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Monastic Orders

The foundation of the Monastic Orders

The foundation of the Monastic Orders was the "Holy Rule" of Saint Benedict, the great organiser and unifier of western monasticism. The rule specified that each monastery must be conducted by an abbot elected for life by the monks. The abbot chose the prior and deans, based on their merit. They had to be approved also by the monks. Minor officials were named directly by the abbot.

Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic
Benozzo Gozzoli-Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic (Detail)

Before A.D.600, the rule was supreme in Italy. In 788 the Council of Aachen ordered that the rule must be the only one used in the kingdom of Charlemagne. In the 9th century it superseded Isidore of Seville’s rule in Spain. It embraced likewise the Saint Columba’s rule in western Europe and by the 10th century prevailed everywhere. In the 10th century, the bishops and abbots were usually the sons of lords, while the priests and monks were sons of peasants. Many of them brought into the church the manners of the secular world, passing their time drinking, hunting, gaming, and fighting.

New Monastic Orders

Those who remained faithful to the ecclesiastical spirit decided that is time to reform the church by forming new Monastic Orders. The purpose was to bring the clergy back to the regulations, and to re-establish the discipline in the convents. The great centres of reform were Cluny, the oldest, where the reform took place in the 11th century; Cîteaux, founded in 1094; Clairvaux founded in 1115, Prémontré founded in 1120. It was not a question of replacing the ancient regulations of Saint Benedict, but, on the contrary, of restoring them to vigour by the practice of labour, obedience, and especially poverty. The founder of Clairvaux, Saint Bernard, forbade his monks to wear furs, or to use bed-clothes. He did not want luxury in the churches, he only permitted a cross of painted wood, an iron candelabra, and copper censers. The monks, after the reform, all remained Benedictines. It was decided that the reformed convents should direct all convents founded or reformed by them. Thus Cluny, Cîteaux, and Prémontré became heads of the order; the convents of that order were no longer abbeys, but priories, all obeyed the same abbot, and sent delegates to the general assemblies of the order.

The Monastic Orders increased rapidly in numbers and in power. In the 12h century, Cluny had more than 400 monks and had charge of more than 800 convents, while at the beginning of the 13th century, Cîteaux had over 500 convents scattered throughout Europe. The monks of Cluny and the white friars of Cîteaux (the Cistercians) obliged the rest of the clergy to reform their manners, they energetically supported the Pope and brought all Christians, laity and clergy to submit to his authority. Gregory VII., the great papal reformer and ruler, was a monk of Cluny; Saint Bernard, the great Doctor of the Church was a Cistercian.

The Monastic Orders which in the 11th century had struggled against corruption had, in their turn, become very rich. The abbot of Cluny traveled with an escort of eighty horsemen. The white friars sent to convert the heretics shocked them by their luxury.

Franciscan Allegories-Allegory of Poverty
Giotto di Bondone-Franciscan Allegories-Allegory of Poverty

Mendicant Monastic Orders

A new organization of the Monastic Orders became imperative, and this was the work of an Italian, Saint Francis, and of a Spaniard, Saint Dominic.

Saint Francis (born in 1182), son of a rich merchant of Assisi, voluntarily turned to poverty. He went through the towns, begging and preaching, and his enthusiasm soon made him adored. Attracting a lot of disciples, he decided to organize them, and founded the order of "minor friars," the Franciscans. He desired the salvation of others, and wanted his Franciscans to always be poor hermits, but living among men, in order to exhort them to piety. "Go, two by two," said he to his disciples, "declare to all men peace and penitence for the remission of their sins”. His regulations were very simple. "The friars should have nothing of their own; they should go as pilgrims and strangers in this world, serving God in poverty and humility, they should go trusting to alms, and not be ashamed for the Lord made himself poor for our sakes." The Franciscans are clothed as pilgrims, with a gown of coarse wool, with a hood or capuchin, hence their name Capucines, they wear sandals, and have a girdle of heavy cord, hence their name Cordeliers.

Saint Dominic (born in 1170) was also an ascetic. He drank no wine, wore the hair-cloth with a chain of iron, and died lying in a bed of ashes. But first of all he was a preacher. For ten years he preached in the country of the Albigenses in order to convert the heretics. There he saw how eager the people were to have the word of God, and how scandalized they were at the luxury displayed by the clergy. He founded the order of preaching friars, destined to carry everywhere the word of God for the salvation of the souls of men, and he imposed upon the order the vow of poverty. About 1277 there were 417 convents of Dominicans; in 1260 there were 1808 convents of Franciscans, each convent had at least twelve members.

Both Monastic Orders mingled into the society, people allowed them to preach, confessed, and bury, the faithful went to them more than to the ordinary priest. This was an important evolution, which strengthened even more the authority of the Pope.

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