Terms of the Religious Life
abbess: the female head, or superior, of an abbey. An abbey may be either a convent or monastery, though more often the word designates a convent. (An abbess’s male counterpart is called an abbot.)
anchoress: a woman who lives a solitary life of silence and prayer, especially one who remains in confined quarters, usually a single small room (or cell). In the later Middle Ages, an anchoress’s quarters (the anchorhold) were often attached to the wall of a church. (This life was also pursued by men, who were called anchorites.)
beguine: a laywoman who belonged to certain sisterhoods that arose in Belgium and the Netherlands in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. A beguine took no vows, or temporary ones, usually of chastity and simplicity, and devoted herself to good works. Though often living in community, a beguine was free to hold private property and to leave the community and marry. (The male counterparts to the beguines were called beghards.)
cenobite: a member of a religious community (the word is taken from the Greek for common life). The opposite of eremite.
convent: a community of nuns who take vows and live under the direction of a superior. (Historically, the word could refer to a religious community of either men or women.)
eremite: a person who isolates himself or herself from society in order to pursue the religious life. Related terms include recluse, solitary, and hermit.
mendicant order: a group of friars, such as the early Franciscans, that depends upon begging alms.
religious: a member of a religious order. In canon law a religious is a person who lives in community and takes vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.
tertiary: a member of a Third Order (see next entry).
Third Order: an organization of lay people affiliated with one of the mendicant orders such as the Dominicans or Franciscans. Though living in the world, members of a Third Order try to live lives of sacrifice, simplicity, and service, like the friars (First Order) and sisters (Second Order) of their mendicant order.
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #30 in 1991]
Life in a Medieval Village
From birth to death, a peasant woman’s difficult life intersected the church.Frances and Joseph Gies
Inside the Convent
How did convents arise? Why did so many medieval women enter them?Jo Ann McNamara
A Skeptic Inside the Nunnery
Spiritual vitality—and tensions—within a twelfth-century priory.Aelred of Rievaulx
Women in the Medieval Church: A Gallery of Christian Women Writers of the Medieval World
Who was who among Christian women writers of the Middle Ages.Katharina M. Wilson