According to this Wiki.fr page, 90% of the population were peasants. Of the 10% remaining, what percentage of them were clergy people? And does it apply during peak time? And when was this peak time?

In terms of the political power of the church, the peak seems to occur between 1100 and 1300. The peak of religiosity I'm looking for seems to have been during the period (but not necessarily: politics and personal religious "choice" are different matters).

When was the period with the maximum number of monasteries (which could indicate the maximum number of monks/sisters)?

Did any historian try to estimate the maximum percentage of the population that did make vows of chastity at the peak of religiosity in Europe (or in a specific country)?

Bonus: what percentage of clergy people lived in monasteries (monk/sister)?

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    jstor; Stack exchange (unsourced and unreliable, but accords with my estimates of 5-10%)
    – MCW
    Aug 2, 2021 at 18:04
  • @justCal thanks a lot! 50 years after the black death, that's weird, I wonder why.
    – JinSnow
    Aug 6, 2021 at 15:46
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    One other note - you listed a timeframe of 500-1500, but celibacy was only mandatory post 1123
    – MCW
    Aug 17, 2021 at 15:20
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    @MCW Thanks for this important piece I was missing! Your article says "[...] those decrees reflected a much longer tradition [...] of sexual continence [...]" which suggests that it was merely a formalization of a common practice. But the wiki page Clerical celibacy says "« Most rural priests were married and many urban clergy and bishops had wives and children`". So it seems that before 1123, at least the monks/sister lived in celibacy.
    – JinSnow
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:10
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    And note that the Eastern Orthodox tradition has retained that -- celibacy is required only for the monastic clergy. (It was ended in the West in large part to prevent Church offices from becoming hereditary.)
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 20, 2021 at 22:47

1 Answer 1


A Yale history lecture has some figures which, though focused on England, might be applicable. The video of lecture 7, Late Medieval Religion and Its Critics discusses the number of clergy in England. Here's my transcription of the relevant section:

The clergy, who staffed this institution were a distinct estate of the realm, as you already know. Attempts have been made to estimate their numbers, its been estimated about 60,000 in all. Which would mean that the clergy comprised about 4% of the entire national population.

@MCW posted a link to a Jstor article from 1944, THE CLERICAL POPULATION OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Josiah Cox Russell which is loaded with highly relevant information. (it also shows that any two sources of demographic information will inevitably differ). A snippet from that paper states:

The percentage of the clergy in the population should have been at about its highest in the poll tax period, if these indications are correct. If the total population was about 2,200,000 in 1377, the combined numbers of the religious (10,600) and seculars (24,900) should have been about 35,500 or 1.6 percent of the total population. Omitting the nuns, the total is about 33,500 men or about three percent of the male population.

So anywhere from 1.6% to 4% of the population according to these two sources, likely peaking in the period just after the Black Death in England.

As to why this time might have been the peak of the clergy as a percentage of the population, some relevant information might be gleaned from the Wikipedia article on the consequences of the Black Death in England.

Things of particular note here would be changes in the political structure with higher wages being available due to the shortage of labor;

By around 1400 serfdom was virtually extinct in England

the expansion of colleges such as Cambridge as an educational alternative to the monasteries; and the general disillusionment of the population with the church at the time (same wiki source-emphasis mine)

The clergy were seen to have an elevated status among ordinary people and this was partly due to their purported closeness with God, being his envoys on earth. However, as the church itself had given the cause of the Black Death to be the impropriety of the behaviour of men, the higher death rate among the clergy led the people to lose faith in the Church as an institution

So this time period (abt. 1377 according to Russell) would represent the peak of the clergy's composition as a percentage of the population. From this time forward more opportunities were available to individuals that might otherwise have chosen a more pious lifestyle; hence the numbers of individuals entering the clergy was greatly outpaced by the population increase after the plagues. So more of this greater population, because of the social changes mentioned above, did other things.

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    Ref the second part (why the highest ratio might have happened just after the Black Plague), I wonder if the fact that monks lived rather remotedly from the main population and with a relatively better hygiene have induced a lower ratio of monks than peasants died from the plague - hence a higher ratio of survivors during the next generation or two.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 17, 2021 at 15:50
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    @Evargalo About Dominicans: some friars wanted to order all of them to serve the sick; some wanted to order all of them to flee to save the order itself. At the end, the General Superiors decided to let each friar to decide by himself. Many decided to help the sick, and many died doing so. The relatively new and rapidly expanding order regressed 100 years of expansion, and had to close monasteries and even abandon whole provinces for lack of friars (source is a book about them). Not all religious live remotely, many do much stuff in the world
    – Luiz
    Aug 17, 2021 at 17:48
  • @justCal It's fascinating but confusing: how could the peak come 30 years after the black death (1377), since 1) the death rate amongst religious was higher 2) people start to lose faith after this pandemic, which probably means fewer people chose the religious life. Would it not suggest that the peak was before (eg. around the black death), but there is simply no data about it? If so it would suggest that the percentage of religious was even higher.
    – JinSnow
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:46
  • @justCal Do we know the percentage of religious before the black death, like every 10 or 20 years? If so, if the 1377 peak is proven by data preceding the black death, the peak could be because many people joined a religious order to try to save their souls before dying.
    – JinSnow
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:46

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