Monasticism in Medieval Europe

Monasticism was one of the most important institutions of early medieval society. The reason for its appeal was it promised a transformative experience, religious commitment, and communal living. Following Christ did not require a solitary life or a monastic one however it was a response by its believers. The shaping effect it had on medieval notions of piety and devotion between the laity and the church was one of an ability to adapt and change according to situations within the secular community and the Orthodox Church.

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In the east the monastic life began in Egypt with a range of monastic communities that sprouted up across Europe. The life of a monk was a man’s fulfillment of Christ’s poverty and self-denial by removing themselves from temptations of the secular life. The first of such St. Anthony (d. 356) lived his life as a hermit, in constant prayer and fast. He developed a reputation for holiness and gained a following of disciples. Because of St. Anthony’s “notoriety” and supporters, the once solitary hermit established a simple but permanent monastic community where he lived out his life. Backman, 81). Villages in Western Europe relied heavily on the monks after the collapse of Roman urban society. The monasteries of the Roman empire became places of retreat and the secular clergy, entirely separate from the monastery, ran the church. As literally thousands of monasteries formed in the fourth century, it was found necessary to establish a set of rules. One of the earliest was the Rule of St. Pacomius (d. 345) of Egypt. Monastic life under the Rule of St. Pacomius centered on physical labor, and intense scripture reading by rote.

Nowhere in the Rule was there room for education or reading outside of the Bible. Monasticism appeared in the West in the late fourth century. St. Martin of Tours (d. 397) was a main proponent of training missionaries in the monastic life which led to its spread throughout the West. The triumph of Christianity was due to possession of an effective organization of bishops, or overseers of the faith, such as St. Martin’s appointment as Bishop of Tours in 371. Gradually the southern and northern monastic communities made contact and the end result of this was the propagation of Rules.

The most influential figure in medieval monasticism was St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547). Benedict’s beginnings as an aesthetic monk were similar to those of Anthony’s, in which he too gained a following of disciples. Unlike Anthony, Benedict realized that communal living had advantages to the solitary life such as the ability of keeping ones mind from drifting to “temptations of the flesh. ” In 529 Benedict founded a new monastery in Italy called Monte Cassino. Benedict wrote The Rule of St. Benedict which was followed by his monastery.

Other monastic communities quickly adopted the Benedictine Rule and those monasteries were the Benedictine order. Unlike other Rules, Benedict intended for his to have an intellectual mission of his intention to “establish a school in service to the lord” and declares that this “school” is not to be arduous and overly severe. This was the first Rule that allotted the monastic community sufficient food, rest, and warm clothing balanced with prayer and labor. Also stated in the Rule was the statute that anchorites must stay permanently with the monastery. Instilling this rule gave the community stability during difficult times.

However, it was the stress on study that had the largest consequence for Medieval Europe as it served as a scriptorium for copying of sacred texts, a Latin education, and the training of clergy. The Benedictine order was officially established in the sixth century; however, monastic life was in a constant shift of reform and renewal. As the order wanted more and more to withdraw from society it had an opposite effect and it found itself in the midst of running administration, organizing institutional changes while leading efforts in evangelism, teaching, and ecclesiastical reform as well.

An all-out assault on the monasteries in the aftermath of the Carolingian era for not willing to expand only made matters worse (Blackman, 285). A need for reform was brought on by a good deal of corruption within the church, with positions of leadership held by political appointees who had little to no understanding of Christian principles and service to the community which resulted in secular interference in the monastery and a taut relationship with feudal and manor systems. In order to build a monastery completely independent, it needed land and the support of a lord and its answer came from William of Aquitaine.

The Cluny reform was thought to create a more independent monastery better able to abide by the Rule of St. Benedict. William of Aquitaine (d. 918) formed the first Clunic monastery dedicated to St. Peter and Paul. In 910 the Foundation Charter of the Monastery of Cluny outlined rules for the monastery and but also gave a curse. At the end of the document, William warned those who interfered with his gift. It was essential that William had his salvation that it needed to be written. Anyone that interfered will be going to hell and be excommunicated. The new Abbott and monks of Cluny drafted the legal document (Lecture 6).

Although William rendered the monastery to the papacy and gave them legal control it made it impossible for the pope to govern the monastery because of geographic distance. Since Cluny was independent it focused on prayer, mercy to the poor, acts of charity, helping the sick and care of pilgrims. His whole household is looking for salvation. It is about the entire community. It’s not simply prayer that saves his sole, its acts of charity. Pilgrims will bring money and pray for William since he founded the monastery. Reforms were still needed and it began with Cluny in the tenth century.

Although the Benedictine program was not altered, being independent Cluny took on a role of “monastic freedom,” which engaged the abbots in world affairs (Blackman, 285). The abbots lived like royalty and traveled in high powered circles. The monastery of Cluny grew very wealthy. Wealthy and noble families, as a way to increase their social status, dedicated their sons or daughters to the monastic life, whether they wanted to or not. Cluny became known as a “private club” where only the privileged and powerful had access. Two new monastic orders developed in the eleventh century and those were the Carthusians and the Cistercians.

Although they followed the Benedictine way, they were quite diverse in their operation, following more aestheticism of earlier monastic life than the richness and exclusivity of Cluny. The Cistercian order founded in 1098, rose quickly in its number of houses. The Cistercian order accepted admission of the peasant population and additionally, did not sequester itself to remote areas, preferring to keep proximity to rural societies allowed them interaction with the secular world which gave them a huge impact with the laity and town (Blackman, 286).

Monasticism from its small beginnings allowed itself to change and adapt relatively easy with little repercussion. Monasticism was one of the most important institutions of early medieval society promising a transformative and religious commitment with the life of communal living. Although some of these changes were a response or reaction to changes in the secular world and within the church, it was better able to serve the community and the Orthodox Church.


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