This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that might help writers looking to set writing in something like a medieval Western European setting.
Monks and nuns were an important part of the period. Today, that doesn’t seem obvious. Even if we think of a religious society, we tend to think in terms of priests. Yet monks and nuns were critically involved in all kinds of episodes in the Middle Ages. We have St Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, persuading Louis VII to promote the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147. We have someone like St Hilda setting up her school in the early middle ages. We have the staff of the newly developing universities, and many of the clerics who accompanied nobles.
It was a period of new monastic orders, often fuelled by the nobles’ desire to give money to a cause designed to both save their souls and show their status. The Cistercians were one of the most successful (at least until they invested too heavily in sheep futures and lost everything), but it’s important to recognise that monasticism wasn’t all one thing. There were many different orders, following many different rules. There were orders such as the Gilbertines that had men and women living side by side, and others like the various friars who weren’t bound by the requirement to stay in one place. There were also orders of canons, who were somewhere between monks and priests, and who frequently filled administrative roles both in cathedrals and for kings. Remember that in an authentically medieval setting, any favourite of a royal who doesn’t have a lot of lands to hand out is likely to be given a benefice or prebend in a religious order instead. Probably while only occasionally showing up and leaving his junior vicar to do the job.