Pre 1600

Positions of Responsibility in Medieval English Monasteries

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During the Middle Ages, monasteries were organized according to strict hierarchical standards. Each aspect of monastery life had a monk assigned to supervise it. Aside from worshipping God, monks were charged with a variety of secular duties, such as care for the poor, hospitality, reproduction of bibles and other religious texts, display of relics for pilgrims, and performance of all chores necessary to maintain a self-sufficient environment.

The History Learning Site lists the following positions of responsibility as pertaining to most of the Catholic orders:


The abbot was the monk in charge of the monastery. Chosen in a secret ballot by his fellow monks, he was the one to demonstrate the highest level of learning and devotion. It was not unusual for a monk to be elected, who had demonstrated competence and leadership in one of the lesser positions of responsibility. This office was bestowed for life.


Express mentions the prior as the second-in-command of the abbot. He led the monastery when the abbot was traveling on church business, or incapacitated by illness or old age. Some of the larger monasteries also had a sub-prior, who was third in the chain of command.


The almoner was in charge of distributing alms. For this purpose, monasteries assigned an area or a building towards the periphery of the grounds, known as the almonry, usually set apart from the rest of the property. On Thursdays, it was the duty of the almoner and his staff to wash the feet of the poor who were present at the almonry.


The master of the scriptorium, the precentor decided which texts to copy. He was also in charge of quality control, and upkeep and expansion of the library.


The sacrist was responsible for the monastery’s relics and artifacts. These sacred items were exhibited to pilgrims and members of the community. A special surveillance area, or watching chamber, was set aside to give the sacrist the opportunity to keep a close eye on the display.


The hosteller’s duty was to care for guests of the monastery, who were given lodging in the guesthouse, an area set apart from the monks’ living quarters. These guests were usually pilgrims or travelers who had been surprised by bad weather or illness, or were kept from frequenting a wayside inn for other reasons.


The infirmarian was a man who tended to the sick or injured. He also ran the infirmary, a place where aging monks lived out their days, and severely ill friars were isolated from the rest of the community.


Put in charge of housekeeping, the chamberlain saw to it that the monastery was kept clean, fresh bed linens were provided, hot water for personal hygiene was available, and the monks’ habits were laundered and in good repair.


The cellarer was assigned the duty of overseeing food preparation and storage. Cooking, baking, and brewing were his main areas of responsibility. Depending on the size of the monastery, he could delegate some of his duties to other monks, who would run a specific area, such as the kitchen or the brew house, and be responsible to him.

Other assignments

Farming, masonry, carpentering, education, and other activities engaged in by the monks also had supervisors assigned to them, often subordinate to one of the main positions of responsibility.

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