The official title of certain superiors in some religious communities. The Latin noun prior was used in the 6th century with a meaning close to that of the modern English "superior"; with this meaning the word is used seven times in the Rule of St. Benedict. The contemporary meaning of prior came into use with the Cluniac reform and became common in England only after the Conquest. At this time the term appeared in reference to monastic officials who replaced and subsumed the praepositi and decani of the Rule —that is, those chosen by the abbot to share in the government of the community. From that time to the present, the Benedictines and the Cistercians have had three principal kinds of superior called prior. (1) The conventual prior is the elected superior of a conventual priory, an independent house that has not been elevated to the dignity of an abbey; with minor exceptions the conventual prior has the same power in his own house as the abbot does in his. According to the custom of the congregation, he is elected by his own monks for life or for a definite period. (2) The obedientiary or simple prior is the ruler of a dependent priory; he is appointed by the superior of the motherhouse and may be removed at the will of his superior. (3) The claustral prior is an official in an abbey and is appointed by the abbot; he shares as much of the rule of the monastery as is delegated to him by the abbot. To these three kinds of prior, found everywhere among the Benedictines, could be added the cathedral prior of medieval England, where the unique custom developed by which the bishop's chapter was constituted by an independent Benedictine priory. In some congregations of the 11th and 12th centuries, such as that of Cluny, in addition to the prior claustralis, there was a prior major, whose power extended to various dependencies of the monastery. In large medieval monasteries, second and third priors were sometimes appointed. The term prior passed over into the vocabulary of the later medieval institutions. The Premonstratensian canons preserved the full monastic vocabulary with respect to superiors. The Carthusians, Dominicans, Augustinian friars, Carmelites, and Servites preserved the use of the word prior to designate the superiors of their conventual priories; this usage was preserved, too, among some orders no longer existing, such as the Gilbertines and the military orders. Also, the word prior was used to refer to several new kinds of superior; thus the head of a group of priories is called a prior provincial among the Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites, and Servites; and the head of the order is called the prior general in the orders of the Augustinians, Carmelites, and Servites.
Bibliography: m. ott, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al., 16 v. (New York 1907–14; suppl. 1922) 12:427–428. d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 943–1216 (2d ed. Cambridge, England 1962). c. du cange, Glossarium ad scriptores mediae et infimae latinitatis, ed. l. favre, 10v. (Niort 1883–88) 6:504–506.
pri·or1 / ˈprīər/ • adj. existing or coming before in time, order, or importance: he has a prior engagement this evening.• n. inf. a previous criminal conviction: he had no juvenile record, no priors.PHRASES: prior to before a particular time or event: she visited me on the day prior to her death.pri·or2 • n. a man who is head of a house or group of houses of certain religious orders, in particular: ∎ the man next in rank below an abbot. ∎ the head of a house of friars.DERIVATIVES: pri·or·ate / ˈprīərət/ n.pri·or·ship / -ˌship/ n.
So prioress (-ESS1) XXIII. — OF. prioresse. priory (-Y3) XIII. — AN. priorie, medL. priōria.