Christianity has from the very beginning had a monastic character. Though he was certainly not the first monk, St. Anthony is considered the grandfather of Christian monasticism. He was a hermit of the Egyptian desert in the late 3rd century and early 4th. His life was record by St. Athansius the Great. This was translated into several languages and became an extremely popular book. It inspired an entire generation (and continues to inspire, I might add).
With the advent of Christianity not only being tolerated by the Roman Empire, but being the preferred religion of emperors, the first great era of martyrdom came to a close. Facing a world where there was no possibility of following in the footsteps of the great Christian heroes into martyrdom and inspired by the Life of St. Anthony, an entire generation went into the desert.
There, two basic styles of monasticism developed: cenobitic (communal) and eremitic (hermit-like). St. Basil the Great is seen in Orthodoxy as a founding monastic legislator, whose rules are still used by Orthodox monks today. St. Benedict, using St. Basil's rules as a model, wrote his own Rule which became the model for Western monasticism.
During the period of approx. A.D. 1100-1350 there were at least three orders within France that could be used as inspiration for a fantasy setting:
- Benedictines: (mentioned in The Beast of Averoigne), also known as black monks (because of their black/dark robes) who are followers of the Rule of St. Benedict. It is a cenobitic order.
- Cistercians: also known as white monks (because of their undyed robes). They also follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which they attempt to follow in exactness. They emphasize field-work and are famous for their agriculture (they introduced a lot of agricultural technology to Europe) and as horse breeders. The only income they accepted was from this field-work (no gifts, no tithes, etc.). It is a cenobitic order. The Knights Templar were Cistercians.
- Carthusians: also known as charterhouse monks. This is the most austere of the orders. They shaved their heads, wore horse hair shirts and took a vow of silence. They lived as hermits, gathered together only for services and ate together only on Sundays. It is an eremitic order. In more modern times, they made famous a green liquor known as chartreuse, from which the pale green color gets its name.
For the purposes of using these three orders to inspire monastic orders for a fantasy world, I am going to adopt the names black monks, white monks and green monks. These primarily refer to the color of the robes that they wear.
One of the basic credos of the Rule of Benedict is the simple phrase Pray and Work. White monks emphasize work, being excellent farmers and horse breeders. They live in communities in rural and wilderness environments. Green monks emphasize prayer. They are famous for their elixirs (derived from the same plants that they use to dye their robes) and live primarily as hermits in the wilderness. Black monks seek to find a balance between work and prayer. They tend to live in communities in or near urban centers.
Besides their robes, the three orders can also be distinguished by their form of tonsure. White monks wear the classic "bald spot" tonsure we all associate with medieval monastics. Green monks shave their heads. Black monks do not cut their hair or beards at all. Therefore, they are also sometimes known as Nazirites (see Numbers 6:5). [This latter style has two sources of inspiration. Orthodox monks normally do not cut their hair nor shave and the Merovingian Kings of France were known as the "long-haired kings" because not only did they wear their hair long, but if their hair were cut, they would be unworthy of ruling.]
In addition to monks, each order would have two sub-orders: Canons and Swords. Canons are those ordained priests who have taken monastic vows. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox practice of allowing marriage prior to ordination was still in use in Western Christendom at this time, though frowned upon. I like the idea that cleric characters don't necessarily have to start out as ordained clergy, but would have to be ordained in order to receive 3rd level spells or higher — thus marriage is a possibility for those inclined. Swords are the military arm of the order. These would be the Knights Templar or the Hospitallers of this fantasy world.