The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 18. Monasticism


Lawrence, C. H., Medieval Monasticism Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, London, 1989, pp. 19-39.

Rule of St. Benedict

Benedictine Order

1. Origins in the Mediterranean world
Monasticism, to a great extent, provided the central themes for Christian medieval art. Its destruction between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries provided the explosive force necessary to catapult physical bits and pieces (remains of buildings, liturgical equipment, books) into the great museums of Europe and the USA.

Christian monasticism appears in the eastern Mediterranean (Egypt and Palestine) in the late third century. The word "monk" comes from the Greek word monos -- someone who had withdrawn from society to pursue a life of solitude. Monks may have been among the refugees fleeing Diocletian's persecution in the cities, or escaping from the materialism of imperial Christianity after Constantine. Ultimately, the enterprise is based upon the attempt to follow Christ's instructions to his apostles -- to sell their property and follow him. The ultimate goal of the monk was union with God through prayer. There was certainly pressure to develop more severe forms of asceticism -- fasting, deprivation of sleep, self-mortification -- the most extreme form is expressed in the stylite saints. Simultaneous with the tradition of the solitary hermit or anchorite is the tradition of the "coenobium" (from koinos) or communal monastery (Saint Pachomius). Such communities fostered the ideal of work and created the need for a common rule. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the monastic ideal transferred to the West with the lives of St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Martin of Tours who established a colony of hermits at Marmoutier.

There is a real tension between the individual saint who withdraws to develop a life of extreme austerity that lends such an aura of sanctity and those are drawn to the place as followers, witnesses or pilgrims. There is an inbuilt mechanism of destruction in that the more "successful" the form of monastic life, the more support will be offered by secular supporters or patrons seeking a means of personal salvation. Thus, monastic groups that reform themselves around the principles of poverty and renunciation will, almost inevitably, become rich and connected to the temporal world, thus defeating the initial ideals. Although monasticism is rooted in a desire to recreate the "primitive" (apostolic), it is a teleological phenomenon since successive adjustments in the monastic ideal were thought to produce an ever-more perfect regime that would herald the Second coming of Chrst.

The most important founding figure in the history of western monasticism was Saint Benedict (480-550). We know about Benedict from The Life of Saint Benedict written by Pope Gregory the Great about 593-94 as a part of his Dialogues. Benedict was born in central Italy (Nursia) around 480. Educated in the liberal arts in Rome, he withdrew from the corruption of Rome to solitude in a cave near Subiaco. Disciples gathered around him -- he organized them into groups of 12. Finally he migrated to a hilltop on the Via Latina between Rome and Naples -- Monte Cassino. There "he wrote a Rule for monks remarkable for its discretion and the lucidity of its language" (Gregory). We have versions of the Rule (Anglo-Saxon; Saint Gall) from the 8th century. The work is composed of a prologue followed by 73 chapters laying out a coherent and detailed plan for the organization of a monastic community. The prologue and first seven chapters lay out a treatise on the ascetical life; the following 13 chapters have instructions for the divine service -- the regular round of readings, prayer and psalmody. Then comes constitutional matters -- election of the abbot, the role of other monastic officers, regulations for hours of sleep, manual work, reading and meals. The Rule was not invented by Benedict -- he was representative of a school of ascetical teaching current in 6th century Italy derived from Egypt. Benedict's version was succinctly written; gentler and more humane than contemporary counterparts. The community is a family. The form of the monastery was derived from the Roman country villa. Early monastic literature was full of military imagery -- the spiritual life of the monk involved ceaseless warfare with demons who sought to exploit the weaknesses of man's fallen nature. There was an emphasis upon stability of the monk's life within the monastic house. The monk's principal task was to undo the primeval act of man's disobedience to the divine will by modeling himself on Christ. The monastery was a place of battle. The first task was prayer in common (opus dei ) -- the singing of the divine service. The entire psalter was sung each week.

  1. Vigil or nocturns (later called Matins) 2.00am:
  2. Primes 6.00am
  3. Terce 9.00am
  4. Sext Midday
  5. Nones 3.00pm
  6. Vespers
  7. Compline

Plus seven hours of work and three hours of reading (lectio divina ). The most ambitious program of learning devised by Cassiodorus in his monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy. Classical learning was exploited to provide the framework for a better understanding of sacred scriptures.

Monasteries were very vulnerable to violent incursions -- in 577 Monte Cassino was burned by the Lombards. But the monks scattered, taking with them Benedict's ideas.

2. Northern Europe
allic monasticism existed in houses on the Loire and in the Aquitaine. Mediterranean houses existed in Provence and the Rhone valley. The role of women assumed a new importance -- e.g. Saint Radegonde, Thuringian princess captured by the Frankish king who married her. She established a house in Poitiers. Irish monasticism was established from Gaul, Britain or directly from the Eastern Mediterranean. The great age of Irish monasticism occurred in the sixth century. Ascetic colonies most closely resembled prototypes in Egypt. A walled city with monks living in separate huts. The level of asceticism went far beyond Benedictines. "If you remove the battle you remove the crown as well" (Columbanus). Classical learning was fostered in Irish houses.

There was a confrontation of the two traditions, Celtic and Roman, at the Synod of Whitby in 664, with the Roman trasition emerging victorious. But Irish monastic ideals continued to propagate themselves on the Continent with the missionary efforts of Saint Columbanus and his disciples in Gaul and in Germany. Independence from episcopal control meant that Frankish aristocracy favored Celtic houses. In the aftermath of Whitby, monasticism flourished in England. The venerable Bede at Monkwearmouth/Jarrow (672-735). The crescendo of this phase of monastic development was the revival of Benedictine monasticism under Charlemagne. Royal/imperial patronage developed for three reasons:

1. Salvation

2. The placement of members of the family. Most of the abbots of the monastery of Saint-Riquier were members of the imperial family.

3. To pray for the safety of the realm and to provide an educated elite for the bureaucracy.

A. Cluny: In 909, Duke William of Aquitaine established a Benedictine monastery in the remains of a Roman villa in Burgundy. This was one of many such revivals of strict Benedictine rule. Cluny was unusual in the amount of autonomy it enjoyed. The monks were able to choose their own abbot without outside interference. The house reported directly to the papacy. The house was ruled by a succession of extraordinary abbots: Berno, Odo, Mayeul, Odilo and Hugh and Peter the Venerable. Intense revival of the idea of the monastery as a Pentecostal church created and renewed by the Holy Spirit providing the only hope of salvation at a time close to the end of the world. Under Abbot Odilo increasing numbers of other Benedictine houses were attached as dependants to Cluny. Success led to a flood of endowments. Cluny played a critical role in investiture conflict and the struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Emperior Henry IV. In the eleventh century the entire structure of the church was saturated with former Cluniac monks. Many monastic houses in Spain were acquired through the patronage of Alfonso VI of Leon/Castile. Cluniac liturgical practice was built upon the more lavish opus dei already introduced by Benedict of Aniane. But the addition of two more offices (office of the dead and office of all saints); more psalms; more feast days; longer lessons and two masses each day. On some days the psalmody must have been almost continuous. More monks were now priests leading to the need for more private altars. Reconstruction of the church began in 1088, altars were dedicated in 1095.

B. Cistercians: The movement began as a reaction against the corporate wealth and saturated liturgical ritualism of the Cluniacs. In 1098, a group of malcontents led by Robert of Molesme quit the Benedictine abbey of Molesme for the "desert" of Cîteaux where they established a new monastery and a more primitive Benedictine observance. In 1112 a group of new postulants arrived led by Bernard of Fontaine, son of a landed Burgundian family resulting in an infusion of new energy and the establishment of new houses. The basis of life was a return to primitive Benedictine usages: white habits; secluded monasteries; manual labor with the help of lay brethren. Principal novelty of the Cistercian movement was the establishment of a powerful federal system of inter-dependent houses.