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There is no definitive answer for several reasons:

  1. The medieval period covers a huge time-span and the numbers of monks and nuns constantly changed throughout the period.
  2. There was never any kind of census of monasteries to determine how many people were involved.
  3. If you include the Saxon/Viking era in "medieval", very many monastic sites of that period were wiped out by Viking raids, the records destroyed and buildings burned, so we have almost no idea of their layout or how many monks were present.
  4. Britain did not exist as a unified territory during the medieval era.
  5. Certain Orders recruited "lay brothers" who were essentially a workforce and did not perform the same function as proper monks, but lived in the monastery and are often included with the numbers of monks.

It is calculated that at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 there were around 1000 monks and nuns in about 60 Saxon monastic houses in England. These were almost entirely destroyed and rebuilt in the Norman style, with additional monasteries founded by wealthy Normans; by 1100 there were possibly 70 monasteries for monks and 12 for nuns in England and Wales.

By 1175 an astonishing 155 more monasteries had been built - this was the peak of monasticism in England.

Each monastery housed varying numbers of monks: some had as few as 20 or 30, others up to 200. Numbers dropped very sharply in the early 1500s when it became clear that king Henry VIII intended to take over the Church's wealth, lands and property.

If you take an average of 70 monks per monastery and multiply it by 250 monasteries (a very approximate figure for the end of the 12th century) you arrive at roughly 17,500 monks; figures for nuns are even more difficult to guess but there were perhaps between two and three thousand, perhaps more.

Some examples of fluctuating numbers: in the mid-12th century at Rievaulx Abbey (Yorkshire) there were 140 monks and 500 lay brothers; by 1538 there were just 23. In 1125 at Abingdon there were 80 monks, but just 25 in 1538.

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Q: How many monks were there in Britain during the middle ages?
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