1902 Encyclopedia > Abbey > Definition of "Abbey". Cells of Earliest Christian Monastic Communities.

(Part 1)

(A) Introduction. Early Christian Monasticism.

Definition of "Abbey". Cells of Earliest Christian Monastic Communities.

ABBEY, a monastery, or conventual establishment, under the government of an ABBOT or an ABBESS. A priory only differed form an abbey in that the superior before the name of prior instead of abbot. This was the case in all the English conventual cathedrals, e.g., Canterbury, Ely, Norwich, &c., where the archbishop or bishop occupied the abbot's place, the superior of the monastery being termed prior. Other priories were originally off-shoots from the larger abbeys, to the abbots of which they continued subordinate; but in later times the actual distinction between abbeys and priories was lost.

Reserving for the article MONASTICISM (MONACHISM) the history of the rise and progress of the monastic system, its objects, benefits, evils, its decline and fall, we propose in this article to confine ourselves to the structural plan and arrangement of conventual establishments, and a description of the various buildings of which these vast piles were composed.

The earliest Christian monastic communities with which Cells, we are acquainted consisted of groups of cells or huts collected about a common center, which was usually the abode of some anchorite celebrated for superior holiness or singular asceticism, but without any attempt at orderly arrangement. T he formation of such communities in the East does not date from the introduction of Christianity. The example has been already set by the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt, who may be considered the prototypes of the industrial and meditative communities of monks.

Cells of Earliest Christian Monastic Communities

In the earliest age of Christian monasticism the ascetics were accustomed to live singly, independent of one another, at no great distance from some village, supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands, and distributing the surplus after the supply of their own scanty wants to the poor. Increasing religious fervour, aided by persecution, drove them further and further away from the abodes of men into mountain solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with the cells or huts of these anchorites. Antony, who had retired to the Egyptian Thebaid during the persecution of Maximin, A.D. 312, was the most celebrated among them for his austerities, his sanctity, and his power as an exorcist. His fame collected round him a host of followers, emulous of his sanctity. The deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of anchorites living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Antony, as Neander remarks (Church History, vol. iii. p. 316, Clark's trans.), "without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new mode of living in common, Caenobitism." By degrees order was introduced in the groups of huts. They were arranged in lines like the tents in an encampment, or the houses in a street. From this arrangement these lines of single cells came to be known as Laurae, Laurai [Gk.], "streets" or "lanes."

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