What is a Monk?

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek word ‘monos’ for ‘one’, so a monk is someone who chooses to live a solitary life dedicated to prayer and contemplation. A monastery is a place where a monk lives. Eremitic monasticism describes a single solitary monk (hermit) living in a one-monk monastery. Cenobitic monasticism, on the other hand, describes more than one monk living in a community.

Abingdon Abbey was founded with twelve monks in AD 675. During the golden age of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the numbers increased to eighty monks and as many lay workers from the town. The brothers were led by an abbot who was often away on official business, so the prior was the practical, day-to-day leader of the abbey.

The monks lived a simple life even when Abingdon Abbey was the sixth wealthiest abbey in the country. The day was equally divided between work, prayer and rest. Monks were required to work on productive tasks: some worked in the mill, brewery, bakery and fields, while others worked in the library, school or infirmary. A third of their day was spent in study and prayer. They were not allowed to own any property, ate two simple meals per day, and slept in a large communal room with all the other monks, both young and old.

Why be a Monk?

Compared with modern standards and the choices people have for a career, many wonder why anyone in the medieval period would want to be a monk. However, because young people in the Middle Ages did not enjoy the luxury of a choice of vocational options, there were many reasons to join a monastery or nunnery.

In a time when laws of primogeniture dictated that the oldest son in a noble family was due to inherit all of his father’s estate, any second and subsequent sons were forced to choose between the military and the monastery. (Women’s choices were even more limited.) Fighting was dangerous, but a commitment to an abbey guaranteed safety and security, two meals every day, the community of other monks, an opportunity to receive an education and a chance to learn a trade.

Finally, most of those who took monastic vows seemed to have had a genuine desire to live a life dedicated to the worship and service of God.