Life in a Medieval Monastery

The word "monastery" is derived from the Greek monos, meaning alone. Christian monasticism is generally regarded as a way of life involving persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows and subject to a fixed rule. Medieval monasticism had its roots in two distinct types of ascetic life practiced by Christians in early fourth century Egypt. The first type was the eremetical life of the desert hermits, whose most famous practitioner was St. Anthony. The other type was the cenobitical life of monks who lived together in organized communities, whose founder was said to be St. Pachomius. The monastic traditions of Egypt began to be known in the West beginning in the late fourth century, as literature about the lives of the desert fathers was disseminated, and individual monks traveled to and settled in Europe.

During the fifth and sixth centuries, monasteries were founded in Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Ireland. In Gaul, and later, England, double monasteries were common. These were establishments of monks and nuns who lived in separate quarters under the direction of an abbess. During this early stage of monastic development, there was no generally accepted rule that governed monastic life. In the West there were translations of various Eastern codes, such as the Rules of Pachomius and Basil. Another influential rule was St. Augustine's famous letter on the management of convents of nuns. However, there was nothing that could be called a working code for the management of a monastery. This changed in the eighth century with the widespread adoption of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict of Nursia was born near Spoleto, Italy, around the year 480. As a young man he lived as a hermit near the town of Subiaco, and his reputation for holiness was such that the monks of a nearby monastery asked him to become their abbot. Benedict's first attempt at communal monastic living cannot be considered a success, since his fellow monks resented his strict rules and tried to poison him! He returned to Subiaco, and eventually founded his own monastery at Montecassino.

It was at Montecassino that Benedict composed his Rule for living in monastic communities. He envisioned the monastery as a reclusive and self-sufficient community, directed by an elected abbot. To lessen dependence on the secular word, the Rule decreed that everything essential for life, such as water, mills, gardens, and workshops, be found within the monastery walls. The church was always the most prominent building, and other buildings contained large rooms such as refectories and dormitories that reflected the group nature of monastic living. Benedict's Rule emphasized the value of communal religious life, and outlined how a monk's day was to be filled with prayer, manual labor and spiritual reading.

A monk's day began with the ringing of bells, some time between midnight and two a.m., signaling the first prayers of the day. After a short nap, prayers were again held at sunrise, and then at three-hour intervals throughout the day. Communal prayers averaged about five hours per day, while private prayer and contemplation could take up to four more hours. Meals were served once a day in winter, twice in summer, with meat forbidden except in case of illness. Monks were required to be silent while eating, and developed a sign language to communicate. At least three hours per day were spent in manual labor, with remaining hours not spent in prayer devoted to study, especially of Latin, and sacred reading.

During the medieval period, monasteries were the centers of knowledge and education. They maintained schools and libraries, and were responsible for copying manuscripts. And although monasteries were founded with the idea of withdrawal from monastic life, they became a major force in the secular world of agriculture and government. They generally were founded by wealthy feudal lords, who then appointed their sons and daughters abbots and abbesses. (Monasteries were a convenient place to send second sons, who might become overly ambitious and seek to displace the oldest son in feudal succession. They were also useful refuges for daughters unable to find noble husbands.) Many monasteries became wealthy estates, with large land holdings that employed thousands of workers. Thus, the abbot or abbess of a large monastery could wield great secular power.

By the eleventh century, there began to be widespread dissatisfaction with the wealth and power the monasteries possessed. Several new monastic orders arose, inspired by the lives of the desert fathers and the Apostolic brotherhood, as well as the Benedictine rule itself. They sought a simpler form of religious life, with less dependence on the rents, serfs, and churches that provided income for the large monastic estates. The Carthusian and Cistercian Orders were the most prominent movements to arise from this reform.

The age of great monastic endowments was over by the end of the thirteenth century. In many Benedictine monasteries numbers declined, in part because of the end of the practice of donating children to be brought up as monks. Alternative forms of religious life, such as that of the friars, began to proliferate. Also, many monasteries, especially in Germany, refused to accept postulants that were not of noble birth, drastically limiting the number of potential recruits. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, a more relaxed form of Benedictine life was adopted and was acknowledged as valid by Pope Benedict XII in 1336. The age of Luther and the Reformation caused a precipitous decline in monastic vocations, and it wasn't until the reform movements of the nineteenth century that monastic life began its revival.

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What Life Was Like in the Age of Chivalry. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1997