A monastery, or a convent, is a set of buildings in which men or women religious live. Monasticism is their way of life in all its dimensions. Monasticism necessarily includes architecture and encompasses how, when and why monastic buildings were built but, more importantly, it also includes how, when and for what purposes those buildings were used. Monasticism also encompasses how monks and nuns lived, both individually and collectively: who they were; what they ate and drank; and what they wore; as well as how they died and were buried. The study of monasticism also considers social relations both within the monastery and without. It considers the churches, farms, mills, and other types of land as well as rights and privileges that a religious community might possess. Monasticism asks how and when such a "domain" was acquired, as well as how it was managed.
Archaeologists studying medieval monasticism in western Europe have the opportunity to combine material evidence with written documents. Historians have long exploited charters, chronicles and other textual evidence to write a story of monasticism. Archaeologists, on the other hand, have only recently begun to exploit the rich array of material evidence, from walls and graves and the skeletons within them to pottery, glass and botanical evidence, to compose a picture of monasticism materially. Part of the power of material evidence in the Middle Ages resides in its juxtaposition with the witness of texts, whether that evidence reinforces the material testimony or contradicts it.
No project, virtual, written, or archaeological, will ever succeed in reconstructing the totality of the monastic past. Focus on monastic life as a whole, is by definition a multi-disciplinary approach in which scholars from different fields collaborate to approach a problem from different perspectives. This kind of approach offers the greatest possibility for an understanding of monasticism that includes different past perspectives on the multiple dimensions that comprised the manner of — and the reasons for — how monks and nuns lived during the Middle Ages.