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The word abbot, meaning father, is a title given to the head of a monastery in various traditions, including Christianity. The office may also be given as an honorary title to a clergyman who is not actually the head of a monastery. The female equivalent is Abbess.



The title had its origin in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria, spread through the eastern Mediterranean, and soon became accepted generally in all languages as the designation of the head of a monastery. At first it was employed as a respectful title for any monk, but it was soon restricted by canon law to certain priestly superiors. At times it was applied to various priests, e.g. at the court of the Frankish monarchy the Abbas palatinus ('of the palace') and Abbas castrensis ('of the camp') were chaplains to the Merovingian and Carolingian sovereigns’ court and army respectively. The title "abbot" came into fairly general use in western monastic orders whose members include priests.

Monastic history

An abbot (from the Hebrew ab "אב" or abba "אבא", "a father", through Latin abbas (genitive form, abbatis), Old English abbad, ; German Abt; French abbé) is the head and chief governor of a community of monks, called also in the East hegumen or archimandrite. The English version for a female monastic head is abbess.

Early history

In Egypt, the first home of monasticism, the jurisdiction of the abbot, or archimandrite, was but loosely defined. Sometimes he ruled over only one community, sometimes over several, each of which had its own abbot as well. Saint John Cassian speaks of an abbot of the Thebaid who had 500 monks under him. By the Rule of St Benedict, which, until the Cluniac reforms, was the norm in the West, the abbot has jurisdiction over only one community. The rule, as was inevitable, was subject to frequent violations; but it was not until the foundation of the Cluniac Order that the idea of a supreme abbot, exercising jurisdiction over all the houses of an order, was definitely recognized.

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