FREE Catholic Classes
(1) Pre-Benedictine Period
The introduction of monasticism into the West may be dated from about A.D. 340 when St. Athanasius visited Rome accompanied by the two Egyptian monks Ammon and Isidore, disciples of St. Anthony. The publication of the "Vita Antonii" some years later and its translation into Latin spread the knowledge of Egyptian monachism widely and many were found in Italy to imitate the example thus set forth. The first Italian monks aimed at reproducing exactly what was done in Egypt and not a few -- such as St. Jerome, Rufinus, Paula, Eustochium and the two Melanias -- actually went to live in Egypt or Palestine as being better suited to monastic life than Italy. As however the records of early Italian monasticism are very scanty, it will be more convenient to give first a short account of early monastic life in Gaul, our knowledge of which is much more complete.(a) Gaul
The first exponent of monasticism in Gaul seems to have been St. Martin, who founded a monastery at Ligugé near Poitiers, c. 360 (see LIGUGE; MARTIN OF TOURS, ST.). Soon after he was consecrated Bishop of Tours ; he then formed a monastery outside that city, which he made his customary residence. Although only some two miles from the city the spot was so retired that Martin found there the solitude of a hermit. His cell was a hut of wood, and round it his disciples, who soon numbered eighty, dwelt in caves and huts. The type of life was simply the Antonian monachism of Egypt (see EASTERN MONASTICISM) and so rapidly did it spread that, at St. Martin's funeral, two thousand monks were present. Even more famous was the monastery of Lérins which gave to the Church of Gaul some of its most famous bishops and saints. In it the famous Abbot John Cassian settled after living for seven years among the monks of Egypt, and from it he founded the great Abbey of St. Victor of Marseilles. Cassian was undoubtedly the most celebrated teacher that the monks of Gaul ever had, and his influence was all on the side of the primitve Egyptian ideals. Consequently we find that the eremitical life was regarded as being the summit or goal of monastic ambition and the means of perfection recommended were, as in Egypt, extreme personal austerities with prolonged fasts and vigils, and the whole atmosphere of ascetical endeavour so dear to the heart of the Antonian monk (see CASSIAN, JOHN; FRANCE; CAESARIUS OF ARLES, ST.; LE´RINS, etc.).
Authorities are still divided as to the origin of Celtic monasticism, but the view most commonly accepted is that of Mr. Willis Bund which holds it to have been a purelyindigenous growth and rejects the idea of any direct connexion with Gallic or Egyptian monasticism. It seems clear that the first Celtic monasteries were merely settlements where the Christians lived together -- priests and laity, men, women, and children alike -- as a kind of religious clan. At a later period actual monasteries both of monks and nuns were formed, and later still the eremitical life came into vogue. It seems highly probable that the ideas and literature of Egyptian or Gallic monachism may have influenced these later developments, even if the Celtic monasticism were purely independent in origin, for the external manifestations are identical in all three forms. Indeed the desire for austerities of an extreme character has always remained a special feature of Irish asceticism down to our own time. Want of space forbids any detailed account of Celtic monasticism in this place but the following articles may be referred to: (for Ireland ) ARMAGH, BANGOR, CLONARD, CLONFERT, CLONMACNOISE, LISMORE, BOBBIO, LUXEUIL, SAINTS PATRICK, CARTHAGE, COLUMBANUS, COMGALL; (for Wales ) LLANCARVAN, BANGOR, SAINTS ASAPH, DAVID, DUBRIC, GILDAS, KENTIGERN; (for Scotland ) SCHOOL OF IONA, ABBEY OF LINDISFARNE, SAINTS NINIAN, COLUMBA, AIDAN. Undoubtedly, however, the chief glory of Celtic monasticism is its missionary work, the results of which are to be found all over northwestern Europe. The observance, at first so distinctive, gradually lost its special character and fell into line with that of other countries; but, by that time, Celtic monasticism had passed its zenith and its influence had declined.(c) Italy
Like the other countries of Western Europe, Italy long retained a purely Eastern character in its monastic observance. The climate and other causes however combined to render its practice far harder than in the lands of its origin. In consequence the standard of observance declined, and it is clear from the Prologue to St. Benedict's Rule that by his day the lives of the monks left much to be desired. Moreover there was as yet no fixed code of laws to regulate the life either of the monastery or of the individual monk. Each house had its own customs and practices, its own collection of rules dependent largely on the choice of the abbot of the moment. There were certainly in the West translations of various Eastern codes, e.g., the Rules of Pachomius and Basil and another attributed to Macarius. There were also St. Augustine's famous letter (Ep., ccxi) on the management of convents of nuns, and also the writings of Cassian, but the only actual Rules of Western origin were the two by St. Caesarius for monks and nuns respectively, and that by St. Columbanus, none of which could be called a working code for the management of a monastery. In a word monachism was still waiting for the man who should adapt it to Western needs and circumstances and give to it a special form distinct from that of the East. This man was found in the person of St. Benedict (480-543).
(2) The Spread of St. Benedict's Rule
Full details of St. Benedict's legislation, which had such immense effects on the monasticism of Western Europe, will be found in the articles BENEDICT OF NURSIA, ST., and BENEDICT, RULE OF ST. It is sufficient here to point out that St. Benedict legislated for the details of the monastic life in a way that had never been done before either in East or West. It is clear that he had acquainted himself thoroughly with the lives of the Egyptian fathers of the desert, with the writings of St. Basil, Cassian, and Rufinus; and in the main lines he has no intention of departing from the precedents set by these great authorities. Still the standard of asceticism aimed at by him, as was inevitable in the West, is less severe than that of Egypt or Syria. Thus he gives his monks good and ample food. He permits them to drink wine. He secures a sufficient period of unbroken sleep. His idea was evidently to set up a standard that could and should be attained by all the monks of a monastery, leaving it to individual inspiration to essay greater austerities if the need of these were felt by any one. On the other hand, probably as a safeguard against the relaxations mentioned above, he requires a greater degree of seclusion than St. Basil had done. So far as possible all connexion with the world outside the monastery is to be avoided. If any monk be compelled by duty to go beond the monastery enclosure he is forbidden on his return to speak of what he has seen or heard. So too no monk may receive gifts or letters from his friends or relatives without permission of the abbot. It is true that guests from without are to be received and entertained, but only certain monks specially chosen for the purpose nay hold intercourse with them.
Perhaps, however, the chief point in which St. Benedict modified the pre-existing practice is his insistence upon the stabilitas loci . By the special Vow of Stability he unites the monk for life to the particular monastery in which his vows are made. This was really a new development and one of the highest importance. In the first place by this the last vestige of personal freedom was taken away from the monk. Secondly it secured in each monastery that continuity of theory and practice which is so essential for the family which St. Benedict desired above everything. The abbot was to be a father and the monk a child. Nor was he to be more capable of choosing a new father or a new home than any other child was. After all St. Benedict was a Roman, and the scion of a Roman patrician family, and he was simply bringing into the monastic life that absolute dependence of all the members of a family upon the father which is so typical of Roman law and usage. Only at the selection of a new abbot can the monks choose for themselves. Once elected the abbot's power becomes absolute; there is nothing to control him except the Rule and his own conscience which is responsible for the salvation of every soul entrusted to his care.
The Rule of St. Benedict was written at Monte Cassino in the ten or fifteen years preceding the saint's death in 543, but very little is known of the way in which it began to spread to other monasteries. St. Gregory (Dial., II, xxii) speaks of a foundation made from Monte Cassino at Terracina, but nothing is known of this house. Again the traditions of Benedictine foundations in Gaul and Sicily by St. Maurus and St. Placid are now generally discredited. Still the Rule must have become known very soon, for by the death of St. Simplicius, the third abbot of Monte Cassino, in line from St. Benedict, it is referred to as being observed throughout Italy. In the year 580 Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards and the monks fled to Rome, taking with them the autograph copy of the Rule. They were installed by Pelagius II in a monastery near the Lateran Basilica. It is almost certain that St. Gregory the Great who succeeded Pelagius II introduced the Benedictine Rule and observance into the monastery of St. Andrew which he founded on the Coelian Hill at Rome, and also into the six monasteries he founded in Sicily. Thanks to St. Gregory the Rule was carried to England by St. Augustine and his fellow monks ; and also to the Frankish and Lombard monasteries which the pope's influence did much to revive. Indirectly too, by devoting the second book of his "Dialogues" to the story of St. Benedict's life and work, Gregory gave a strong impetus to the spread of the Rule. Thus the first stage in the advance of St. Benedict's code across Western Europe is closely bound up with the name of the first monk- pope.
In the seventh century the process continued steadily. Sometimes the Benedictine code existed side by side with an older observance. This was the case at Bobbio where the monks lived either under the rule of St. Benedict or St. Columbanus, who had founded the monastery in 609. In Gaul at the same period a union of two or more rules was often to be found, as at Luxeuil, Solignac, and elsewhere. In this there was nothing surprising, indeed the last chapter of St. Benedict's rule seems almost to contemplate such an arrangeent. In England, thanks to St. Wilfrid of York, St. Benedict Biscop and others, the Benedictine mode of life began to be regarded as the only true type of monachism. Its influence however was still slight in Ireland where the Celtic monastcism gave way more slowly. In the eighth century the advance of Benedictinism went on with even greater rapidity owing principally to the efforts of St. Boniface. That saint is known as the Apostle of Germany although the Irish missionaries had preceded him there. His energies however were divided between the two tasks of converting the remaining heathen tribes and bringing the Christianity of the Irish converts into line with the Roman use and obedience. In both these undertakings he achieved great success and his triumph meant the destruction of the earlier Columban form of monasticism. Fulda, the great monastery of St. Boniface's institution, was modelled directly on Monte Cassino in which Sturm the abbot had resided for some time so that he might become perfectly acquainted with the workings of the Rule at the fountain head, and in its turn Fulda became the model for all German monasteries. Thus by the reign of Charlemagne the Benedictine form of monasticism had become the normal type throughout the West with the sole exception of some few Spanish and Irish cloisters. So completely was this the case that even the memory of earlier things had passed away and it could be gravely doubted whether monks of any kind at all had existed before St. Benedict and whether there could be any other monks but Benedictines.
At the time of Charlemagne's death in 814 the most famous monk in western Europe was St. Benedict of Aniane , the friend and counsellor of Louis the new emperor. For him Louis built a monastery near his imperial palace at Aix, and there Benedict gathered thirty monks, chosen from among his own personal friends and in full sympathy with his ideas. This monastery was intended to be a model for all the religious houses of the empire, and the famous Assembly of 817 passed a series of resolutions which touched upon the whole range of the monastic life. The object of these resolutions was to secure, even in the minutest details, an absolute uniformity in all the monasteries of the empire, so that it might seem as if "all had been taught by one single master in one single spot". As might have been expected the scheme failed to do this, or even anything approaching thereto, but the resolutions of the Assembly are of high interest as the first example of what are nowadays called "Constitutions", i.e. a code, supplementary to the Holy Rule, which shall regulate the lesser details of everyday life and practice. The growth of the Benedictine monasticism and its development during the period known as the "Benedictine centuries" will be found treated in the article BENEDICTINES, but it may be stated broadly that, while it had of course its periods of vigour and decline, no serious modification of St. Benedict's system was attempted until the rise of Cluny in the early part of the tenth century.
(3) The Rise of Cluny
The essential novelty in the Cluniac system was its centralization. Hitherto every monastery had been a separate family, independent of all the rest. The ideal of Cluny, however, was to set up one great central monastery with dependent houses, numbered even by the hundred, scattered over many lands and forming a vast hierarchy or monastic feudal system under the Abbot of Cluny. The superior of every house was nominated by the Abbot of Cluny, every monk was professed in his name and with his sanction. It was in fact more like an army subject to a general than St. Benedict's scheme of a family with a father to guide it, and for two centuries it dominated the Church in Western Europe with a power second only to that of the papacy itself. (See CLUNY, BERNO, ST.; ODO, ST.; HUGH THE GREAT.) Anything indeed more unlike the primitive monasticism with its caves and individualism than this elaborate system with the pomp and circumstance which soon attended it could hardly be imagined, and the instinct which prompted men to become monks soon began to tell against a type of monasticism so dangerously liable to relapse into mere formalism. It must be understood however that the observance of Cluny was still strict and the reaction against it was not based on any need for a reform in morals or discipline. The abbots of Cluny during the first two centuries of its existence, with the sole exception of Pontius (1109) who was soon deposed, were men of great sanctity and commanding ability. In practice however the system had resulted in crushing all initiative out of the superiors of the subordinate monasteries and so, when a renewal of vigour was needed there was no one capable of the effort required and the life was crushed out of the body by its own weight. That this defect was the real cause why the system failed is certain. Nothing is more remarkable in the history of Benedictine monasticism than its power of revival by the springing up of renewed life from within. Again and again, when reform has been needed, the impetus has been found to come from within the body instead of from outside it. But in the case of Cluny such a thing had been rendered practically impossible, and on its decline no recovery took place.
(4) Reaction Against Cluny
The reaction against Cluny and the system of centralization took various forms. Early in the eleventh century (1012) came the foundation of the Camaldolese by St. Romuald. This was a hark back to the ancient Egyptian ideal of a number of hermits living in a "laura" or collection of detached cells which were situated some considerable distance apart (see CAMALDOLESE). A few years later (1039) St. John Gualbert founded the Order of Vallombrosa which is chiefly important for the institution of " lay brothers ", as distinct from the choir monks, a novelty which assumes high importance in later monastic history (see LAY-BROTHER; VALLOMBROSA). In 1074 came the Order of Grammont which however did not move to the place from which its name is derived until 1124 (see GRAMMONT; STEPHEN OF MURET, ST.). Far more important than these was the establishment in 1084 of the Carthusians by St. Bruno, at the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, which boasts that it alone of the great orders has never required to be reformed (see CARTHUSIANS; CHARTREUSE, LA GRANDE; BRUNO, ST.). In all these four institutes the tendency was towards a more eremitical and secluded form of life than that followed by the Benedictines, but this was not the case in the greatest of all the foundations of the period, viz. the Cistercians.
The Cistercians derived their name from Cîteaux near Dijon where the Order was founded about 1098 by St. Robert of Molesme . The new development differed from that of Cluny in this that, while Cluny established one scattered family of vast size, Cîteaux preserved the idea that each monastery was an individual family but united all these families into one "Order" in the modern sense of an organized congregation. The Abbot and House of Cîteaux was to be pre-eminently for ever over all the monasteries of the order. The abbots of all the other monasteries were to assemble at Cîteaux in general chapter every year. The purpose of this was to secure in every monastery a complete uniformity in the details of observance, and this uniformity was to be made even more certain by a yearly visitation of each house. The Abbot of Cîteaux possessed the further right of visiting any and every monastery at will, and though he was not to interfere with the temporalities of any house against the wishes of the abbot and brethren, in all matters of discipline his power was absolute. This elaborate system was set forth in the famous document known as the "Carta Caritatis" and in it for the first time the expression "Our Order" is used in the modern sense. Previously the word, as used in the phrase "the monastic order" had denoted the mode of life common to every monastery. In the "Carta Caritatis" it is used to exclude all monastic observance not exactly on the lines of the "new monastery ", i.e., Cîteaux, and subject to it. The monasteries of the Cistercians spread over Europe with surprising rapidity and from the colour of their habit the monks were called the "White Monks ", the older Benedictines and Cluniacs being known as the "Black Monks" (see CISTERCIANS; CITEAUX; ROBERT OF MOLESME,ST.; BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, ST.)
The impetus given by these new foundations helped to revitalize the Benedictine monasteries of the older type, but at the same time a new influence was at work upon western monasticism. Hitherto the monastic ideal had been essentially contemplative. Certainly the monks had undertaken active work of many kinds but always as a kind of accident, or to meet some immediate necessity, not as a primary object of their institute nor as an end in itself. Now however religious foundations of an active type began to be instituted, which were dedicated to some particular active work or works as a primary end of their foundation. Of this class were the Military Orders, the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights ; numerous Institutes of canons, e.g., Augustinians, Premonstratensians, and Gilbertines; the many Orders of friars, e.g. Carmelites, Trinitarians, Servites, Dominicans, and Franciscans or Friars Minor. Of these and the multitudinous modern foundations of an active character, as distinct from a contemplative or monastic one, this article does not profess to treat; they will be found fully dealt with in the general article RELIGIOUS ORDERS and also individually in separate articles under the names of the various orders and congregations. It must be recognized however that these active institutions attracted a vast number of vocations and to that extent tended to check the increase and development of the monastic order strictly so called, even while their fervour and success spurred the older institutes to a renewal of zeal in their special observances.
The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 passed certain special canons to regulate monastic observance and prevent any falling away from the standard set up. These directions tended to adapt the best features of the Cistercians system, e.g. the general chapters, to the use of the Black monks, and they were a great step in the path which later proved so successful. At the time however they were practically ignored by the monasteries on the Continent, and only in England was any serious effort made to put them into practice. The consequence was that the English monasteries of Black monks soon formed themselves into one national congregation, the observance throughout the country became largely uniform, and a far higher standard of life obtained than was common in continental monasteries at the same period. The system of periodic general chapters ordered by the Lateran Council was maintained. So too was the subjection of all monasteries to the diocesan bishops as a normal state of affairs; indeed only five abbeys in all England were exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. There were of course failures here and there, but it is clear that, from the date of the Council of Lateran up to the time of their destruction, the English Benedictine houses maintained on the whole a good standard of discipline and preserved the affectionate respect of the great majority of the laity in every rank of life.
(5) Period of Monastic Decline
On the Continent the period succeeding the Fourth Lateran Council was one of steady decline. The history of the time tells of civil disturbance, intellectual upheaval, and a continual increase of luxury among ecclesiastics as well as laymen. The wealth of the monasteries was tempting and the great ones both in Church and State seized upon them. Kings, nobles, cardinals, and prelates obtained nominations to abbeys "in commendam" and more often than not absorbed the revenues of houses which they left to go to ruin. Vocations grew scarce and not unfrequently the communities were reduced to a mere handful of monks living on a trifling allowance doled out to them none too willingly by the layman or ecclesiastic who claimed to be their commendatory abbot . Efforts to check these evils were not wanting especially in Italy. The Sylvestrines, founded by St. Sylvester de Gozzolini about the middle of the thirteenth century, were organized on a system of perpetual superiors under one head, the Prior of Monte Fano, who ruled the whole congregation as general assisted by a chapter consisting of representatives from each house (see SYLVESTRINES). The Celestines, founded about forty years later by St. Peter Morone (Celestine V) , were organized on much the same plan but the superiors were not perpetual and the head of the whole body was an abbot elected by the General Chapter for three years and ineligible for reelection for nine years after his previous term of office (see CELESTINES; ST. CELESTINE V ). The Olivetans, founded about 1313 by Bernardo Tolomei of Siena, mark the last stage of development. In their case the monks were not professed for any particulat monastery, but, like friars, for the congregation in general. The officials of the various houses were chosen by a small committee appointed for this purpose by the general chapter. The abbot-general was visitor of all the monasteries and "superior of superiors", but his power was held for a vary short period only. This system had the very great advantage that it rendered the existence of commendatory superiors practically impossible, but it secured this at the cost of sacrificing all family life in the individual monastery which is the central idea of St. Benedict's legislation. Further, by taking the right of election away from the monastic communities, it concentrated all real power in the hands of a small committee, a course obviously open to many possible dangers (see OLIVETANS).
(6) Monastic Revival
In the great wave of reform and revival which characterized the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the older institutions of Benedictines once more gave proof of their vitality and a spontaneous renewal of vigour was shown throughout Europe. This revival followed two main lines. In the Latin countries the movement pursued the path marked out by the Olivetans. Thus in Italy all the monasteries of Black monks were gradually united together under the name of the Congregation of St. Justina of Padua, afterwards called the Cassinese Congregation (see under BENEDICTINES). Similar methods were adopted in the formation of the Congregations of St. Maur and St. Vannes in France, in the two Congregations of Spanish Benedictines, and in the revival of the English Congregation. In Germany the revival took a different path; and, while keeping closer to the traditions of the past, united the existing monasteries very much in the manner ordered by the Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215. The Union of Bursfeld is perhaps the best example of this method. An example of reform in the seventeenth century was the work of Abbé de Rance in instituting the Cistercian reform at La Trappe. In this his object was to get as close as possible to the principal form of Benedictine life. No one can question his sincerity or the singleness of his intentions, but de Rance was not an antiquary and had not been trained as a monk but as a courtier. The result was that he interpreted St. Benedict's rule with the most absolute literalness, and thus succeeded in producing a cast-iron mode of life far more rigid and exacting than there is any reason to believe St. Benedict himself either desired to or did beget. The upheaval of the French Revolution and the wars which followed it seemed likely to give a deathblow to Western monasticism and in fact did destroy monasteries by the hundred. But nothing perhaps is more noteworthy, in all the wonderful revival of Catholicism which the last hundred years have seen, than the resuscitation of monastic life in all its forms, not only in Europe, but also in America, Africa, Australia, and other distant lands whose very existence was unknown to the founders of Western monasticism. Details of this revival will be found in the articles on the various orders and congregations referred to above.
No mention has been made in this article of the question of women under monasticism. Broadly speaking the history of contemplative nuns, as distinct from nuns of the more recent active orders, has been identical with that of the monks. In almost every instance the modifications, reforms, etc., made by the various monastic legislators have been adopted by convents of women as well as by the monks. In cases where any special treatment has been thought necessary, e.g. the Carthusian nuns, a separate section of the article on the order or congregation in question has been dedicated to the subject. These sections should be referred to in all cases for detailed information. (For practical details of the monastic life and the actual working of a monastery see the articles MONASTICISM; MONASTERY; ABBEY; ABBOT; ABBESS; OBEDIENTIARIES; BENEDICT, RULE OF ST.; BENEDICT OF NURSIA, ST.; NUN.)
More Volume: W 303
Click/Touch the sub-volume below to view encyclopedia articles within the sub-volume.
Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.