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Medieval Monks

During the Dark Ages, the Medieval monks kept alive the love for learning, and their manual activity had influenced the material progress. They promoted arts, improved agriculture, and promoted commerce. Between the 6th and the 10th century, with the support of the popes, the number of monasteries grew substantially.

Medieval Monks-Saint Augustine
Joseph Kronheim-Saint Augustine Converts Ethelbert to Christianity

These establishments had to be, as much as possible, self sufficient, thus manual labour was an important part of the monks’ life from the very beginning. The abbot was organizing the available labour, the conception of personal reward being rigidly excluded. The skilled labourer was discouraged from taking a pride in his work. All was to be done as part of the service of God, and for the advantage of the community.

Due to their holy behavior and intellectual stature, the Medieval monks were highly praised by the entire society. The monk became the ideal of the Middle Ages. Every father wanted his son to become one. Even Kings like Carloman of the Franks, Rochis of the Lombards, great statesmen like Cassiodorus, and others, voluntarily became monks. Louis the Pious, the Roman Emperor, was prevented from that course only by his nobles.

The Medieval monks, through their missionary efforts, completed the overthrow of paganism among the German tribes, and helped bringing the Christian faith over the entire western Europe. They were the fiercest champions of orthodoxy and the intellectual giants of that age, like St. Jérôme and St. Augustine. The Medieval monks founded the humanitarian institutions through which Christianity expressed its highest ideals. Caesarius tells how his monastery, in the famine of 1197, gave as many as 1500 "doles" of food in a day, and "kept alive till harvest time all the poor who came to us." In the same crisis a Cistercian abbey in Westphalia slaughtered all its herds, and pawned its books and sacred vessels, to feed the poor.

The monastic zeal of the Medieval monks contributed to put in writing the law codes, and they helped building abbeys, churches, and cathedrals. They were great farmers, and a Benedictine monastery was like an agricultural college for the whole region.

Before 1098 most of the Medieval monks in the Western monasteries followed, with variable fidelity, the Benedictine rule. Prayer occupied some four hours of the monk's day; meals were brief, and usually vegetarian; the remainder of the day was given to labour, reading, teaching, hospital work, charity.

Medieval Monks-Saint Jérôme
Theodoric of Prague-Saint Jérôme-National Gallery, Prague

The Medieval monks were subject to severe discipline. The monks could not own property, they were not allowed to walk abroad at will; if sent away, they could not eat without the abbot's permission; they could not receive letters from home; and they were sent to bed early. The vow of stability prevented withdrawal from the order. A violation of any of the regulations entailed punishment: private admonition, exclusion from common prayer, whipping, and expulsion. Manual labour was an essential part of the monastic rules, and the Medieval monks set forth the true character and dignity of honest work.

As the monasteries developed surplus commodities which they could sell, they could buy in exchange what they needed, thus establishing commercial relations with the outside world. Donations from kings and feudal lords greatly increased their wealth, and they became part of the feudal system, now having their own serfs.

As a result, the Medieval monks did not have to work the land themselves. More time could be dedicated to intellectual activity, in accordance with the reform began in the 11th century by abbeys like Cluny, which emphasized the importance of the intellectual work.

Monasticism aided developing the secular side of the papal hierarchy and soon came to detain a large amount of political power itself. The Medieval monks frequently became embroiled in social disputes and military quarrels, and thus incited rather than allayed passions.

In making the monk the ideally cultured man, a false standard was set up and certain fundamentals in education ignored. Still, the fact that the Medieval monks did not encourage secular learning should not make us forget what they did to preserve civilization, and continuity of learning and thinking.

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