An abbey is a monastery of monks ruled by an abbot or a monastery of nuns ruled by an abbess. Each abbey will normally follow a particular religious order (like Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, and others). The word also refers to the building or buildings used by the abbey.

Besides the abbot or abbess, the abbey has many other officers. They include the following:

  1. Prior, who served in the abbot’s place when he was absent. Some great abbeys had several priors.
  2. Almoner, who had the oversight of the daily distribution of alms to the poor at the gate.
  3. Pitantarius, who had care for the pittances, which were the allowances given on special occasions over and above the usual provisions.
  4. Sacristan (Sexton), who had the care of the vessels, vestments, books, etc.; he also provided for the sacrament and took care of burials.
  5. Chamberlain, who looked after the dormitory or sleeping quarters.
  6. Cellarer, whose duty it was to procure provisions for strangers.
  7. Bursar, who received rents, etc.
  8. Precentor, who presided over the choir.
  9. Infirmarius, who attended to the hospital and sick monks.
  10. Refectionarius, who looked after the hall and provided everything required there.

In the typical abbey of the Middle Ages, the center of the entire group of buildings was occupied by a quadrangle (an open rectangular space). On the north side of this space was the church. On the other three sides ran the cloister or ambulatory, a vaulted passage open on the inner side. The cloister served both as a covered walkway from building to building and as a place for exercise in bad weather. Connected with the cloister on the ground floor were the refectory (dining hall), the kitchen, the chapter-house (in which the reading and exposition of the rule of the order took place), the winter dining room, and the reception room for outsiders.

On the second floor was a passageway above the cloister which connected to the choir loft of the church. The rooms on this floor included the vestiarium (where the clothes were kept), the library, the dormitory, the infirmary, the rooms for the novices, and the apartments for the abbot (which were accessible directly from the outside). Outside the main abbey there might be various farm buildings and a house for pilgrims who came by. These often surrounded a separate quadrangle. The entire group of buildings was surrounded by a high, solid wall, which was often fortified by towers and strong gates. The burial ground for the monks was also within the enclosure.

England was at one time home to many wealthy abbeys. In the years after King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church (1534), he seized all 190 of the abbeys and used their wealth to increase his own power and riches.

David Reagan

Daily Proverb

Proverbs 5:16

Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.