October 19, 2005

Regurgitation on Monasticism

Somebody has suggested that I post my papers here, but that's not going to happen. For one thing, they generally focus on particular readings that most of you probably don't have sitting on your bookshelves. The somebody in question expressed an interest in monasticism, though, so I'll give you a brief overview.

Monasticism is basically the life of monks and nuns in monasteries, for those unfamiliar with the terminology (such as one of the girls from my class who has not been going or doing the reading, apparently). In the early days of Christianity, the occasional spiritual type would go off to the wilderness to live as a hermit and focus solely on religious matters. People would hear about men like St. Anthony and flock to be near them, which kind of ruined the whole hermit lifestyle. Undaunted, the spiritual would maintain their separation from those around them. They lived together, yet quietly removed from each other. The ideal Christian life was chaste ascetism.

Eventually this type of community evolved into the more social monastery. The monastery was a place where monks and/or nuns (some were coed) could live a communal, spiritual life. The monasteries were supposed to be self-sufficient and not depend on the outside world. They grew their own food, took care of their own animals, built their own shelters, etc.

At this point in history, the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and the Germanic people who moved into western Europe were largely illiterate. The Germanic kings needed scribes to help their administrations...someone has to keep track of the taxrolls, after all. The Roman culture had placed importance on education and literacy, but that had fallen away as the Western Empire did. Monasteries, of course, were full of monks who needed to be literate in order to read the Bible and other religious works (such as the writings of St. Augustine). Scribes were taken from the monasteries to help with government work.

Monasteries often had a scriptorium, where the monks would hand-copy books. They copied not only Bibles and religious works--they also copied classic literature and history. For example, without the monks of the 8th Century, most of the history of Tacitus would have been lost to us forever--only one 8th Century copy of his writings survived at one time. There was some conflict about the copying of pagan books, but luckily for us the importance of preserving Roman culture won out some of the time.

Books were very important to monks and nuns, as they spent most of their time with them. Benedictine Rule, prescribed by St. Benedict (c. 480-550), laid out a full day of activities for monks and nuns to follow. Communal prayer, private devotional reading, and work (such as housework, field work, or work in the scriptorium) filled the days. Eventually, the "work" portion of Benedictine Rule became less important. Monasteries often accumulated great wealth and turned to hired help to do the "non-spiritual" work around the monastery. This allowed the monks to focus on the spiritual.

Monks and nuns were often children of noble families who would not be inheriting their families' estates. They needed a way to make a living, and the monastery or nunnery offered a respectable life of reasonable comfort. They became "Those Who Pray". Peasants were "Those Who Work", and the nobility were "Those Who Fight". This tripartite view of society was very popular by the High Middle Ages, with the peasants supporting the other two classes.

And there we end today's lecture. If I feel like it, we might go into the class division later on. The rise of feudalism and all that.

Posted by Jennifer at October 19, 2005 12:48 PM | TrackBack


Excellent. More, please. :)

Posted by: Rev. Mike at October 19, 2005 09:27 PM