The Most Important Developments Within Medieval Monasticism

It does not appear that Christ specifically charged his followers to lead what we might understand to be the monastic lifestyle. Rather, monasticism appears to be the response of some believers, who lived, and continue to live out, the Christian experience through an ascetic, simple lifestyle, often removed from worldly influence. Through monasticism, some have interpreted the Gospel of Christ as a call to denounce, or even punish, the flesh, while others seek to better train the flesh for Christ-like service through the same discipline. During the early stages of Church development, monasticism offered a way to “live out the total commitment1” in a world where the Church was being more closely linked to government, and its trappings of power and prestige. Still others joined this movement to escape the distracting noise and busyness of life so that greater time and energy could be devoted to a contemplative lifestyle.

Initially, the exodus to the deserts and other remote places was made by individuals, who, wishing to retreat from society, lived out private, solitary lives. Taking for themselves the name “monk,” which derives from the Greek word “monachos,” meaning “solitary2,” these women and men, however, did not always live alone. The growing numbers of anchorites migrating to remote places began seeking out learned teachers, hoping to be enlightened by those already familiar with the discipline. Therefore, solitary monasticism eventually “gave way to a communal form of the monastic life3,” as independent societies of monks began to form. This form of communal living gave rise to a new understanding of the discipline, known as “cenobitic4” monasticism. One of the earliest leaders of cenobitic monasticism was Pachomius, born around 286 A.D5. He established a basic rule for the communal living that he led: absolute obedience to superiors. Throughout the first centuries of early Christianity, both solitary and cenobitic monasticism flourished. Both contributed to this young, growing faith by creating opportunities for people to express their faith in Christ.

During Medieval times, cenobitic monasticism was greatly influenced by an Italian monk named Benedict. Born around 480 A.D., Benedict left society at around age twenty to live as a hermit in a cave. Due in part to his “extreme asceticism6,” Benedict’s fame grew, and he gained a group of disciples. Moving his assembly to a remote, mountainous area in Monte Cassino, Italy, southeast of Rome, Benedict established an innovative governing system for his community. Known as the Rule, Benedict created for himself and the cenobitic monks who gathered with him, a set of guidelines that shaped monastic life for centuries.

Benedict’s Rule was similar to the guiding principles of other monastic communities in that it stressed strict discipline for the monk. However, unlike Pachomius’ monastic rule, Benedict did not require extreme ascetic devotion, or undue harshness. While some monks living in the desert ate only the barest essentials to exist, Benedict’s Rule allowed for two cooked meals daily, and fruits and vegetables as available, with a moderate amount of daily wine. As well, monks were allowed a bed to sleep on, with a pillow and a blanket.

But the Rule extended far beyond the guidelines for physical care. It ordered that these anchorites must permanently remain part of the monastery, unless ordered to go to another. This rule enabled the community to remain stable during difficult times. The Rule also dictated that strict obedience to the ruling monk, or abbot, and the Rule itself, mark the life of the devotee. Also, a series of steps was established to receive a disobedient monk back into fellowship. This series began with secret admonishment and, if unheeded, would continue through public reprimand, excommunication from the fellowship, whipping, and finally banishment from the monastery if necessary. Yet, if the erring monk repented, he would be received back into the fellowship for as many as three times. This idea of reconciliation is consistent, I believe, with Jesus’ command found in Matthew 18:15-17, and likely contributed greatly to its success.

The life of the Benedictine monk was marked chiefly by prayerful meditation. The monks gathered eight times each day for prayer. Prayer time included the recitation of the Psalms, and other portions of scripture. As a result of the constant use of scripture, a need arose for additional copies of the sacred text. The Benedictine monks met this challenge, and became skilled at copying the Bible and, as a result, contributed to the preserving of it for future generations. Their monasteries became teaching centers, hospitals, and hostels for the traveler. Not looking down upon physical labor as undesirable, Benedictine monks worked the land, and contributed greatly to the agricultural and economic strength of Europe.

Even though the monastery at Monte Cassino was looted and burned in 589 A.D.7, the Rule was carried off to Rome where many in the city began to follow it. Gregory, who would later become pope, was exposed to Benedict’s Rule when it came to Rome, and caused its spread throughout the Western Church. Augustine, missionary to England, took theRule to the British Isles. Thus, many monasteries separated by distance and bishop affiliation, became united by the “common practices and ideals8” of Benedict’s Rule.

With the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire and its protecting and unifying arm, there arose a new function in the office of the papacy. Used once to denote an important, or respected, bishop, the word “pope” took on a wider meaning as the political climate in Western Europe changed. Leo, Bishop of Rome in 452 A.D., marched out to meet Attila the Hun, who was threatening Rome, and in 455 A.D., negotiated for the preservation of the city with the Vandals, who had plundered it. These maneuvers of Leo created recognition for his authority in Rome. This locally recognized authority, coupled with Leo’s own reasoning regarding the succession of ecclesiastical authority from Peter in Rome, helped pave the way for our modern understanding of papal leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.

The papacy throughout the Middle Ages reflected the waxing and waning of civil authority. Popes rose to the military defense of Rome when civil government was weak, or were sometimes deposed by emperors who disagreed with them, all the while the office continued to gain prominence. Violence marred the papacy, as it became a prize over which to fight or kill. Many who saw the need for reform left the organized Church, and migrated to the remote living places of the monasteries. As a result, the monasteries became pools of energized people seeking a change for the papacy, and for the Church in general. But the monasteries were in dire need of reform, too. Since there was always a strong connection between the bishops and the monasteries in the Western Church, some monasteries became puppets of corrupt bishops, who used them for personal gain. Abbots, who presided over the various monasteries, sometimes secured their positions, not by virtuous living, but by purchasing their seats, or even through homicide9.

A flicker of hope for the reformation of monasticism, the papacy, and the Church as a whole, was felt in the ripple effects of a devout monk named Berno. In 909 A.D., a monastery in Cluny, of east-central France, was established, and its leadership turned over to this earnest monk. Berno, a disciple of the Benedictine Rule, revived its use within the monastery. Abbots following Berno continued to lead with the same discipline and, soon, a sweeping change in monasticism spread as the “Cluniacs” created a monastic awakening. Eventually, the Cluniacs set their sights on the reformation of the Church, and of the papacy. However, the movement began to lose its power as it accumulated unprecedented wealth through gifts and holdings. The simplicity of the Benedictine lifestyle became lost, as the power of abbots increased, causing their attention to be diverted to political plots. Their criticism of the Church’s wealth became null in light of their own prosperity. These internal factors soon overwhelmed the kindled flame that once held promise for true and pervasive reformation, and the light of the Cluniacs’ candle began to dim.

But the pendulum of monasticism would not linger long on the era of financial prosperity that seemed to clog the flow of change sought by the reformation-seeking Cluniacs. A glimpse of what was to come was seen briefly in the life of Peter Waldo, “a merchant from Lyons10,” in the second half of the twelfth century. Waldo, influenced by the story of a monk, sought a monastic life, marked by preaching and poverty. He and his disciples, the “Waldensians,” were persecuted for their beliefs, and eventually fled to the remote hills of the Alps. Waldo’s understanding of the Gospel, in light of the changing economic situation, and the disparity between the rich and the poor, seemed to create a new philosophy toward monastic living, soon to become known as “mendicant” monasticism.

Mendicant monasticism encouraged poverty, and begging for charity, as a means of existence. This understanding clearly marked the life of an Italian mystic, Giovanni Bernardone, known today as St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). The son of a wealthy merchant father, St. Francis “led a worldly, carefree life11” in his youth. However, after a profound religious experience, St. Francis renounced his former ways, and took for himself a life of poverty. He did not remove himself from society, but remained within its bustle, preaching the Gospel, and helping the poor. He saw poverty not only as a means to remain disciplined, but he recognized its effectiveness in identifying with the poor. He gathered disciples, and his movement gained momentum. Pope Innocent III eventually granted St. Francis authorization to begin a new order, and his “order of lesser brothers12” was born.

St. Francis feared that as the movement grew, its constituents might lose their humility. So, he ordered in his will that the followers were not allowed to own anything, or make an appeal to the pope for later leniency in terms of the order.

Another significant mendicant order was founded by St. Dominic (1170 – 1221), who, like St. Francis of Assisi, withdrew to a monastic life, while remaining in connection with the world around him. St. Dominic was concerned by the dualistic heresy of the Albigenses, but felt that there was a better way to convert them than through force, as attempted by Pope Innocent III. Since the Albigenses were devoted to extreme asceticism, and the orthodox priests were, by contrast, living comfortably, St. Dominic decided to combat the heresy through a combination of a disciplined monastic lifestyle, marked by poverty and mendicancy, and rigorous study. As a result, the Dominicans gave the church reputable schools of great learning, producing eminent theologians who would later challenge the Church with a whole new approach to understanding God and faith.

The impact of the Franciscans and Dominicans during the Middle Ages caused mendicant monasticism to be widely received and practiced throughout Europe. It also brought about reform within the walls of monasticism by discouraging the prosperity that tempted its leadership and caused it to appear hypocritical in its teachings.

However, despite the best efforts to keep it pure, and centered in holy ways, medieval monasticism reflected how humanity can mar the best of institutions.

Yet, monasticism, from its conception, and on through Medieval times, showed a wonderful ability to change. These changes were responses, or reactions, to conditions occurring in the secular communities, the orthodox church, or even within its own body. The changes often brought about needed reform, and helped to serve the church as a whole.


1 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (© 1984 HarperSanFrancisco), pg. 238.

2 Ibid., pg. 138.

3 Ibid., pg. 143.

4 Ibid., pg. 144.

5 Ibid., pg. 144.

6 Ibid., pg. 239.

7 Ibid., pg. 241.

8 Ibid., pg. 242.

9 Ibid., pg. 277.

10 Ibid., pg. 302

11 “Francis of Assisi, Saint.” Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001 © 1993-2000 Microsoft

Corporation. All rights reserved.

12 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (© 1984 HarperSanFrancisco), pg. 303.