The Rise and Fall of Benedictine Monasticism


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

The High Middle Ages was an era that’s remembered well in the annals of history. This period brought along with it a shift in the pre-existing paradigms of society, culture, and religion. Old institutions that had been around for a long time before the High Middle Ages, such as the papacy and monasticism underwent changes as the result of new developments, though they still remained in existence.

Statue of Saint Benedict, located in Norsia, Italy
The statue of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, erected in 1880. He is often considered to be the patron saint of Europe.
(Image: Karhunenloeve/Shutterstock)

Monasticism, in its Christian form, first emerged in the deserts of Egypt in the late 3rd century, and early 4th century A.D., and later spread westward out of Egypt into Europe in subsequent centuries.

A significant impetus to the rise of Monasticism in Europe came from the legalization of Christianity. The erstwhile illicit nature of Christianity in the Roman Empire allowed devout Christians to publicly announce their religion, in exchange for an enduring test that lasted till their execution. With the legalization and acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, they now needed other outlets to proclaim their commitment to their religion. The enigmatic and harsh image that surrounded monastic life made it seem like a worthy challenge for Christians to test their faith.

By the year 1000, Benedictine Monasticism, based on the Rules of Saint Benedict, was extremely prevalent, and virtually every monastery in Europe followed it.

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Design on the Saint Benedict Medal pertaining to the life of Saint Benedict of Nursia
The Saint Benedict medal contained text and symbols pertaining to the life of Saint Benedict of Nursia.
(Image: Dominio Público/Public domain)

The Life of a Benedictine Monk

Benedictine Monasteries were typically found deep in the countryside of Europe, as a means of providing isolation and breaking monks away from the ties of their family lives, which could potentially distract them.

Upon entering a monastery, a monk had to take three vows. These were the Vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Once a man had taken his vows and become a monk, he was to now dedicate every waking minute of his life to the accomplishment of three pursuits.

The first pursuit was that of manual labor, which the Rules of Saint Benedictine required to be performed. The second was the pursuit of study, which included reading, writing, and reflection. Finally, the most important was the performance of the Liturgy, which required active participation in a constant round of prayers and chanting at many hours of the day.

At Midnight, the monks had to begin their liturgical cycle with the ‘Matins’. This cycle went on throughout the day, with the liturgical cycle being performed every three hours until 9:00 p.m. It was only then that they could take a few hours of rest, arising yet again at midnight to repeat this cycle.

The abbot, or the head of the monastery, was responsible for waking the monks under his guidance for their liturgical cycles, to ensure that the Rule of Saint Benedict was enforced and that the utmost level of morality was upheld amongst his monks.

There were also other rules and requirements that the monks were subjected to. These were specifically designed to inculcate specific values within monks, to get them to internalize those values to the point where they didn’t have to think about them anymore. These were the values of Obedience, Humility, and Stability.

The Values of a Monk

Obedience required the monks to unquestioningly follow the orders of the abbot without allowing them any desire to express their will. If the monks ever received any gifts from their relatives, the fate of the package was completely up to the abbot. He could choose to peruse it himself, give it to the monk it was intended for, or offer it to another monk publicly, simply to see if the monk it was intended for showed any resentment.

Monks were supposed to walk with their heads down, and not look anyone in the eye, as a display of humility. They were not supposed to speak at all unless they were chanting. Any mistake made on a monk’s part mandated him to not only apologize but also to publicly prostrate himself as an act of humiliation. He could not get up until asked to do so by the abbot.

Stability was imbibed in the monks by enforcing a strict routine that carried on day after day. Time was supposed to be but a blur interspersed with prayers, chanting, and a few hours of sleep. They were not allowed to leave the monastery, and even if a monk left for some chores, he was forbidden from sharing his experience with other monks.

The Reasons to Choose Monkhood

As to the reasons why people chose such a rigorous life of Benedictine Monasticism, these were varied. Religion was just one of them, as stringent rules offered a sure-shot path to salvation.

Social considerations were also a reason for many people to opt for monastic life. In fact, a lot of monasteries became akin to retirement homes for the Nobility, who took the lifestyle up after reaching a certain age, and after making generous donations, under the premise that they would then be taken care of properly.

Not all monks were there voluntarily, though. Many kings also housed their political prisoners in monasteries. The largest proportion of non – voluntary monks, however, came in the form of oblates, or children who were given to the monasteries to be raised.

While oblates were technically given the choice of whether to continue as monks or not when they came of age, the fact that they had spent their entire lives hitherto confined within this lifestyle served as a huge deterrent to their stepping out into the unknown. The practice of accepting oblates became all the more important because of the shift in inheritance practices prevalent at the time. In particular regions, there was a trend to shift away from the partible inheritance, which divided up the inheritance equitably, towards primogeniture, which awarded the majority of the inheritance, if not all, to the eldest son. While daughters could get married when they came of age, this meant that a lot of younger sons were donated to monasteries.

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The Decline of Benedictine Monasticism

The truth, despite all of this, remains that the reality of monastic life rarely matched the Rule of Saint Benedict.

A major contributor to this rift was the fact that the rules were unbearably rigorous, such that there was a natural tendency of conditions to become lax over time. This was exacerbated to a large extent by huge amounts of monastic wealth. Monasteries became affluent when retirees, the families of oblates, and people wishing to favor prayers from monks, all made huge donations. The founders of monasteries, who mostly came from noble backgrounds, also left them with huge properties of land and wealth. Being surrounded by so much affluence created temptation and gradual relaxation of rules governing ownership by monks.

Moreover, the acceptance of oblates also added to the problem. Oblates often had no strong sense of vocation and were therefore construed as the ‘bad apples’ who had a corrupting influence on other monks with their recklessness. 

Given these situations, monks managed to amass huge fortunes, but their reputation went downhill sharply. As a result of this declension of the Benedictine Monasticism,   it was not surprising that the High Middle Ages saw various reform movements, primarily the Cluniac reform, and the Cistercian reform. Fortunately, they were designed to revive monastic life and were able to achieve that for a while, at least.

Common Questions about Benedictine Monasticism

Q: What were the duties of the abbot in Benedictine Monastery?

The abbot, or the head of the Benedictine Monastery, was responsible for waking the monks under his supervision for their liturgical cycles. Moreover, he had to ensure that the monks in his care maintained the highest standards of morality.

Q: What were the three vows in the life of a Benedictine Monk?

A Benedictine Monk took three vows: The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Q: Why did Benedictine Monasticism lose its reputation?

Benedictine Monasticism was plagued with a plethora of issues. The Rules of Saint Benedictine were too hard to follow, and monastic wealth, as well as the presence of non – voluntary monks, served as corrupting influences.

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