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Coptic icon of Saint Pachomius (ca. 292-346), the founder of cenobitic monasticism.

The term abbot (from the Aramaic word: Abba, meaning "Father") is a clerical title given to the head of a monastery in both Christianity and Buddhism. Saint Pachomius (ca. 292-346) is considered to be the earliest Christian abbot who founded cenobitic (communal) monasticism in the Egyptian desert. The term likely derives from Jesus’ use of the word "abba" in New Testament references to his Father in heaven, in prayer, and elsewhere, which literally means "daddy," reflecting a level of intimacy unheard of in the Old Testament era. Thus, we see in early Christian religious and faith development what appears to be a deepening of human sensibility and relationship toward God, the Father, and the concomitant richer sensibility about God's representatives within the growing faith community, in this case the abbot.


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 first appeared in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria, spread through the eastern Mediterranean, and soon became accepted generally in all languages as the designation of the head of a monastery. Again, the word, meaning father, was originally applied to various priests, e.g. at the court of the Frankish monarchy the Abbas palatinus (father of the palace) and Abbas castrensis (father of the camp) were chaplains to the Merovingian/ Carolingian sovereign's court, viz, to his army. At first it was employed as a respectful title for any monk, but it was soon restricted by canon law to certain priestly superiors. The name "abbot" came in fairly general use in western monastic orders whose members are ordained priests. However, various congregations chose other titles for their superiors, e.g. among the Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians, etc., Praepositus, Provost, and Prior; among the Franciscans, Custos, "guardian"; and by the monks of Camaldoli, "Major."

Role and Jurisdiction

Abbot's Coat of Arms

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 had 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 recognized.

Monks, as a rule, were laymen, as were abbots at the outset of their development within monastic tradition. 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. In the West, the office of abbot was commonly filled by laymen until the end of the seventh century. The ecclesiastical leadership exercised by abbots despite their frequent lay status was demonstrated by their attendance and votes at ecclesiastical councils. Thus at the first Council of Constantinople, 448 C.E., 23 archimandrites or abbots attended and signed or voted, together with 30 bishops. The second Council of Nicaea, 787 C.E., recognized the right of abbots to ordain their monks to the inferior orders below the diaconate, a power usually reserved to bishops, as positions and duties within monastic and early church life became more ordered.

Abbots were originally subject to episcopal jurisdiction, and continued generally so, in fact, in the West until the eleventh 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, 456 C.E.; and, in the sixth century, the practice of exempting religious houses partly or altogether from episcopal control, making them responsible to the pope alone, received an impulse from Pope Gregory the Great. These exceptions, although introduced with good intent, deprived the bishop of all authority over the chief centers of influence in his diocese. In the twelfth century, the abbots of Fulda even claimed precedence of the archbishop of Cologne.

Over time, abbots more and more assumed an almost episcopal state, and in defiance of the prohibition of early councils and the protests of St. Bernard and others, some adopted the episcopal insignia of mitre, ring, gloves and sandals. The so-called "mitred abbots" in England, were those of Abingdon, St Alban's, Bardney, Battle, Bury St Edmund's, St Augustine's Canterbury, Colchester, and many others. To distinguish abbots from bishops, it was ordained that their mitre should be made of less costly materials, 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 certain episcopal insignia (pontificalia) by abbots was followed by further encroachment on episcopal functions. In the East, some abbots, with the consent of the bishop, were permitted by the second Nicene council, 787 C.E., to confer the tonsure and admit (monks) to the order of reader. But gradually abbots, in the East and West, advanced higher claims, until we find them in 1489 C.E. permitted by Innocent IV conferring both the subdiaconate and diaconate. Meanwhile, they maintained everywhere the power of admitting their own monks and vesting them with the religious habit.

When a vacancy occurred, the right of election was transferred by jurisdiction to the monks, reserving to the bishop the confirmation of the election and the benediction of the new abbot. It was necessary that an abbot should be at least 25 years of age, of legitimate birth, a monk of the house, well-instructed and able to instruct others. In some exceptional cases an abbot was allowed to name his own successor. However, popes and sovereigns gradually encroached on the rights of the monks, until in Italy the pope had usurped the nomination of all abbots. 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. 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.

The ceremony of the formal admission of a Benedictine abbot in medieval times was prescribed in some detail. 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 limited 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 to act without his orders was sometimes considered a transgression.

Secularization and Lay Abbots

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 the abbey 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 ordinary attire of the abbot was according to rule to be the same as that of the monks. But by the tenth 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 lost much of their special religious character, and become great lords, chiefly distinguished from lay lords by celibacy. 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, Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, maintained a house that was a kind of well-ordered court, where as many as 300 sons of noblemen and gentlemen, were educated and prepared for the universities. He would entertain as many as 500 persons of rank at one time. And, he maintained country houses and fisheries, and traveled to attend parliament with a retinue of upwards to 100 persons. Furthermore, the abbots of Cluny and Vendôme were, by virtue of their office, cardinals of the Roman church.

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. When the great reform of the eleventh century 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 families, as late as the thirteenth century and later, the actual head of the community retaining the title 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. This abuse, however, was not confined to the West. John, patriarch of Antioch, at the beginning of the twelfth century, observed in his time most monasteries had been handed over to laymen, beneficiarii, for life, or for part of their lives, by the emperors.

Giraldus Cambrensis reported (Itinerary, ii.iv) the common customs of lay abbots in the late twelfth-century Church of Wales:

"for a bad custom has prevailed amongst the clergy, of appointing the most powerful people of a parish stewards, or, rather, patrons, of their churches; who, in process of time, from a desire of gain, have usurped the whole right, appropriating to their own use the possession of all the lands, leaving only to the clergy the altars, with their tenths and oblations, and assigning even these to their sons and relations in the church. Such defenders, or rather destroyers, of the church, have caused themselves to be called abbots, and presumed to attribute to themselves a title, as well as estates, to which they have no just claim."

In time the title abbot was extended to clerics who had no connection with the monastic system, such as the principal of a body of parochial clergy; and under the Carolingians it was extended 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, which is an example of the integration of the religious and the secular in the early and developing church.

The title abbé (French; Ital. abbate), as commonly used in the Catholic church on the European continent, is the equivalent of the English "Father" (parallel etymology), 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 abbés so formed—abbes de cour they were sometimes called, and sometimes (ironically) abbes de sainte esperance, abbés of St. Hope—came to hold a recognized position. The connection many of them had with the church was marginal, consisting mainly in adopting the name of abbé after a brief study of theology, practicing 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 abbé. The class did not survive the Revolution; but the courtesy title of abbé, having long lost all connection in people's minds with any special ecclesiastical function, remained as a convenient general term applicable to any clergyman.

Protestant Abbots

In the German Evangelical Church the title of abbot (Abt) is sometimes bestowed, like abbé, 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).

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  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved June 14, 2023.

  • Abbot - Catholic Encyclopedia


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