Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


Additional Links

Anciently denoted, "a person who retired from the world to give himself wholly to God, and to live in solitude and abstinence." The word is derived from the Latin monachus, and that from the Greek "solitary;" of "alone." This original of monks seems to have been this: The persecutions which attended the first ages of the Gospel forced some Christians to retire from the world, and live in deserts and places most private and unfrequented, in hopes of finding that peace and comfort among beasts, which were denied them among men; and this being the case of some very extraordinary persons, their example gave such reputation to retirement, that the practice was continued when the reason of its commencement ceased. After the empire became Christian, instances of this kind were numerous: and those whose security had obliged them to live separately and apart, became afterwards, united into societies. We may also add, that the mystic theology, which gained ground towards the close of the third century, contributed to produce the same effect, and to drive men into solitude for the purposes of devotion. The monks, at least the ancient ones, were distinguished into solitaries, coenobites, and sarabites. The solitaries are those who live alone, in places remote from all towns and habitations of men, as do still some of the hermits. The coenobites are those who live in community with several others in the same house, and under the same superiors. The sarabites were strolling monks, having no fixed rule or residence.

The houses of monks, again, were of two kinds, viz. monasteries and laurae. Those who are now called monks, are coenobites, who live together in a convent or monastery, who make vows of living according to a certain rule established by the founder, and wear a habit which distinguishes their order. The first monks were those of St. Anthony, who, towards the close of the fourth century, formed them into a regular body, engaged them to live in society with each other, and prescribed to them fixed rules for the direction of their conduct. These regulations, which Anthony had made in Egypt, were soon introduced into Palestine and Syria by his disciple Hilarion. Almost about the same time, Aones, or Eugenius, with their companions Gaddanus and Azyzias, instituted the monastic order in Mesopotamia, and the adjacent countries; and their example was followed with such rapid success, that in a short time the whole east was filled with a lazy set of mortals, who abandoning all human connexions, advantages, pleasures, and concerns, wore out a languishing and miserable existence amidst the hardships of want and various kinds of suffering, in order to arrive at a more close and rapturous communication with God and angels.

From the East this gloomy disposition passed into the West, and first into Italy and its neighbouring islands; though it is uncertain who transplanted it thither. St. Martin, the celebrated bishop of Tours, erected the first monasteries in Gaul, and recommended this religious solitude with such power and efficacy both by his instructions and his example, that his funeral is said to have been attended by no less than two thousand monks. From hence the monastic discipline extended gradually its progress through the other provinces and countries of Europe. There were, besides the monks of St. Basil (called in the East Cologeri, from "a good old man, ") and those of St. Jerome, the hermits of St. Augustine, and afterwards those of St. Benedict and St. Bernard: at length came those of St. Francis and St. Cominic, with a legion of others; all which see under their proper heads. towards the close of the fifth century, the monks, who had formerly lived only for themselves in solitary retreats, and had never thought of assuming any rank among the sacerdotal order, were now gradually distinguished from the populace, and endowed with such oppulence and honourable privileges, that they found themselves in a condition to claim an eminent station among the pillars and supporters of the Christian community.

The fame of their piety and sanctity was so great, that bishops and presbyters were often chosen out of their order; and the passion of erecting edifices and convents, in which the monks and holy virgins might serve God in the most commodious manner, was at this time carried beyond all bounds. However, their licentiousness, even in this century, was become a proverb; and they are said to have excited the most dreadful tumults and seditions in various places. The monastic orders were at first under the immediate jurisdiction of the bishops, from which they were exempted by the Roman pontiff about the end of the seventh century; and the monks, in return, devoted themselves wholly to advance the interests and to maintain the dignity of the bishop of Rome. This immunity which they obtained was a fruitful source of licentiousness and disorder, and occasioned the greatest part of the vices with which they were afterwards so justly charged. In the eighth century the monastic discipline was extremely relaxed, both in the eastern and western provinces, and all efforts to restore it were ineffectual.

Nevertheless, this kind of institution was in the highest esteem; and nothing could equal the veneration that was paid about the close of the ninth century to such as devoted themselves to the sacred gloom and indolence of a convent. This veneration caused several kings and emperors to call them to their courts, and to employ them in civil affairs of the greatest moment. Their reformation was attempted by Louis the Meek, but the effect was of short duration. In the eleventh century they were exempted by the popes from the authority established; insomuch, that in the council of Lateran that was held in the year 1215, a decree was passed, by the advice of Innocent III. to prevent any new monastic institutions; and several were entirely suppressed. In the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it appears, from the testimony of the best writers, that the monks were generally lazy, illiterate, profligate, and licentious epicures, whose views in lite were confined to opulence, idleness, and pleasure. However, the reformation had a manifest influence in restraining their excesses, and rendering them more circumspect and cautious in their external conduct.

Monks are distinguished by the colour of their habits into black, white, grey, &c. Among the monks, some are called monks of the choir, others professed monks, and others lay monks; which last are destined for the service of the convent, and have neither clericate nor literature. Cloistered monks are those who actually reside in the house: in opposition to extra monks, who have benefices depending on the monastery. Monks are also distinguished into reformed, whom the civil and ecclesiastical authority have made masters of ancient converts, and put in their power to retrieve the ancient discipline, which had been relaxed; and ancient, who remain in the convent, to live in it according to its establishment at the time when they made their vows, without obliging themselves to any new reform. Anciently the monks were all laymen, and were only distinguished from the rest of the people by a peculiar habit, and an extraordinary devotion. Not only the monks were prohibited the priesthood, but even priests were expressly prohibited from becoming monks, as appears from the letters of St. Gregory. Pope Siricius was the first who called them to the clericate, on occasion of some great scarcity of priests that the church was then supposed to labour under; and since that time the priesthood has been usually united to the monastical profession. Enc. Brit.; British Monochism, or Manners and Customs of Monks and Nuns of England; Mosheim's Ecc. Hist.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Monk'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry