Monasteries in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Benedictine laws created in 529 AD by St. Benedictine governed monasteries in the middle ages. The middle ages also saw the establishment of various monk orders with the main ones being Carthusians, Benedictines and Cistercians. The orders differed based on how they observed their religious rituals and the strictness with which they implemented their laws and regulations. In the wake of the 12th century, there were about 420 monasteries in England but in the centuries that followed, fewer monasteries were built in England and most parts of Europe.
Middle Ages monasticism was established by the traditions of Saint Anthony. In 270AD Anthony a young Christian man, aged 20 years and born in Egypt chose to donate his possessions and to live in a desert. He lived in solitude most of his life where he prayed and undertook manual jobs to earn a living. His way of living was soon perceived as holy and people came to stay close to him and to imitate his ways. Most people of this time saw this way of living as an opportunity to demonstrate their faith and loyalty to God, because martyrdom was no longer a possibility.
In the wake of the 5th century, this form of lifestyle in which people lived together in pious isolation caught up in the Western world and in Europe in particular. Like most forms of organizations, the monastic factions began to split into orders and sects. One reason for these divisions was that the Church itself was divided and issued differing instructions to the monks who were affiliated to them.
The different monk sects travelled across Europe establishing monasteries and spreading the gospel to the non-believers. The monks also sought to make changes in the Church to heal the divisions that were fast threatening the Church. The monks in the middle ages were also very instrumental as a source of education.
St. Benedict of Nursia was able was able to unite the different monk sects and to bring order to the monasteries in the Middle Ages. He established the Benedictine Rule after seeking to reform not just the monastic movement but also the Church. As a young monk in Rome, he witnessed the corruption of the Church and of the city and was inspired to change this. He moved away from the city and went to the desert, subsequently attracting a following. He organized his followers into communities at Subiaco but was later chased by the clergy there.
Before his death he organized his new society at Monte Cassino where he established the Benedictine Rule for his followers to observe. The rules regulated many monastic communities and they placed the abbot in charge of the community. The abbot was a life leader and the monk was not allowed to leave his community nor was he expected to be disobedient.
As the popularity of monks and monasteries grew, monks became very influential figures in the middle ages society. Not only were they educated by they also demonstrated skills in agriculture and manual labor, as this is what they did within the monasteries. However, the labor they undertook was not the forced and undignified type imposed in the previous centuries by the barbarians and Romans.
As time went by the influential families in the medieval era began establishing their own monasteries within their estates. The abbots who were designated to oversee these monasteries were related, directly or in directly to the family that owned the monastery. As such, the abbots administered the monasteries in the interest of the owners. This resulted into the rapid integration of the monasteries into the power structure of the medieval society.
Structure and Hierarchy
Every monastery sought to establish an independent and self-reliant community in which the monks did not require to go out to get anything. Although most monasteries started out small, they rapidly grew in terms of wealth and the number of people who would join the monastic community. The monasteries would grow to cover many acres of land and monumental walls would surround them.
The power structure existent in society in general was also present within the monasteries. An abbot governed the monasteries in the middle ages; the abbot owed some allegiance to a local lord or a higher authority such as the church. The monks, who entered the monasteries first as students, would rise to prominent positions to become callers, tutors, doctors or archivists.
The rapid rise in position would also come with increased wealth. The claustral prior was the second in command to the abbot and bore the responsibility of managing the internal affairs of the monasteries. It was possible for an abbot to come into the monastery as landless nobility who utilized the church for purposes of establishing a social movement.
The main building of the monasteries in the middle ages was grouped within an interior court, also known as a cloister. The cloister comprised of the church, the dining room, a dormitory, kitchen, and a chapter house where business transactions took place. The monasteries also featured a school, a hospital, library, laundry areas and a guestroom for hosting visitors such. Beyond the court, were the gardens, grain fields and a mill that served as a source of subsistence for the monastery.
Life in the monasteries involved regular periods of worship, studying and labor. Days were managed into eight different activities all of which began and ended with worship in the church. The initial church service was at about two in the morning while the last one took place at sunset. During the day they would spent a couple of hours studying the bible, praying, and meditating in private. The rest of the hours were spent in manual labor within the monastery and in the gardens.
Monasteries in the middle ages were used for several activities:
- The monastery was used as a source of refuge for pilgrims. At this time in Europe, there were almost no inns for travelers.
- The monastery engaged in social work that involved feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.
- The medieval monasteries offered education mainly to boys who were looking for a life of priesthood and those who were looking to enter other professions.
- The monasteries were also in charge of copying, by hand, the manuscripts of classical writers in an effort to preserve these manuscripts. They also penned down the Bible in Latin and distributed copies to the community. They record events that took place during this time and these served as a good source of middle ages historical records.