Isolation from the demands and perceived snares of the secular world was a concept central to the monastic ideal from earliest times. An enclosed space, or cloister (from the Latin clausura), made sacred by continuous prayer and contemplation, delimited the boundaries beyond which members of a religious community were advised not to venture and into which the worldly were not to intrude.

The most popular monastic rule in early medieval Europe, that of Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. 547), emphasised monastic stability as embodied in the popular saying that a monk outside his cloister was ‘like a fish out of water’, but Benedictine monks, and the nuns for whom the rule was adapted, were not strictly cloistered.