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The Roles in a Medieval Monastery

As monasteries in the Middle Ages grew in size and wealth, their organizations would become increasingly complex. Here is a quick guide for understanding the hierarchy and various roles monks and nuns would have in a medieval monastery.

While most monasteries would be the home to a couple of dozen monks or nuns, others could be much larger with populations in the hundreds. They would also have large numbers of lay servants that would work for them. Therefore, it was necessary to have not people in charge of the monasteries, but others serving in specialized roles.

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Here are the most important roles within a medieval monastery. Not all abbeys or nunneries would be organized exactly this way, as it would depend on how large they are, their various needs, and just how good their management was.

Abbot / Abbess

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the monastery, normally the abbot would be elected to this post by his fellow monks and serve until he died or was too unhealthy to carry out his duties. Their main responsibility was to handle relations with the outside world, including other monasteries and church officials, as well as the secular government. The abbot would also have authority over all the other monks, including the power to imprison or even exile his brethren. They would also be able to appoint the other roles in the monastery.

The Rule of Saint Benedict, the most important rulebook to monastic life in the Middle Ages, offers up advice on how an abbot should be: “He should strive to be loved rather than feared. He must not be inconsistent or anxious, not extreme in his behaviour or obstinate, not jealous or excessively suspicious, for then he will never rest. He must act with foresight and consideration whenever he gives an order.”

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An abbess with her nuns – British Library MS Royal 6 E VI f. 27

Prior

The prior would be the second-in-command of a monastery and would handle duties delegated to him by the abbot. Often this involved dealing with disciplinary issues or routine business. Also, sometimes a monastery would establish a new house in another area, which would be called a priory, and a prior would be in charge of it.

The Rule of Saint Benedict warns that the position of prior can be a troublesome one: “for there are some who are puffed up with a wicked spirit of pride and consider themselves on a par with the abbots, arrogating to themselves tyrannical power… This will cause envy, quarrels, back-biting, rivalry, dissension and breaches of the rule, and whenever the abbot and prior disagree their souls must be in danger as a result of their dissension.”

Steward

This role was akin to the Chief Financial Officer for the monastery. He would oversee and make decisions about a monastery’s properties, including lands, buildings and livestock. He could have assistants or a council of advisors that would help in making decisions

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Cellarer

This person managed the food, drink and fuel that would come into a monastery. He would often oversee a large number of people. For example, at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury for the year 1322, the cellarer had a staff of over thirty people, including cooks and kitchen staff, guards, porters and purveyors who would buy and sell goods.

A monk with his assistant – British Library MS Harley 4399 f. 32r

Almoner

This person would oversee the charitable activities of a monastery. For example, they would distribute food to the poor.

Master of Novices

When new monks or nuns entered a monastery, it would be the Master of Novices who would be in charge of their discipline and education.

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Guest Master

One of the roles for a monastery would to be offer hospitality to visitors, which might include having royalty or other important people staying overnight. The guest master would be responsible for this, and here is a description of his duties by Lanfranc of Canterbury: “The brother who is appointed to receive guests should heave ready in the guest-house beds, chairs, tables, towels, clothes, tankards, plates, spoons, basins and suchlike. Whoever wishes to speak with the abbot, prior or any monk shall use the guest-master as his ambassador.”

Infirmarer

This person was in charge of taking care of the sick monks, who were kept in the infirmary.

Cantor

This person often had two different roles. The first was to lead the choir, which would include practicing the chanting and readings for church services. The other role was to be in charge of the library and scriptorium, and he could assign other monks to copy books.

Chamberlain

This person would be responsible for taking care of the clothing and bedding needs of the monastery, as well as the hygiene needs such as bathing and shaving.

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Sacrist

This person was in charge of maintaining the monastery’s church, making sure it would be kept in good repair. This could also include taking care of any religious relics owned by the monastery. Lanfranc of Canterbury adds, “his task is to ring the bells, or to instruct others how they are to be rung. He distributes candles. He takes charge of burials. It is his task twice a week to wash the chalices.”

Roundsman

Perhaps the least-liked official in the monastery was the roundsman. His job was to make sure the other monks were following the rules, including attending meetings and masses. He would report any transgressions he observed.

There could be several other positions within the monastery as well, taking care of specific tasks or serving as assistants to the above roles – priors for example could be assisted by one or more sub-priors. The hope was the abbey or nunnery could be well run and carry out its mission with a firm hierarchy.

See also: Tips on being a good CEO from a medieval abbot

Further Reading:

Daniele Cybulskie, How to Live Like a Monk: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Life (Abbeville Press, 2021)

Tony McAleavy, Life in a Medieval Abbey (English Heritage, 2003)

Juliet Mousseau, “Daily Life at the Abbey of Saint Victor,” in A Companion to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, eds. Hugh Feiss and Juliet Mousseau (Brill, 2018)

Sherri Olson, Daily Life in a Medieval Monastery (Greenwood, 2013)

Carolinne White (trans), The Rule of Benedict (Penguin, 2008)

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