In a Cloistered Monastery – A Reference Question

Picture of a turn.“The architecture of cloistered convents features a small door to the exterior designed specifically to allow groceries and other small supplies to be delivered while maintaining the privacy and separation of the nuns. What is the formal name for such a door (it likely has a name in Latin) and what is the English translation of that word?”

This question came in to the Level 7 reference desk at the Central Library on a busy day during the week before Easter. We hunted around a bit online and did not immediately find a fitting term, so we took the patron’s contact information to dig a bit deeper.

Among the Library’s books on religious orders, I found Virgins of Venice, which describes the lives and transgressions of cloistered nuns in Renaissance Italy, and Cloister and Community, an elegant, photograph-filled book that shows modern life in a Carmelite monastery. If either discusses this feature, it was not in the index. In our very rich architecture section, I searched Monasteries of Western Europe and The Romanesque: Towns, Cathedrals, and Monasteries. Both offer detailed descriptions and floor plans of religious buildings, and thorough indices and glossaries, but not quite to the level of detail I needed.

Finally, I searched online for an actual modern cloistered monastery and discovered that the Sisters of Carmel—although cloistered—offer a web form through which members of the public can ask questions. Although it was holy week, I sent one in.

To my gratitude and delight, they quickly replied!

What [you are] referring to is what is known as “the Turn”.  It is short for a turn-style, which is like a shelf that rotates, so that outsiders can put things in (i.e. groceries, etc.), spin it around, and the Sisters can receive the items without ever leaving their enclosure.  We do not know the Latin term for this.  It is a very practical thing that is used in most cloistered Monasteries, including ours!  We attached a picture for you. We hope this is helpful. God bless you and Happy Easter! – The Carmelite Sisters”

We always say that a librarian need not know everything; we must simply understand who the experts are. It certainly proved true in this case.

For more information about life  in a cloistered monastery and references to the Turn, check out this article in the New York Times, found by my colleague!

~posted by Anne C.

3 thoughts on “In a Cloistered Monastery – A Reference Question”

  1. So fascinating! I had to Google this, and when I did, I found that other names for this revolving door are TORNO (Spanish), ROTA (Italian), and FOUNDLING WHEEL. This may not be correct, but I did find a Latin term — “ROTA LOCULATA” from this book:

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