A Glossary of Clergy

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 2002, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Over the centuries a welter of terms have come into use to refer to officials of the Christian Church. Not surprisingly there is confusion what these terms mean and who they apply to. This glossary attempts to sort these terms out. As such it concentrates on the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages since that is the time period that is the focus of the Society. While the Protestant Reformation within the stated time frame of the Society, much of the usage is not settled till after the period. Such port-period usage is noted.

The generic term is cleric or clergyman in the singular and clergy in the plural, all derived from clerk. The singular terms mentioned are late and post period forms. An occasional late period usage is divine coming from the Old French term for soothsayer, sooth having its archaic meaning of truth. Another general term, ecclesiastic, is post period. The proper period form is clerk from the Greek word meaning inheritance which is a reference to the Levites in Deuteronomy in which the Lord is their inheritance. Since for most of the Middle Ages literacy was mostly confined to the clergy, it fell to them to handle the record keeping. And hence the current meaning of the word. Because this ability to read, it was often used distinguish who fell under church law or secular law. This was commonly tested by reading the first verse of the Fifty-first Psalm which became known as the neck verse.

Clerks were often distinguished between those in Minor or Major Orders. The difference is that those in the Major Orders could perform the sacraments, while those in the Minor Orders could not. Those in the Minor Orders could leave the Church at any time, while those in the Major Orders had made a lifelong commitment. The names of the Minor Orders are acolyte, reader (lector), exorcist, and doorkeeper (porter). The Major Orders are deacon, priest, and bishop.

Another way the clergy could be broken up is between regular and secular. The regular clergy are so called because they live under an establish rule. The secular dealt with things of the world. The regular contemplated God while the secular tended the spiritual needs of the laity. Though as the centuries progress that line got blurred.

The regular clergy can be roughly broken into monks, canons, and friars. The monks, usually living separately away from everyone else are under an abbot which came from the Aramaic word for father. The French version of the word, abbe’, in the post period expanded to mean any clergy not in a set post, particularly in non-church settings. The term was not exclusively used by the church, and many secular organizations used abbot to denote their head. Second to the abbot is the prior, though a prior could also be the head of a small community dependent on a monastery. The term dean has three different contexts. Within a monastery it means a monk in charge of ten others, its original meaning. It is also used to denote the head of the canons of a cathedral or large church. And it could finally mean one who oversees a group of parishes within a diocese. Canon, by the way, derives from the Latin word for rule. Friars were not so uniform in their use of titles depending on their origins. In general they did not generate hierarchical structures. Overall, members in all the groups were referred to as brothers; friar is just an anglicized form of the Latin term for brother.

Not unexpectedly, the position of priest has the most words associated with it. The word priest comes from the Greek word presbuteros meaning elder. The use of the term presbyter is a post period Protestant usage. The use of the term elder is late period, but not restricted to the priest. The most common title, of course, is father, or padre in Spain and Italy. However, this term is generally restricted to priest who are members of the regular orders and not to the secular priest of the parishes. They were most commonly called Master Priest. An obscure twist is that Sir is short for sire which also means father, so one can occasionally find the term Sir Priest being used. The term reverend is used as an adjective in late period, but its use as a title is post period.

There are various names for priests in charge of a parish. The most commonly used are parson, pastor, and rector. Parson is short for person of the church. Pastor comes from the Latin word for shepherd. Rector is Latin for agent. Less common in the period is the use of the term minister which is Latin for servant. The Franciscans used the term minister to designate their officers. The French used the term cure’ which derives from the Latin curatus meaning one having a (spiritual) cure or charge. The English form of the word is curate.

The feudal aspects of society created one other form of parish priest. Most churches came with an endowment which generated income, usually in the form of tithes, land, and various fees. The intention was to pay for the upkeep of the church and support of the priest. This was known as the benefice, and the person entitled to that income was the beneficiary. But there was never a commitment on the part of the beneficiary to personally carry out the duties for that church. Many a major lord, who controlled who got these benefices, would therefore use them to pay off supporters and servants. To perform these duties would hire, for a set salary, a vicar which comes from the Latin word for substitute.

There are a few other miscellaneous terms used with the clergy. There is the chaplain who is a priest assigned to a chapel, which usually was a private shrine, though it could also be a small location off to the side of a larger church. There is the deacon who could do some of a priest's duties, but who could not celebrate all the sacraments, most prominently communion. There was also the archdeacon, a title usually given to the priest who acted as a bishop’s second in command. Another term commonly applied to the clergy is preacher. Period usage, however, did not confine this word to members of the church, and anyone who proclaimed the word of God could call himself a preacher.

Finally there are the terms reserved for the higher levels of the church hierarchy. Bishop, archbishop and cardinal are all offices charged with administering the church. The cardinals were mostly confined their activity to the working the papal curia. Collectively they were known as prelates. The chief bishop or archbishop of a region would also be referred to as the primate of that region. My final term is monsignor which comes from the French phrase “my lord”. Besides the bishops, officials of the papal court were accorded this honorific.

I hope the preceding clears up some of the nomenclature surrounding the clergy. Because the clergy of the Middle Ages was heavily male, I have left out the feminine terms, but they are mostly variants of the above words. Nor have I covered the Byzantine clergy, though many of their terms are merely the Greek equivalent of the Latin terms. But this should cover just about everything one will encounter in casual studying.



Ayto, John. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990.

Brown, Lesley, ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Morris, William, ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973.

Murray, James et. al., ed. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.


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