Monasticism in Medieval Europe

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The institution of monasticism was highly important in early medieval society as it provided individuals with the chance to undergo transformation, dedicate themselves to religion, and live in a community. Although following Christ did not always involve living alone or in a monastery, believers viewed it as a way to express their faith. This institution greatly impacted medieval notions of piety and devotion among both the general population and the church. Moreover, it had the ability to adapt and accommodate the needs of both the secular community and the Orthodox Church.

The monastic life in Egypt marked the beginning of monastic communities that spread throughout Europe. The monks aimed to emulate Christ’s poverty and self-denial by withdrawing from secular temptations. St. Anthony, who lived as a hermit and devoted himself to prayer and fasting, was the first exemplar of this lifestyle. His holiness attracted disciples, resulting in the establishment of a permanent monastic community for him. These monks played a crucial role in Western European villages following the decline of Roman urban society. Monasteries served as retreats while secular clergy, distinct from the monastery, took charge of the church.

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In the fourth century, numerous monasteries emerged, necessitating a set of rules. One early example was the Rule of St. Pacomius from Egypt (died 345). This rule placed emphasis on physical labor and extensive scripture reading through repetition.

The Rule did not allow for education or reading beyond the Bible. Monasticism emerged in the Western world in the late fourth century, with St. Martin of Tours (d. 397) playing a key role in training missionaries and spreading the monastic life throughout the West. The success of Christianity was attributed to its well-organized system of bishops, including St. Martin’s appointment as Bishop of Tours in 371. Over time, monastic communities in the south and north of Europe connected, leading to the development and dissemination 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 and wrote The Rule of St. Benedict which was followed by his monastery.

Other monastic communities quickly embraced the Benedictine Rule and became part of the Benedictine order. Unlike other Rules, Benedict emphasized the intellectual purpose of his Rule by expressing his desire to establish a school devoted to serving the lord. He also emphasized that this education should not be excessively demanding or harsh. Additionally, Benedict’s Rule was unique in its provision of adequate food, rest, and warm clothing for the monastic community, alongside their prayer and labor. Another important aspect of the Rule was the requirement for anchorites to remain permanently with the monastery. By implementing this rule, the community gained stability during challenging times.

The stress on study in Medieval Europe had a significant impact. It served as a scriptorium for copying sacred texts, provided a Latin education, and trained clergy. The Benedictine order was officially established in the sixth century, but monastic life underwent constant reform and renewal. Despite wanting to withdraw from society, the order found itself involved in running administration, organizing institutional changes, and leading efforts in evangelism, teaching, and ecclesiastical reform.

The monasteries faced a harsh attack after the Carolingian era because they refused to expand, leading to further troubles (Blackman, 285). The church was in dire need of reform due to widespread corruption, with political appointees in leadership positions lacking knowledge of Christian values and community service. This resulted in interference from secular authorities and strained relations with feudal and manor systems. To establish a self-sufficient monastery, it required land and the support of a lord. This support was provided by William of Aquitaine.

The Cluny reform aimed to establish a more autonomous monastery that could better adhere to the Rule of St. Benedict. The first Clunic monastery, dedicated to St. Peter and Paul, was founded by William of Aquitaine (d. 918). In 910, the Foundation Charter of the Monastery of Cluny was created, providing guidelines for the monastery while also including a curse. At the conclusion of the document, William issued a warning to those who would interfere with his donation. It was crucial for William’s salvation that this warning be recorded, stating that anyone who meddled would be damned to hell and excommunicated. The new Abbott and monks of Cluny were responsible for composing this legal document (Lecture 6).

Although William granted the monastery to the papacy and gave them legal control, their geographical distance prevented effective governance by the pope. Despite this, Cluny remained independent and focused on prayer, mercy towards the poor, acts of charity, assistance to the sick, and care for pilgrims. The salvation of both William’s household and the entire community hinged on these efforts. Not only prayer but also acts of charity were necessary for his soul’s salvation. Pilgrims would bring donations and offer prayers for William as he was the founder of the monastery. Reforms began with Cluny in the tenth century.

Despite the Benedictine program remaining the same, Cluny, as an independent entity, embraced a concept of “monastic freedom.” This involved active participation of abbots in worldly matters (Blackman, 285). The abbots lived luxuriously and associated with influential individuals. As a result, the Cluny monastery prospered greatly. In order to improve their social status, wealthy and noble families compelled their children to join the monastic life, regardless of personal desires. Cluny became well-known as an exclusive “private club,” accessible only to the privileged and powerful. Additionally, during the eleventh century, two new monastic orders emerged: the Carthusians and the Cistercians.

The Cistercian order, established in 1098, rapidly expanded its number of houses. While they followed the Benedictine way, their approach was different as they emphasized the simplicity and beauty of earlier monastic life instead of the opulence and exclusivity seen in Cluny. Unlike other orders, the Cistercians welcomed peasants and opted to stay near rural communities rather than isolating themselves in distant locations. This closeness enabled them to engage with the secular world, resulting in a notable influence on laypeople and towns (Blackman, 286).

Monasticism, starting from humble beginnings, possessed the ability to undergo shifts and adjustments with minimal consequences. It stood as a significant establishment in the early medieval society, offering a profound dedication to a communal way of life intertwined with spirituality. While certain alterations were prompted by shifts in both secular and ecclesiastical domains, monasticism adeptly fulfilled the needs of the community and the Orthodox Church.

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