Monasticism arose in the East. Its origin is undetermined, but at a very early date recluses began to shut themselves out from the world and live in solitary retirement. Socrates describes the impetus given to this movement in the third century by Ammon, but of all hermits the name of Anthony is perhaps the best known. He died at the middle of the fourth century at the age of 105, which is but a single instance of the remarkable age many of these men who so ill-treated their bodies attained. Anthony's temptations in the desert became famous and his austerities were eagerly emulated. The deserts of Egypt became thronged with recluses. Thousands of Anchorites inhabited solitary cells; Coenobites formed themselves into ascetic communities.

So many able-bodied men betook themselves to the wilderness, and thus exempted themselves from the ordinary duties of citizenship, that the Emperor Valens saw fit to withdraw the immunity from military service which had been granted to the "religious " and compelled them to serve in his army. The causes for this strange movement were both religious and secular. The world was a difficult field for the spiritual and pure-hearted. An impression widely prevailed that matter was essentially evil, and the body a thing of corruption to be subdued at any price. There was little comprehension of the theory of altruism, but a general sense of the need which each soul had to secure its own personal salvation. But in addition to this there were certain secular causes. The times were very hard. Taxation was intolerably burdensome. Military service was hateful to many. The struggle of life was keen. A life of privileged solitude, full of self-imposed hardships, but free and honoured, seemed to many the easiest escape from their difficulties. Enthusiasm grew through the legends which soon gathered about the most celebrated hermits.

S. Basil may be said to be the founder of the monastery as distinct from the life of the wandering hermit. He was the first to draw up a set of rules governing the life of a monastery. At the beginning of the sixth century a strong revival of the monastic system took place under S. Benedict. Nearly all the Western monastic bodies are off-shoots or modifications of the Benedictines. The conversion of a large part of Europe is due to the itineration of monks. The monks of Iona went far and wide. The Benedictines, Willibrord and Boniface, devoted their lives to the barbarous tribes of North Germany. The Irish monasteries earned a high reputation as seats of learning. The mediaeval monastery played a most beneficent part in the preservation of light in the midst of gross darkness. It afforded a home for the saint, a place of retirement for the scholar, a means of succour for the poor, a teacher of the ways of peace and order to a strife-worn and lawless world. The peaceful, the gentle, and the feeble found their only refuge in the monastery. The system had its patent defects. It produced bigots as well as saints in its earliest developments. The Egyptian monks became a terror to their bishops as well as to all whom they suspected of any kind of un-orthodoxy.

The life of each monastery differed not only according to its rule, but according to national temperament, and the character of the abbot.

One description runs: "The Irish monks had so little to do with their brethren in the same monastery that there is some doubt whether they had even a daily meal in common. Each passed his days and nights in his own little beehive-shaped cell, constructed of slabs of stone fitted without mortar; the entrance so low as to necessitate the inmate crawling on his knees, the passage so tortuous as to serve as a protection against the winds rushing in. In no case was a single large church provided." Compare this with Dean Church's description of the Benedictine monastery at Bec, in Normandy, in the eleventh century, condensed: "A monk's life is eminently a social one; he lived night and day in public and the cell seems to have been an occasional retreat. The cloister was the place of business and conversation, the common workshop, study, and parlour of all. Here the children learned their letters; here was the lecture room. In a cloister like this the news, the gossip of the world and of the neighbourhood, was collected; rumours and stories were reported picturesquely dressed up and made matter of solemn morals or of grotesque jokes, as they might be now in clubs and newspapers." Widely apart as these two habits of life may seem, the object of the monastic rule was the same. Dean Church says: "The governing thought of monastic life was that it was a warfare, militia, and the monastery was a camp, a barrack; there was continual drill and exercise, early hours, fixed times, hard fare, stern punishment, obedience prompt and absolute."

It should be observed here that these associations of monks or nuns were presided over by an abbot, or abbess, or by a prior. A prior is like an abbot, a priory being a monastery or convent, but next in rank below an abbey, in some cases dependent upon an abbey. An abbot was sometimes a baron, or bishop (called a mitred abbot), and sometimes a member of Parliament.

The monks did not serve in parishes; to churches owned by the monastery, vicars were appointed. When the church formed part of the monastery buildings, i.e., the conventual church, lay folk were admitted to the nave in which often an altar was placed and served by a secular vicar or curate.

In a general way, at the head of each community was the abbot. Theoretically he was chosen by the brethren; practically he often was nominated by outside patronage. He exacted an obedience which no other kind of autocrat has ever been able to enforce. The smallest hesitation in obedience of the most literal kind was sharply punished. He held every monk's conscience in his keeping through the confessional and welded all together by his single will. Next in rank came the precentor. He not only regulated the choral services, but was librarian and master of the processions. The next officer was the cellarer, who managed the domestic affairs of the house, and was in many ways a more powerful person than the office seems to suggest. There was also sometimes a treasurer, if the cellarer did not undertake the duties of the post. The sacristan had charge of the sacred vessels, and kept the keys of the church. The almoner was an important functionary, whose duty was to find out cases of poverty and to relieve them. The kitchener, infirmarer, and porter all had their duties clearly defined. The refectioner had care of the plate, and the chamberlain was responsible for dormitories, clothing and household matters.

The architectural plan of a monastery differed in East and West. In all Western monasteries the church was prominent, usually cruciform in shape. The refectory, where the monks shared their common meal, was provided with a desk from which a novice might read aloud during dinner.

The chapter house was a place of great importance. Everyone assembled there each morning. All the business of the community was carried on there; disputes were settled, accusations heard, and punishment (often corporal) was publicly administered. Distinguished strangers were invited to address the brethren in the chapter house. The dormitory was the public sleeping-place, and was used for the mid-day rest as well as at night. Many of the cloisters were extremely beautiful, their arches opening upon lawn or garden. The infirmary had a chapel adjoining it, and sometimes a garden for the use of the sick. The guest hall was often of great size. The locutory, or parlour, was a room set apart for conversation when silence was enjoined in other parts. The almonry was so placed that distribution could conveniently be made to the crowds of daily dependents. In the library and scriptorium were stored and preserved wonderful works of the penman's and illuminator's art. The misericord was a chamber where special indulgences of food could be enjoyed. The song school speaks for itself. In mint and exchequer coins were cast known as " abbey pieces." The cells were not commonly used, except in cases of severe discipline. The granges, a term now applied to manor-houses, once meant the farms with which monasteries were endowed. Similar establishments to the monasteries, for women, are termed convents or nunneries, and at the head of each community is the mother superior or reverend mother.

A Friar however was a different person from a monk. He differed in the following chief ways : he was a wandering preacher, very poor, living on charity, hence called a mendicant monk, and in the first instance he had no house in which to live. The monks became jealous of the friars, because the latter appealed by their preaching and practice; the clergy became jealous, because the friars having no parish, were regarded as interlopers, filching the authority of the clergy; and in the end the hostility of the people was aroused against them, because they were papalists, and they came to share the unpopularity of the Vatican, and  they appeared to traffic in spiritual things for worldly gain, a lazy time, and loose living.

The Cluniac Order, to which the Priory of Lenton belonged, was a reformed congregation, following the Benedictine rule, as finally revised by Odo of Cluny in Burgundy. The churches were noted for their magnificence, and were denounced by S. Bernard in his "Apology" (1127) on account of their enormous height, excessive breadth, empty space, and sumptuous ornament. All the churches of this order in England are now in ruins; they were very irregular in plan, and built chiefly in populous places. According to strict rule, the first churches, like those of the Cistercians, were dedicated to S. Mary, and were to be devoid of organs, pictures and superfluous carving: painted crosses of wood only were allowed. This rule seems to have been honoured more in its breach than its observance, for we find that, from an early period, the churches were richly and beautifully adorned, and the ceremonial especially elaborate. William of Malmesbury described the Cluniacs as "rich in this world, and of shining piety towards God." The dress of the order was a black frock, a pelisse, a hood of lambs wool, red hose, a white woollen tunic, a black scapular; in choir, copes of linen, and in cloister and refectory, a white pall. They occasionally wore a cowl of scarlet cloth to show their readiness to shed their blood for Christ's sake.

The monks celebrated two solemn masses every day. Great ceremonial was used in the preparation of the bread for use in the Mass; the fire being blessed and the baker wearing special clothes, only his eyes being visible. Long periods of silence were observed, and certain places were perpetually silent, e.g., in the cells of the novices, cloister, workshops, offices, sacristies and cemeteries.

"Outside the refectory there should be twelve crypts and tubs ready where the brethren may take their baths at the proper times." There was a general bath before Christmas and Easter. The chamberlain arranged the business of shaving, the razors being kept in an aumbry at the entrance to the dormitory. A curious custom of the Norman founders was that of putting the hair of the head and beard into the wax of seals. A variety of workmen was housed in the monastery, such as tailors, cobblers, bakers, goldsmiths, setters and glassworkers.

The claustral prior, after compline stood at the church door to see that the brethren bowed to the altar and the priest who sprinkled them; he then went his rounds to see that the almonry, kitchen and refectory were locked, and inspect the infirmary, dormitory and gong, and in winter between nocturn and matins visited the beds and altars. Novices slept in special quarters and entered the church at the east end, while the monks entered at the west. In the cloister they each sat on a trunk, next to the wall, in which was an aumbry for books. The tabula was beaten at the cloister door to announce that a Monk was dying.

The Cluniacs differed from Cistercians in the following divergencies of rule:—(1) They did not acknowledge the diocesan's authority; (2) they did not prostrate at the reception of guests; (3) they did not kneel or prostrate at the hours; (4) they admitted novices to monkhood before the end of a year of probation; (5) they re-admitted fugitive monks, even after three offences, although not in a dying condition; (6) they did not wash their guests' feet; (7) abbots did not dine with guests; (8) they did not salute or bless their guests; (9) they had more than two general masses in the day; (10) they did no manual labour; (11) they did not uncover or bow to each other in passing. Guests were allowed to visit the almonry, kitchen, cellerage, refectory, novices' cells, dormitories and infirmary in silence, and also parts of the church. The gates were locked after compline and opened at day-break. Stables were built for the horses of guests, with a solar above, for servants, and guests of inferior degree. There was a prison which had a descent by a ladder, with a door not visible and no window.

Lenton Priory broke away from the mother house at Cluny between 1403 and 1450, and during this period was probably not controlled at all by Cluny. This was happening in the case of other Cluniac monasteries as a result of strained relationships between France and England. Objections were raised to money being paid out of the country to France, and to the presence of French spies in the monasteries.