Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the mendic...

Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the mendicant Order of Friars Minor, as painted by El Greco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


We have already noted the origin of the monasticism life in the caves of upper Egypt, during the fourth century. In Europe the movement was at first of slow growth, but the Middle Ages showed a great development of the monastic spirit, both among men and women. The number of monks and nuns increased enormously, with results both good and evil. In the East the early ascetics lived apart, each in his own cave or hut, or upon his pillar, but in western Europe they formed communities, dwelling together. As these settlements grew in size and in number, some form of organization and  government became necessary, and in process of time four great orders arose. The earliest of these orders was the Benedictines, founded by St. Benedict in 529 A.D. at Monte Cassino, in the

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - St Francis of Assi...

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – St Francis of Assisi at Prayer (Oil on canvas, 182 × 129 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apennines, midway between Rome and Naples. This order became greatest of the monastic communities of Europe, and in its earlier stage promoted the Christianization and civilization of the North. Its rules required obedience to the head of the monastery, poverty or the possession of no property by the individual monk or nun, and personal chastity. This order was active in industrial works. They cut down the forests, drained the swamps, tilled the fields, and taught the people many useful arts. Many of the later orders were branches or outgrowths from the Benedictines. The Cistercians arose in 1098, aiming to strengthen the Benedictine discipline which had grown somewhat lax. Their name came from Citeaux, in France, where the order was founded by St. Robert; but in 1112 it was strengthened and reorganized by the saintly Bernard of Clairvaux. This order gave great attention to art, architecture, and especially to literature, copying ancient books and writing many new ones. The Franciscans were founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, one of the holiest, most devoted, and most lovable of men. From Italy they spread rapidly over all Europe and became the most numerous of all the orders. It is said that in the Black Death, the pestilence which swept through Europe in the fourteenth century, more than 124,000 of the Franciscan monks perished while ministering to the dying and the dead. From the color of their habit they became known as the Grey Friars. The Dominicans were a Spanish order, founded by St. Dominic in 1215, and extending into all the countries of Europe.

The Planet Saturn Driving Out a Monk with a Pi...

The Planet Saturn Driving Out a Monk with a Pig’s Head, or Time Banishing Melancholy Stained glass, V&A Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These and the Franciscan Friars of Mendicants differed from the other in being preachers, going everywhere to strengthen the faith of believers and oppose the growing tendencies to “heresy,” of which in later times they were the fiercest persecutors. They were the Franciscans, were also called “Mendicant Friars,” because they depended for their support upon alms which they collected from door to door. Beside these were similar orders for women. All these ascetic orders began with the noblest aims, and were founded by self-sacrificing men and women. Their influence was partly for good, partly for evil. At first, during the earlier period of each monastic order, it was  a benefit to society. Let us recognize some of the good results of monasticism. Through ages of war, almost of anarchy, there were centers of peace and quiet in the monasteries, where many in trouble found refuge. The monasteries gave hospitality to travelers, the sick, and the poor. Both the modern hotel and the modern hospital grew out of the hospice or monastery. Often the monastery or the convent was a refuge and protection to the helpless, especially to women and children. The early monasteries both in Great Britain and  on the continent promoted agriculture by the example of the monks in drainage, control of water-courses, the building of roads, and

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

instruction in cultivating the soil.

In the libraries of the monasteries were preserved many of the ancient works in literature, both classical and Christian. The monks copied books, wrote lives of distinguished men chronicles of their own time, and histories of the past. Many of the most precious religious works, such as the songs of St. Bernard and The Imitation of Christ by a Kempis, have been given to the world by the monasteries. Without their historical writings, the Middle Ages would be a blank indeed. In the education of youth the monks were the principal teachers, almost the only teachers; nearly all the universities and schools of the Middle Ages arose in the abbeys and monasteries. In the diffusion of the gospel the monks were the early missionaries. They met the incoming barbarians and converted them to Christianity. Of these St. Augustine(not the great theologian)who came from Rome to England (597 A.D) and St. Patrick, who began the evangelization of  Ireland about 431 A.D. were examples among many monastic missionaries. But if these results flowed from the monastic system, there were also evil results. Some of these evils were apparent even when the institution was at its best, but they grew more manifest in the later periods, when monasticism degenerated, lost its early fervor, its lofty aims, and its strict discipline. Among these evils were the following: Monasticism set forth the celibate life as the higher life, which is unnatural and unscriptural.  It enforced the monastic life upon untold thousands of the noblest men and women of their age. Homes were established and families reared, not by the best men and women, but by those of lower ideals. It secleded multitudes not only from family life, but also from social, civic, and national life. Alike in peace and in war, gook men who were needed in the state, were idle in the monasteries. It has been asserted that Constantinople and the Eastern Empire could have been defended from the Turks if monks and ecclesiastics had taken up weapons and fought for their country. The growing wealth of the monasteries led to lax discipline, to luxury, to idleness, to open immorality.

Abbey of Monte Cassino, originally built by Sa...

Abbey of Monte Cassino, originally built by Saint Benedict, shown here as rebuilt after World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of the convents became sinks of iniquity. Each new order was an effort for reform, but its members eventually dropped down to the lower levels of contact. Originally the monasteries were supported by the labor of their occupants; but in the later ages their work almost entirely ceased, and the monks and nuns were maintained by the revenues of their constantly increasing property, and by contributions extorted from families, rich and poor. All real estate owned by the monastic houses was exempted from taxation. Thus an increasing and finally insupportable burden was laid upon society outside the convents. Their rapacity led to their extinction. At the opening of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the monasteries everywhere in

Roger Bacon (c1214-1294), statue (19th century...

Roger Bacon (c1214-1294), statue (19th century) in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

      northern Europe had fallen so low in the estimation of the people that they were universally suppressed, and those dwelling within the walls were compelled to labor for their support. It was formally the custom to call this period “the Dark Ages”; yet those centuries gave to the world some of the greatest achievements in the finer things of life, and all these were wrought under the direct influence of the church.

Europe in 1470

Europe in 1470 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Middle Ages arose nearly all the great universities, established mainly by churchmen, and growing out of earlier schools connected with the cathedrals and monasteries. Among these are to be named the University of Paris, which, in the eleventh century, under Abelard, embraced thousands of students; the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and of Balogna- to which students journeyed from all European lands. All the great cathedrals of Europe those marvels of Gothic architecture– upon which the modern world looks, but which it cannot hope to surpass or even to equal-were planned and built during the medieval period. The awakening of literature began in Italy, with Dante’s Comedy, which was began about 1303, and soon followed by the

English: The Division of the Carolingian Empir...

English: The Division of the Carolingian Empire: Verdun 843 and Mersen, 870 (Col) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

writings of Petrarch(1340) and Boccaccio(1360).

In the same land, and about the same time, began the awakening of art with Giotto, in 1298, followed by a series of great painters, sculptors and architects. It is to  remembered that almost without exception the early painters used their art for the service of the church, and their works, though now in picture galleries, were originally in the churches and monasteries.



  1. Pingback: THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH | Beeyon Da Roz

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