Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

Life of the Monastery

I N the last two chapters we have studied the life of the castle, of the village, and of the town. We must now see what the life of the monastery was like.

In the Middle Ages men thought that storms and lightning, famine and sickness, were signs of the wrath of God, or were the work of evil spirits. The world was a terrible place to them, and the wickedness and misery with which it was filled made them long to escape from it. Great numbers, therefore, abandoned the world and became monks, to serve God and save their souls. In this way monasteries arose on every hand, and in every Christian land.

It was not long before men began to feel the need of rules to govern the monasteries. If the monks were left each to do what he thought best, there would be trouble of all sorts. A famous monk named Benedict drew up a series of rules for his monastery, and these served the purpose so well that they were adopted for many others. In course of time the monasteries of all Western Europe were put under "the Benedictine rule," as it was called. The dress of the monks was to be of coarse woolen cloth, with a cowl or hood which could be pulled up to protect the head; and about the waist a cord was worn for a girdle. The gown of the Benedictines was usually black, so they were called "black monks." As the centuries went by, new orders were founded, with new rules; but these usually took the rule of St. Benedict and merely changed it to meet new conditions. In this way arose "white monks," and monks of other names. In addition, orders of "friars" were founded, who were like the monks in many ways, but lived more in the world, preaching, teaching, and caring for the sick. These were called "black friars," "gray friars," or "white friars," according to the color of their dress. Besides the orders for men, too, there were orders for women, who were called "nuns"; and in some places nunneries became almost as common as monasteries.

Let us try now to see what a Benedictine monastery was like. One of the Benedict's rules provided that every monastery should be so arranged that everything the monks needed would be in the monastery itself, and there would be no need to wander about outside; "for this," said Benedict, "is not at all good for their souls." Each monastery, therefore, became a settlement complete in itself. It not only had its halls where the monks ate and slept, and its own church; it also had its own mill, its own bake-oven, and its own workshops where the monks made the things they needed. The better to shut out the world, and to protect the monastery against robbers, the buildings were surrounded by a strong wall. Outside this lay the fields of the monastery, where the monks themselves raised the grain they needed, or which were tilled for them by peasants in the same way that the lands of the lords were tilled. Finally, there was the woodland, where the swine were herded; and the pasture lands, where the cattle and sheep were sent to graze. The amount of land belonging to a monastery was often quite large. Nobles and kings frequently gave gifts of land, and the monks in return prayed for their souls. Often when the land came into the possession of the monks, it was covered with swamps or forests; but by unwearying labor the swamps were drained and the forests felled; and soon smiling fields appeared where before there was only a wilderness.

Above is the picture of a German monastery, at the close of the Middle Ages. There we see the strong wall, surrounded by a ditch, inclosing the buildings, and protecting the monastery from attack. To enter the enclosure we must cross the bridge and present ourselves at the gate. When we have passed this we see to the left stables for cattle and horses, while to the right are gardens of herbs for the cure of the sick. Near by is the monks' graveyard with the graves marked by little crosses. In the center of the enclosure are workshops, where the monks work at different trades. The tall building with the spires crowned with the figures of saints, is the church, where the monks hold services at regular intervals throughout the day and night. Adjoining this, in the form of a square, are the buildings in which the monks sleep and eat. This is the "cloister," and is the principal part of the monastery. In southern lands this inner square or cloister was usually surrounded on all sides by a porch or piazza, the roof of which was supported on long rows of pillars; and here the monks might pace to and fro in quiet talk when the duties of worship and labor did not occupy their time. In addition to these buildings, there are many others which we cannot stop to describe. Some are used to carry on the work of the monastery; some are for the use of the abbot, who is the ruler of the monks; some are hospitals for the sick; and some are guest chambers, where travellers are lodged over night.

In the guest chambers the travellers might sleep undisturbed all the night through; but it was not so with the monks. They must begin their worship long before the sun was up. Soon after midnight the bell of the monastery rings, the monks rise from their hard beds, and gather in the church, to recite prayers, read portions of the Bible, and sing psalms. Not less than twelve of the psalms of the Old Testament must be read each night at this service. At daybreak again the bell rings, and once more the monks gather in the church. This is the first of the seven services which are held during the day. The others come at seven o'clock in the morning, at nine o'clock, at noon, at three in the afternoon, at six o'clock, and at bed-time. At each of these there are prayers, reading from the Scriptures, and chanting of psalms. Latin was the only language used in the church services of the West in the Middle Ages; so the Bible was read, the psalms sung, and the prayers recited in this tongue. The services are so arranged that in the course of every week the entire Psalter or psalm book is gone through; then, at the Sunday night service, they begin again.

Besides these services, there are many other things which the monks must do. "Idleness," wrote St. Benedict, "is the enemy of the soul." So it was arranged that at fixed hours during the day the monks should labor with their hands. Some plowed the fields, harrowed them, and planted and harvested the grain. Others worked at various trades in the workshops of the monasteries. If any brother showed too much pride in his work, and put himself above the others because of his skill, he was made to work at something else. The monks must be humble at all times. "A monk," said Benedict, "must always show humility,—not only in his heart, but with his body also. This is so whether he is at work, or at prayer; whether he is in the monastery, in the garden, in the road, or in the fields. Everywhere,—sitting, walking, or standing,—let him always be with head bowed, his looks fixed upon the ground; and let him remember every hour that he is guilty of his sins."

One of the most useful labors which the monks performed was the copying and writing of books. At certain hours of the day, especially on Sundays, the brothers were required by Benedict's rule to read and to study. In the Middle Ages, of course, there were no printing presses, and all books were "manuscript," that is, they were copied a letter at a time by hand. So in each well-regulated monastery there was a writing-room, or "scriptorium," where some of the monks worked copying manuscripts. The writing was usually done on skins of parchment. These the monks cut to the size of the page, rubbing the surface smooth with pumice stone. Then the margins were marked and the lines ruled with sharp awls. The writing was done with pens made of quills or of reeds, and with ink made of soot mixed with gum and acid. The greatest care was used in forming each letter, and at the beginning of the chapters a large initial was made. Sometimes these initials were really pictures, beautifully "illuminated" in blue, gold, and crimson. All this required skill and much pains. "He who does not know how to write," wrote one monk at the end of a manuscript, "imagines that it is no labor; but though only three fingers hold the pen, the whole body grows weary." And another one wrote: "I pray you, good readers who may use this book, do not forget him who copied it. It was a poor brother named Louis, who while he copied the volume (which was brought from a foreign country) endured the cold, and was obliged to finish in the night what he could not write by day."

The monks, by copying books, did a great service to the world, for it was in this way that many valuable works were preserved during the Dark Ages, when violence and ignorance spread, and the love of learning had almost died out. In other ways, also, the monks helped the cause of learning. At a time when no one else took the trouble, or knew how, to write a history of the things that were going on, the monks in most of the great monasteries wrote "annals" or "chronicles" in which events were each year set down. And at a time when there were no schools except those provided by the Church, the monks taught boys to read and to write, so that there might always be learned men to carry on the work of religion. The education which they gave, and the books which they wrote, were, of course, in Latin, like the services of the Church; for this was the only language of educated men.

The histories which the monks wrote were, no doubt, very poor ones, and the schools were not very good; but they were ever so much better than none at all. Here is what a monk wrote in the "annals" of his monastery, as the history of the year 807; it will show us something about both the histories and the schools:

"807. Grimoald, duke of Beneventum, died; and there was great sickness in the monastery of St. Boniface, so that many of the younger brothers died. The boys of the monastery school beat their teacher and ran away."

That is all we are told. Were the boys just unruly and naughty? Did they rebel at the tasks of school at a time when Charlemagne was waging his mighty wars; and did they long to become knights and warriors instead of priests and monks? Or was it on account of the sickness that they ran away? We cannot tell. That is the way it is with many things in the Middle Ages. Most of what we know about the history of that time we learn from the "chronicles" kept by the monks, and these do not tell us nearly all that we should like to know.

The three most important things which were required of the monks were that they should have no property of their own, that they should not marry, and that they should obey those who were placed over them. "A monk," said Benedict, "should have absolutely nothing, neither a book, nor a tablet, nor a pen." Even the clothes which they wore were the property of the monastery. If any gifts were sent them by their friends or relatives, they must turn them over to the abbot for the use of the monastery as a whole. The rule of obedience required that a monk, when ordered to do a thing, should do it without delay; and if impossible things were commanded, he must at least make the attempt. The rule about marrying was equally strict; and in some monasteries it was counted a sin even to look upon a woman.

Other rules forbade the monks to talk at certain times of the day and in their sleeping halls. For fear they might forget themselves at the table, St. Benedict ordered that one of the brethren should always read aloud at meals from some holy book. All were required to live on the simplest and plainest food. The rules, indeed, were so strict, that it was often difficult to enforce them, especially after the monasteries became rich and powerful. Then, although the monks might not have any property of their own, they enjoyed vast riches belonging to the monastery as a whole, and often lived in luxury and idleness. When this happened there was usually a reaction, and new orders arose with stricter and stricter rules. So we have times of zeal and strict enforcement of the rules, followed by periods of decay; and these, in turn, followed by new periods of strictness. This went on to the close of the Middle Ages, when most of the monasteries were done away with.

When any one wished to become a monk, he had first to go through a trial. He must become a "novice" and live in a monastery, under its rules, for a year; then if he was still of the same mind, he took the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. "From that day forth," says the rule of St. Benedict, "he shall not be allowed to depart from the monastery, nor to shake from his neck the yoke of the Rule; for, after so long delay, he was at liberty either to receive it or to refuse it."

When the monasteries had become corrupt, some men no doubt became monks in order that they might live in idleness and luxury. But let us think rather of the many men who became monks because they believed that this was the best way to serve God. Let us think, in closing, of one of the best of the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and let us look at its life through the eyes of a noble young novice. The monastery was in France, and its abbot, St. Bernard, was famous throughout the Christian world, in the twelfth century, for his piety and zeal. Of this monastery the novice writes.

"I watch the monks at their daily services, and at their nightly vigils from midnight to the dawn; and as I hear them singing so holily and unwearyingly, they seem to me more like angels than men. Some of them have been bishops or rulers, or else have been famous for their rank and knowledge; now all are equal, and no one is higher or lower than any other. I see them in the gardens with the hoe, in the meadows with fork and rake, in the forests with the ax. When I remember what they have been, and consider their present condition and work, their poor and ill-made clothes, my heart tells me that they are not the dull and speechless beings they seem, but that their life is hid with Christ in the heavens.

"Farewell! God willing, on the next Sunday after Ascension Day, I too, shall put on the armor of my profession as a monk!"

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