1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abbey
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ABBEY (Lat. abbatia; from Syr. abba, father), a monastery, or conventual establishment, under the government of an abbot or an abbess. A priory only differed from an abbey in that the superior bore the name of prior instead of abbot. This was the case in all the English conventual cathedrals, e.g. Canterbury, Ely, Norwich, &c., where the archbishop or bishop occupied the abbot’s place, the superior of the monastery being termed prior, Other priories were originally offshoots from the larger abbeys, to the abbots of which they continued subordinate; but in later times the actual distinction between abbeys and priories was lost.
The earliest Christian monastic communities (see Monasticism) with which we are acquainted consisted of groups of cells or huts collected about a common centre, which was usually the abode of some anchorite celebrated for superior holiness or singular asceticism, but without any attempt at orderly arrangement. The formation of such communities in the East does not date from the introduction of Christianity. The example had been already set by the Essenes in Iudea and the Therapeutae in Egypt.
In the earliest age of Christian monasticism the ascetics were accustomed to live singly, independent of one another, at no great distance from some village, supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands, and distributing the surplus after the supply of their own scanty wants to the poor. Increasing religious fervour, aided by persecution, drove them farther and farther away from the abodes of men into mountain solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with the “cells” or huts of these anchorites. Anthony, who had retired to the Egyptian Thebaid during the persecution of Maximin, A.D. 312, was the most celebrated among them for his austerities, his sanctity, and his power as an exorcist. His fame collected round him a host of followers, emulous of his sanctity. The deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells round that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of anchorites living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Anthony, as Neander remarks (Church History, vol. iii. p. 316, Clark’s trans.), “without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new mode of living in common, Coenobitism.” By degrees order was introduced in the groups of huts. They were arranged in lines like the tents in an encampment, or the houses in a street. From this arrangement these lines of single cells came to be known as Laurae, Λαὒραι, “streets” or “lanes.”
The real founder of coenobian (κοινός, common, and βίος, life) monasteries in the modern sense was Pachomius, an Egyptian of the beginning of the 4th century. The first community established by him was at Tabennae, an island of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Eight others were founded in his lifetime, numbering 3000 monks. Within fifty years from his death his societies could reckon 50,000 members. These coencbia resembled villages, peopled by a hard-working religious community, all of one sex. The buildings were detached, small and of the humblest character. Each cell or hut, according to Sozomen (H.E. iii. 14), contained three monks. They took their chief meal in a common refectory at 3 p.m., up to which hour they usually fasted. They ate in silence, with hoods so drawn over their faces that they could see nothing but what was on the table before them. The monks spent all the time, not devoted to religious services or study, in manual labour. Palladius, who visited the Egyptian monasteries about the close of the 4th century, found among the 300 members of the coenobium of Panopolis, under the Pachomian rule, 15 tailors, 7 smiths, 4 carpenters, 12 camel-drivers and 15 tanners. Each separate community had its own oeconomus or steward, who was subject to a chief oeconomus stationed at the head establishment. All the produce of the monks’ labour was committed to him, and by him shipped to Alexandria. The money raised by the sale was expended in the purchase of stores for the support of the communities, and what was over was devoted to charity. Twice in the year the superiors of the several coenobia met at the chief monastery, under the presidency of an archimandrite (“the chief of the fold”, from μάνδρα, a fold), and at the last meeting gave in reports of their administration for the year. The coenobia of Syria belonged to the Pachomian institution. We learn many details concerning those in the vicinity of Antioch from Chrysostom’s writings. The monks lived in separate huts, καλύβια, forming a religious hamlet on the mountain side. They were subject to an abbot, and observed a common rule. (They had no refectory, but ate their common meal, of bread and water only, when the day’s labour was over, reclining on strewn grass, sometimes out of doors.) Four times in the day they joined in prayers and psalms.