Monasticism in the Middle Ages 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. Benedicts rules laid down a daily routine of monastic life in much greater detail than the preceding rules appear to have done (Cantor 167-168). Schwartz 2 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 calfs skin, or parchment, made from sheeps 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 Schwartz 3 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. Schwartz 4 They sold hogs, charcoal, iron, building stone, and timber. This made them into the centers of civilization.
Many monasteries conducted their market during patron saints 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 322). 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 Schwartz 5 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 (Thompson 663). 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 Schwartz 6 able to produce articles of manufacture at a cost far below those of regular artisans and merchants (Lacroix 301). 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 Schwartz 7 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.