Monasteries formed a unique element in the social structure of the Byzantine Empire. The place where those who repudiated the things of this world gathered together to dedicate themselves to God and to aspire to purity of the soul often became a complex and vital economic and cultural centre.
In the monasteries, fortified like castles, a monk's life revolved around the 'katholikon' (the main church), the chapels and the library. These were surrounded by the monks' cells, the refectory and bake-house, store-rooms, stables, and workshops.
The economic independence of a monastery was secured by donations both from the Emperor and from simple folk, who asked by way of return for the monks' prayers for the salvation of their souls.
After a three-year noviciate, monks and nuns received the tonsure and became full members of their community. They never ate meat, attended at least six hours of church services a day, and were all obliged to work. In addition to filling administrative offices, such as storekeeper and archivist, and performing functions connected with divine service, such as verger and chief cantor, monks and nuns served their fellows and visitors as nurses and guest masters. Besides those engaged in farming and animal husbandry, there were others, specialized in copying manuscripts preserved in the libraries of the larger monasteries, and some who were icon-painters.
The rules generally applicable to organized monasticism were laid down by Saint Basil the Great. Nonetheless, the detailed administration and functioning of a monastery were always defined by its monastic charter, that is, the legal document, drawn up by the founder of the monastery, which served as its constitution.