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Churches and Monasteries

Medieval Monasteries

St Benedict and the First Monasteries

Monastery, Province, France 

Just after the collapse of the Roman Empire in about 500 AD a young man from a well -off family in central Italy, Benedict, left his home to travel to Rome . Here he was meant to finish his education and prepare to work as a government administrator. Christianity had become the most important religion of the old Roman empire, and even now that the Empire was gone and the barbarians had settled in Roman lands, Christianity was spreading and the Pope in Rome was becoming the most important man in Europe.

Benedict was very deeply religious and he did not approve of the free and easy life of the people of Rome. He abandoned his studies and left the city , going off up into the hills to the mountain of Subiaco where he started to live alone as a hermit. Benedict wore the skins of animals and ate only dry bread and water. By abandoning the everyday world with all its temptations, greed and corruption, and by constantly devoting himself to prayer and reflection Benedict felt he was coming closer to God.

Little by little other men came up from Rome to join him in this denial of the ease and luxuries of life, and a community developed. After a while Benedict and his community left Subiaco and went south to the mountain of Monte Cassino and there he founded his first and most famous monastery. For his community to live together harmoniously , Benedict wrote a set of rules that ca me to be called simply , the Rule. This Rule came to be adopted by communities of monks all over Europe and is still in use today.

The Cistercian Monastery at Noirlac (photo by Nigel Hughes)

Benedict's Rule

A Benedictine monastery is based on the three vows that every monk (or nun in a woman's convent) has to make to join the monastery. These are:

  • Obedience
  • Poverty
  • Chastity

Obedience meant observing to the letter the Rule of Benedict and the orders of the abbot, or elected leader of the monastery. By being obedient and standing with his eyes fixed to the ground, the monk would always be humble and not have a high , proud opinion of himself. There were strict rules about silence and only at certain times and places were the monks allowed to speak to each other.

Poverty meant abandoning all personal possessions and handing them over to the monastery. Even the coarse woolen habit that the monks wore belonged to the monastery .Since some of the men and women who joined monasteries were rich, it meant that the monasteries often acquired great wealth and came to own huge tracts of land.

Chastity meant abandoning all relations with the opposite sex. The monk left his family and friends and would never see them again.

Only someone who was deeply devoted would be able to obey all these rules so Benedict decided that a year of probation for novices was necessary. Only after these first twelve months would the vows be taken. Then the monk would be expected never to leave the monastery.

The Daily Routine in a Monastery

Every part of the day was timetabled, starting with the first Church service or Matins, at midnight, and going through another seven services to finish with Vespers in the early evening. Benedict believed that a mixture of prayer, physical work, intellectual work and sleep were necessary in order to lead a balanced and devout life.

About seven hours work had to be done : this might be farming, gardening, cooking , cleaning, looking after the infirmary, reading and copying books or teaching boys and young men. Meals were eaten in silence, listening to a brother reading from a holy book, perhaps the life of a saint. There was a daily meeting in the Chapter House. Here the day's tasks were given out and monks who had broken the rules were punished. Only once a day could the monks meet and talk amongst themselves: this was in the Parlour. This was often the only room that had a fire in winter. Exercise was taken by walking around the Cloister, the quadrangular courtyard in the centre of the monastery.

The cloister (photo by Nigel Hughes)

Monasteries and the Outside World

In the troubled early Middle Ages, monasteries were the only places of peace, order and learning. Young boys were taught to read and write Latin there, books were written and copied, historical records were kept. Travellers, rich and poor, could find shelter for the night at a monastery and poor people could go there to receive alms (charity) or be looked after in the infirmary.

Ribbed vaults (photo by Nigel Hughes)

Different Orders of Monasteries

Model of the monastery (photo by Nigel Hughes)

Little by little life in some monasteries became prosperous and comfortable; so much so that some monks longed to go back to the stern ways of Benedict. The first to do so were the Cluniacs at the abbey of Cluny in 910. Then there were the Carthusians, who lived a harsh life in solitary cells, working, eating and praying alone.

The biggest new order of monks were the Cistercians, originating at Citeaux in 1098. They believed in hard physical work and chose to build their monasteries in remote, wild valleys, isolated from the rest of the world. They became excellent sheep farmers and produced great quantities of wool. Their estates became so large that they had to introduce lay brothers to help them with the physical work. Lay brothers were men who wanted to live the monastic way of life but who lacked the necessary education to be a real monk. They prayed, ate and slept in separate quarters.

The photographs are of the Cistercian monastery at Noirlac, Berry in France.


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Shirley Burchill, Chris Green, Mathew Hill, Nigel Hughes and Antony McDermott 2016