Early Medieval Monasticism
Sometime around the year 270, a twenty year old boy called Anthony (251-356), a Christian who had been raised in Egypt, entered a church and Christian monasticism was born. After giving away all his possessions, Anthony went to live in the desert. Although he returned to the "old world" several times in his life, he continued to live in solitude for the rest of his life. In the desert he prayed and supported his existence by manual labor. He soon became famous for his holiness and men came to live near him, and imitate his solitary existence. Anthony clearly embraced the ascetic life, a form of existence which became increasingly popular after Christianity had been made the favored religion of the Roman Empire. Now that martyrdom was no longer possible, many people saw in Anthony a fundamentally new way of demonstrating their devotion to God.
It is ironic that given the preeminence of the papacy and the Church at Rome, it was the monks and the monastic movement that effectively shaped early medieval civilization. The ascetic ideal of fleeing the materialistic world, giving up all worldly possessions and devoting oneself to worship is common to many religions. What, I think, separates the European monastic movement is that for many centuries, the monks became the heroes of medieval civilization.
Christian monasticism began with the flight of Saint Anthony in the third century in Egypt. There Anthony lived a solitary and ascetic life. But there were practical difficulties that prevented the spread of this solitary or "eremetic" monasticism (from the Greek, the word "monk" means single or alone). The hermit could not easily find food nor could he participate in the common prayer now required of all Christians. To make matters worse, living as a hermit meant psychological problems. To bring a solution to these problems, another hermit of the desert, Pachomius (f. 4th century) grouped his followers into a community and drew up for them the first monastic rule. His monks were to practice chastity, poverty and obedience to a spiritual abbot (or "father").
By the fifth century, this form of "cenobitic" ("living in common") monasticism gained a powerful appeal in the west and spread rapidly. Of course, like any other movement, the monastic movement quickly divided into various sects and forms. One basic reason for this development is that all the great Church Fathers such as Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose, had all given specific instructions to monks and others of an ascetic temperament (on the Church Fathers, see Lecture 16). The monks roamed Europe, founding monasteries and preaching to the pagans. They also made an effort to reform the Church. And most important of all, it was the monks of early medieval Europe who kept learning alive. Their illuminated manuscripts are not only works of art, but clear signs of their dedication to their spiritual lives.
It was ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA (c.480-c.543) who brought uniformity and order into the early medieval monastic movement. The Benedictine Rule, as it became known, is the only surviving work in his own hand and, as a result, there is considerable controversy surrounding its composition. Spending his youth as a student at Rome, Benedict was disgusted by the vice and corruption he encountered in the papal city. He fled into the wilderness and, as so often happened with ascetics like Benedict, he began to attract disciples. Benedict organized these disciples into communities, originally at Subiaco. Driven from Subiaco by a jealous priest, Benedict founded a new community at Monte Cassino (529). Toward the end of his life, Benedict drew up his rule for this community. The Rule served as a constitution to be applied to many communities. Endowed the full authority, it was the abbot who had sovereignty over the community -- he was elected for life and could not be replaced. A monk could neither leave the community nor could he refuse obedience.
As heroes of medieval Europe, the monks exerted a very powerful influence over all facets of society. The were know to possess outstanding agricultural skills and because Benedict specified that their lives include routine stints of manual labor, they restored a dignity to human labor that the Romans and the barbarians had denied. Furthermore, as managers of large estates they were able to set an example of sound farming practice from which everyone could conceivably benefit.
Over time, powerful medieval families began to construct monasteries on their own estates. Whether their motivations were spiritual or not, it is clear that having a monastery on one's estate was a sure sign of grace. The abbots were frequently related to these powerful families and so it happened that the monastic estates were managed in the interests of these powerful families. In this way, monasteries very quickly became integrated into the power relations of medieval society.
From a cultural perspective, the monasteries housed perhaps the most literate of all members of medieval society. After all, it was assumed that all monks could read and write. Monasteries also contained libraries and scriptoria, or writing rooms, in which manuscripts were copied. These manuscripts were often decorated or illuminated. But why did monks spend so much time and energy illuminating manuscripts. Since their lives were dedicated to the Word and preserving the Word for others, what better way to demonstrate the Word than by giving it the lavish attention it deserved?
The monks became the heroes of early medieval Europe for a number of reasons. They had clearly dedicated their lives to the devotion of God. Their lives served as examples for others. They also provided a sense of security in a world that always seemed on the brink of tumult and catastrophe. They founded an organization, the monastery, which allowed them to live communally -- some monks worked the earth, some copied and illuminated manuscripts, while still others read and studied. And, of course, because of their asceticism, the monks became the vehicles of economic and cultural change -- they helped teach medieval Europe to save and invest for the future. Of course, what the monks and their monasteries meant for Europe in, say, 800, meant something vastly different more than 700 years later when the Christian humanist, Erasmus, could write of the monks that "they are so detested that it is considered bad luck if one crosses your path." (see his Praise of Folly)
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copyright © 2001 Steven Kreis