Anatomy of a Monastery – Monks Again

Pedestrian access, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Gates, Roche Abbey

Last week I said that we would move on to the spaces within a monastery, but I thought it might be useful to look more closely at the monks themselves. We saw the timetable of their days last week, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of their lives. They were members of a community which was also a commercial enterprise, and each man had his part to play.

Hierarchy was as important in the monastery as it was everywhere else in the medieval world. The abbot was at the top of the Benedictine monastery. Abbot means ‘father’, coming from the Hebrew ‘abba’. This was a term used by Jesus when referring to God in the Gospels. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule that the abbot was to represent Christ in the monastery. His commands were, therefore, to be obeyed as if they were from God.

The abbot was elected to the position for life by the monks of the monastery, but the appointment had to be approved by the king. Sometimes the pope also interfered in the election. The abbot had absolute authority over the monks, subject only to the Rule and to his own conscience. The abbot was supposed to teach and advise the monks, and St. Benedict advised him to consider himself their servant rather than the other way round. He was responsible for everything to do with the monastery including its estates.

An abbess was the abbot’s equivalent in a convent, and all the positions that I’ll refer to later also applied to convents.

Abbots tended to come from noble families and could be involved in affairs of state in their own right, often attending parliaments. This meant that the day to day running of the monastery was usually left to the prior.

The prior (prioress in a convent) acted as the abbot’s deputy in Benedictine monasteries. In Cluniac and mendicant houses, however, the prior was the superior and his deputy was the sub-prior.

The role of the prior was not something that St. Benedict recommended. He thought there could be discord between the abbot and the prior, who might, through pride, ‘consider himself a second abbot’. What St. Benedict wanted was a system of deans where each dean would have charge of ten monks. This was tried in some monasteries in northern Africa, but it didn’t have much success.

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

Window with tracery, Roche Abbey

There was too much work involved in running a monastery for the abbot and the prior to be able to do it all between them. Since the method proposed by St. Benedict for managing a monastery had been rejected, another way had to be found. In the end, it was done through a small group of monks referred to as obedientiaries, that is those who owe obedience. They included the cellarer, the precentor and the sacrist amongst others. They had to provide accounts for their particular area of responsibility each year at Michaelmas (29th September).

When a new abbot was appointed, the obedientiaries’ terms ended. Some of them had such demanding duties that they didn’t have to attend all of the offices and were permitted to leave the monastery on occasion.

As time went on and the tasks became too many or too complex for one man (or woman), the obedientiaries took on subordinates. The cellarer’s staff, for example, could include a kitchener, a refecteror, a gardener and a woodward (a man in charge of a wood). Each of these might have their own staff beneath them, sometimes including lay servants.

It’s probably easiest to look at the obedientiaries in terms of heads of departments, with staff beneath them. By the time I got to the end of all the obedientiaries and their staffs, though, I had enough information for four posts, so I’ll return to them over the next few weeks.

If you think that all this organisation seems a bit excessive, it’s worth remembering that there could be hundreds of monks in a monastery. Rievaulx at its peak had 600. Providing even their clothes, food and drink would have required the labour of many people, whose efforts would have had to be organised and co-ordinated.


The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron
Medieval Monasticism by C.H. Lawrence


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:











Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

28 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – Monks Again

  1. I hadn’t realised there were so many, must have been more monks than villagers in some places.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s another area where films and TV haven’t served us well. They show us monasteries with about 30 or 40 monks and we think that’s what they were like. Numbers declined after the Black Death and hadn’t really recovered by the Dissolution, but before then there were monasteries and convents full of people.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Losing the Plot

    The first fully stone building in Ireland, built in 1193, was the church at Greyabbey, which is close to where I live. It was built by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy who built Carrickfergus Castle.
    The abbey is in ruins now, and has been for most of its existence, given that it was destroyed during the invasion of Edward the Bruce sometime after 1315.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Losing the Plot

    Sorry – that should have been fully stone church, not building d’oh!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Another very enjoyable post, April. I am really enjoying learning more about the life of the monks and nuns.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Totally agree April film and tv don’t do it justice at all. We have a few monasteries here in the north east. The college next to my school was for nuns and they used to teach at my school right until I started in 2001 – less involved when I started.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. lydiaschoch

    Wow, that would have been a lot of work for them! I didn’t realize monasteries used to be so huge either. Arranging for food, clothes, and other necessities of life for hundreds of people is no small task.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. It’s interesting how the rules repeatedly tried to prevent one person from becoming too proud! I’d be interested to learn if it actually worked, or if lust for power led to corruption in monasteries anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think it was in one of Robert Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” pieces that I read of a boy who was made an abbot, or some other high church title, much the same as for other boys who were given exalted titles in name only. Presume this was for some adult(s) to maintain real control. Surely such things backfired when the boys reached legal age!

    Wonder if England had any such underage abbots? Seems it was more a mainland European thing.

    Please! Keep up the monastery research. Love it! ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Monasteries and great households appear in a different light when we think of them as large-scale commercial enterprises – which, of course, they were. Humans being the creatures we are, I’m sure some of the rivalries, intrigues, and in-fighting observable in today’s workplaces occurred, though – at least in the religious houses – nowhere near as frequently, I trust.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, I’m sure there was a lot of ambition and pride involved. There were also many temptations for the obedientiaries, who had access to property and money.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I’d like to think that monks were more alert to their sinful motivations than most of us are, but who knows?
        I’m not surprised that the idea of Deans, each with oversight of 10 monks, didn’t work. Rival teams would have been an inevitable result. I think that as a species we’re hard-wired to think in terms of “them and us”.

        Liked by 2 people

        • What they ended up with was very much different teams, but their responsibilities were clearly defined, which probably made things easier. I think St. Benedict would have been horrified to see what the monasteries became. He could not have envisaged that they would become so wealthy and manage such vast estates.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Coincidentally we visited Bury St Edmunds last week, the cathedral and the abbey ruins there. We did a guided walk and they were discussing the relations between the abbey and the town. Certainly in that case, the abbot did not seem to manage the ‘not being proud’ rule. People are people it seems, monks or not.
    Such an interesting subject April, thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Over 600 monks?! I had no idea. I went to Selby Abbey this summer and that was very interesting, learning about their hierarchy and how they spent their days. I don’t think of Abbey’s being very busy places, but in reality they must have been incredibly busy. Buckfast Abbey, where we went for a recent intro to bee keeping course, still have monks living within the Abbey and they have quite a few different businesses running there, including the bee keeping.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part One | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s