Quaerentes in Extremis
Abbot (or Abbess)
The abbess or abbot is the ruler, spiritual leader and caretaker of the monastery. It is a position of great responsibility, and often abbots are particularly powerful, even in national politics, though it varies with the wealth and influence of the monastery. Strictly speaking, the abbot is first among equals and is technically a servant to all. The Benedictine Rule also clearly states that they must be fair and evenhanded. The abbot may have supreme authority, but the monks should be consulted over major matters to get their advice. The role of an abbot is held for life. The abbot is elected from the monks, and electoral disputes are common, with the pope often being called in as final arbiter. It is not especially uncommon among nobles, to influence or even appoint the abbot and it often proves disruptive and unpopular. Sometimes a bishop has the right appoint the abbot, and this is likewise unpopular. It is not uncommon, however, for the patron of a house to hold right of veto.
Once elected, the abbot effectively leaves the community of monks and is welcomed to their new house or even palace, where they are expected to live in style. They must deal with all guests, even nobles, in appropriate fashion, and he may well be their equal in status. Great abbots are princes of the Church, as powerful perhaps as a cardinal or baron in the local area, and may even command knights. Abbesses run the larger nunneries in much the same way, and are extremely powerful women in the world. Indeed, it is one of the highest authorities that many women can aspire to.
Prior (or Prioress)
The prior or prioress is the abbot’s or abbesses’ second in command (save in a priory, where they are in charge and the abbot rules the mother house). Their role can be hard to define but deals in many ways with administration and dealings with the outside. Often, priors and abbots are in dispute, which can well lead to factions and power struggles. The prior primarily handles dealings with towns, provisioning and administration, while the abbot deals with internal matters, politics and important outside affairs. It is usual for the prior to be appointed by the abbot, patron or mother house from the best monks of the monastery. Large houses may have a sub-prior as deputy, or even a third prior to assist the sub-prior.
Then there is the terrar, the land agent of the monastery, responsible for its lands. Nunneries are rarely rich enough to need one. If no monk of suitable skill can be found, a professional layman may be employed. It’s a hard job, ensuring that tithes get paid, manors are productive and accounts are balanced. It also gives a lot of chances to steal from the monastery and build a fortune. Relatively few monks have the skills needed, so often the terrar, who is effectively the prior’s lawyer and accountant, is an employee, though finding an honest one can be very hard
Cellarer or Cellaress
The cellarer or cellaress is the provisoner of the monastery, ensuring regular supplies and overseeing the kitchens. It may also involve managing the orchard and garden, or for nunneries the laymen working for the nuns. The Benedictine Rule states that cellarers must be humble and obedient, yet they are often accused of corruption and secret gluttony. The bursar is common in smaller houses, combining the cellarer and terrar roles in one person. In larger houses which have both, the bursar oversees the internal accounts and stores of goods.
The infirmarian looks after the old and sick and cares for the general health of the house. They often must leave to gather supplies, and some use that as a chance to sin, while others become bitter and unfeeling. They almost certainly know apothecaries and more skilled doctors to call on. In nunneries, the infirmarian is also often an herbalist.
Other Lesser Offices
The head of the novitiate oversees the novices, the sacrist handles the vestments, candles and incense as well as the sacramental host and wine, which they are sometimes accused of selling. That is a great sin and rarely actually done. The precentor provides music and chants, the porter answers the door (and traditionally is an aged man, that he might be ready at any time due to not needing to work) and the hostillar is in charge of the welfare of guests. This is who visitors most often deal with. Some abbots discourage visitors by making the most unpleasant monk the hostillar. The almoner has the task of distributing surplus food and goods to beggars. The chancellor is the librarian and arranges for the copying of books, and monks tend to make copies of pretty much any book they find. And while many abbots are ordained, some are not, and such monasteries must retain the priest to celebrate Mass. In many monasteries there is at least one ordained brother, however. The nunnery also maintains a priest to handle Mass and confession, one of the few men allowed in.