PRIOR (from Lat. prior—former, and hence superior, through O. Fr. priour), a title applied generally to certain monastic superiors, but also in the middle ages to other persons in authority. Under the Roman Empire the word prior is found signifying “ancestor.” In the early middle ages it was commonly applied to secular officials and magistrates, and it remained all though the middle ages as the title of certain officials in the Italian city states. Noteworthy among these were the famous priores artis at Florence. These were appointed governors of the Florentine republic when the Companies of the Arts seized the government in 1282.
The term prior was most commonly used to denote the superiors in a monastery, at first with an indefinite significance, but later, as monastic institutions crystallized, describing certain definite officials. In the Rule of St Benedict and other early rules the titles praepositus and praelatus (see Prelate) are generally used, but 'prior is also found signifying in a general way the superiors and elders in a monastery. When used by St Benedict in the singular number it seems (according to the commentator Ménard) to denote the abbot himself. At a later date in the order of St Benedict the title was applied to the monk next in authority to the abbot, though this usage was not adopted technically until the 13th century. In some monasteries several priors were to be found and generally at least two. Thus we find the terms prior, sub-prior, tertius prior, quarlus prior, quintus prior. The first prior was sometimes called prior major, sometimes prior claustralis. Occasionally both titles are found in one house, the latter ranking below the former. The first prior acted as vicar in all matters in the absence of the abbot, and was generally charged with the details of the discipline of the monastery. With the foundation of the order of Cluny in the 10th century there appeared the conventual prior who ruled as head of a monastery, but was subject in some degree to the archiabbas of the mother-house of Cluny. The Regular Canons later gave this title of prior to the heads of their houses, as did also the Carthusians and the Dominicans. It was in houses of these orders that the sub-prior became a regular official. Among the Dominicans the head of a province is known as the “prior provincial.” In the order of St John of Jerusalem (q.v.) a priory was a group of commanderies ruled by a “grand prior.”
The term prior was applied also in the middle ages in a very general manner. Thus there was the prior scholoe or leader of the choir, prior scriniariorum, &c.,
See Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, new edition by L. Favre (Niort, 1883, &c.); Sir William Smith and S. Cheetham, edd. Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (1875-1880).