by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the August 1982, A.S. XVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
European monasticism was the outgrowth of an earlier religious movement which produced the hermits and anchorites of Egypt. The monks were a stabilizing force in the midst of chaotic change; a place that offered security, order, and certainty. It was they who preserved the elements of culture and knowledge of the Roman Empire, those elements being the basis of the rebirth of Western culture.
When Constantine the Great made Christianity an official state religion in 313, the age martyrdom ended. As the church became flooded with people who joined for reasons other than faith, there came a feeling among certain people that the church alone could no longer offer a guarantee to salvation. As a result, they withdrew into various wastes to mortify the flesh, becoming hermits or anchorites.
Egypt became the center of this movement, producing several famous hermits, including St. Anthony. Under the pressure of a growing number of hermits, and their followers, communal houses, called lavra, were set up. St. Basil established the first recognizable monastery during the last quarter of the fourth century. Monasticism was introduced to Europe by Athanasius and spread by St. Martin of Tours. St. Patrick carried it to Ireland, there forming its own brand of monasticism and Christianity. But it was St. Benedict of Nursia that set the course of Western monasticism.
St. Benedict started his career at fifteen as a hermit. As his fame grew, a number of small monasteries arose; all living under his guidance. Most found his rule too strict, so in 529, with a small band of ardent followers, he founded the most famous of all monasteries, Monte Cassino.
St. Benedict’s contribution was his Rule. It was to be the guiding light for all monks until 1100. It has been recently learned that St. Benedict had borrowed most of his Rule from an earlier source, but it was his emendations to that Rule that made it an enduring practical way of living.
The primary thrust of the Rule was self-negation, the submersion of the individual into the group. The individual monk had nothing, the community owned all. The mechanism for this self-negation was strict obedience. The day, the week, and the year were all laid out in a fixed routine. When not occupied by the divine services on the canonical hours, monks were to be engaged in some activity beneficial to the order, whether it was working in the fields, in the kitchen, or on some manuscript. The abbot was the absolute head of a monastery, to be obeyed instantly. Nor were monks to leave without the abbot’s permission, a privilege rarely given.
The Benedictine Order served many purposes, most oriented to the landed aristocracy which nourished it. On paper, the most important duty was acting as soldiers of God against the agents of the Devil, defending both king and country. To aid the monks in this fight would add to a person’s heavenly rewards.
Along a similar line, and closer to home, was the saving of one’s soul. The punishment for sin was penance. The bigger the sin, the larger the penance. To die unrepentant was to go to Hell. If one was repentant, but the penances were not all filled, was to spend a long time in Purgatory. Unfortunately, in the course of everyday life, enough sins would be routinely committed that if all the penances were strictly carried out, life would come to a stand-still. However, it was possible to pay someone to undergo the penance for you. This became the everyday job of the monk, and was as important as any other craft.
A more secular function of the order was as a place to put surplus members of a family. As primogeniture slowly became the mode of inheritance, provisions for younger sons had to be made. Unmarriageable daughters also had to be provided for. Again the monks supplied the answer by taking them into the order. As a consequence, by 1100 the life of a monk or a nun inside a monastery could be as aristocratic as that inside any castle.
Of all the Benedictine houses founded, the most influential was that of Cluny, founded in 910 by Duke William of Aquitaine. The Clunaic reform brought about two main changes in monasticism. The first was that it brought the penitential aspects described above to the forefront. The second had to do with the control of the house. Since the time of St. Benedict, many monasteries gained independence from the local bishops, only for most of them to fall under the control of the local lord. This is due to the fact that a monastery owed feudal dues to its founder. Also, many abbots were abbots in name only, giving rise to the militant churchmen of legend. The Clunaic house owned their land in fee simple, owning no dues. In addition, there was only one abbot back at Cluny. All other chapter houses were headed by a prior, who reported to the abbot. The most influential and famous of these abbots was Peter the Venerable.
In the last quarter of the eleventh century, a backlash began to form against the aristocratic style of living in the monasteries, particularly evident in the Clunaic houses. Thus a number of new orders were founded on the premise of returning to the original austerity of the Benedictine Rule. The first was Grandmont, founded by Stephen of Auvergne in 1076. A more famous order, the Carthusians, was founded in 1084 by St. Bruno of Cologne. Both of these orders were communities of hermits with vows of silence. The most famous of all these new orders was the Cistercians. They were founded by Robert de Molesme in 1098, but its fame and popularity are due to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, its most famous member.
Believing that the rich gifts lavished on the Benedictine monks were the cause of their ruin, the Cistercians strove for complete independence, establishing their monasteries in remote sections of wildernesses. Their success was due to their organizational ability and corporate discipline. They were often referred to as the medieval capitalist, as many modern management practices were originated by the Cistercian genius. England became a great wool growing center due to the activities of the Cistercians in the region around York.
During the same time the Cistercians were forming, a completely new order came into existence. Called the Augustine Canons, they broke with all previous movements. Canons were clergy, usually priests, who were connected to a cathedral under a local bishop. As such, they were usually numbered under the secular clergy. Adopting a monastic form of life, the Augustine Canons thus straddle both worlds. In addition they formed a new Rule from a source not previously connected to the monastic movement: St. Augustine of Hippo. Forming only in small groups, they succeeded by giving the same services as the Benedictines to those members of the aristocracy who were too poor, or too unlanded, to support a Benedictine monastery.
A second group of monastic canons was founded in 1120 along the lines of the Cistercians. The Premonstratensians were know as the “White Canons”, while the Augustines were know as the “Black Canons,” much like the Cistercians were known as the “White Monks,” and the Benedictines were known as the “Black Monks.” While the Premonstratensians started out much like the Augustines, in the end they differed little from the Cistercians.
The Cistercians and the Premonstratensians were the last hurrah of the classical form of monasticism. The next surge of reform would be led by a new form of religious order, the friar. But in their heyday, their influence was pervasive. It was upon the work of the monks that Europe built itself out of the ashes of the Roman Empire. It was only they who kept the light of civilization flickering during the days of the Dark Ages.
Coulton, G.G. Medieval Panorama. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1938.
Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.
Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World. New York: New American Library, 1961.
LaMonte, John L. The World of the Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc., 1949.
Sidney Painter. A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
Southern, R.W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1970
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.