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The Role of Monasteries in Medieval Society

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The fall of the Roman Empire was the first steps of Monasteries in the third century. A young man named Saint Anthony led and taught the teachings of Christ in Western Europe. Saint Anthony led a worldly routine to follow Christ’s life as fully as possible. The concepts of Monachism include the removal from society to focus on God. “It is a religion in which one renounces worldly pursuits to devote oneself fully to spiritual work”.

Monachism can be found in numerous religious systems including: Braham, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and many more. “Monasteries in the medieval society encouraged literacy, promoted learning, and preserved classical ancient literature”. It helped shaped society by providing religious institutions, economic centers, educational places, and facilitated play in social roles. Monastic orders will also be further explained. Soon after Christianity became legal around (300 C.E.), was when monasticism became a new spiritual movement. “Early monks lived as hermits; a loner who practiced self-degradation.” Some monks would graze in fields others would restrain themselves to small cages or would even place heavy weights around their necks. All showing their devotion to God. People were stating that their bodies were not belonged to the state but to God. Which in the Roman Empire, was a big deal due to people owing themselves to the Empire. Virginity for both men and women was sought to be the highest spiritual standard. Sustaining sexual relations until marriage was also seen as a high standard and those were praised.

Monks were to study the bible for their daily rounds of prayer and to completely be in a life of worship. People could join and pray, contemplate and solitude to absolve sins. “Some monastic churches were meant only for the residents, but others had accommodations for visiting pilgrims or lay worshippers.” “Communal prayer was eight times a day which was called the divine office or Opus dei (work of God). The Divine office was inspired by the Old Covenant. Practices were depended on the individual monastery. “The division given by St. Benedict in his ruling, with prayer hours of Lauds (Morning Prayer) offered at sunrise, Prime (1st hour of the day), Terce (3rd hour, or Mid-morning), Sext (6th hour or Midday), None (9th hour or Mid-Afternoon), Vespers (Evening Prayer) offered at sunset, and Compline (Night Prayer) before going to bed.” Not every monk was integrating this routine in their schedule, but this can be seen throughout monasteries. Monasteries were a sight for economic exchange. The Rule of St. Benedict is the guidelines for religious communities. The Benedict idea then exploited in patronage and wealth. By the 11th century there was an up rise of the people within towns (around the monastery). Meaning more land being taken over and more money circumcising in the air. Many monasteries were located on important trade routes, that attracted craftsman. There was a growth of markets and trade. Monks were known for their skills at various trades. Some monks owned farms and animals. They would grow their own food for either community consumption or trade. A lot of times monasteries were built in the deep wilderness, so they would have room for expansion. It was also seen that people would donate chunks of land to their favorite monastery; which in the end would only benefit them. As more people settled in the monasteries there seemed to be more “sin”. There was a competition for scarce resources, which people started getting greedy. “A group of Christians known as “Cistercians” formed; in search of monasteries not trembling because of wealth.” These new monasteries were built in areas that were secluded. They showed no sign of wealth. “The Cistercians had committed themselves to being self-sufficient and thus ran agricultural businesses and workshops in which raw materials were processed and craftsmen made their products.” They hired “lay brothers” who oversaw the monasteries commercial business.

“Ancient education spread to the developing centers of monastic education throughout Western Europe.” A book called, Education and culture in the Barbarian West by Pierre Riche’s, brought to light the role of women as educators. Which was a huge step to women in this time, since previously they were forbidden to do such an act. Also, Riche’s notes the use of song in the education in monasteries. Children were exposed to liturgical training. “That training included children becoming aware of the hierarchy, and discipline and ritual patterns of the monastery.” Verbal and physical imitation was seen across the medieval society. Monastic teachers highly used physical discipline, which helped the instruction of material. “In the Roman East, a new way of thinking called the Basil of Caesarea helped the education of Monks.” It encouraged useful work and silent meditation and discouraged pro-longed fasts.

Monasteries were also known for their massive libraries. “Libraries housed the breviary, texts for the Divine Office, to missals, gospels, antiphonaries, and graduals for the choir, was standard in monastic libraries, as were the books of the Bible and theological works by Saint Augustine, Gregory the Great, and other patristic writers.” A man by the name of Cassiodorus believed the study of classical literature was essential to better understand the bible. He also encouraged the copy of books to make sure Monks had access to any readings. A lot of Greek and Latin texts are around now because they were copied in monasteries. “Cassiodorus steer monasteries in housing a collection, preservation, and transmission of knowledge.”

Monasteries also created the codex, which helps readers flip through pages and easily find books in a library. It allowed for a title to be placed on the spine of the book. Monks were very useful to society, as they played a big role in education and how you could obtain information. They made life easier for everyone around them. This was also why Monks and nuns were some of the smartest group of people at this time. Many important scientists, writers, and philosophers were monks such as; Rodger Bacon and Hildegard, Thomas Aquinas, and Christine de Pizan. Anyone could get education at a monastery and many monks went off to further continue their education at universities. Monasteries helped social life/roles within the society. Hospitality began by allowing lodges and hotels for pilgrims. Allowing individuals to be able to freely stay, helped monasteries grow. Restaurants were also popping up around monasteries. It was a safe place for anyone that felt the need to escape. Meaning people running away from the government or individuals being punished; escaped and fled to monasteries. Monks and nuns helped the poor with any needs and provided a stable care for them. If a family did not want to take a care of a child or financially could not, they would leave kids/ babies at monasteries to be raised my nuns or monks.

Monasteries also held elders because it was the closest thing to a retirement home. They housed hospitals, so sick and ill people could stay to heal. Individuals living at monasteries did not have to go far to get everything they needed. Meaning they had more time to study and pray. Patronage was so great that it shaped the development of the arts and music. “Authors whose works were valuable to Christians, such as Cicero and Virgil, are still notable authors. Major classics of Latin and poetry were still around now.” “Every monastic community vowed to celibacy and was customary by a set of regulations. By 400, several rules were in place, which stated the spirit and discipline of monastic life in a different way.”

During the middle ages thousands of monasteries were formed. The first being Early Christian monasticism – men began to seek out unsocial existences devoted to prayer and meditation. Saint Anthony of Egypt is considered the father of monasticism. Shortly after these people began to move into small communities for prayer and instruction. Benedictines were members of an order founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century. They were the most common type of community. Known for their commitment to writing. Referenced as the black Monks because of their clothing. Cluniacs is a reformed order within the Benedictines. Followed stricter practices and spending more time in prayer. Cistercians valued manual labor, self-suffiency. Called the white monks for dressing in white cloaks. Carthusians (1084) were members that lived in their own cells and spent hours a day in prayer and meditation. As centuries went one there were many more different forms of monastic communities. All having the common goal of living a simpler life.

There are four different kind of Monks. First being Cenobites, whom belong to the monastery and are under a rule and abbot (a male head of a monastery). Secondly are Anchorites/ hermits, these group of individuals have undergone a test of living in a monastery for a certain period of time. They can single handed fight off the devil, additionally are gifted to combat the desert. Third there are the Sarabites, who have no experience of guidance and were not tested. Sarabites shave a part of their head to give pay and faithfulness to the lord above. Law is freely open, and they do as they please. “Everything they believe in is determined holy and everything they dislike is considered forbidden.” Lastly there are the Gyrovagues or Landlopers. These monks jump from monastery to monastery staying as guests a few days at a time.

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