An abbey is a Christian monastery or convent under the orders of an abbot or abbess, who are the spiritual father or mother of the community. A priory differs from an abbey only in that the senior monk bears the title of prior rather than abbot. The priories were originally offshoots of the abbeys, and the priors continued to be subordinate to the abbots; however, the current distinction between abbeys and priories was lost in the Renaissance.

The earliest known monastic communities consisted of "cells" gathered around a common center, which was usually the home of a hermit or anchorite famous for his saintliness or singular asceticism, but with no intention of formal organization. Such communities are not an invention of Christianity. An example had already been produced, at least in part, by the Essenes in Judea and perhaps by the Therapeutae, a monastic order established at the foot of Lake Mareotis near Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt.

In the earliest days of Christian monasticism, ascetics used to live in isolation, independently of one another, not far from some local church, supporting themselves by the work of their own hands and dividing up the surplus once their frugal needs had been satisfied. Increased religious fervor, aided by persecution, drove them further and further from civilization into mountainous solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt were swarming with the "cells" or huts of these anchorites. Antony the Great, who had retired to the Egyptian Thebaid during the persecution by Maximian (312), was the most celebrated of them for his austerities, his saintliness, and his power as an exorcist. His fame gathered around him a host of followers imitating his asceticism in an attempt to imitate his saintliness. The more he retreated into the wilderness, the more numerous were his disciples. They refused to separate from him and built his cell around his spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of anchorites who each lived in their own small dwelling, united under a superior. Antony, as August Neander mentions (History of the Church, vol. III, p. 316, Clark's translation), "without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new way of living in common cenobitism." Gradually, order was introduced in the groups of cabins. They were arranged in lines, like tents in a camp, or houses on a street.​

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