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Sunday, 3 April 2011

England's Middle Age Army of Lay Priests

During the early period of Norman occupation, England was a very harsh place for the Anglo-Saxon peasantry to live. French speaking Norman society began to forcefully transform England. Ordinary laymen were always looking for ways to improve their circumstance under the new overlords.

Among the religious orders of Christianity, there came the Cistercian monks who wanted to move away from mainstream society and be self-sufficient alongside their devotion to God. This body of monks devoted themselves to the Worship of God and the prayer for other people outside the Cistercian order too. It was innovative and profitable for them. It would lead to other more widespread ways of a financial enterprise with a force of devoted helpers. Their trade was a place in heaven for all helpers who could work and follow the rules of devotion and worship. With this, there was also offered sanctuary, food, and order.


Rich men would leave lands to the Cistercians in order that the monks would pray to God for their well-being. In reality, one could say, these nobles were buying their way to Heaven through the monks - using the priests as spiritual solicitors. In the Middle Ages, this culture was real and adamantly believed.


In order to keep these inherited lands, the monks had to work them for profit, but as they spent so much time devoted to the worship of God; it was difficult to keep livestock in the fields, cultivate land, build and maintain their monasteries.

Therefore, the Cistercians came up with an idea to recruit laymen into the monastic order. They could not be ordained or accepted as true monks or priests because most were illiterate. They would just be a sub-culture of working monks who followed the Cistercian order's code of chastity and religious conduct.

These lay monks could never be ordained as true priests but would gain rights to Heaven and serve a devoted life of worship maintaining the monastery they were assigned to. As said before, the volunteers would be clothed, housed and well fed.


If a married man went into the order, his wife and children would be abandoned. There was no place in the Cistercian order for the family. These monasteries were able to produce food, clothes, and other valuable commodities on a vast scale. At markets all over England, they could undercut a lot of farmers trying to sell their produce because they could produce and transport it without the overhead costs.

Un-ordained lay priests

Eventually, the Cistercians had a vast army of unordained lay priests, who farmed, built and served the upper echelons of the Christian order - supplementary priests who worked without pay. They were given shelter (that they built,) Clothes(that they made,) and food (that they farmed,)


The Cistercians owned vast lands, built roads and used rivers to spread their trade. All this done by their army of lay priests. The Cistercian monasteries became like supermarkets of our day and age. Certain monasteries would become renowned for a particular type of wine or fabric. Maybe, becoming a brand name among some districts. 

Their impact throughout England and all over Europe was colossal, but such influence was to be shattered by the great plague in 1347. In England alone; half the countries population was wiped out and those that were left became more valuable. Lay priests to work the land for nothing were suddenly harder to come by.


After a time they did reform but not as strong. All these monasteries, in England, would loose their grip outright. Two hundred years later Henry VIII brought in his reformation act and dismantled the monasteries and stripped them of power.



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