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We finally made it under the Abbey gate a little before sunset, just as the monks were assembling for vespers so it was left to one of the lay brothers to establish us in the guest house and show us where the horses could be stabled. The Almoner came to visit us once the service was over - apparently they were remote enough not to have a separate obedientiary for the guest house - to ensure that we were comfortably settled and to make discreet inquiries into what business had brought us so far up into the mountains. He actually seemed surprised that we were here to consult the house's library, and promised to introduce Father Gabriel to the librarian as soon as we were recovered from our journey - even Gabriel agreed that it would be wiser to wait for daylight before actually starting his research.

Basic Information

A male member of a cenobitic1 religious order, dwelling in community with his fellow monks for some purpose that is intended to serve the aims of his faith. Such a community of monks is known, by default, as a monastery, although other names may apply. Note that a monk is not necessarily an ordained priest but is in some form of religious orders, unlike a lay brother, who is an ordinary rank-and-file member of the religion living in a monastery and working alongside the monks, usually as a servant or specialist craftsman.

Most of what follows will apply mainly to Church of Rome Christianity in Western Europe but monastic traditions occur in other Christian denominations and other religions (particularly Buddhism and Sufi Islam) - these will vary in detail and should be researched separately.

Traditionally monks were meant to live under codes which include such strictures as poverty, chastity and obedience - sometimes with a very restricted diet, rules of silence and other disciplines of faith. In practice the degree to which these rules were observed - and whether the spirit or the letter of the code was better kept - varied greatly and it was not unknown for some monasteries to acquire scandalous reputations for high living and debauchery.

The length of a monk's membership of a community could vary considerably - in the Church of Rome a monk generally enlisted for life, and in many cases could be entered into the community as a child (known as an oblate, whilst someone who joined as an adult was called a convert), although by the later middle ages most orders had greatly restricted the practice of accepting oblates. In some other Christian traditions, and even more so in non-Christian ones such as Sufi or Buddhist monasticism a man might spend only part of his life as a monk, before returning 'to the world' to play some other role, either as a layman or as secular clergy2.

The declared purpose of monasteries has traditionally been to provide a source of concentrated and continual prayer on behalf of the community or nation to which they are attached. Other common activities have included schooling, the maintaining of libraries and hand copying of the books in them and running hospitals of various kinds. In some cases they also served as retirement homes for a community with elderly men leaving the secular world to spend their final years in holy living (at least in theory). Monastery schools often evolved from the facilities set up to train oblates - these could then accept children from other sources as well, at first alongside the oblates and then, as oblation was increasingly phased out, instead of them.

Under the Roman tradition, a monastery would generally keep a cycle of eight services known as the canonical hours, starting before dawn with Matins and proceeding through the day until the Midnight Mass. These were observed to some degree outside monastic communities, but were normally only fully observed within.

Despite the normative rules of poverty, many monasteries were major landowners and were collectively wealthy - Buckfast Abbey in Devon was one of the largest wool producers in England and remains famous for its tonic wine and many continental monasteries are famous for their wines or liqueurs. Other monasteries have been well known for beekeeping3 or the manufacture of perfume but generally their economy was based around agriculture (as might be expected for anyone in the pre-modern period). Many of these practices actually derived from herbalism to one degree or another - especially where liqueurs, tonic wines and other plant extracting processes are involved. Beer making, by contrast, was merely a part of domestic catering for most of the period (as, in truth, might wine making be in some regions) - quality being a result of self-interest and extended practice.

A monastery was traditionally headed by an Abbot - and was usually called an Abbey if this was the case (in the Roman tradition, some Abbots were also Bishops of a diocese4) but smaller monasteries - often satellites of a larger house - were headed by a prior and known as priories. In an abbey the prior was the deputy to the abbot instead. A further level of satellites, known as granges, existed in many cases, but were not always occupied by a permanent staff of monks and so didn't have a formal community in place.

Below the prior were a group of monks known as the obedientiaries who had specific responsibilities for making sure specific jobs were carried out, these included:

  • The precentor: who organised and directed the worship services. Traditionally the monastery's director of music.
  • The sacristan: who was in charge of the monastic church, its vestments and sundry "worship equipment". Usually in charge of the sacred texts and therefore library (if any) and often the scriptorium (copying house) as well.
  • The cellarer: in charge of the monastery's estates and responsible for making sure the house was fully supplied.
  • The refectorian: ran the mess hall and was responsible for its fixtures and fittings.
  • The kitchener: in charge of the monastery kitchens, which could be a big job as a monastery could have several - often separate - serving the monk's refectory, the guest house, the abbot's lodgings and the lay brethren's quarters (although not all houses separated all of these functions).
  • The novice master: responsible for the training of new recruits and the running of the monastery school (if any).
  • The infirmarian: responsible for the infirmary where sick or elderly monks were cared for - and the monastic hospital if one existed.
  • The guest master: ran the guest house which provided hospitality to travellers.
  • The almoner: responsible for the giving of assistance to the poor (sometimes the same person as the guest master)
  • The chamberlain: who was in charge of the monks clothing and bedding.

Many of these offices had full time assistants (for example, the Cellarer might be assisted by a bursar - effectively a financial manager; managers for the estate's granges and possibly other specialists), whilst others would borrow non-specialised monks as required or rely on the services of the lay brethren. Obedientiaries were usually elected by their brother monks for life or until resignation, deposition or incapacity.

Other jobs were filled by rota on a weekly or monthly basis. All monks were expected to attend the services if they were physically able - and most houses had an altar rigged in the infirmary for those who couldn't make it to the chapel - and in theory all were expected to work in the monastery fields or other forms of labour.

The female cognate of 'monk' is 'nun' - most of the above applies with slight variations regardless of the gender of the participants, although a convent of nuns was often used as a dumping ground for 'inconvenient' women.

Other forms of monk-like individual include the hermit and anchorite. Friars were monks who were not based in a monastery but travelled from place to place to work their ministry using the houses of their order - called friaries - as depots. Orders of monks in which all or most of the brothers were ordained priests were sometimes called canons rather than monks.


2. The Name of the Rose - a story about a monastery in need of a detective.
6. The Rule of St Benedict - the original handbook on setting up a monastery.

Game and Story Use

  • In a medieval European campaign staying the night at a monastery on long journeys should be routine.
  • PCs might also want to visit a monastery library or take a book there to be copied.
    • Roger Bacon was a monk, as were a few other medieval occultists. Not all of the knowledge at a monastery need be entirely holy.
      • Some might be decidedly unholy, even. If you have a book of forbidden lore that needs preserving, who better to repair and copy it than people who are (at least theoretically) devoted to the powers of righteousness?
      • "Monastery full of creepy, evil monks" is a popular meme amongst such masters as Clark Ashton Smith… such a monastery may have always been a refuge for evil, or may have started off righteous and become corrupted.
  • A specialist monastery may also make something they need.
  • Given the size of monastic business interests, they may have entirely secular matters to discuss.
    • Indeed if the house is run by a mitred abbot, they may be very deeply mired in secular politics. Involvement in church politics is a given.
    • Indeed, the abbot may use the substantial pool of literate men at his disposal to set up a powerful administrative staff, of a kind that was otherwise hard to establish in the middle ages.
      • The kings of Spain managed something similar at El Escorial where they attached a royal palace directly to a monastery and benefitted thereby.
  • A PCs child may be accommodated at a monastery school - or they may need to abduct or rescue an NPCs child from such a situation.
  • Unwilling novices fleeing from a life of contemplation (or aspirant monks whose parents try to forbid them joining an order) make good plot points.
  • A monastery may be the best source of medical care in a low magic campaign.
  • A monk isn't really a good choice of PC unless you're planning to set the campaign in a very limited geographical area (Brother Cadfael was unusually wide roaming for a monk - but not for a PC) … friars, on the other hand, were like beach sand in some eras.
  • Due to the creeping abomination of popfinition players may expect all monks to know kung-fu. Refrain from slapping them - it's (probably) not their fault that they are ignorant. In reality this wasn't common even amongst Buddhist monks - the Shaolin temple stands out for a variety of reasons. That's not to say a monk is always a pushover - some may have taken Franciscan vows of humility, others may be more like the Sohei or the Western Martial Orders5 … and even if they're not, many a conversus was atoning for a life on the battlefield (like Cadfael) and even some oblates would have completed a squirage before taking the cloth (Susannah Gregory's Brother Michael for example … his grandmother the conversus nun is much scarier).
    • And Let's not forget Friar Tuck who looked like a sedentary butterball but who could kick righteous butt when some cocky greenwood outlaw tried to snatch his haunch of mutton. (I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood recently; can you tell?)
    • Or Turpin, the fighting Archbishop of Rheims from the medieval romance The Song of Roland.
    • And in a fantasy religion, the monks of a war god (if such a thing exists) may well practice combat as part of their worship.
    • Jackie Chan, perhaps predictably, managed to turn the business on its head in Armour of God with an extended fight scene between himself and a pack of what appear to be Benedictines, all with at least mook level kung-fu skills.
  • To the medieval mind, choir monks - even those orders who did essentially nothing but prayer and contemplation - served a useful purpose by essentially providing spiritual capital on behalf of the nation. For a game where realm level matters are considered, like TSR's old Birthright setting, a monastery may generate power for realm level theurgy by building up credit with the gods, or might provide a benefit to the realm (essentially a monk-powered buff).
  • Providing the seal to a can of evil is also a credible use for a monastery - constant prayer and holy ritual reinforce the bindings, holy and ascetic monks are better equipped to resist influences that might leak from the bound evil (unless it is especially subtle, has the right kind of malign influence or is patient enough to wait until the watch grows slack) and, in the final analysis, the monks may turn out to be able to physically defend their monastery and its ward from meddling cultists.
    • This sort of thing also plays well with "meddling idiot" scenarios, where invading armies decide to commandeer the monastery as a base and chuck the monks out, where rational modern governments have no patience with what appears to be an alarmingly well armed nest of religious fanatics …. that sort of thing…
    • There are also things like epidemic diseases and other natural disasters that could leave a monastery abandoned. By the living at least…
    • Consider also the monastery from the OD&D classic module X4-Master of the Desert Nomads - a foundation set to seal a can full of evil might fall from the inside. (This wasn't the case in the module - the monastery in question had simply been stormed and the monks replaced, but the whole module had a bit of a railroady air about it…).
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