bishops from compelling abbots to attend councils. Examples are not uncommon in Spain and in England in Saxon times. Abbots were permitted by the second council of Nicaea, a.d. 787, to ordain their monks to the inferior orders. This rule was adopted in the West, and the strong prejudice against clerical monks having gradually broken down, eventually monks, almost without exception, took holy orders.
Abbots were originally subject to episcopal jurisdiction, and continued generally so, in fact, in the West till the 11th century. The Code of Justinian (lib. i. tit. iii. de Ep. leg. xl.) expressly subordinates the abbot to episcopal oversight. The first case recorded of the partial exemption of an abbot from episcopal control is that of Faustus, abbot of Lerins, at the council of Arles, a.d. 456; but the exorbitant claims and ex actions of bishops, to which this repugnance to episcopal control is to be traced, far more than to the arrogance of abbots, rendered it increasingly frequent, and, in the 6th century, the practice of exempting religious houses partly or altogether from episcopal control, and making them responsible to the pope alone, received an impulse from Gregory the Great. These exceptions, introduced with a good object, had grown into a widespread evil by the 12th century, virtually creating an imperium in imperio, and depriving the bishop of all authority over the chief centres of influence in his diocese. In the 12th century the abbots of Fulda claimed precedence of the archbishop of Cologne. Abbots more and more assumed almost episcopal state, and in defiance of the prohibition of early councils and the protests of St Bernard and others, adopted the episcopal insignia of mitre, ring, gloves and sandals. It has been maintained that the right to wear mitres was sometimes granted by the popes to abbots before the 11th century, but the documents on which this claim is based are not genuine (J. Braun, Liturgische Gewandung, p. 453). The first undoubted instance is the bull by which Alexander II. in 1063 granted the use of the mitre to Egelsinus, abbot of the monastery of St Augustine at Canterbury (see Mitre). The mitred abbots in England were those of Abingdon, St Alban’s, Bardney, Battle, Bury St Edmund’s, St Augustine’s Canterbury, Colchester, Croyland, Evesham, Glastonbury, Gloucester, St Benet’s Hulme, Hyde, Malmesbury, Peterborough, Ramsey, Reading, Selby, Shrewsbury, Tavistock, Thorney, Westminster, Winchcombe, St Mary’s York. Of these the precedence was originally yielded to the abbot of Glastonbury, until in a.d. 1154 Adrian IV. (Nicholas Breakspear) granted it to the abbot of St Alban’s, in which monastery he had been brought up. Next after the abbot of St Alban’s ranked the abbot of Westminster. To distinguish abbots from bishops, it was ordained that their mitre should be made of less costly materials, and should not be ornamented with gold, a rule which was soon entirely disregarded, and that the crook of their pastoral staff should turn inwards instead of outwards, indicating that their jurisdiction was limited to their own house.
The adoption of episcopal insignia by abbots was followed by an encroachment on episcopal functions, which had to be specially but ineffectually guarded against by the Lateran council, a.d. 1123. In the East, abbots, if in priests’ orders, with the consent of the bishop, were, as we have seen, permitted by the second Nicene council, a.d. 737, to confer the tonsure and admit to the order of reader; but gradually abbots, in the West also, advanced higher claims, until we find them in a.d. 1489 permitted by Innocent IV. to confer both the subdiaconate and diaconate. Of course, they always and everywhere had the power of admitting their own monks and vesting them with the religious habit.
When a vacancy occurred, the bishop of the diocese chose the abbot out of the monks of the convent, but the right of election was transferred by jurisdiction to the monks themselves, reserving to the bishop the confirmation of the election and the benediction of the new abbot. In abbeys exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, the confirmation and benediction had to be conferred by the pope in person, the house being taxed with the expenses of the new abbot’s journey to Rome. By the rule of St Benedict, the consent of the laity was in some undefined way required; but this seems never to have been practically enforced. It was necessary that an abbot should be at least 25 years of age, of legitimate birth, a monk of the house, unless it furnished no suitable candidate, when a liberty was allowed of electing from another convent, well instructed himself, and able to instruct others, one also who had learned how to command by having practised obedience. In some exceptional cases an abbot was allowed to name his own successor. Cassian speaks of an abbot in Egypt doing this; and in later times we have another example in the case of St Bruno. Popes and sovereigns gradually encroached on the rights of the monks, until in Italy the pope had usurped the nomination of all abbots, and the king in France, with the exception of Cluny, Prémontré and other houses, chiefs of their order. The election was for life, unless the abbot was canonically deprived by the chiefs of his order, or when he was directly subject to them, by the pope or the bishop.
The ceremony of the formal admission of a Benedictine abbot in medieval times is thus prescribed by the consuetudinary of Abingdon. The newly elected abbot was to put off his Shoes at the door of the church, and proceed barefoot to meet the members of the house advancing in a procession. After proceeding up the nave, he was to kneel and pray at the topmost step of the entrance of the choir, into which he was to be introduced by the bishop or his commissary, and placed in his stall. The monks, then kneeling, gave him the kiss of peace on the hand, and rising, on the mouth, the abbot holding his staff of office. He then put on his shoes in the vestry, and a chapter was held, and the bishop or his Commissary preached a suitable sermon. The power of the abbot was paternal but absolute, limited, however, by the canons of the church, and, until the general establishment of exemptions, by episcopal control. As a rule, however, implicit obedience was enforced; to act without his orders was culpable; while it was a sacred duty to execute his orders, however unreasonable, until they were withdrawn. Examples among the Egyptian monks of this blind submission to the commands of the superiors, exalted into a virtue by those who regarded the entire crushing of the individual will as the highest excellence, are detailed by Cassian and others,—e.g. a monk watering a dry stick, day after day, for months, or endeavouring to remove a huge rock immensely exceeding his powers. St Jerome, indeed, lays down, as the principle of the compact between the abbot and his monks, that they should obey their superiors in all things, and perform whatever they commanded (Ep. 2, ad Eusloch. de custod. virgin.). So despotic did the tyranny become in the West, that in the time of Charlemagne it was necessary to restrain abbots by legal enactments from mutilating their monks and putting out their eyes; while the rule of St Columban ordained 100 lashes as the punishment for very slight offences. An abbot also had the power of excommunicating refractory nuns, which he might use if desired by their abbess.
The abbot was treated with the utmost submission and reverence by the brethren of his house. When he appeared either in church or chapter all present rose and bowed. His letters were received kneeling, like those of the pope and the king. If he gave a command, the monk receiving it was also to kneel. No monk might sit in his presence, or leave it without his permission. The highest place was naturally assigned to him, both in church and at table. In the East he was commanded to eat with the other monks. In the West the rule of St Benedict appointed him a separate table, at which he might entertain guests and strangers. This permission opening the door to luxurious living, the council of Aix, a.d. 817, decreed that the abbot should dine in the refectory, and be content with the ordinary fare of the monks, unless he had to entertain a guest. These ordinances proved, however, generally ineffectual to secure strictness of diet, and contemporaneous literature abounds with satirical remarks and complaints concerning the inordinate extravagance of the tables of the abbots. When the abbot condescended to dine in the refectory, his chaplains waited upon him with the dishes, a servant, if necessary, assisting them. At St Alban’s the abbot took the lord’s seat, in the centre of the