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Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

The Monastery, and How Christianity Helped the Germans

The principal things we have thus far learned about the Teutons are that they were not always content to remain around the Baltic sea, in the German woods and on the banks of the Rhine and Danube, where we early met them. They were of a free and roaming disposition, as we have already seen when studying their early customs and habits. So, when Rome became so corrupt that she could no longer defend herself, and when the Huns, a very fierce people who lived northeast of the Germans, began to attack them, one tribe of the Germans, the Goths, began to make raids on Rome, finally conquering it and settling in Italy. Another tribe, the Vandals, marched around through Gaul and Spain, crossed over to Africa and conquered old Carthage. Still another settled in Spain, and yet others, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, crossed over to England. The tribe, however, which seemed to be the most important at this time was the Franks. They settled in France, and in time one of their leaders, named Charlemagne, succeeded in conquering a great deal of the country around him and in uniting many of the people into one nation.

Nor did the Germans always remain in the barbarous state in which we first saw them. They had very keen intellects and were quick to "catch on" to new things, as we sometimes say. As soon as they came in contact with the Romans they took on many of their ideas and customs. Another thing which they early began to adopt and which greatly influenced them, was Christianity. This came to them at first through the institution called monasticism. So the next thing we shall try to see is how the monasteries grew up all over Europe, how the people lived in them, and how they influenced the lives of the people.

Long before Christ was born, many persons, called hermits, living in the warm eastern countries and wishing to follow what they thought right, felt that they could not do so on account of the wickedness of the people around them; so they left their homes and their friends, went into the woods or caves or some other lonely place, and lived by themselves. Here they could spend their time thinking about what was right, and would not be influenced by the people around them.

Soon after Christ was born this same idea sprang up among the Christians. In Egypt, where the climate was warm and where food was easily obtained, men would withdraw from their friends and live in caves, or in the desert. Their houses were of the very rudest kind, made from rough logs, covered with brush, and had no floor and very little furniture. Sometimes they would even live in an unhealthy cellar or in a hole dug in the ground. They often had very odd ideas about religion. They thought that the body was the cause of all sin, and if they would become the best men possible, they thought they must "mortify the body," that is, do it all the harm possible, or destroy it by inches.

Quite often they would let their hair grow very long and take no care of it at all. Some of them would stand in swamps or morasses up to their necks and let the flies and other insects eat away the flesh of their faces. Some would stand in thorn trees, and in this way try to do the body injury. Others would stand on one leg until they would fall from exhaustion, or hold out their arms till they became palsied and fell at the side, withered and useless. One of these men stood for several years through summer and winter on top of a pillar sixty feet high just large enough to turn around on, with just enough food to keep him alive.

But man is naturally a social being and does not like to live alone. Partly for this reason, and partly because the climate was more severe in Europe than in Egypt and in the East, which made it more difficult for one man alone to make a living, these early Christians soon began to give up living by themselves and began to live together in companies. Then it was that their houses began to be called monasteries.

In a short time these monks, as they were now called, began to spread out over Europe and soon reached the barbaric Germans, scattered and roaming through the woods. Several of the monks would go to a place near a river, or to an unhealthy swamp or into some lonely forest, where they would settle on a piece of land given to them by a chief or king. The first thing they began to do was to clear the ground, smooth it for their building, and drain the swamps. The only instruments they had for doing this work were rude hoes, spades and axes. Their axes looked much like the corn knife used by the farmer of today. From this you can see that the work they first had to do was much the same as that of the first settlers in Indiana, or in any western state covered with forests, and that it was very slow and difficult.

After some of the ground had been cleared, the next thing was to build a house from the logs which they had cut from the land. This house was, of course, very rude, with its cracks filled with sticks and mud, with its roof made of boards split from logs, and its floor of roughly hewn slabs. The monasteries usually had at first three rooms. One of these was a writing room, another the sleeping room, and the third a place of worship.

As time went on, rules for governing the monasteries were formed. The first great man who wrote out a code of rules for them was St. Benedict. According to these, a monk must take three vows: One of poverty, which meant that he gave up all his property on becoming a monk and that he would never own anything afterward. Another chastity, which meant that he would never marry. The third of obedience, which meant that they would always place themselves under complete control of the rulers of the monastery.

The chief officer controlling the monastery was called the abbot, who obtained his place by election. To help him oversee the work of the monastery he had officers under him. The first of these was the prior, who controlled subordinate officers and acted in the place of the abbot when he was away. Then came the sub-prior, who helped the prior. The deans had charge of the reports of the doings of the monasteries. The cellarer looked after the provisions and clothing. The economus attended to the church, while the procurator saw that all accounts were kept in the right way.

Another very important provision in their rules was that they were not to abuse their bodies as the monks had done in the East, and that they were not to waste their time in idleness. At first the thing which occupied most of their time, as already said, was clearing the forest and draining the swamps. They worked slowly but faithfully at this, until what was once the most dreary waste became a land waving with crops and covered with flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle and droves of hogs.

The amount of their land gradually increased, because as men became monks they would give their land to the monastery, and other men who admired the good qualities of the monks would give them vast tracts of land also. Thus it came about that after a while the monasteries became very wealthy. Of course as they grew more wealthy they made their buildings better, the log ones gradually giving way to those of greater comfort and beauty.

At the time when monasticism reached its greatest power, say from a thousand to fifteen hundred A.D., each monastery had four or five extensive buildings. One of these was the church. This was always built in the form of a cross with the long part of it running east and west. The longer portion of this was called the nave and the shorter portion the choir. The choir was used as a place of worship by the monks, while the nave could be used at any time by any one else who wished to come there for worship. A large fine door was always in the west end of the nave.

The portion of the church which ran crosswise, or the arms of the cross, was called the transept. In one end of this were kept the relics of the dead monks and saints of the church, such as parts of their clothing, their pens, staffs, and often some of their bones.

These churches grew to be as fine as money could make them, and many masons and artists were almost always working on them trying to make them more beautiful both without and within. In them were placed rows of beautiful pillars which supported the roof. In many parts of the church were statues of Christ, of the Virgin Mary and of the saints. The windows were made of beautiful stained glass of many different patterns and designs, and in many places there were beautiful curtains made from the most expensive cloth. The vessels used in the church service after the monasteries became wealthy were almost always made of gold and silver.

The church was built on the north side of a plot of ground not quite as large as the average public square in one of our cities. Generally on the east of this plot (the plot was called the garth or cloister garth) was the chapter house, which, along with the other buildings, was never as fine as the church. In it was a large bare room, with benches upon which the monks sat when they came to discuss matters concerning the monastery and to have their duties for each day assigned to them by the prior or other officer.

On the south side of the garth was the refectory, in which all the cooking was done. Here we might have seen at the dining hours a long, narrow table with stools at its sides, with the monks eating their meals in silence. At one end of this room was a raised place or kind of platform in the floor, upon which some monk would stand and read from the Bible in Latin before each meal. In the room where the cooking was done they had huge fireplaces. Iron rods were fixed in these so that kettles could be hung on them. In these they cooked their vegetables. They roasted fowls and meat by hanging them over the fire, and baked their coarse bread by putting it in the ashes.

The other building on the south of the garth was the dormitory, or sleeping room. This was usually divided into small rooms, or cells, each occupied by a single monk. In this little room he had a rude bed made by putting rough boards on benches, and then covering the boards with furs, leaves and moss. He also had a chair without arms, and a stool upon which to kneel when he prayed. On the east side of the garth was a building for entertaining strangers and a place for the sick. Under these buildings were cellars for storing away a part of their crops of grains, vegetables and fruits for food.

Going all around the four sides of the garth and extending from the inner wall of all the buildings just named, was something like a porch, the roof of which was supported by beautiful columns. This was called the cloister. It was here that the monks spent a great deal of their time in thinking, taking exercise, especially in rainy weather, and talking to others. In the garth were many beautiful flowers, and a pretty fountain in the center to keep them fresh. This is about the typical monastery, and something of its life within, which we would have seen there could we have traveled over western Europe between five hundred to one thousand years after Christ, when the monks were industrious, and were making heroic sacrifices to teach the German barbarians the truths of Christianity.

If a man wished to become a monk, he was put on trial for two years, one of which was spent in the monastic school. If at the end of that time he still wished to continue the life, he was required to take certain vows. One of them was a vow of stability. By this vow he promised never to leave the monastery. Then came the vows which I have mentioned before—chastity, obedience and poverty. After certain very solemn ceremonies he was given the dress of the monk.

This consisted of the frock, which was a sort of gown gathered around the neck and falling loosely to the feet. It had large loose sleeves. Attached to the back of this was a hood, which could be drawn over the head if he so desired. He had a belt to bind the robe to the body, and sandals which were bound on the feet with straps. The clothing was usually made from black material, which gave one class the name of black monks. While walking around and about the buildings it was their custom to bow their heads; and when outside the buildings they carried a long cane. This tended to make them look like old men.

But I wish to tell you still more of the life which went on in and around the monastery, since, as I already said, it was very far from being a place of idleness. We would naturally expect them to employ much of their time at worship, and so they did, since they had no less than seven services a day. Six of these were in the daytime and one at midnight. All those who could possibly do so were required to be at all of these services.

Some of the monks had to take care of the flowers in the garth. Some did the cooking, and each one was required to take care of his own room. They also had workshops. In some of these, beautiful ornaments for the church were made, while in others were made saddles, swords and shields, for the monks often had to go into the army and fight. There were tanners to make leather, shoemakers to make shoes, weavers who wove cloth, and tailors who made clothing. There were blacksmiths who made spades, hoes, rakes, axes and plows for use on the farm.

As I have already told you, some cleared the forests and drained the swamps, others tended the crops, and still others watched the flocks. From all this you see it was not a place of idleness. In fact it was a little town within itself and was something like a country town in which all the farmers would live in the village, and yet own and cultivate all the land for miles around. They also had a school here, so that parents living in the country and towns around who wished might send their boys to it. Of course this required teachers, who were always monks.

The study most emphasized in these schools was Latin. Every one had to learn to read and write it. Besides this they had two other courses. One was called the trivium, and included grammar, rhetoric and logic. The other was the quadrivium, and included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This seems as if it were a very good course, but the fact was that the teachers knew very little about most of the subjects. They taught the Latin well, so that they might use it in their church service, but most of the other teaching was poor. They did not teach geography or history in these schools, and they were very ignorant about botany, chemistry, astronomy and the like.

They all enjoyed hunting and going to war. At first both were considered improper for the monks, but after they grew less devoted to religion they spent much of their time in these things.

One thing which they are to be praised very much for, was their treatment of strangers. If a man traveling through the forest got lost or wished some place to stay all night (for at that time there were no hotels as there are now for one to stop at), he was always welcomed by the monks. They also had a hospital in which they took care of the sick. This was a thousand years and more before ether was discovered which deadens pain when surgery is performed, and in fact the doctors of that day knew very little about surgery. If it was necessary to perform an operation, they strapped the patient fast to something solid, for example, a bench or table, then did the work, and then seared the wound with a hot iron in order to stop it from bleeding. Their medicines were chiefly roots and herbs. They also thought that a sick person by touching sacred relics might be healed, often immediately. Partly for this reason the desire for sacred relics became so great that in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries thousands of people marched in a sort of army back to Jerusalem to get something which Christ or one of his disciples had worn, or had been in some way associated with. This helped to bring about the Crusades, which we will study later.

Another occupation which took a great deal of the time of some of the monks was writing. Nearly every monastery had a library—generally not larger than five hundred books; of course these were always written, since in that day they had no printing presses. What books do you suppose they wrote, or rather copied, from century to century? Since it is religion in which they were most interested, we would naturally expect them to take great interest in the Bible; and since they were concerned to some degree with education, we might expect them to take some interest in the writings of old Greece and Rome. This was the case. They made copy after copy of the Bible and some of the Greek and Roman writings and placed them in their libraries.

The writing was always done on parchment, vellum, or papyrus. Parchment was made from the skin of sheep and goats. The skin was first put in lime or strong ashes to remove the hair. Then it was rubbed with a smooth pumice stone to polish it. When it was dry, it made a smooth, hard surface which could easily be written upon. The vellum, which was a fine grade of parchment, was made in the same manner from the skin of calves. The papyrus paper you have learned about already in earlier volumes of this series. They wrote with a very rude pen made from the feather of a goose. Their ink was made of vinegar, lamp black and gum, and did not bite into the paper so much as our ink does now, hence it was rather easier to erase it. It was of many colors—red, yellow, blue, purple and the color of silver. The writing was often so heavy that it was very hard to read and made the page look as if it were almost black. To help this somewhat, they frequently wrote on a page with different colors of ink. The first letter of a paragraph would often be made very large and in many colors, so that it looked very beautiful. Sometimes different-colored letters would be scattered over the page, so that the page would not look so black.

If we could have visited one of these writing rooms, we would have seen groups of five or six men, each seated in different parts of the room. One of the group would be reading while the others were copying what he read. Some of those who copied were very careful, but others were just as careless. They would sometimes omit words, sometimes write the wrong word, often misspell words, and never punctuate what they wrote, for at that time punctuation marks were not used in writing. From these causes it came about that the various copies which they made of any book, the Bible for example, would not be exactly alike, and this caused great scholars at the time of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century and of the Reformation in the sixteenth to spend much time comparing the various copies of the Greek and Latin authors and of authors of the Bible, to see exactly what the original writers wrote and meant.

The books we should have seen there would not have looked much like ours. The first ones were made by fastening many pieces of parchment together lengthwise, so as to make a long strip. This could then be rolled and unrolled by attaching a stick to each end. After awhile they began cutting their parchment into pieces and folding them, so that they would look much like two sheets of letter cap paper. They then put many of these folded pieces together, and placed a piece of board of the right size on either side, and bound them together.

In a short time they began to cover these wooden backs with pictures or beautiful cloth. They also drove short nails in the lids, so that when the book was laid down the ornamental back would not be soiled by rubbing against whatever it was placed on. Many of the books had backs made of boards two inches thick. This made them very heavy and awkward; so handles were placed on them to make it easier to hold them while reading, or in some cases they were placed on stands, as we sometimes do with heavy books like our large dictionaries.

After awhile the monks largely lost interest in copying the Bible and the Greek and Roman writers, and spent much of their time in writing histories of their monasteries and the sayings of their great men. Some of the old copies of the Bible, of Homer's poems and the like, were put away in a closet, or garret, or cellar, and after many years became almost covered up with dust. Still, as more and more monasteries were founded, there was greater demand for paper for making copies of Bibles, for writing monastic histories, keeping accounts of their daily proceedings, and other like things.

About the middle of the Middle Ages, say about 1000, papyrus paper grew to be very scarce, and finally disappeared altogether. It then became necessary to write wholly on parchment or vellum. These at best were not plentiful, and when papyrus disappeared, they were entirely too scarce to furnish people enough to write upon; the monks began therefore quite largely to write on both sides of their manuscripts. This still not being sufficient, they began erasing the writing of the old parchment and using it a second time, often writing a sermon upon it, or giving an account of some unimportant matter, as the death of a cow, or the appearance of a comet—a matter not a hundredth part as important as the poem or Gospel which had been erased for the sake of the parchment.

About a hundred years before the discovery of America, the Teutons of western Europe began to take great interest in the Bible and the poems of Greece and Rome. But when they began to search for copies of these, they found there were no original copies anywhere to be found, and that the only ones which were to be found were copies which had been copied from other copies, and even these had sometimes been made in the most careless manner. Many times they could find only a small part of a Gospel or a poem. Very often there could be seen beneath the upper writing on some manuscripts, traces of the original, which the monk had not fully scrubbed out with his pumice stone. We can scarcely realize what a great grief it was to the scholars when they came to desire this original writing, to find it frequently destroyed. Had this not been done, we should now probably know more about the Bible, about the life of Jesus and the Apostles, and about the life and literature of Greece and Rome, than we shall now ever know.

Thus we have seen something of monasticism as it arose and grew to its full strength; but just as we saw the Romans grow to be strong, then gradually become wealthy, and in grasping for the world lose their whole empire, so the monasteries grew strong in worldly things, but weak in spiritual life.

As they grew wealthy, they often became less devoted to the true worship of God, and instead of being places for developing a higher life of the soul, they often became places for indulging the pleasures and vices of the body. Yet with all these faults, the monks in the dark ages in which they lived did a vast amount of good, and it is for the good that they did, and not for the evil, that we should chiefly remember them. What were some of the important things they did whose good influence reaches down to after times and even to the present day?

In the first place, they introduced among the Europeans better ways of cultivating the land and of raising crops. They were in fact the pioneers, who drained the swamps, and cleared the woods so that our early Teutonic ancestors could get a start in civilization.

In the second place, by introducing Christianity among the barbarians their lives were greatly softened, and their chief ideals of hunting, fishing and warring were gradually changed to more peaceful pursuits and to the idea of a common brotherhood of man.

In the third place, by means of a monastic school the monks hung up, as it were, a lantern, which dimly shed its light through the dark forests of that ignorant time. The monastery and the life which grew up around it was the bridge, so to speak, over which the life which had grown up in Judea, Greece and Rome was carried northward over the Alps, and gradually given out to western Europe as the people became educated enough to understand it. The monastery then was, in a great degree, the church, the school, the farm, the manufactory, and to a considerable degree the government, of the Middle Ages. In that rough and barbaric time such a free school system as we now have, or such free religious ideas as we enjoy today were impossible. We must not, therefore, blame the monk that he did not set these free ideas up and practice them as we do at the present time. If he had not patiently carried down through those dark times the learning which he did, and given it to others who came after him, it would be impossible for us to have the opportunities for education and free religious thought which we now enjoy.

We must not, then, judge the monk principally by some strange things which he did in the early life of monasticism, such as wearing his hair long or wasting his life on top of a pillar; or by the idle and wicked lives which many led in the later centuries, but by his earnest, patient, industrious life when the monastery was the brightest spot in a dark forest and the chief means of leading the ignorant man of the Middle Ages up to a stage where, by other means, he could climb to a higher view and afterwhile catch in all its fullness the idea that the greatest servant of God is he who is the truest servant of his fellow men; and that, therefore, the truest service to God does not come from withdrawing from the sin, sorrow and suffering of society, but from staying in society and manfully struggling to lift it to greater purity and nobler life.