The decidedly urban character of Erfurt meant another important thing for our story: the presence of friars. Luther was not a monk, properly speaking, but a friar or better a hermit of Saint Augustine. He’s responsible for this error, as he frequently referred to himself as a monk. But he was a friar nonetheless and shared more with the Middle Ages’ new form of religious life defined by the Dominicans and Franciscans than he did with the true cloistered monks of the Benedictine Rule.
For various reasons, meteorological and technological, the population of Europe exploded after 1050, and an agricultural surplus fed the growth of urban life. Friars were made to order for this new environment and the challenges it placed upon the faith of the populace at large. Unlike their landed, Benedictine brethren, who were dedicated to ora et labora (prayer and work) within the confines of a monastery (and its often vast estates), urban friars worked outside their quarters in the cities doing service and teaching. Many were preachers—an art not often practiced by parish priests—or catechists, while others taught in the rapidly growing university system. Still others did works of charity.
Friars were not allowed, at least initially, to own property—the traditional support for monastic existence. Because of this stipulation of strict poverty, they were called mendicant or “begging orders.” This was a matter of some divisiveness. Luther’s own priory had accumulated quite large holdings from alms and bequests. He and his brothers said many masses in payment for these gifts. Individual friars, though, were forbidden possessions.
Because of its name you may be tempted to think that the Augustinian order was a very old one, but it wasn’t. The Order of Augustinian Hermits can be traced only to 1244 (while St. Augustine himself lived from 354-430), when a loose group of reform-minded religious banded together under the so-called rule of St. Augustine—a set of precepts laid out by the church father himself in the fourth century.
In Erfurt, the hermits prayed the hours, studied, taught in the University, preached in local churches, heard confession, and said mass. It was a busy life, full of religious responsibilities and not so full of comforts. The day began the middle of the night, with matins; then there was 6 a.m. prime, 9 a.m. terce, sexte at 12 noon, and after the noonday meal and rest the 3 p.m. nones, 6 p.m. vespers, and at last compline just before bed. And mass sometime before midday. Missing any service required a good excuse and had to be compensated for. After he moved to Wittenberg and assumed the duties of a professor, Luther would have had exemptions from certain hours. He kept careful track of what he had missed, though, and by the time he finally stopped praying the canonical hours altogether in 1520 he had accumulated over three months of prayer debt.
The later Luther had little good to say about monasticism. But he only stopped wearing his cowl in 1523 and was ever loathe to give up the mass. During his years in the cloister, he would have recited three psalms at every office (which means that it he prayed the Psalms through nearly once a week). It was monasticism that gave him the Bible.