Essay, Research Paper: Medieval Monasticism


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There is little doubt that the monastic ideal exercised a powerful influence on
the communities in which monasteries were found. It has been estimated that
there were around 340 religious houses and about 15,000 men and women in
religious orders in the last quarter of the twelfth century in England and
Wales. Rievaulx and the other surviving Yorkshire abbeys are testimony to the
major building work then under way in that part of the European community.
Abbots such as Ailred became influential 52figures in the church (Coleman,
1993). Italian abbots were automatic members of kings’ councils, simply
because of their station, their influence, and their service. Though not the
first monastery founded to serve Christian beliefs, and not even the first
founded by St. Benedict, Monte Cassino was founded in 529 by Saint Benedict of
Nursia on the site of an Apollonian temple, northwest of Naples, and was to
become the best known. Monte Cassino became the home of the Benedictine Order
and was for many centuries the leading monastery in western Europe. It was
destroyed by Lombardsin 590, by Saracens in 884, and by earthquake in 1349, and
was rebuilt each time. The present buildings are in the style of the 16th and
17th centuries. Judged by the standards of the time, the Benedictine rule
imposed no great amount of austerity or asceticism. It required the provision of
adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the monks. Depending on the season of
the year and the festival celebrated, the monks each day devoted a period of
four to eight hours to celebrating the Divine Office and one period of seven or
eight hours to sleep; the remainder of the day was divided about equally between
work (usually agricultural) and religious reading and study. The abbot was given
full patriarchal authority over the community, but was himself subject to the
rule and was required to consult the members of the community on important
questions. During the lifetime of Benedict, his disciples spread the order
through the countries of central and western Europe; it soon became the only
important order in those lands, remaining so until the founding of the Austin
Friars in the 11th century and of the mendicant orders in the 13th century.
During the 11th and 12th centuries it was a center of learning, particularly in
the field of medicine. The famous medical school at Salerno was established by
Monte Cassino monks. Regardless of order, nearly all monasteries provided
community services lacking in their local areas. They were the centers of
learning in a time when illiteracy was the norm. They provided rest and shelter
for travelers, and counseling and solace for any who asked. It was the nature of
a monastery to be self-supporting. With the attention given to prayer and
introspection, it was necessary to attend to the matters of survival in the most
efficient way possible, leaving as much time as possible for spiritual or
scholarly pursuits. That the order was (and remains) influential is indicated by
the sheer numbers of leaders and those who were “sainthood eligible”
generated through it: Gregory I was the first of 50 Benedictines who have
occupied the papal throne; some others were Leo IV (800?-55); Gregory VII; Pius
VII; and Gregory XVI (1765-1846). St. Augustine, the disciple of Gregory the
Great who took the Benedictine rule to England late in the 6th century, became
the first of a long list of Benedictine archbishops of Canterbury. As early as
1354 the order had provided 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7000 archbishops, 15,000
bishops, 1560 canonized saints, and 5000 holy persons worthy of canonization, a
number since increased to 40,000, and it had included 20 emperors, 10 empresses,
47 kings, 50 queens, and many other royal and noble persons. The order had
37,000 monks in the 14th century; in the 15th century it had 15,107. The
Reformation drastically reduced the numbers of the Benedictines, but today, 1400
years after its founding, the order not only still exists, but is quite active
in diverse areas of the world. Present-day Christians are often cautioned,
“Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” The
admonishers could have taken their cue from these active, caring, involved
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