The emergence of Western forms of monasticism

One of the major features of the Europe of these centuries was the extensive spread of monasticism and the development of forms of that movement peculiar to the West.

An important figure was Cassiodorus. Born late in the fifth century, his long life spanned most of the sixth century. Of noble ancestors from Antioch but a native of Italy, he served as a high official under the Ostrogoths. In his later years, when the armies of Justinian had overthrown the Ostrogothic kingdom, Cassiodorus retired to his estates in the south of Italy and there founded two monasteries. One was for those who wished to follow a solitary, ascetic life. The other he made a house of learning. He had it pleasantly equipped, collected for it a library of theology and classical literature, and encouraged the transcription of existing books and the composition of new ones. He himself wrote and compiled a number of works. In an age in which wars were bringing the neglect of learning, he strove to create a centre for the study and propagation under Christian auspices of all products of the human mind. His example may have helped to inspire scholarly pursuits in other monasteries. Certainly some of his writings were widely used in later centuries.

More influential than Cassiodorus was Ireland. Remote in its western sea, Ireland was spared most of the invasions of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Not until the Northmen came was it to suffer as severely as the rest of Western Europe. Between the time of Patrick and the sixth century we know little of the history of Christianity in the island. When our information again begins to be dependable, we see an Ireland which was the home of a vigorous monasticism. The Church did not have the kind of territorial diocesan organization under the administration of bishops which, influenced by the forms of civil government, prevailed in areas which had been in the Roman Empire. In creed, the Irish Church was in accord with the Catholic faith. In some particulars, especially the date for celebrating Easter and the form of the tonsure, it differed from the customs sponsored by Rome, but in theology it was orthodox. In contrast with that of the continent, the Christianity of Ireland was organized around the monastery. This may have been because of the prominence of the tribe in Ireland and a partial reproduction of it in the Church, where the monasteries may have been a Christian substitute for it. Whatever the reason, in Ireland monasticism was dominant. The important administrative officers were the abbots. Unless, as was sometimes the case, the abbot was also a bishop, the bishop's only distinctive function was that of ordination.

Irish monasteries were centres of learning. The chief subject of study was the Scriptures. Latin was the main language through which this was carried on, and some of the works of Latin Christian scholars were also cherished. Much attention was paid to the copying of manuscripts and their illumination.

An outstanding feature of Irish monasticism, one which we shall have occasion to note more at length later, was the migration of Irish monks to other countries. What moved them we cannot certainly know. Ostensibly they went for the "love of God," "in order to win the heavenly fatherland," "for the love of the name of Christ," and after the example of Abraham who, at the divine call, left his country and his kindred for a strange land. Compounded with this religious urge may also have been a desire to see other peoples, a kind of wanderlust.

The Irish peregrini went far. They voyaged to the Orkneys, the Faroes, the rough coasts of Scotland, and perhaps even to Iceland. They were in the forests of Germany, the rugged hills of Gaul, the foothills of the Alps, the valleys of the Rhine and the Danube, and the cities and remote valleys of Italy. Sometimes they went singly and became hermits. Often they formed groups, frequently of thirteen in imitation of Christ and the apostles. Some of them were missionaries to pagans. Others sought to elevate the morals of the nominally Christian populations near whom they settled. Often they were an irritation to the churchmen of the Continent, for they did not readily fit into the diocesan pattern and their "wandering bishops" and their individualistic hermits did not prove amenable to customary ecclesiastical discipline. Yet they were numerous and were a characteristic feature of Western Europe through most of the period from 500 to 950. Here was an extensive movement of a people, akin to the migrations which were flooding Europe, but transformed by a Christian purpose.

Much more widely influential than Cassiodorus and than even the Irish monks was Benedict of Nursia. A contemporary of Cassiodorus, he also was an Italian. He was born about the year 480 at Nursia, among the Apennines northeast of Rome, and was of good family. As a youth he went to Rome to study, but the scholastic life held no attractions for him. He was distressed and disgusted by the vices and frivolities of the city, and, when about fifteen or twenty years of age, he took up the life of the hermit. Fame began to come and the monks of a neighbouring monastery urged him to become their abbot. He proved too strict for them and returned to his hermit's routine. High and low sought him, eager to share with him what was deemed the complete Christian life, or brought their sons to have him train them in it. There, at Subiaco, up a valley east of Rome, twelve monasteries arose, each with twelve monks and a superior. About 528 or 529, when he was not far from fifty years of age, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, not quite half way between Naples and Rome, and there, on its summit, destroying a pagan temple where worship to Apollo was still maintained, he established a monastery. The monastery grew and, although he remained a layman, bishops and priests as well as the laity came to consult him. He seemed to carry with him an atmosphere of quiet peace. He died some time after 542, preceded shortly by the twin sister who had also adopted the monastic life and lived in a convent not far from his own.

Benedict's great contribution was the rule which he gave to his monastery. In devising it he learned what he could from predecessors, especially Basil of Cssarea but also John Caasian, founder of a famous monastery near Marseilles, and other monks. However, he was not a slavish borrower, for his rule bears indelibly the mark of his own experience as monk and abbot. He was aware of the various kinds of monks, some anchorites, some wanderers, some living by twos and threes but without wise guidance. He believed the best form of the life of a monk to be the cenobitic, that of the community, and it was for this that he devised his rule. In it he displayed that genius for order and administration which we associate with those who created and governed the Roman Empire.

That it was Benedict who had never had the experience of civil administration rather than the seasoned Roman statesman, Cassiodorus, who devised a rule which embodied the qualities which we regard as characteristic of Rome is surprising and seems to belie that comment. Yet Benedict, with his background of Roman culture and probably without at all being aware of the significance of what he was doing, worked out a monastic organization which stood the test of the centuries.

As Benedict envisaged it, the monastery was to be self-contained and self-supporting, with its fields and workshops. Over it was the abbot, chosen by the entire community. He was to have complete authority, but was to remember that his title meant father and that he was ultimately accountable to God. The monastery was to have other officers, especially if it were large — among them a prior (or provost), deans (each over ten monks), a cellarer, a novice-master, and a porter. Monks were to be admitted first for a novitiate of one year. After that time their decision was irrevocable. Upon entry the monk was to surrender all his property, either distributing it to the poor or giving it to the monastery. He was to think of nothing as being his own. The nobles and wealthy who brought their sons to be entered in the monasteries, even though they made large gifts to the foundation, were to expect no special favours. The ideal was a kind of Christian communism, like that of the early Christians in Jerusalem, whom Benedict cited for his precedent, where no one called anything his own, but all shared in the common stock.

The life was orderly but was not unduly severe and was probably more comfortable than was that of the great masses of the population. Clothing and meals were simple but adequate, and special provision was made for the ill, the aged, the very young, and those doing heavy manual labour. There was to be fasting at regular times, but this was not of the kind practised by the extreme ascetics whom we have met. Much weight was given to humility. Provision was made for various degrees of discipline, from private admonition to physical punishment, excommunication, and, as a last resort, expulsion. Idleness was declared "an enemy of the soul." The entire round of the twenty-tour hours was provided for, with eight services, one every three hours, and with periods for sleep, including a rest early in the afternoon, for eating, and for labour. The labour might be in the fields or in the library, according to the aptitude of the monk. There was also time for directed and supervised reading and for meditation and private prayer. Silence was encouraged and was the rule at meals and after compline, the last of the services of the day. Joking and laughter were frowned upon. There was reading aloud at meals from religious books by those assigned to that function. Stress was placed on worship by the entire community and directions were given for the services. These were to include the Psalms, so that the whole of the Psalter was recited each week, reading from the Old and New Testaments with accepted commentaries on them, hymns, prayers, among them the Lord's Prayer, and the frequent use of the Gloria, the kyrie eleison, and the canticle Benedictus, Although hospitality was enjoined and practised, provision was made for keeping the monks from having more contact with the outside world than was absolutely necessary. There was a place for priests, for they were needed to say mass, but they were to obey the rule as fully as the lay monks.

The rule was wisely designed for a group of men of various ages living together in worship and in work for the cultivation of the full Christian life as that was conceived by the monk.

The rule of Benedict became standard in the West, probably because of its intrinsic worth. Pope Gregory the Great did much to give it popularity. It was taken to Britain by missionaries sent by Gregory from Rome and of whom we are to hear more in a moment. In the seventh century it began to gain in Gaul. Charlemagne admired it and furthered its adoption. By the latter part of the eighth century it was generally accepted. No central organization existed for its enforcement and to bring uniformity; each monastery was independent of every other. Modifications might and often were made in the rule by individual houses. Yet it became the model from which many other rules stemmed.

In an age of disorder the Benedictine monasteries were centres of quiet and orderly living, communities where prayer, work, and study were the custom, and that in a society where prayer was ignored or was regarded as magic to be practised for selfish ends, where work was despised as servile, where even princes were illiterate, and where war was chronic. Like other monastic establishments. Benedictine foundations tended to decline from the high ideals set by the rule. Many were heavily endowed and in numbers of them life became easy and at times scandalous. When awakenings occurred, they often took the form of a return to the rule or its modification in the direction of greater austerity. Even when the rule was strictly obeyed, the monasteries were self-centred and were not concerned with the salvation of the society about them, except to draw individuals from it into their fellowship. However, as we are to see, the missionaries of the Western Church were predominantly monks. It was chiefly through them, although often at the initiative and under the protection of lay princes, that the faith was carried beyond its existing frontiers. Later, moreover, monks of the Benedictine rule became prominent in the general life of the Church and of the community as a whole.

Even when the rule of Benedict was not adopted or where the full monastic way was not followed, the dream of Christian community life often made itself felt. It was seen, for example, in what were known as canons regular. A number of clergy attached to a particular church, perhaps a cathedral, would live together according to rule (regula). Not technically monks, these canons regular became a feature of the Catholic Church in the West, The parish churches to which they were attached were known, accordingly, as collegiate churches. The designation canon came from the term vita canonica which was given to this custom. The place in which the canons gathered for their official meetings was known as the capitulam or chapter, a name also used for the collective group of the canons. Augustine of Hippo had some such arrangement in his episcopal household. Further impetus was given to the development by Bishop Chrodegang of Metz not far from the year 760 and the custom spread under the encouragement of Charlemagne.

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