Monasticism In The Middle Ages Essay, Research Paper
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the monasteries served as one of the great civilizing
forces by being the centers of education, preservers of learning, and hubs of economic development.
Western monasticism was shaped by Saint Benedict of Nursia, who in 529, established a
monastery in southern Italy. He created a workable model for running a monastery that was used by most
western monastic orders of the Early Middle Ages. To the three vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity,
which formed the foundation of most of the old monasteries, he added the vow of manual labor. Each
monk did some useful work, such as, plowing the fields, planting and harvesting the grain, tending the
sheep, or milking the cows. Others worked at various trades in the workshops. No task was too lowly for
them. Benedict?s rules laid down a daily routine of monastic life in much greater detail than the preceding
rules appear to have done (Cantor 167-168).
The monks also believed in learning, and for centuries had the only schools in existence. The churchmen
were the only people who could read or write. Most nobles and kings could not even write their names.
The monastery schools were only available to young nobles who wished to master the art of reading in
Latin, and boys who wished to study to become priests (Ault 405).
The monasteries played a part as the preservers of learning. Many monks busied themselves copying
manuscripts and became medieval publishing houses. They kept careful calendars so that they could keep
up with the numerous saints? days, and other feast days of the medieval church. The monks who kept the
calendar often jotted down, in the margins, happenings of interest in the neighborhood or information
learned from a traveler. Most of the books in existence, during the Middle Ages, were produced by monks,
called scribes. These manuscripts were carefully and painstakingly handwritten. When the monks were
writing, no one was allowed to speak, and they used sign language to communicate with each other. The
books were written on vellum, made from calf?s skin, or parchment, made from sheep?s skin. The scribes
used gothic letters, that were written so perfectly, they looked as if they were printed by a press. Many of
the books were elaborately ornamented with gold or colore!
d letters. The borders around each page were decorated with garlands, vines, or flowers. After the books
were written, they were bound in leather or covered with velvet. The monks copied
bibles, hymns, and prayers, the lives of the saints, as well as the writings of the Greeks and Romans and
other ancient peoples. The scribes added a little prayer at the end of each book, because they felt that god
would be pleased with their work. Without their efforts, these stories and histories would have been lost to
the world. The monks became the historians of their day by keeping a record of important events, year by
year. It is from their writings that we derive a great deal of knowledge of the life, customs, and events of
the medieval times (Ault 158).
Medieval Europe made enormous economic gains because of the monks. They proved themselves
to be intelligent landlords and agricultural colonizers of Western Europe. A very large proportion of the
soil of Europe, in the Middle Ages, was wasteland. There were marshes and forests covering much of the
land. The monasteries started cultivating the soil, draining the swamps, and cutting down the forests.
These monastic communities attracted settlements of peasants around them because the monastery offered
security. Vast areas of land were reclaimed for agricultural purposes. The peasants copied the
agricultural methods of the monks. Improved breeding of cattle was developed by the monastic
communities. Many monasteries were surrounded by marshes, but their land became fertile farms. The
monasteries became model farms and served as local schools of agriculture. Farming was a chief economic
activity of the monasteries. They sold the excess that they grew in the marketpla!
ce, and this drew them into trade and commerce.
They sold hogs, charcoal, iron, building stone, and timber. This made them into the centers of civilization.
Many monasteries conducted their market during patron saint?s day, and for several days or weeks after it.
The aim was to buy and sell at a time when the greatest number of people assembled. Many times, the
merchandise sold was not actually present at the market, but the buyer had to travel to another monastery to
get it. No deferred payments or partial payments were allowed. Articles could not be bartered or
exchanged for other articles. The prevalence of a money economy made this rule enforceable (Dahmus
In theory, the monasteries were supposed to use the gains of disposing of their surplus for
religious purposes. These religious orders did vast amounts of charitable work and built beautiful buildings
during this period. The monasteries heaped up vast treasures as a result of their personal activity. In many
monasteries, only a small part of the land was cultivated by the monks. The remainder was allotted out to
laborers, dairymen, foresters, and serfs, who paid their dues and rents in kind. Some of the articles received
were eggs, cheese, mustard, shingles, posts, kegs, and casks. Many women spun and wove linen cloth, and
sewed garments for the monks. Serfs tilled the fields and cultivated the vines. The monasteries had their
trade well organized. They knew all of the paths and shortcuts on the highways. They built warehouses to
hold their merchandise. They also started the practice of using agents to sell their products. Many
monasteries were built on the
banks of navigable rivers, and this added to the development of their capabilities. Almost all of the
monasteries received immunity from tolls along the highways and rivers. As the monasteries entered more
and more into trade, as means of increasing their incomes, they established markets at convenient points
between their monastery and other dependent holdings. The monasteries came into the possession of
widely scattered lands as a result of donations. As their possessions became widely dispersed, it became
difficult to maintain a strong central organization to manage their holdings and to keep them profitable to
the monastery. Many times, the monasteries exchanged possessions of their widely scattered properties for
those that were more centrally located. Often, exchanges were difficult to accomplish because the
donations were given with a stipulation that the monastery had to retain the land in its possession
Many artisans were employed at the monasteries. They manufactured utensils and articles that
were the by-products of agriculture, like harnesses, saddles, shoes, and woolen goods. Many times, these
artisans lived in quarters outside of the monastery walls. Fine arts were also represented by craftsmen
living in the monastery. There were many skilled men practicing their trades, such as wood and stone
carvers, guilders, painters, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and parchment makers. Because the monks enjoyed
many privileges and exemptions, they were
able to produce articles of manufacture at a cost far below those of regular artisans and merchants (Lacroix
We have observed in the history of the development of the monastic economic system that there
are successive stages. At first, the monasteries were agricultural colonies; then they began to market their
produce; then to manufacture commodities. As the economic and social life of Europe grew more
complex, the monasteries looked for new forms of investments. They developed a mortgage and loan
business and became the earliest banking corporation of the middle ages. Although the Church prohibited
the charging of interest, the monasteries argued that they were a corporation, not a person, so no sin was
attached to the taking of interest. The loans made always carried a high collateral so the monastery made a
handsome profit, even in the event of a default. Many times, the person borrowing the money was required
to make “a gift” apart from the collateral he had to put up. When the loan was paid back by the borrower,
he was also expected to make an additional “gift.” The loa!
ns made by the monasteries were usually short term, and the borrower would have trouble repaying it.
Frequently, the monastery would cancel the loan, and the land held as security would go to the monastery.
As the loan business grew, the monasteries were compelled to seek the assistance of trained officials to
handle various transactions. Jews were hired for this purpose, since they were skilled money-changers and
brokers of this period. This was a
natural transition from making profits in markets and trade to actual banking (Hartman 213).
In conclusion, the monasteries offered many important services to the regions in which they were
located. The monks and monasteries offered the leadership, that society needed, that could only come from
the Church. They provided examples of order and discipline, preserved classical works, and taught reading
and writing. The scribes did a great service to civilization, for through their work, many valuable books are
preserved for us today, that otherwise might have been lost to the world. Monasteries were educational and
economic centers in the areas in which they were established. They had a profound influence in the
development of the society of the time. They acted as centers of agriculture and trade. Monasticism, which
had begun as a flight from the civilized world, became, not only an integral part of society, but a great
civilizing force of their time.