Western monastic communities had their origins in the fourth century and received their more formal structure under St. Benedict in the fifth century, but the beginnings of the lay brotherhood are less clear. Most men of St. Benedict’s community were not clergy, and all shared in the menial labor as part of their discipline of prayer and work, ora et labora. He distinguished three types of monastics—oblati, children who were being taught in the monastery; nutriti, adult monks who had been formed there since their youth; and conversi, adults who had joined the community later in life. At Vallambrosa, in Tuscany, around A.D. 1038, St. John Gualbert is often credited with first having formally designated the conversi as servants, thus tacitly establishing lay brothers, but other religious communities perhaps a century earlier almost certainly had separated some community members from the choir brothers in order to perform the manual work of the household.
The need for lay brothers had grown by the eleventh century for three primary reasons: First, the time devoted to monastic study had greatly increased; second, the percentage of monks who were preparing for priestly ordination had increased; and third, the religious life was beginning to attract more and more people who felt called to the life of prayer and service but did not have the education or health necessary to tackle monastic studies or priestly formation. In addition, monasteries generally had hired servants who had become de facto members of the community, and their roles needed to be clarified. Before long, many of the major houses of religious communities across Europe had established lay brothers.
Over time, lay brothers generally became known for their exemplary piety and their tireless labor; the found joy and fulfillment in their contributions through their toil. Many became known for their outstanding skills in agriculture, art, craftsmanship, and administration. The renown of many religious orders for their retail and gift products can be traced historically to the well-honed talents of their lay brothers.
Traditionally, lay brothers wear a habit that distinguishes them in some way from the choir brothers. They often pray the Divine Office or a modified form of the breviary even though it is not a strict requirement.
Today, most religious institutes of men comprise only lay members, and the distinction between lay brothers and choir brothers or religious brothers exists primarily within more traditional abbeys and cloisters.