Monks in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Life in the Middle Ages was easy for few. The times were marked by famine, disease, and near-constant warfare and violence. While nobles and monarchs could shield themselves somewhat from many of the less pleasant realities of life by virtue of their wealth, power, and status, even the most powerful monarch was in constant danger of war being brought to his community, uprisings from the peasants, and disease that could be impossible to avoid.
Religious faith was a critical component in the daily life of everyone. Daily prayer rituals were customary, often several times a day, particularly at mealtimes. Religion and spiritual faith held great sway over most individuals of the time, who sought to live their lives in service of God.
The life of a monk was not a simple one either, but life in the monastery afforded individuals so inclined an opportunity to escape the tedium or drudgery of work on a manor or estate and avoid unnecessary military conflicts. Monkhood was available to members of every class who chose to pursue it. However, it held its own share of controversy and problematic situations.
The Simple and Solemn Vows
Upon entering the monastery, all candidates took a vow of obedience. Their initial period, the postulancy, lasted for one month. After one month, the period of novitiate began, lasting one year. Following successful completion of the novitiate period, monks took their simple vows. After four years of practice and service, the solemn vows were taken, and the full member of the monastery remained a monk, and a member, for the duration of his life.
While many different orders of monks arose during the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monks remained the most common. Final, or solemn, vows for monks could vary from one order to another, but they typically included the three solemn vows of the Benedictines: the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.
The vow of obedience ensured Middle Ages monks would obey any directives given to them, abide by the rules of the monastery, and perform the chores and duty necessary to the continued running of the monastery. The vow of poverty precluded monks from the possibility of owning land or property of any kind. The vow of chastity was strict, and was designed to prevent monks from giving in to what were considered base urges of lust.
Controversies Surrounding the Vow of Chastity
More than either of the other vows, many monks would break their vows of chastity in damaging and troublesome ways. Some would engage in violent or abnormal behaviors, including sadism and masochism, in order to sate their needs. Others were known to withhold absolution from women seeking solace until and unless the women capitulated to their sexual demands. In fact, it is thought that the modern concept of the church confessional arose from the problems within monasteries in the Middle Ages. Monks were able to meet their own physical needs by withholding spiritual guidance and assistance from those who sought it; those who engaged, both monks and civilians alike, could then avail themselves of the confessional service in order to unburden their spiritual loads.
Daily Routine and Prayer
A monastery was a wholly self-sufficient community, meaning monks had no reason to ever leave its boundaries once they had taken their vows. Monks, therefore, fulfilled a number of different roles based upon their own training, interests, and skills. Some monks specialized in medical care, others in education, still others in arts or finance.
Life in the monastery revolved around daily prayer designed to keep the monks’ souls pure and prepared for eternal salvation. The Book of Hours was the primary prayer book, and it contained eight segments, each for a different, specific time of day.
The day began with the Lauds, the 5:00 A.M. prayer service. The next service, at 6:00, was called the Prime. Between 6:00 and 9:00 the day would officially begin, with breakfast and chores being performed as needed. A morning break for the Terce occurred at 9:00, followed by another stretch of work and study until noon, when it was time for the Sext. The Nones took place at 3:00 P.M., followed by the Vespers, typically around 5:00 P.M. The Compline was the last service of the day before retiring for the evening, at 6:00 P.M., although a final prayer service, the Matins, took place at 2:00 in the morning.
All work being performed ceased immediately when prayer times arrived. Middle Ages monks returned to their prior activities following prayer sessions. All daily tasks, work, study, and meals needed to be fitted in around the designated prayer times, creating a regimented and disciplined lifestyle for all monks in the monastery.
Life in the Monastery
Middle Ages monks were expected to have no need of leaving the monastery at any time for any reason. The monastery was designed to meet any needs the monks who resided there could have. Monasteries provided education, spiritual sustenance, food, medical care, barber services, and any material possessions necessary for survival.
Monks spent much of their time engaged in the daily prayer rituals and private meditation, Bible study, and prayer. However, the bulk of their days revolved around the manual work assigned to them in order to keep the monastery running smoothly. This could include harvesting crops, cleaning, creating garments, providing educational and medical services, and cooking and preparing food for the order.
Failure to adhere to any rules was considered a violation of the vow of obedience. The vow of poverty was easily upheld for many, as the monastery provided for all their individual basic needs. Punishments for violations could range from exclusion from group prayers all the way up to permanent excommunication from the order, depending upon the severity of the transgression and the monk’s individual history of problems.
The monastery allowed a way of life that was quieter and in some ways simpler than life outside its walls. It allowed those who felt called to do so to spend their lives in service of God. However, monastery life followed rules and regulations very similar to those in the outside world, in that full cooperation and hard work was expected from all and necessary to the continued success of the order.