastic communities were to have a place to meet, read and discuss matters under the vigilant observation of the abbot or prior. The cloister became so central that the very word became a synonym for monastic life. It was surrounded by the monastic buildings: the church, refectory, dormitory, cellar, chapter house, kitchen, latrines, bathhouse and infirmary. Everything opened onto it. It was formed of an open space or garth, often planted with fruit trees, flowering shrubs and herbs, and surrounded by covered arcades or walks (ambulatories). The cloister of Rievaulx in north Yorkshire was described in a treatise written by Abbot Aelred around 1160 as possessing "the delights of paradise with the leaves, flowers and fruits of each single tree..."**




* Jean Gaudemet and Brigitte Basdevant, ed. and trans., Les canons des conciles mérovingiens VIe-VIIe siècles, CERF, 1989, p. 361, no 15 [14]. **Mary Eugenia Lake, trans., Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, Kalamazoo, 1977, vol. III: 82, 112.

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