Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

Military Orders, Monks, and Monasteries

Among those who wished most earnestly to make the way of the pilgrims a little easier were some merchants of Amalfi in Italy. A number of years before the first crusade, they came together to discuss how they could be most helpful to the wayfarers. They concluded that those who were strong and well and rich were in no special need of their aid. "It is the sick and the poor whom we will care for," they declared, and they decided to build a hospital in Jerusalem. The caliph of Egypt gave them permission, and they built two hospitals, one for men and one for women. Here the sick were cared for and the poor were given shelter and food.

When these grateful pilgrims left Jerusalem and returned to their homes, they told people about the new hospitals. Those who were able sent gifts; and this work of the merchants was plainly so sensible and helpful an undertaking that contributions from all parts of Europe, especially from Italy, were showered upon it, and valuable gifts of land in different countries were made to it. Many pilgrims, after reaching Jerusalem and seeing what good the hospitals were doing, resolved to remain and help in the good work. Then came the first crusade. The hospitals cared for the wounded soldiers; and some of the crusaders decided that they, too, would remain and care for pilgrims. It became necessary to have a regular organization. This was formed, and the name Hospitallers of the Order of St. John was chosen. Whoever wished to join the order must take the three vows that were required of monks and nuns, poverty, chastity, and obedience, and must also promise to devote his life to the service of the poor and sick in Jerusalem. Then the patriarch of Jerusalem put upon him a plain black robe having a white cross on the left breast. So much money and land came into the hands of the Hospitallers that they founded one house after another, not only in the Holy Land, but scattered through the countries of western Europe. There was also a chapter of the order to which women might belong, and large numbers joined it.



Many of the members of the order had made long and dangerous journeys. They had fought in savage battles, had commanded scores, perhaps hundreds of followers; and it must have seemed strange enough to them to have rules given them for every action and to be punished like little children if they were not obedient. In the English houses, if two knights quarreled, the penalty was to eat dinner for seven days sitting on the ground. Two days of the seven, they were given only bread and water. If one struck another, he must do penance for forty days, usually by fasting.

In 1118, a superior was chosen who was deeply interested in military matters. He proposed that the knights should not only care for those in need, but should also take vows to fight whenever necessary in defense of religion. This was going back to their old occupation, and the Hospitallers were delighted. They met the Turks in battle again and again, and were, indeed, the fiercest defenders of the kingdom of Jerusalem. When one of these knights went into warfare, he wore armor of course, and over it a red surcoat with a white cross on the breast, and a red mantle with a white cross on the shoulder.

After the Turks captured Jerusalem, the Hospitallers established themselves on the island of Cyprus, then on Rhodes, and there they put up some large, handsome buildings. They cared for the sick, they fought the Turks, and they carried pilgrims from Cyprus to the Holy Land. The Turks sent out vessels to prevent this, and there were some furious sea-fights.

Next, the Hospitallers became military engineers, for they got possession of the island of Malta and made it one of the strongest fortifications in the world. Twice the Turks tried their best to capture it, but did not succeed. Later, the Hospitallers patrolled the Mediterranean Sea with large war-galleys, trying to overcome the pirates of northern Africa. The order is still in existence. It has been called "the last relic of the crusades and of chivalry."

The Hospitallers did their best to carry pilgrims safely to the coast of Palestine and to care for them after they were once in Jerusalem; but there was a long and dangerous journey to be made from the coast to the Holy City. The Turks were always on the watch, and when they caught sight of a company of pilgrims, they swooped down upon them and either put them to death or dragged them away to a life of slavery. A band of nine valiant knights in Jerusalem were determined that this should no longer be endured; and they took not only the usual three vows, but also a fourth, which bound them to protect pilgrims on this journey and to fight for the Holy Sepulchre. They built a house for themselves close to the temple in Jerusalem, and from this came their name of Templars, or Knights of the Temple. Their numbers increased. Sons of the noblest and richest families in Europe begged to become members of the order. Princely gifts of money and lands were lavished upon it; branches were formed, and houses, many of them as well fortified as castles, were built in the Holy Land and also in nearly all the countries of Europe. The dress of the Templars was a white surcoat with a red cross over the breast, and a long white mantle with a red cross on the shoulder.



Two hundred years passed, and the Templars had become an entirely different association. In the early days of the order they had lived upon charity and had chosen for their seal a representation of two knights riding upon one horse to indicate poverty; but now they had become enormously wealthy. Their numbers had increased greatly because they admitted as partial members many persons who simply wished to make sure of protection. More than one king became jealous of their power, and was exasperated because the Church forbade him to tax them. Stories were spread by their enemies that instead of fighting with the Turks they were ready to make any sort of treaty that would secure their own property in the Holy Land. At length Philip the Fair of France accused them falsely of heresy and immorality. Some of them were tortured until they admitted that the charges were true, and in France fifty-four were burned at the stake. Other countries followed the example of France. Part of their property was given to the Hospitallers, but by far the larger part of it went to the rulers of the lands in which it was situated.

The Hospitallers and the Templars were the principal military orders of the Middle Ages; but there were also many orders which were purely religious. Most of the convents already in existence followed the rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, who died in the sixth century. The monks who gathered around him were bidden to be so poor as not even to claim as their own the gowns that they wore; to pray seven times daily, and to chant the Psalms of David every week; and also to labor with their hands. "Laborare est orare," was one of Saint Benedict's favorite mottoes. The monks were required to spend seven hours a day in manual labor and two hours in reading and study. While they ate, they must listen to the reading of some religious book. They wore white cassocks, and over them flowing gowns with hoods. The long gown would be in the way in working; so, when they made ready for work or for traveling, they wore instead a short black tunic without sleeves. They were rarely permitted to speak. They fasted often, and during Lent they ate nothing until after vespers. They had to promise to bear reproof and even corporal punishment with the utmost meekness.


benedictine monk

These were some of the provisions of the rule of Saint Benedict; but as one century after another passed, the customs of both monks and nuns became far less strict. As an act of piety, children were often led in by their parents or even taken in their cradles and laid upon the altar to grow up in the convents that they might become monks or nuns. These children were not always adapted to the monastic life, and when they grew up, they were not sorry to have the rules less severe. Then, too, the monasteries had become very rich. It is true that no individual monk or nun could hold property; but the convent as a whole could hold an unlimited amount. Kings and nobles had made them large gifts. A Benedictine convent was no longer the home of a group of self-denying monks living in obscurity and poverty; it was the abode of a community so rich that it was a power in the country in which it was situated. The rule grew more and more lax. Abuses sometimes crept in, and wrongdoing. Some earnest folk did not feel that this comfortable fashion of living was at all what life in a convent should be; they were eager to go back to the simple, severe rule of Saint Benedict. That was why the convent of Cluny was founded. The Cluniacs did some manual work, but spent most of their time in prayer and study. They taught, and in their bookrooms they made beautiful copies of the ancient manuscripts. They cared for the poor, and they did everything they could to increase the power of the Pope. The house at Cluny was only the beginning; for soon it became too small for the earnest men who wished to join the community; and one house after another was founded to make a place for them. Cluny, however, kept the control in its own hands. The other houses were governed by priors, but the head of the house at Cluny was called an abbot. He often visited the other convents and examined them to make sure that they were carrying out the Cluniac rules and were not introducing any new customs. These houses were known as the Congregation of Cluny. They increased so rapidly that in two hundred years after the parent house was founded in 910, there were fully two thousand of them. They were scattered over many countries; but, no matter where they stood, every one was under the rule of the abbot of Cluny.

In spite of the two thousand Cluniac convents, there were still many people who were not satisfied. They felt that even the rule of Cluny was not strict enough. Those who are in earnest in wishing to lead lives of devotion, they said, ought to be entirely free from all worldly matters and give themselves up wholly to poverty and self-denial. This belief was most strongly held in France, and during the last quarter of the eleventh century several other orders were founded to carry out the idea. The first of these was the order of Grammont, which was founded by a French nobleman named Stephen. He certainly practiced self-denial, for he lived upon nothing but bread and water. Others followed his teachings, and in time the order was formed. Its rule was far more severe than that of Cluny. Stephen took special pains to free his monks, or "good men," as he preferred they should be called, from the temptations of wealth; for he decreed that, no matter how rich their convent might become, they should have nothing to do with the management of the property. This was all to be in the hands of some lay brethren. Unfortunately, the lay brethren and the "good men" did not agree, and at length the order fell to pieces.

The Carthusian Order was founded a few years after the Order of Grammont by one Bruno, a canon of Cologne. This was the most strict of all the orders. Bruno chose for his abode a wild tract of land in southeastern France. There he and six others built a chapel and a group of rude huts. These finally became the Grande Chartreuse. He and his six companions entered upon a life of the utmost rigor. The men could hardly be called companions, for each had his own little cell, or rather, a tiny house, and in this he spent his life, praying, meditating, and copying manuscripts. He was seldom permitted to speak, and indeed, he seldom had an opportunity. Once a day food was silently passed in at his window. Three times a week he took only bread and water. Twice a week vegetables were given him, which he might cook for himself. On Sundays and Thursdays he was allowed to eat cheese or eggs, and even fish if any had been given to the convent. Meat he was never permitted to taste. On Sundays and feast days he had the rare indulgence of dining with the other monks, but in silence of course. He wore constantly a shirt of the roughest haircloth and over it a white cassock. Over the cassock he wore a scapulary, that is, a long piece of cloth, hanging down in front and behind and joined at the sides by a band. His hood was white.


carthusian monk

Many Carthusian houses were established, especially in France. Each of these was known as a Chartreuse in honor of the first home of the order. In England, "Chartreuse" became Charter-house."

The Carthusian Order still exists hardly changed at all in its rule. At the Grande Chartreuse of to-day, thirty-six monks have each a tiny apartment of four rooms. It opens into the cloister, and a garden separates it from its next neighbor. Beside the cloister door is a sliding shutter through which food is silently passed in. Whenever the monk is in need of anything, he writes the name of the article on a bit of paper and lays this beside the slide. It is brought him in silence. No one enters the little abode except its owner. As it was eight hundred years ago, so now he may go to the refectory on Sundays and feast days and eat a silent meal with the other monks. Once a week there is a "public walk," that is, the monks walk together and are permitted to talk. On other days the walk of the monk is a solitary pacing to and fro on a covered way adjoining his cell. The costume is still a white robe and cowl of wool, a white leather belt, and a white woolen cloak. The main business of the order is prayer; but the monks have a valuable library and they do much reading and studying. They maintain houses for the ill and needy.


cell of a monk

It was not many years after the founding of the Carthusian Order that the whole Christian world was aroused by hearing of the sufferings of the pilgrims to Jerusalem. Peter the Hermit and others preached, Pope Urban called the famous council at Clermont, and in 1095 the first crusade set out. But many remained at home who were just as earnest as the crusaders in longing to do something for the salvation of their souls. Some of them determined to become monks. They wished to live as simply and strictly as possible; but there was no order that seemed to them severe enough. Cluny was now nearly two hundred years old. The order was wealthy. It owned handsome buildings, broad-spreading lands, and much treasure. Its churches were loaded with ornament. The windows were of the richest stained glass. The chalices gleamed and glittered with jewels. Such surroundings seemed to the people who were seeking so eagerly for simple lives to be entirely too luxurious for their purpose. Of course the next step was the founding of a new order. The first monastery was built at Citeaux, and therefore the monks were called Cistercians.


cistercian monk

The Cistercians planned to build their convents as far from cities as possible. The houses were to be absolutely plain. A single turret for a bell was allowed, but no other towers. Within, the walls were to be bare. No images of saints were admitted, and even the crucifix must be of wood. The candlesticks of the altar were of iron, the vestments of the priests were of coarse fustian. There were no hours of study for the Cistercians. They learned how to say their prayers, and that was enough. Instead of studying or reading, they spent much time in manual labor. Their food was rude and scanty, and during the greater part of the year they ate only one meal a day. Their gowns and hoods were made of undyed wool, and therefore they were often called the "white monks." Their sleeves hung down far below their hands, and a company of these monks, sitting with crossed arms, an attitude supposed to express great respect, must have been an amusing sight. The Cistercians were successful farmers. In England they raised immense flocks of sheep, and in the thirteenth century they were the greatest wool merchants in the land. They had also large iron works; and their wealth increased until they became as rich and powerful as the Cluniacs.


view of citeaux

The great man of the Cistercians was Saint Bernard. He was so zealous that he found the rigorous ways of the order none too severe for him. He was so eloquent that no one could resist him. He urged the emperor of Germany to go on a crusade; and much to the emperor's own surprise, he found himself promising to go. Saint Bernard preached to a group of students that it was better to save their souls than to study; and straightway a score of them dropped their books and became his followers.

These four orders were the most important of those founded in the tenth and eleventh centuries; but convents were nothing new, and there were orders of all varieties for both monks and nuns. Some were but little less strict than the four that have been named; in others, the monks had a fine time, playing chess, keeping birds and dogs, and even going hunting. Chaucer describes a monk who was very fond of hunting. "And when he rode," says the poet slyly, "one could hear his bridle jingling in the whistling wind as clear and as loud as the chapel bell." According to Chaucer, this same monk liked a fat swan "best of any roast"; and certainly some of the monks did not stint themselves in eating and drinking. It is said that the monks of Winchester once complained to Henry II "with tears in their eyes" that the bishop had insisted upon withdrawing several of their dishes, and had left them only ten. The story declares that King Henry swore at them roundly and said that three dishes were enough for him.


a monk writing

In rearing the buildings of a convent, there was little variety in the general plan. The centre of the whole establishment was an oblong space of green turf with sometimes a fountain and shrubs. This was called the cloister court. Around it was generally a covered walk whose roof was supported by beautifully wrought pillars of stone. Here the monks walked and studied and taught their pupils. The church was built at the north end of the court, a wise plan for keeping off the cold north winds. On the east side of the cloister was the chapter-house, or council chamber. Next to that was the dormitory, or general sleeping house. On the south side was the refectory, or dining room. Here there was always a pulpit, or reading desk, from which some religious book was read while the monks ate their meals. On the west side was the office of the cellarer, whose business it was to look after food and drink. Near it was a guest house, sometimes richly furnished and decorated, and any other buildings that might be needed. No monastery possessed what would to-day be called a library. Printing was not invented. Books were written by hand on expensive vellum or parchment; and a collection of four or five hundred would have been looked upon with some wonder. There was almost always a writing room, however, usually over the chapter-house. Here the monks copied laboriously with pen and ink the books used in the church service and those that were sold to outsiders. The capitals at the beginnings of chapters were often elaborately painted with gold and bright colors that are just as brilliant now as when they were put on. Many convents carried on schools, and the schoolbooks also had to be made. The journal must be kept up, that is, the account of what was done in the convent from day to day, and sometimes annals of what was happening in the kingdom.


the beginning of a chapter

A monastery did not run itself. It was not only a place where prayers were said and books were copied; it was a place where people ate and drank and wore out shoes and clothes, cared for the sick, managed a school, and entertained as if it were a great hotel. There was a vast amount of work to be done, and a vast amount of thinking was needed to manage the work and see that nothing was left at loose ends. Wool and linen for clothing were raised on convent lands, spun and woven, cut out and made on the spot. Cattle were raised and the skins tanned for shoes. Vegetables and fruit grew in the convent gardens; grain was grown in the fields of the establishment and was ground in the convent mill. Grapes were grown for wine, and bees were kept for honey. There were carpenters, masons, fishers, hunters, blacksmiths, and bakers. Guests were always coming and going. There were pilgrims, both humble and of rank, minstrels, merchants, jugglers, pedlars, nobles, sometimes even a king and his suite; and all were to be looked after and treated according to their degree. This was the hospitality that was shown to Columbus and his little son at the Spanish convent of La Rabida, and that opened the way for his voyage to the New World.

All these different departments of a convent must be cared for, and there must be some one person responsible for each. At the head of the whole establishment was the abbot; in his absence his place was filled by the prior. The care of money, clothing, and keeping the accounts was in the hands of the chamberlain, and he had also the responsibility of the archives, or records of the convent. The librarian had charge of whatever books there were and also of the copying room. The gold and silver chalices and other vessels used in the service and the ornaments of the altar were often encrusted with costly jewels. Then, too, there were relics of the saints, and if these could cure the lame, heal the sick, and open the eyes of the blind, they were surely of much greater value than all the gold and gems, to say nothing of the amount of gifts made to the convent by the grateful people who had been healed. These were cared for and guarded by the sacristan. It was no small task to look after the food and drink for hundreds of people, for the well and the ill, for monks, for young novices, who were trying the life before taking their final vows, for servants, for pupils of the school, for the little children who had been given to the convent. This was the work of the cellarer. But it was only a part of his work, for he must always be ready for guests of all kinds and degrees. Perhaps these guests were only a little band of the humblest pilgrims who would be more than satisfied with the simplest fare; and perhaps they were a noble with his followers, or even a prince or a king. Whoever came, whether one or a large company, the cellarer must always be ready to treat each one according to his rank. No bill was presented. The hospitality was a free gift to all; but it was expected that those who were able to pay would make a gift to their entertainers. Sometimes these guests or other friends of the convent presented large sums of money or even manors, whose income was to be given to the poor. Distributing this charity was enough to keep one man, the almoner, busy; for the poor and needy never failed to flock about the convent gate. Indeed, only part of this work could be done by the almoner; and if any of the poor folk or any monks were ill, they had to be given into the hands of the infirmarius for care and treatment. These were only a few of the offices. There was a terrier, who had special care of the guest rooms; a porter who guarded the gate and saw to it that no one entered who had not a right to be admitted; a chantor, who took charge of the choral service and taught the monks to sing. There was a master of the novices who taught them to work and to meditate and to behave themselves properly in all respects. He even cared for their dress, and it was his business to get from the chamberlain the cowls, gowns, shoes, bedding, and other things that they needed. In every large convent, each division of the work and management required so much care and responsibility that there was hardly any limit to the number of officials.

The accounts of the convent were kept most minutely. There were no "sundries." Every dish, even every nail, must be accounted for, and the sheets must balance to the half of a farthing. Most convents were the "lords" of manors, sometimes a large number of manors; and even to keep the accounts of these, to say nothing of attending to their cultivation and the sale of the produce, must have been an enormous amount of work.

However earnestly a monk might wish to withdraw himself from the world, it was impossible for a large monastery to avoid having constant dealings with outsiders. Besides the buying and selling which were always necessary, a town frequently grew up on convent land, as has been said before, and therefore paid taxes to the convent. But as the town grew larger and more independent, the townsfolk protested against these taxes, while the convent struggled as emphatically to collect them. Sometimes the contest came to a real hand to hand fight. In this the monks were not helpless by any means, for an abbot who controlled a number of manors could often call out several hundred men to take up arms for him. In one case in England the monks stood by their ancient right of grinding the townsfolk's corn and charging them a good price for so doing. The townsfolk, on the other hand, declared that in future they should grind their own corn. The quarrel grew, and the townsfolk actually besieged the convent for more than ten days before an agreement was reached. There were also quarrels with bishops and nobles, which then led to lawsuits, if not to blows and sieges. The monks took the stand that they owed obedience to the Pope and to no one else. But a convent was in the diocese of some bishop, and as time passed, most monks were ordained. Therefore the bishop naturally claimed some control over them. Such disagreements were sometimes settled by the archbishop, but oftener they were appealed to the Pope. It was excellent policy for monks and nobles to be friendly; but they watched each other like cats and dogs. Nobles who knew themselves about to die and who hoped to win pardon for their sins by a rather belated generosity often made large gifts to convents. Naturally, the monks were pleased and the heirs of the nobles were not; and often it was a question which side would succeed in keeping hold of the land or treasure.

The work done by the monasteries of the Middle Ages was of the utmost value. In agriculture alone it can hardly be too highly estimated. The monks were the most skillful farmers of the time. They usually settled themselves in some desolate place. They cleared away the forests. They drained the swamps, and made the waste land into fruitful fields and gardens. They built roads and bridges. To the poor and oppressed the convents were friends and helpers. They lessened the burdens of the villeins on their own estates, and by their example those of the toilers on the lands of the nobles. They carried on schools, and in an age of the sword and the lance they maintained interest in education. They saved classical literature and much history of manners and customs, as well as records of the events of their own day. Moreover, however wealthy and perhaps luxurious some of the orders may have become, they stood, nevertheless, before the greedy sovereigns and the lawless barons as reminders that they had been founded by men to whom riches and comfort were nothing in comparison with lives made pleasing to God.

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