Tag Archives: Medieval Prior

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.

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