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June 13, 2020

37 – The Medieval Transformation Part 2: The Birth and Spread of Monasteries

37 – The Medieval Transformation Part 2: The Birth and Spread of Monasteries

In an age of violence, the penitent flee from society and draw closer to God and each other.


During the first four centuries of Christianity’s history, believers were frequently tortured and killed. If they remained true to their beliefs they became martyrs. Martyrdom was the greatest spiritual act, and most early saints were martyrs, including Saint Peter and many of Christ’s Apostles. In the next few centuries the Romans and the Germanic invaders adopted Christianity, effectively ending martyrdom across the former Roman Empire. Those Christians who were persecuted for their beliefs were more often the Arians, Pelagians and other heretical sects. It is a supreme irony: Christianity’s ideal was the crucifixion of Jesus and the martyrdom of his faithful. From Nero to Caligula and beyond, Christian martyrs amazed their fellow Romans as they sang praises even while being tortured and killed, and led to the conversion of the empire. But by the early medieval period, Christianity was the state and majority religion and its holiest act, couldn’t be performed.

While most Christians celebrated not being fed to lions, zealots were disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to have their faith put to the ultimate test. These zealots inferred that they could live a martyr’s life through continual self-denial. Rather than being quickly killed, these men and women would sequester themselves from the world, reject earthly pleasure and material wealth, and engage in continual acts of piety, including prayer, praise and service. At the time there wasn’t a religious institution that addressed these religious compulsions, and so the very first people to remove themselves from society became the desert hermits of Egypt and the Levant in the third century. The most famous hermits attracted followers and developed their own communities, creating the first monasteries.

So, what is a monastery? It’s a question you probably think you know the answer to, but it’s also more complex than you think. From their beginning, Christian monasteries have had to balance two paradoxes: first, there is the paradox of solitude and community. Early faithful went to monasteries to escape from the sins in their hometowns and from the corruption in the established church. While monasteries are sequestered from the population at large, they are not isolated. Monks provided education for noble families’ children, they maintained shrines for pilgrims and their localities, they engaged with priests from the Catholic bishopric. Moreover, within the monastery time was usually divided between individual prayer and communal activity. From their earliest foundations to present, monasteries have struggled with how much they should separate from the corruption and sin of the greater world and how much interaction to have with it.

Connected to the first paradox is the second paradox: what should monasteries’ relation to the church be? In modern times, we tend to think of monasteries as one part of a religious hierarchy because they are currently very interconnected. One of the purposes and appeals of monasteries’ is to escape from corruption, which includes that of the church. Churches were invariably political and communal institutions as priests had to serve their communities. Many monks believed that in their attempt to serve the communities priests engaged in corruption and sinful practices. Yet, because monks were untainted by worldly corruption this meant they were, theoretically, the ideal spiritual leaders. As we shall see, some monasteries became training grounds for bishops. As monasteries engaged with the church they risked being sucked in to the same political and financial quandaries that they faced.

These two paradoxes defined monastical development as institutions, as cultural phenomena, and they defined much of the lives of the individual monks themselves. The earliest monasteries had very few rules. The monastery’s leader the abbot or abbess, led common prayer but otherwise the monks were left on their own. The most common rituals monks engaged in was fasting, sleep deprivation and mortification of the flesh as monks divorced themselves from the material world and pursued enlightenment. They acquired food through simple farming, wealthy sponsors, or through begging.

As monasteries grew to include hundreds they developed rules and organization. In the 4th century St. Basil of Caesarea created a series of rules which emphasized studying Scripture and prayer, which he believed were just as important if not more important than fasting and mortification. Importantly, he established a church hierarchy with abbots and abbesses as masters of abbeys and individual monks who had to submit to their rule. Athanasius of Alexandria spread St. Basil’s monastical ideas when he visited Trier and Rome. In the mid-4th century Hilary of Poitiers was briefly forced into exile by Arians, and spent time in Asia Minor where he learned about this eastern form of monasticism. When Hilary returned to Poitiers he sponsored a group of ascetics, one of which was Saint Martin of Tours, the first major monastic figure in Gallic history.

Even as a bishop, Martin lived a hermit’s lifestyle and in 361 he organized hermits into a monastery at Ligugé Abbey, one of the oldest monasteries in France and mainland Europe. Many of its monks spread Christianity to incoming Germans and it was instrumental in their conversion. Ligugé became the dominant model for northern Gaul, particularly after the Merovingians adopted Martin as their patron saint and sponsored his followers. We don’t know all the rules that Marin decreed for Ligugé, but from the account we have of the monastery at Marmoutier, which he founded later in life, his regimen was probably very harsh. At Marmoutier, many monks lived in caves. All property was held in common, the monks didn’t buy or sell, drink wine and all wore harsh clothes made of camel’s hair and other fabrics, so that they were never comfortable.

Meanwhile, the dominant monastical model for southern Gaul were the monasteries of Lérins, Marseilles. These followed eastern traditions until Saint Caesarius of Arles founded his own monastery at, you guessed it, Arles. Caesarius created a rule for men that demanded they renounce all property. His Regula virginum, the rules for women, made in 512, is the oldest rules for nuns in Christianity. This rule aimed to protect virgins’ spiritual purity by denying them any luxury and confining them from the greater world until death. While Saint Martin’s monasteries served the north and converted the Germans, southern Gallic monasteries were intimately connected with Ireland and spread Christianity there. Furthermore, since Ireland was poor and didn’t have any early monasteries of its own, devout Irish travelled to Gaul, including Saint Palladius, the first bishop of Ireland, and Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who studied at Lérins.

From their beginning many bishops viewed monks as a threat to their monopoly on spiritual power especially since monks took vows of poverty and could better relate to their communities, unlike the elite bishops who lived much like the nobility. Moreover, monks had been involved in violent eastern schisms. Likewise, monks didn’t like the established church which they viewed as being more about power and corruption. But the head of the Catholic Church is a bishop, THE Bishop of Rome, and so the bishops did win out and in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon decreed that monasteries were subject to bishophrics. Despite these tensions, these two spiritual branches developed in tandem, especially in Gaul, as priests and even bishops trained at monasteries.

Monastical practices fundamentally changed in the 6th century with the coming of Saint Benedict. If that name sounds familiar…he’s a very important figure, and the patron saint of Europe, though we won’t spend too much time on him because he was based in Italy where he established numerous monasteries and in 516 promulgated The Rule of Saint Benedict. This balanced a monastery’s individual and communal life by allowing time for prayer and isolation while delegating time for work and communal prayer. Benedict’s system was based on the Italian villa. Monasteries were expected to comprise a large amount of land for housing and work. Benedictine life was prayer, work and study, led by an abbot with near-total power, much like a Roman pater familias, who commanded subordinates to help coordinate the monks.

Daily life in a monastery was composed around a schedule of communal worship and prayer. For the strictest monasteries, day began around 2 a.m. with the first prayers, the Matins, French for morning. Here now is a minute-long Matin prayer taken from the Orval Monastery in Belgium. [chanting]. A special thanks to Omar Ruiz-Diaz who gave me permission to use his recording, having gotten permission from the monks at Orval.

At 5 a.m. was the Laud or Dawn Prayer. Then came a series of prayers, until the Midday prayer, held at noon. More prayers were held at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., before the Night Prayer. In between prayer sessions, monks split their time between work and studying theology. Craftsmen applied their crafts while the unskilled worked in fields in order to acquire money from the church. Also, lowly work kept people humble. When monks read it was usually the work of the early church fathers. Time was heralded by large bells, which directed monks to new activities.

The timetables varied with seasons. In his book Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, C.H. Lawrence recounts:


“The summer timetable, which began at Easter, allocated upwards of seven hours to work and three hours to reading; in winter the period of work was shortened and the time for reading increased. In the longer summer days the Rule provided for two meals, the first shortly after midday and the second in the early evening; whereas the winter timetable allowed only a single meal, which was served at about 2.30 in the afternoon, or later still in Lent. No talking was permitted during meals; the brethren ate in silence while a member of the community read to them. Silence, in fact, was enjoined at all times, but especially during the night hours.”

Saint Benedict was convinced idleness led to sin so monks were supposed to be occupied at all times.

Children were given over to monasteries by their parents, who said their vows for them. These child oblates were educated, and this was often the only time that the Classics were used in the monasteries as they were viewed as pagan and immoral. Child oblates were bound by these agreements and often could not break them even in adulthood, although over a few centuries this rule laxed. Child oblation ended in the late 12th century.

The Gallic and early Frankish monasteries were usually composed of the literate, meaning elite. Many Frankish nobles put their excess children in monasteries so as not to divide up the land. Monasteries also provided refuge for endangered nobility, was with Queen Radegund who founded Sainte-Croix at Poitiers, which served as an important halfway point between north and south Francia.

The next major shift in monastic development came from a fiery Irish preacher that we know as Saint Columbanus, who brought a never-before-seen level of religious fervency to Francia. I mentioned in this and the previous episode that the Gauls maintained close ties with their cousins across the Celtic world, and were largely responsible for converting Ireland to Catholicism. The Irish emulated Gaul, later Francia, when they could but their monasteries were naturally very different from their southern counterparts. The monasteries of Francia operated like an Italian villa, were located just outside large cities, often had wealthy sponsors and were composed of the nobility. Ireland had few if any sizeable cities and it was much poorer. Lawrence recounts


“The Irish monastery was like a walled city. The whole settlement was enclosed by a rampart of earth and stones, within which monks lived singly or in small groups in detached huts, made either of wattle or of stones morticed in a characteristic beehive fashion. The crudity of the building technique imposed limitations of scale, and larger monasteries like Bangor and Clonmacnoise, which were unable to house the whole community in a single building for liturgical purposes, contained several relatively small churches; kitchen, guest-house, and other offices were also housed in separate structures. Each settlement was an autonomous unit, presided over patriarchally by a presbyter-abbot – a monk in priest’s orders.”


Irish monasteries had to be educational centers within their small villages. These monks administered to the population and were religious community centers, unlike Frankish monasteries which were secluded from the general population. Most Gallic monasteries expected people to already speak Latin and know Christianity. Conversely, the Irish monasteries taught to people who didn’t know Latin or Christianity. The monasteries in Francia served a Gallo-Roman and Frankish elite, but the Irish monasteries were perfect for the poor northern Franks who were largely un-Christianized.

Columbanus landed in Gaul in 591 with 12 companions and met with Childebert of Burgundy who sponsored a monastery in the Vosges mountains. Columbanus’ proselytizing mission took off when he founded Luxeuil. The monks of Luxeuil were renowned for their asceticism and their focus on strict Biblical teaching, rather than the use of relics and saint worship. The zealotry of these monks derived from Saint Columbanus’ Rule, which was incredibly harsh as he believed that life was a struggle against the flesh.

Saint Columbanus wrote:

“The chief part of the monk’s rule is mortification . . . Let the monk live in a community under the discipline of one father and in the company of many . . . Let him not do as he wishes, let him eat what he is bidden, keep as much as he has received, complete the tale of his work, be subject to him whom he does not like. Let him come weary and as if sleep-walking to his bed, and let him be forced to rise while his sleep is not yet finished. Let him keep silence when he has suffered wrong. Let him fear the superior as a lord, love him as a father, believe that whatever he commands is salutary for himself.”

Lawrence adds,

“This austere programme is underpinned by a penitential of merciless severity. A brother who drops food or spills drink while serving is to do penance in church, lying prostrate and motionless during the singing of twelve psalms; breaking the rule of silence at meals is to be punished with six lashes; forgetting prayer before or after work, twelve lashes; smiling during the divine office, six lashes; using the words ‘mine’ or ‘thine’, six lashes; contradicting the words of another, fifty lashes.”

Columbanus and his Irish followers were enormously successful in converting the Franks and Luxeuil became a training ground for future bishops. Another reason for these Irish monasteries’ success was that they tended to pass on the role of abbot or abbess within a family, unlike the Italian and Gallic models, so Frankish nobility could acquire power by having their excess children lead these monasteries.

Columbanus was a master of men, but he didn’t spare much thought for women, which was a problem as Francia was famous for its double monasteries. Columbanus didn’t make guidelines for women, so nuns just took the male orders and slightly changed them which inadvertently gave abbesses a lot of power, most famously in the case of St. Gertrude of Nivelles.

Columbanus’ severe asceticism and uncompromising principles made him popular with common people, but it led to trouble with the Frankish royalty who were famous for their polygamy and infidelity. Columbanus openly criticized King Theuderic II of Burgundy for his numerous affairs and illegitimate children, and advised him to get a proper wife. This angered Theuderic II’s grandmother Brunhilda, who feared that a new queen would threaten her power and she had Columbanus exiled from Burgundy. He wandered around the Frankish kingdoms that would have him, founding monasteries, until he passed into Italy in 611, and died in 615.

Columbanus’ Rule died shortly after him. While the Irish missionaries might have been content with such harsh rules, the Frankish nobility objected to the constant lashings, lack of food and forced subservience. Gradually, Columbanus’ Rule was replaced with Benedict’s Rule, which was relatively more lax.

Monasteries served an important role in Francia. They converted many northern Franks, they educated Frankish nobility, and they offered an outlet for the most spiritually-devoted people.




Early Matins in Orval Monastery, Belgium, 2011, recording by Omar Ruiz-Diaz, with permissions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMhtavbS-Cw&

“Holy Land Pilgrims from Frankish Gaul” by Yitzhak Hen, 1998. Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 1998  Vol. 76, No. 2,  pp. 291-306

Medieval Monasticism : Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages by C.H. Lawrence 2015.

The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 – 751, by Ian Wood, 1994

New Advent, (The Catholic Encyclopedia)