Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight

Tim Flight - August 7, 2018

When we read about monks and friars in medieval history, it is easy to conflate the two. We think, perhaps, of men dedicated to a boring life behind a wall, rarely encountering the outside world. A person’s status as a monk or friar is usually just an additional biographical detail, and we look no further into the matter. It’s the same for female monks and friars, conflated rather dismissively under the umbrella term of nun. But in so doing, we are making a grave error, for monks and friars (and their female equivalents) were very different propositions.

Even when we make the brave distinction of monk and friar, within these two categories there were several different orders with very different styles of living and working. There were good reasons why someone might prefer to become, for example, an Augustinian than a Benedictine, and so we should make ourselves aware of the differences. Moreover, we should also be aware of the role nuns, monks, and friars played in medieval society. So, what was the point of them, how do they differ, and why should you care? Read on for your essential reference guide to monks, nuns, and friars.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Monche in einem Weinkeller by Joseph Haier, Germany, 1873. Wikimedia Commons

Friars vs. Monks

So, first up, let’s learn the difference between a friar and a monk. A monk is a person who lives in a cloistered community with other monks, mostly separated from the rest of society. These communities, known as monasteries, are intended to provide for all of the monks’ needs, so that individuals need not leave the compound, except for very special exceptions, such as pilgrimages, diplomatic necessity, monastic administration, or danger. Thus they contained libraries, schools, churches, kitchens, and farms. The monk lived separately from the rest of society because their life was dedicated to the worship of God.

Monks take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with some variations and additions between types of monastic order. Friars take the same, or largely similar, vows, but their job is very different. For whilst monks live apart from society, friars involve themselves in it. Friars go out into the outside world, and preach the Word of God to ordinary people. Whereas a monk is tied to a single monastery, friars are itinerant, meaning that they move from place to place doing their work. They go wherever they are needed, living temporarily in one of their order’s many religious houses.

Another important distinction is the way monks and friars made a living. Monasteries were self-sufficient, growing their own crops which some orders traded, and buttressing their earnings from leasing monastic lands to tenants for rent. Friars, by contrast, were mendicants. That is, they relied on the generosity of others, and would beg alms from people to sustain their way of life. The specific way of mendicancy differs from order of friar to order of friar, but we’ll get onto those differences in due course. So: monks were cloistered, unmoving, and self-sufficient; friars were out in the world, itinerant, and mendicant.

As for nuns, the term can refer to female monks and friars. The monk-type were simply known as nuns, and like their male counterparts were dedicated to a life of devotion to God largely away from wider society in one place. Friar-types were known as sisters and relied upon the charity of others, but didn’t always travel the world, wherever they were needed, to preach the word of God. Sometimes nuns in the monastic tradition lived separately but alongside men in double-monasteries, or in their own single-sex dwellings, known as convents. We’ll look at specific types of nun later.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
The imposing ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a Cistercian foundation in North Yorkshire, England. English Heritage

Minsters, Abbeys, and Priories

One last piece of terminology to get sorted, and we’ll get onto the orders themselves. Unfortunately, the terms minster, abbey, and priory are more or less interchangeable in modern times, but let’s have a go at differentiating between them. A minster was a large and important church, usually with the status of a cathedral, with an origin as a monastic church (a church where monks worshipped and heard mass). Think, for example, of the gigantic York Minster in York, or Westminster in London, which both began life as a church for monks, before changing in specific usage as time passed.

An abbey is a monastery that is the seat of an abbot. Abbots were the monastic equivalent of bishops in the wider church, i.e. an important position of authority with jurisdiction over several different sites. As you might expect, the churches within an abbey were often vast and lavish, and in England are often the only thing surviving from whole complexes after Henry VIII shut them down, stole their treasure, and sold the very stones to people wanting to build large private residences. As such, it is easy to forget that abbey churches were only part of a larger site.

Priories were subsidiary to abbeys, for they were monasteries run by a prior. A prior was subservient to an abbot, and had jurisdiction only over their monastery. A prior was the equivalent of a priest in the wider church, who was answerable to a bishop, the equivalent of an abbot. Corresponding to the distinctions above for female religious orders were abbess and prioress. Our old friends, the friars, lived in places with the same names above, but these were sometimes referred to as friaries, and their female equivalents in convents – a term also used for monastic nuns. Got that?

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Saint Paul of Thebes, possibly the first hermit, by José de Ribera, Spain, 1640. Wikimedia Commons


The first monks in history were hermits. Hermits, also known as eremites and recluses, were people who went to live alone in the wilderness to dedicate their lives to God. In so doing, they imitated Jesus, who spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert – as well as John the Baptist. Living alone and in the most unpleasant place possible focused the mind on God, though hermits were subject to Satan tempting them to give up and go home. The earliest hermit was either St. Antony the Great (251-356) or Paul of Thebes (c.227-c.342), depending on which biographer you believe.

These men lived a truly horrible, if self-sufficient, life in caves and ruined buildings of the Egyptian desert, subject to the caprices of the weather and the danger of their own thoughts (and Satan). Thus, it is no surprise that many wanted to share in all the fun, and soon, the desert was full of people living alone, but nearby. In the words of Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373), ‘the desert became a city’. It takes a certain type of maniac to live like this, however, and many hermits found themselves relying on each other for help and support.

Soon, hermits were essentially living together, meeting for meals and helping each other to grow crops when they weren’t praying on their own. Seeing the need for uniformity amongst these hermits, Pachomius (292-348) developed the first rule of life for the communities to live under. Thus the first monastery was born. But some people still preferred living in imitation of Antony and Paul, and there were hermits throughout the Middle Ages. They lived alone under extreme conditions, and had precious little to do with other people, but had an affiliation to an order and relatively nearby institution.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Benedictine Monks from the Litlyngton Missal, Westminster, 1383-84. Westminster Abbey


The largest and most influential order of medieval monks was the Order or St. Benedict, or Benedictines. The Benedictines followed the teaching of the Italian monk St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), a former hermit who founded a dozen monasteries that were organized according to his law, the Regula Benedicti (‘Rule of Benedict’). The Regula sets out the precepts for monastic life organized under the authority of an abbot or prior, and was adopted by not only the Benedictines, but several other orders of monk. In the West, the Regula set the tone for monasticism, and is still a much-revered document today.

The Regula prescribes a daily routine comprised of manual labour and devotion. Benedict provides instructions on how a monastery should be organized and run, with a strong emphasis on manual labor in order to ensure that the monastery could be self-sufficient and thus free from the outside world. Monks were expected to contribute to agriculture, to eat communally and in complete silence, and to attend mass and offer prayers at set times of the day, all within the vallum or enclosing wall. There are also a list of punishments for monks committing specific sins, and advice for abbots and priors.

The Benedictines were the most numerous monks and nuns in medieval Europe. Beyond manual labour, they placed a great emphasis on learning and reading, producing and disseminating many important texts across Europe. Community was fundamental to the Benedictine way of life, hence the prescription of praying together, and only a few people of sufficient spiritual strength were allowed to become hermits. Benedictines swore vows to stay in their monastery, obey their prior or abbot, and to live a chaste life dedicated to God. They shaved their heads (tonsure), wore black robes, and hence were known as the Black Monks.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
A modern illustration of Cistercian Monks processing through the south transept of Rievaulx Abbey (see above). Pinterest


The Cistercians were an offshoot of the Benedictines, founded by Roland of Molesme in 1098. Roland was a Benedictine Abbot who had tired of the riches and extravagance of the order in France after the Cluniac Reforms. He sought a stricter adherence to the Regula Benedicti, and thus got Papal permission to found his own monastery at Cîteaux, near Dijon, from which the name ‘Cistercian’ derives. The Cistercians sought a life of greater poverty and exile from the secular world, and so chose the most inhospitable places to found their monasteries as the movement rapidly spread across Europe.

Uniformity of observance was very important, by contrast to the Benedictine Order, and an annual visit of the abbot ensured conformity to precepts. They also (technically) followed the teachings on poverty and devotion of the most famous Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Cistercian monks were also tonsured, but wore white robes, and were hence known as White Monks. Cistercian nuns were numerous, and lived in separate foundations to the men, organised in the same manner. The Cistercians also wanted to reinstall manual labour as an important part of monasticism, and so turned the uncultivated land they were granted to agriculture.

This was, of course, so that they could be self-sufficient and undisturbed by the secular world, but it came at the expense of prayer and reading, and led to serious corruption. Many Cistercian houses became significant agricultural businesses, and when these concerns expanded, ‘lay brothers’ (read: unpaid farm labourers) were admitted to the monasteries. English Cistercian houses became major players in the wool and grain trade, and built increasingly elaborate monasteries and abbeys. Over-speculation in the wool market and adverse conditions meant many Cistercian foundations went bankrupt, and were mocked and reviled for their betrayal of their founding principles.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
St Hugh in the Refectory by Francisco de Zurbaran, a depiction of a Carthusian refectory, Seville, 1651. Wikimedia Commons


The Carthusians were radically different to the Cistercians and Benedictines, and did not follow the Regula Benedicti. The order was founded in 1084 by Bruno of Cologne (c.1030-1101), a priest who rejected the chance to become an Archbishop due to the corruption of the church, and decided to live in the style of the Desert Fathers. With six companions, Bruno settled in the Grande Chartreuse, an appropriately desolate and rocky place near Grenoble. They lived in individual huts around a communal area for eating and attending mass. They left their cells bare, wore itchy hair shirts, and lived in silence.

This style of living attracted many others, and soon the growing order had to write The Statutes, a set of rules for Carthusian living ratified by the Pope in 1133. The focus of Carthusian life was contemplation, and so a rule of silence and solitude was enforced. Carthusian monasteries, or Charterhouses, were built as individual cells around a cloister, with a few essential communal buildings, in imitation of Grande Chartreuse. To support this way of life, the choir monks were supported by lay brothers. The lay brothers had greater responsibility for manual labour, and spent less time in contemplation.

As there were no abbots in the Carthusian Order, there were no abbeys. Uniformity of observance was a vital tenet, and an annual Chapter Meeting of priors ensured the Statutes were being obeyed across all Charterhouses. The Carthusians had no pastoral duties, and lived exclusively in their Charterhouse, with no contact with the outside world. There were also Carthusian nuns from 1145 onwards, who lived in much the same manner but with a greater emphasis on community. The Carthusians lived a life in a practical imitation of the Desert Fathers, and choir monks were also commonly referred to as hermits.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
The Dominican Blessed, attributed to Fra Angelico, Fiesole, Tuscany, c.1423-24. Pinterest


And so we come to the first of the four major groups of friars, the Dominicans. The order was founded in 1216 by the Spanish Canon Regular (a member of a community of priests), Dominic de Guzman, who gives his name to the friars. As a priest, Dominic was shocked by the general population’s ignorance of Catholicism, and his feelings intensified when he encountered the stubborn and heretical Cathar sect in 1205. He saw the need for preachers who could explain and defend the tenets of Catholicism, and began to travel France in search of people who needed saving.

Dominic received papal permission in 1216 to found the Order of Preachers. Dominicans, from this time, took the usual monastic vows upon being admitted into the order, but also had a mandate to preach to the public. Where monasteries were founded away from densely-populated areas, the Dominicans founded their houses in urban centres, where the need for preaching was greater. The Dominican foundations simultaneously allowed friars to pray and contemplate within their walls when not preaching. The numerous 13th-century heretical sects kept them busy with missionary work. This concern with heresy and preaching saw Dominican friars operate the dreaded Inquisition.

Nuns actually predate friars in the Dominican Order, as Dominic first ruled a house of nuns. The Dominicans followed the Regula Sancti Augustini (‘The Rule of St Augustine’), whose greater emphasis on poverty than the Regula Benedicti matched Dominic’s beliefs about mendicancy. Charity was very important to the order, and the friars did not scruple to help the homeless and sick mostly ignored by the rest of the church. Given the importance of preaching, Dominicans were charged with educating themselves to a high standard, in order to combat heresy. They wore black robes, and hence were known as Black Friars.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
The earliest known depiction of St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, Subiaco, Italy, 1228-29. Blogspot


Whilst Dominic was founding the Dominican order, St Francis of Assisi was organising another mendicant order, the Franciscans. Francis lived a life of preaching, extreme poverty, and penance, in imitation of the life of Christ. His Franciscan order followed a simple set of rules he left them: not to own property, even communally; preaching to the poor and needy; not to accept money as alms or for their work. As the order expanded, the prohibition against owning property became problematic, as the friars needed somewhere to live, and so a less stringent rule was written in the late 13th century.

However, the Franciscan order remained a stringently impoverished one, and the friars were by far the scruffiest of all medieval monks and friars. Their habits were brown or grey (hence the English sobriquet, Grey Friars), with a cord girding their waist, and some even refused to wear shoes. Franciscan Friaries also allowed normal people to attend their churches, as a nod to Francis’s original prohibition on property. Franciscans also had a positively un-medieval view of the natural world as a beautiful part of God’s creation, and their poverty and humility was supposed to ensure their compassion for other impoverished people.

Just as Dominican nuns were there from the start, so too Franciscan nuns have been around since the order’s foundation. Franciscan nuns were known as Poor Clares, after St Clare of Assisi, the childhood friend of Francis who founded the female order under his direction and wrote a set of rules. However, unlike their male counterparts, the Poor Clares were a contemplative order, which means that they lived a cloistered, monastic life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rather than preaching to the world at large. Poverty, however, was still an important virtue, and alms were to be petitioned for.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Augustinian Monk by Piero della Francesca, Florence, c.1454-69. Traveling in Tuscany


The Augustinians, as you might have guessed, followed the Regula Sancti Augustini. The order grew out of communities of hermits living near one another in Tuscany, who wished to be united under one rule, which the pope gave them in 1244. The order was named the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, which was often shortened to Austins. Despite the name, the Augustinians were friars, not eremites. It was a mendicant order, and Augustinian Friars swore a vow of poverty, rejected property, and travelled wherever they were needed to preach the Word of God, staying at the order’s many houses.

Like the Dominicans, the Augustinians buttressed their missionary work by placing significant emphasis on learning in order to defend the Catholic Faith. As St Augustine himself said in his Regula of 423 AD, ‘nothing conquers except truth and the victory of truth is love’. This did not always work in favour of Catholicism, however, as the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was an Augustinian. The Augustinians wore black robes, like Dominicans and Benedictines, but were helpfully never known as Black Friars or Monks! Thus their life was split between learning, prayer and contemplation, and apostolic missionary work amongst the needy.

Augustinian Nuns, like the Poor Clares, were a contemplative order who lived separately from Augustinian friars, and did not undertake any ministerial work. Like monks, they were tied to a single convent, in which they were effectively cut-off from the secular world. The Augustinian Convents were independent of one another, and thus showed variations in dress and specific observation, but were all committed to Augustine’s idea of pursuing truth through learning. They were still mendicants, however, and would appeal for alms from people outside of the convent. Some Augustinian convents took alms from women who stayed in their guest houses.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saints by Pietro Novelli, Palermo, 1641. Wikimedia Commons


The last of the four great mendicant orders we need to know about, the Carmelites take their name from Mount Carmel in north western Israel. There, sometime around the year 1155, a group of former pilgrims and crusader knights gathered to live the life of a hermit. They chose Mount Carmel because the Well of Elijah, a revered Old Testament prophet seen as the first monk in history, was located there. As is usually the case, the hermits decided to observe a single rule for living, and so St Albert of Jerusalem wrote them one between 1206 and 1214.

When the tide turned against the European Crusader armies around 1240, conditions in the Holy Land became too dangerous even for hermits, and so the order moved to Europe. They revised their rule to suit life in the West under supervision from Dominicans, becoming mendicant friars. The new rule was faithful to the original vision of the hermits, making contemplation a central tenet of Carmelite life, but the definition of contemplation was changed from simply thinking about God to incorporate helping others in the lay community and begging for alms. The original vow of poverty was thus preserved, too.

The Carmelites’ active pastoral work made them appealing to devout young men, and by 1362 there were 12, 000 members of Carmelite houses in Europe. Another defining feature of the order was devotion to the Virgin Mary, which is reflected in their full name, the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Such devotional distinctions were important in the medieval period. Medieval Carmelites wore a brown tunic and white mantle. St Teresa of Avila founded the first Carmelite Convent for women in 1452, though women held minor roles in the order before then.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
Cistercian monks at work by Jörg Breu the Elder, Austria, 1500. ResearchGate

Daily Life

Given the differences between monks, friars, and hermits, it is no surprise to learn that their daily routines varied significantly. Hermits, who were mostly affiliated with a particular monastery, remember, would conduct devotions alone and have minimal contact with others, but might attend mass on special occasions. The routine of a friar would be varied, according to the specific location to which they were posted. Chiefly, a friar would spend part of their day helping others or preaching, a certain amount of time on reading and prayer according to their order’s mandate, and all would hear mass at set times.

The monk’s life was far more rigidly-structured. The Rule of St Benedict, followed by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, prescribed a communal daily routine mixing devotion and manual labour. The monastic day was organised around eight periods of communal psalm-chanting and prayer known as Vigils/ Nocturns, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. In between, monks would read, pray, and carry out tasks such as cultivating the monastic gardens, repairing buildings, or tending animals. Most went to bed at 7pm. Although there was some variation on important days of the year, Benedict had specific prescriptions for these days’ routines, too.

The Carthusians followed the same timetable of eight daily sessions of prayers/chanting (The Office), as the Benedictines and Cistercians, but said all except Vigils and Vespers alone in their cells, apart from on Sundays. They also ate alone except on Sundays, special occasions, and funeral days, with the lay brothers passing them their food through a hatch beside the cell door like modern prison guards. Their cells, however, were appropriately lavish to maintain such an existence. A Carthusian cell contained several rooms for sleep, study, prayer, contemplation, and eating, and were organised across two floors. They even had private gardens.

Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight
The Monk from the Ellesmere Manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, England, 15th Century. Wikimedia Commons

Monks in Medieval Culture

Monks and friars played an important role in medieval culture. Whilst friars were the most visible in living in cities and actively involving themselves in the spiritual and physical wellbeing of normal people, most monasteries were landlords from whom people leased their lands. Their large and secretive communities and mode of dress also made monks and friars visually distinctive from others. As such, they played an important role in medieval life. Their strict vows, however, made them appear sanctimonious, and monks and friars were often the butt of jokes when they did not meet the standards they professed.

Monks, for example, were often accused of being gourmands. They brewed their own beer and made their own food, in which they were rumoured to overindulge. Chaucer’s description of his monk (above) in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales embodies this tradition by calling The Monk ‘a lord ful fat and in good poynt’. Another common accusation of monks was that they were obsessed with hunting, with many monasteries owning hunting grounds or enjoying privileges over adjoining lands. Thus Chaucer’s Monk: ‘of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare/ was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.’

Though friars were supposed to wander towns begging and in search of the needy, they were often accused of hobnobbing only with the wealthy, from whom they could extract more money or better food as alms. Chaucer’s Friar, for example, ‘ful wel biloved and famulier was he/with frankeleyns over al in his contree/and eek with worthy wommen of the toun’. Some friars were ordained, and thus able to hear confession and to prescribe penance, which often took the form of a generous gift to the friar: ‘in stede of wepynge and preyeres/men moote yeve silver to the povre freres’.

Wandering unfettered amongst lay people, some friars were accused of using the protection of their orders to indulge in sinful or criminal practices, chiefly sexual in nature. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer gives a sardonic description of this. ‘Wommen may go saufly up and doun/in every bussh or under every tree/ther is noon oother incubus but he [a mendicant friar]/and he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.’ Certainly, their unusual level of access to women they were not married to gave friars the opportunity to conduct affairs, or at least enough opportunity to be suspected by others!


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, trans. Leonard J. Doyle

Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Burton, Janet E. Medieval Monasticism: Monasticism in the Medieval West from its Origins to the Coming of the Friars. 1996.

Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in The Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. 1993.

Constable, Giles. Medieval Monasticism. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.

Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Knowles, Dom. David. The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940.

Mann, Jill. Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Rowlands, Kenneth. The Friars: A History of the British Medieval Friars. Lewes: Book Guild, 1999.