Communal meals provided one of the times in which all the monks of an establishment were together. Diet and eating habits differed somewhat by order, and more widely by time period. The Benedictine rule may be described as illustrative.
The Rule of St Benedict orders two meals. Dinner was provided for year-round; supper was also served from late spring to early fall, except for Wednesdays and Fridays. The diet originally consisted of simple fare: two dishes, with fruit as a third course if available. The food was simple, with the meat of mammals forbidden to all but the sick. Moderation in all aspects of diet was the spirit of Benedict's law. Meals were eaten in silence, facilitated sometimes by hand signals. A single monk might read from the Scriptures or writings of the saints aloud during the meals.
By the middle of the twelfth century, this early austerity had been softened. The softening occurred primarily because of the expansion of the Calendar of saints, which allowed for more elaborate meals in conjunction with longer services, candle light, and the wearing of copes. Diet was also expanded by various equivocations or discriminations: most significantly, food consumed in the refectory was differentiated from extra food consumed elsewhere (often in a small room built for this purpose.) The Rule was considered to be followed if a certain percentage of monks, generally more than half, ate the regular meal in the refectory.
Norman refectories could be as large as long by wide (as is that in the abbey at Norwich). Even relatively early refectories might have windows, but these became larger and more elaborate in the high medieval period: the refectory at Cluny Abbey was lit through thirty-six large glazed windows. That in the twelfth-century abbey at Mont Saint-Michel had six windows, five feet wide by twenty feet high.
In Eastern Orthodox monasteries, the Refectory (Trapeza) is considered to be a sacred place, and even in some cases is constructed as a full church with Altar and Iconostasis. Some services are intended to be performed specifically in the Trapeza. There is always at least one Icon with a lampada (oil lamp) kept burning in front of it. The service of the Lifting of the Panagia is performed at the end of meals. During Bright Week, this service is replaced with the Lifting of the Artos. In some monasteries, the Ceremony of Forgiveness at the beginning of Great Lent is performed in the Trapeza. All food served in the Trapeza should be blessed, and for that purpose, holy water is often kept in the kitchen.