How did the monks, nuns and hermits live? What rules did they agree to obey? To what extent were they able to uphold those ideals in reality? What was the relationship between the monasteries and wordly authorities? And what was the source of the power that the religious orders were able to exercise in political affairs at various times? Are the remarkable cultural accomplishments of the monasteries simply the fruits of great self-discipline, or did they also result from a privileged way of life? Who were the men and women who entered monasteries? The book covers the history of monasticism from its origins in late antiquity through its apex in the High Middle Ages and into the present. There is a presentation of various religious orders and what makes them unique, as well as short biographies of famous abbots, abbesses and monastic scholars. It covers the architecture of monastic complexes and the art and crafts within them, contains special chapters devoted to everyday life in a monastery, medieval book illumination, monastic gardens, and other comprehensive topics. It is richly illustrated with photographs that bring the architecture, sculpture and paintings to life, as well as colour graphics, maps and floor plans.