History of Christianity/Medieval Christianity/Monasticism
Monasticism developed from the ancient practice of eremeticism, or isolating oneself from the “civilized” world. Hermits would isolate themselves in the “wilderness” to be closer to God and battle with their inner demons. Anthony of Egypt was an influential hermit who lived for 105 years, fighting demons in the wilderness for much of his life. From eremeticism developed monasticism to oversee the spiritual needs of the hermits. A main purpose of eremeticism and monasticism was to maintain an ascetic lifestyle. The deprivations of an ascetic life were intended to encourage a closer connection to God and to allow a greater focus on spiritual duties. Monasticism spread from the east into Italy and southern Gaul in the fifth century.
The Monastery of Lérins was founded in AD410 as a training center for bishops that combined Egyptian severity with an intellectual dimension. By the beginning of the sixth century, monasticism had gained wide support throughout Europe with many monasteries being constructed in the north by newly converted Irish Christians. St. Benedict, founder of the Monastery of Monte Cassino, created a set of rules for monks to follow. Other monastic rules followed, the Rule of St. Columba of Iona among them. Monastic rule generally allowed only a very strict, severe lifestyle with allotments for prayer, work, and scholastic pursuits. The early Irish Christians developed “white martyrdom” specifically for those entering into the ascetic life of the monastery. In Ireland, the monastery developed as the center of Christian society rather than the bishops as on the continent. The monasteries of Ireland became major centers of learned culture as well as spiritual centers. Literacy was especially important for the continued spread of Christianity.
On the continent, the Germanic kings were establishing royal monasteries for unwed family members and political opponents. These monasteries fell under the protection of the royal family, but could fall out of favor quickly if the exchange of fiscal “gifts” to the monastery were not returned by spiritual blessings. These continental monasteries organized the surrounding territory and residents for the kings in return for financial support and land. With the accumulation of land, the monasteries were able to gain a semblance of financial independence rather than relying solely on the generosity of the kings. The kings also granted the monasteries immunities from royal taxes and law. With the acquisition of land and resources, the monasteries became important economically as centers of trade.
As well as economic importance, monasteries became centers of scholarship and culture. Books were produced at many monasteries, spreading ideas around Europe and educating the upper classes that sent children to learn at the monastery. In Ireland, a penitential discipline developed that regularized the penance system throughout Europe. However, by the eighth century, monastic reform had begun in Carolingian France. The Monastery of St. Gall was rebuilt in AD818 as the model of an ideal Carolingian monastery. In AD910, the most important monastery of the Middle Ages was constructed at Cluny. Cluny was chartered as a completely independent monastery with no secular or Church authority above it. Cluny became a major component of monastic reform, establishing a monastical empire as its monks replaced the abbots of corrupt monasteries throughout Europe. In the era of feudal mutation, Cluny remained a source of continuity for the Frankish world and provided a nucleus of stability. The idea of a prayer confraternity was also developed at Cluny, allying it with powerful nobles and kings in the disintegrating Frankish Empire. The power of Cluny as an economic, political, scholastical, and spiritual institution marked the height of monasticism in Europe. The power of the monastery had never been greater before Cluny, and monastical power began to wane during the Middle Ages as powerful warlords and kings rose to power across Europe.
Fr. Chad J. Stumph, D.D. and others