Copyright 2009 © Steven Till http://steventill.

com The monastic way of life, a life of religious piety entirely devoted to God, had longed favored the Benedictine form of monasticism in medieval Europe up until the middle of the eleventh century. At some point during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, various forms of monastic orders began to spring up, as the older ways of monastic life were not able to satisfy the ascetic impulses of a growing number of the population. These new orders and religious fervors of the medieval population created a concern for traditional ecclesiastical leaders, as they had to deal with controlling these new orders and the supposed “heresies” associated with some of them; the ecclesiastical leaders also had the challenge of directing the desires of the people into a positive benefit for the church and society as a whole. Beginning in the late tenth century in northern Italy, these new ideas of monasticism really began to take deeper roots in the areas between Rome and the Alps by the middle of the following century. Monastic communities such as the order of Camaldoli and the order of Vallombrosa strongly contrasted with the contemporary observance of Benedictine life. Orders like these and others spread throughout medieval western Europe and were less involved with society in general, content to live the ascetic life free of the temptations of the world. This idea of asceticism became the popular form of monasticism and even influenced — to some extent — older monasteries such as Cluny, under the direction of Peter the Venerable. These changes in western medieval monasticism were also influenced by the declining role of the regular clergy in society. In the past, the monks had controlled higher education, cultivating liberal arts and Bible knowledge, but they could not handle a growing class of intellectual scholars that sought out more than this, desiring an advance in knowledge of speculative thought and the orders of law. This loss in control contributed, in effect, to the monastic communities’ loss of importance in the political arena as well. No longer did monarchs rely as heavily on ecclesiastical money for the funding of their armies, as kings and rulers found new sources of income to grow their military forces.The Benedictines at this time also saw a loss of influence in the religious community as well. More and more people began to turn to the cathedral, the parish church, and the new monastic orders to express their religious devotions and piety. By the 1130s, a new monastic order stood out among all the rest: the Cistercians. Known for wearing white habits instead of black, the Cistercians sought after a strictly ascetic life, claiming the manorial estates of the Benedictines encouraged greed among the religious brothers, and the Cistercians wanted to avoid such temptations and live like the apostles and Christ had lived. In as a little as a century and a half, the Cistercian order manged to establish some 700 communities throughout all of medieval Europe. I could continue on discussing the developments of the monastic orders — Benedictine and Cistercian, as well as others — but as time permits, I would like to turn now and briefly discuss what life was like in monastic community. For the purposes of this discussion, details of the monastic community will be based on the rules of St. Benedict. Life in a monastery was strictly defined by a set of rules. The monks who lived and worked in these communities followed a daily routine set forth by these rules. It was a life of prayer and work devoted to God. The majority of the work monks

performed included working in the fields, building of monastic buildings, copying and translating manuscripts, and on occasion, selling the monastery’s produce at the market. While the rules permitted monks to sell at the market, contact with the outside world was limited. According to St. Benedict: "When brethren return from a journey, at all the canonical hours of the day on which they return, they should lie prostrate on the floor of the oratory, as the Work of God comes to an end, and ask for the prayers of all, for any faults that may have overtaken them on their journey, such as the sight or hearing of an evil thing or idle chatter. No one should venture to tell another anything he may have seen or heard while outside the monastery, for that does much harm." Monasteries were self-sustaining communities. They had all the buildings necessary to live like a small village. While not all monasteries were laid out in exactly the same manner, we can get an idea of its organization by studying the design of St. Gall. Naturally, there was a church associated with each monastery. Just off the church, there was a cloister, where the monks came to read and to think. The scriptorium and the library were located in the northeast corner of the compound. To the south of the church was the chapter house, the dormitory, and the refectory (where the monks ate their meals). The kitchen was located to the west of the refectory, and the cellar and pantry were located just north of the kitchen. All of these buildings — chapter house, dormitory, refectory, kitchen, cellar, and pantry — surrounded the main cloister. The eastern area of the monastery included living quarters for novices/pupils of the monastic school and the hospital, kept separate so as not to risk infection to other members of the community. Moving to the northern area of the compound, we find a house for distinguished guests along with stables, a separate house for the abbot, an external school, and a bakery. To the south and west of the compound were the agricultural buildings and shops, important to the support and self-preservation of these communities. These included: workshops for shoemakers, saddlers, shieldmakers, tanners, swordmakers, goldsmiths, and fullers; and other buildings such as a barn, a brewery, a wine press, and stables for livestock such as horses, pigs, goats, sheep, and cows. As mentioned before, this layout was specific to St. Gall, and not every monastery was organized in the exact same manner, but it does give us a good idea of the self-sustaining aspects of these communities. Sources: Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1994. The Monastry as Living Space: The Plan of St. Gall, from Handbuch der deutschen Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte I, p. 100. “St. Werburg’s Mynster.” Regia Anglorum <>. Copyright 2009 © Steven Till

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