An abbot (from the Hebrew ab, "a father", through the Syriac abba, Latin abbas (genitive form, abbatis), Old English abbad, ; German Abt; French abbé) is the head and chief governor of a community of monks, called also in the East hegumenos or archimandrite. The English version for a female monastic head is abbess.
The title had its origin in the monasteries of Syria, spread through the eastern Mediterranean, and soon became accepted generally in all languages as the designation of the head of a monastery. At first it was employed as a respectful title for any monk, but it was soon restricted to the superior. The name "abbot" was in general use in western monastic orders. However, among the Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians, etc., the superior was called Praepositus, Provost, and Prior; among the Franciscans, Custos, "guardian"; and by the monks of Camaldoli, "Major."
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In Egypt, the first home of monasticism, the jurisdiction of the abbot, or archimandrite, was but loosely defined. Sometimes he ruled over only one community, sometimes over several, each of which had its own abbot as well. Cassian speaks of an abbot of the Thebaid who had 500 monks under him. By the Rule of St Benedict, which, until the reform of Cluny, was the norm in the West, the abbot has jurisdiction over only one community. The rule, as was inevitable, was subject to frequent violations; but it was not until the foundation of the Cluniac Order that the idea of a supreme abbot, exercising jurisdiction over all the houses of an order, was definitely recognized.
Monks, as a rule, were laymen, nor at the outset was the abbot any exception. For the reception of the sacraments, and for other religious offices, the abbot and his monks were commanded to attend the nearest church. This rule proved inconvenient when a monastery was situated in a desert or at a distance from a city, and necessity compelled the ordination of some monks. This innovation was not introduced without a struggle, ecclesiastical dignity being regarded as inconsistent with the higher spiritual life, but, before the close of the 5th century, at least in the East, abbots seem almost universally to have become deacons, if not priests. The change spread more slowly in the West, where the office of abbot was commonly filled by laymen till the end of the 7th century. The ecclesiastical leadership exercised by abbots despite their frequent lay status is proved by their attendance and votes at ecclesiastical councils. Thus at the first Council of Constantinople, AD 448, 23 archimandrites or abbots sign, with 30 bishops.
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, AD 456; but the exorbitant claims and exactions 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 Pope 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. 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 AD 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, AD 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, AD 787, 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 AD 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. 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, Premontre 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 delegate preached a suitable sermon.
The power of the abbot was paternal but absolute, limited, however, by the canon law. One of the main goals of monasticism was the purgation of self and selfishness, and obedience was seen as a path to that perfection. It was sacred duty to execute the abbot's orders, and even to act without his orders was sometimes considered culpable. Examples among the Egyptian monks of this submission to the commands of the superiors, exalted into a virtue by those who regarded the entire crushing of the individual will as a goal, 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.
Before the late modern era, the abbot was treated with the utmost 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, as were those of the pope and the king. No monk might sit in his presence, or leave it without his permission, reflecting the hierarchical etiquette of families and society. The highest place was 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 Aachen, AD 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. When abbots dined in their own private hall, the Rule of St Benedict charged them to invite their monks to their table, provided there was room, on which occasions the guests were to abstain from quarrels, slanderous talk and idle gossiping.
The ordinary attire of the abbot was according to rule to be the same as that of the monks. But by the 10th century the rule was commonly set aside, and we find frequent complaints of abbots dressing in silk, and adopting sumptuous attire. They sometimes even laid aside the monastic habit altogether, and assumed a secular dress. With the increase of wealth and power, abbots had lost much of their special religious character, and become great lords, chiefly distinguished from lay lords by celibacy. Thus we hear of abbots going out to hunt, with their men carrying bows and arrows; keeping horses, dogs and huntsmen; and special mention is made of an abbot of Leicester, c. 1360, who was the most skilled of all the nobility in hare hunting. In magnificence of equipage and retinue the abbots vied with the first nobles of the realm. They rode on mules with gilded bridles, rich saddles and housings, carrying hawks on their wrist, followed by an immense train of attendants. The bells of the churches were rung as they passed. They associated on equal terms with laymen of the highest distinction, and shared all their pleasures and pursuits. This rank and power was, however, often used most beneficially. For instance, we read of Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, judicially murdered by Henry VIII, that his house was a kind of well-ordered court, where as many as 300 sons of noblemen and gentlemen, who had been sent to him for virtuous education, had been brought up, besides others of a lesser rank, whom he fitted for the universities. His table, attendance and officers were an honour to the nation. He would entertain as many as 500 persons of rank at one time, besides relieving the poor of the vicinity twice a week. He had his country houses and fisheries, and when he travelled to attend parliament his retinue amounted to upwards of 100 persons. The abbots of Cluny and Vendôme were, by virtue of their office, cardinals of the Roman church.
In process of time the title abbot was extended to clerics who had no connection with the monastic system, as to the principal of a body of parochial clergy; and under the Carolingians to the chief chaplain of the king, Abbas Curiae, or military chaplain of the emperor, Abbas Castrensis. It even came to be adopted by purely secular officials. Thus the chief magistrate of the republic at Genoa was called Abbas Populi.
Lay abbots (M. Lat. defensores, abbacomites, abbates laici, abbates milites, abbates saeculares or irreligiosi, abbatiarii, or sometimes simply abbates) were the outcome of the growth of the feudal system from the 8th century onwards. The practice of commendation, by which--to meet a contemporary emergency--the revenues of the community were handed over to a lay lord, in return for his protection, early suggested to the emperors and kings the expedient of rewarding their warriors with rich abbeys held in commendam.
During the Carolingian epoch the custom grew up of granting these as regular heritable fiefs or benefices, and by the 10th century, before the great Cluniac reform, the system was firmly established. Even the abbey of St Denis was held in commendam by Hugh Capet. The example of the kings was followed by the feudal nobles, sometimes by making a temporary concession permanent, sometimes without any form of commendation whatever. In England the abuse was rife in the 8th century, as may be gathered from the acts of the council of Cloveshoe. These lay abbacies were not merely a question of overlordship, but implied the concentration in lay hands of all the rights, immunities and jurisdiction of the foundations, i.e. the more or less complete secularization of spiritual institutions. The lay abbot took his recognized rank in the feudal hierarchy, and was free to dispose of his fief as in the case of any other. The enfeoffment of abbeys differed in form and degree. Sometimes the monks were directly subject to the lay abbot; sometimes he appointed a substitute to perform the spirtual functions, known usually as dean (decanus), but also as abbot (abbas legitimas, monasticus, regularis). When the great reform of the 11th century had put an end to the direct jurisdiction of the lay abbots, the honorary title of abbot continued to be held by certain of the great feudal famines, as late as the 13th century and later, the actual head of the community retaining that of dean. The connection of the lesser lay abbots with the abbeys, especially in the south of France, lasted longer; and certain feudal families retained the title of abbes chevaliers (abbates milltes) for centuries, together with certain rights over the abbey lands or revenues. The abuse was not confined to the West. John, patriarch of Antioch, at the beginning of the 12th Century, informs us that in his time most monasteries had been handed over to laymen, bencficiarii, for life, or for part of their lives, by the emperors.
In conventual cathedrals, where the bishop occupied the place of the abbot, the functions usually devolving on the superior of the monastery were performed by a prior.
In several orders, there exists a pyramidal relationship between a major abbey (often the old mother of several others, especially if it was the place from where a monastic reform was launched, which in other cases even lead to breaking away as a new order of congregation) and other ones (often younger daughters), even when these are not (or no longer) priories but have their own abbot. As daughter could often become a mother in a next phase, the 'family tree' can become very complex, but often the grandmother remains the only with aknowledged seniority.
Sometimes a very real hold was maintained, so the Abbot of Cluny had such vast income from the network of filial monasteries that he was one of the most powerfull men in the church, and a eral papabile. In other cases the precedence is little more than a honorary status.
In several cases, the senior abbot is entitled to a specific style, such as Abbot general, abbot president, abbot primate and archabbot. Such titles may also apply to the presidents of federation of monasteries, not necessarily reserved for one abbey.
Abbots not as Superior
The title abbe (Ital. abbate), as commonly used in the Catholic church on the European continent, is the equivalent of the English "Father," being loosely applied to all who have received the tonsure. This use of the title is said to have originated in the right conceded to the king of France, by the concordat between Pope Leo X and Francis I (1516), to appoint abbes commendataires to most of the abbeys in France. The expectation of obtaining these sinecures drew young men towards the church in considerable numbers, and the class of abbes so formed--abbes de cour they were sometimes called, and sometimes (ironically) abbes de sainte esperance, abbes of St Hope--came to hold a recognized position. The connection many of them had with the church was of the slenderest kind, consisting mainly in adopting the name of abbe, after a remarkably moderate course of theological study, practising celibacy and wearing a distinctive dress--a short dark-violet coat with narrow collar. Being men of presumed learning and undoubted leisure, many of the class found admission to the houses of the French nobility as tutors or advisers. Nearly every great family had its abbe. The class did not survive the Revolution; but the courtesy title of abbe, having long lost all connection in people's minds with any special ecclesiastical function, remained as a convenient general term applicable to any clergyman.
In the German Evangelical church the title of abbot (Abt) is sometimes bestowed, like abbe, as an honorary distinction, and sometimes survives to designate the heads of monasteries converted at the Reformation into collegiate foundations. Of these the most noteworthy is the abbey of Lokkum in Hanover, founded as a Cistercian house in 1163 by Count Wilbrand of Hallermund, and reformed in 1593. The abbot of Lokkum, who still carries a pastoral staff, takes precedence of all the clergy of Hanover, and is ex officio a member of the consistory of the kingdom. The governing body of the abbey consists of abbot, prior and the "convent" of canons (Stiftsherren).