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Medieval Monasteries

The early Medieval monasteries introduced the monastic societies in every part of Western Europe. During the 6th century the monastic life spread to an unforeseen extent, and Popes like Gregory I. praised the institution and promoted its interest in every possible way. During this period the Roman monk Augustine built a monastery at Canterbury. His companion Mellitus founded Westminster; the Anglo-Saxon Wilfrid established Peterborough; Benedict Biscop founded Wearmouth and Yarrow. At the end of the 7th century, England was won to the Benedictine rule.

Medieval Monasteries-Monte Cassino
The Great Church of Monte Cassino Abbey in the 11th Century

In Germany, the Anglo-Saxon Boniface founded Ohrdruf, Fritzlar, and Fulda; another Anglo-Saxon, Pirmin, founded monasteries in Alsace and the Rhine country. In the 8th century, the spiritual family of Benedict had spread throughout the Occident.

In the Medieval monasteries, labour, as required by Saint Benedict’s Rule, was regulated somewhat as in an industrial penitentiary, and the monks had to give all the fruits of their labour to the monastery. Sometimes, the Medieval monasteries were used as prisons for deposed kings, criminals, and clergy convicted of crime.

The remarkable growth of monasticism brought great wealth and political power, which were used in large measure to strengthen the Church. Kings and nobles made large grants of lands, especially Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. Besides, many monks brought their possessions as gifts to the monastery, or, in same cases, powerful abbots took lands by force. Monasticism thus gradually became secularized and also feudalized.

The Medieval monasteries did not cease to prosper, and by the 10th century, they acquired a power and prosperity they never had before.

But this prosperity gave rise to abuses. The high positions were taken by members of the laity, the worldly “Spirit of the Century” invading the monastic life. The observance of rules gradually declined. In order to stop the decline, those faithful to the spirit of the church initiated the great church reform movement of the 11th century. The Rule of Saint Benedict was again applied with full vigour. And at the forefront of the movement were again Medieval monasteries like Cluny. Since monasticism was considered the perfection of Christian life, it was natural to choose the clergy from the monks. Gregory the Great was the first monk to be elected Pope.

Saint Benedict Restores a Monk to Life
Lorenzo Monaco-Saint Benedict Restores a Monk to Life

The Medieval monasteries became the theological seminaries to supply priests for the Church. The monasticism had a positive role from the religious, social, political, educational, and industrial points of view. The monks of the Medieval monasteries were the ones who saved the Church “when sinking, emancipated her when becoming enslaved to the world, defended her when assailed." The Medieval monasteries promoted the higher ideals of a holy Christian life and emphasized the necessity of humility and purity. The monk, not the priest was the apostle of the Middle Ages who taught men and nations the simple Christian life of the Gospel.

The Medieval monasteries offered a home to the poor and unfortunate, and the Papacy, too, was supported and strengthened by monasticism. They promoted equality, tended to purify and regenerate society, and administered the charity. They fed the hungry, cared for the sick and dying, and entertained the traveler. Through their organization, the Medieval monasteries kept alive ideas of democracy, while from the ranks of the monks came many of the best statesmen in the various European governments. In addition, the monks took an active part in many forms of local government, and many times they defended the vassal against the noble. The Medieval monasteries preserved the treasuries of civilization and learning during the Dark Ages. The first musicians, painters, sculptors, architects, and educators of Christian Europe were monks. They laid the foundations for the universities. They were the thinkers and philosophers of the day, and they secured the continuity of thought and civilization. Beside developing various arts, illuminating books, building religious edifices, painting, and carving, the monks made manual labour an essential part of the Medieval monasteries life, and they became the model farmers of Europe.

Some may argue that the Medieval monasteries disrupted family ties, and lowered respect for marriage by magnifying the virtue of celibacy. That they weakened the state by convincing thousands of skilled men to desert their civic duty, and promoted social suicide by making the monk the ideal man of the Middle Ages. But overall, the Medieval monasteries fulfilled a genuine need and performed an important service for Christian civilization, and next to the magnificent organization of the Papacy, was a decisive factor in the rise of the Medieval Church.

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