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. 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