Vol.4, Chapter VII. Monasticism

See the Lit. on Monasticism in vol. II., and III.

82. Use of Convents in the Middle Ages

The monks were the spiritual nobility of the church, and represented a higher type of virtue in entire separation from the world and consecration to the kingdom of God. The patristic, ideal of piety passed over into the middle ages; it is not the scriptural nor the modern ideal, but one formed in striking contrast with preceding and surrounding heathen corruption. The monkish sanctity is a flight from the world rather than a victory over the world, an abstinence from marriage instead of a sanctification of marriage, chastity, outside rather than inside the order of nature, a complete suppression of the sensual passion in the place of its purification and control. But it had a powerful influence over the barbaric races, and was one of the chief converting and civilizing agencies. The Eastern monks lost themselves in idle contemplation and ascetic extravagances, which the Western climate made impossible; the Western monks were, upon the whole, more sober, practical, and useful. The Irish and Scotch convents became famous for their missionary zeal, and furnished founders of churches and patron saints of the people.

Convents were planted by the missionaries among all the barbarous nations of Europe, as fast as Christianity progressed. They received special privileges and endowments from princes, nobles, popes, and bishops. They offered a quiet retreat to men and women who were weary of the turmoil of life, or had suffered shipwreck of fortune or character, and cared for nothing but to save their souls. They exercised hospitality to strangers and travelers, and were a great blessing in times when traveling was difficult and dangerous. They were training schools of ascetic virtue, and the nurseries of saints. They saved the remnants of ancient civilization for future use. Every large convent had a library and a school. Scribes were employed in copying manuscripts of the ancient classics, of the Bible, and the writings of the fathers. To these quiet literary monks we are indebted for the preservation and transmission of nearly all the learning, sacred and secular, of ancient times. If they had done nothing else, they would be entitled to the lasting gratitude of the church and the world.

During the wild commotion and confusion of the ninth and tenth centuries, monastic discipline went into decay. Often the very riches of convents, which were the reward of industry and virtue, became a snare and a root of evil. Avaricious laymen (Abba-comites) seized the control and perpetuated it in their families. Even princesses received the titles and emoluments of abbesses.


83. St. Benedict. St. Nilus. St. Romuald

Yet even in this dark period there were a few shining lights.

St. Benedict of Aniane (750-821), of a distinguished family in the south of France, after serving at the court of Charlemagne, became disgusted with the world, entered a convent, founded a new one at Aniane after the strict rule of St. Benedict of Nursia, collected a library, exercised charity, especially during a famine, labored for the reform of monasticism, was entrusted by Louis the Pious with the superintendence of all the convents in Western France, and formed them into a “congregation,” by bringing them under one rule. He attended the Synod of Aix-la-Chapelle in 817. Soon after his death (Feb. 12, 821) the fruits of his labors were destroyed, and the disorder became worse than before.

St. Nilus the younger, of Greek descent, born at Rossano in Calabria (hence Nilus Rossanensis), enlightened the darkness of the tenth century. He devoted himself, after the death of his wife, about 940, to a solitary life, following the model of St. Anthony and St. Hilarion, and founded several convents in Southern Italy. He was often consulted by dignitaries, and answered, like St. Anthony, without respect of person. He boldly rebuked Pope Gregory V. and Emperor Otho III. for bad treatment of an archbishop. When the emperor afterwards offered him any favor he might ask, Nilus replied: “I ask nothing from you but that you would save your soul; for you must die like every other man, and render an account to God for all your good and evil deeds.” The emperor took the crown from his head, and begged the blessing of the aged monk. When a dissolute nobleman, who comforted himself with the example of Solomon, asked Nilus, whether that wise king was not saved, the monk replied: “We have nothing to do with Solomon’s fate; but to us it is said, ‘Every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ We do not read of Solomon that he ever repented like Manasseh.” To questions of idle curiosity he returned no answer, or he answered the fool according to his folly. So when one wished to know what kind of an apple Adam and Eve ate, to their ruin, he said that it was a crab-apple. In his old age he was driven from Calabria by invaders, and founded a little convent, Crypta Ferrata, near the famous Tusculum of Cicero. There he died peacefully when about ninety-six years old, in 1005.

St. Romuald, the founder of the order of Camaldoli, was born early in the tenth century at Ravenna, of a rich and noble family, and entered the neighboring Benedictine convent of Classis, in his twentieth year, in order to atone, by a severe penance of forty days, for a murder which his father had committed against a relative in a dispute about property. He prayed and wept almost without ceasing. He spent three years in this convent, and afterwards led the life of a roaming hermit. He imposed upon himself all manner of self-mortification, to defeat the temptations of the devil. Among his devotions was the daily repetition of the Psalter from memory; a plain hermit, Marinus, near Venice, had taught him this mechanical performance and other ascetic exercises with the aid of blows. Wherever he went, he was followed by admiring disciples. He was believed to be endowed with the gift of prophecy and miracles, yet did not escape calumny. Emperor Otho III. paid him a visit in the year 1000 on an island near Ravenna. Romuald sent missionaries to heathen lands, and went himself to the border of Hungary with a number of pupils, but returned when he was admonished by a severe sickness that he was not destined for missionary life. He died in the convent Valle de Castro in 1027.

According to Damiani, who wrote his life fifteen years after his death, Romuald lived one hundred and twenty years, twenty in the world, three in a convent, ninety-seven as a hermit.

The most famous of Romuald’s monastic retreats is Campo Maldoli, or Camaldoli in the Appennines, near Arezzo in Tuscany, which he founded about 1009. It became, through the influence of Damiani, his eulogist and Hildebrand’s friend, the nucleus of a monastic order, which combined the cenobitic and eremitic life, and was distinguished by great severity. Pope Gregory XVI. belonged to this order.


84. The Convent of Cluny

Marrier and Duchesne: Bibliotheca Cluniacensis. Paris 1614 fol. Holsten.: Cod. Regul. Mon. II. 176. Lorain: Essay historique sur l’ abbaye de Cluny. Dijon 1839. Neander III. 417 sqq. 444 sq. Friedr. Hurter (Prot, minister in Schaffhausen, afterwards R. Cath.): Gesch. Papst Innocenz des Dritten (second ed. Hamb. 1844), vol. IV. pp. 22-55.

After the decay of monastic discipline during the ninth and tenth centuries, a reformation proceeded from the convent of Cluny in Burgundy, and affected the whole church.

It was founded by the pious Duke William of Aquitania in 910, to the honor of St. Peter and St. Paul, on the basis of the rule of St. Benedict.

Count Bruno (d. 927) was the first abbot, and introduced severe discipline. His successor Odo (927-941), first a soldier, then a clergyman of learning, wisdom, and saintly character, became a reformer of several Benedictine convents. Neander praises his enlightened views on Christian life, and his superior estimate of the moral, as compared with the miraculous, power of Christianity. Aymardus (Aymard, 941-948), who resigned when he became blind, Majolus (Maieul to 994), who declined the papal crown, Odilo, surnamed “the Good” (to 1048), and Hugo (to 1109), continued in the same spirit. The last two exerted great influence upon emperors and popes, and inspired the reformation of the papacy and the church. It was at Cluny that Hildebrand advised Bishop Bruno of Toul (Leo IX.), who had been elected pope by Henry III., to seek first a regular election by the clergy in Rome; and thus foreshadowed his own future conflict with the imperial power. Odilo introduced the Treuga Dei and the festival of All Souls. Hugo, Hildebrand’s friend, ruled sixty years, and raised the convent to the summit of its fame.

Cluny was the centre (archimonasterium) of the reformed Benedictine convents, and its head was the chief abbot (archiabbas). It gave to the church many eminent bishops and three popes (Gregory VII., Urban II., and Pascal II.). In the time of its highest prosperity it ruled over two thousand monastic establishments. The daily life was regulated in all its details; silence was imposed for the greater part of the day, during which the monks communicated only by signs; strict obedience ruled within; hospitality and benevolence were freely exercised to the poor and to strangers, who usually exceeded the number of the monks. During a severe famine Odilo exhausted the magazines of the convent, and even melted the sacred vessels, and sold the ornaments of the church and a crown which Henry II. had sent him from Germany. The convent stood directly under the pope’s jurisdiction, and was highly favored with donations and privileges. The church connected with it was the largest and richest in France (perhaps in all Europe), and admired for its twenty-five altars, its bells, and its costly works of art. It was founded by Hugo, and consecrated seventy years afterwards by Pope Innocent II. under the administration of Peter the Venerable (1131).

The example of Cluny gave rise to other monastic orders, as the Congregation of the Vallombrosa (Vallis umbrosa), eighteen miles from Florence, founded by St. John Gualbert in 1038, and the Congregation of Hirsau in Württemberg, in 1069.

But the very fame and prosperity of Cluny proved a temptation and cause of decline. An unworthy abbot, Pontius, wasted the funds, and was at last deposed and excommunicated by the pope as a robber of the church. Peter the Venerable, the friend of St. Bernard and kind patron of the unfortunate Abelard, raised Cluny by his wise and long administration (1122-1156) to new life and the height of prosperity. He increased the number of monks from 200 to 460, and connected 314 convents with the parent institution. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV., with twelve cardinals and all their clergy, two patriarchs, three archbishops, eleven bishops, the king of France, the emperor of Constantinople, and many dukes, counts and knights with their dependents were entertained in the buildings of Cluny. This was the end of its prosperity. Another decline followed, from which Cluny never entirely recovered. The last abbots were merely ornamental, and wasted two-thirds of the income at the court of France. The French Revolution of 1789 swept the institution out of existence, and reduced the once famous buildings to ruins; but restorations have since been made.

A similar reformation of monasticism and of the clergy was attempted and partially carried out in England by St. Dunstan (925-May 19, 988), first as abbot of Glastonbury, then as bishop of Winchester and London, and last as archbishop of Canterbury (961) and virtual ruler of the kingdom. A monk of the severest type and a churchman of iron will, he enforced the Benedictine rule, filled the leading sees and richer livings with Benedictines, made a crusade against clerical marriage (then the rule rather than the exception), hoping to correct the immorality of the priests by abstracting them from the world, and asserted the theocratic rule of the church over the civil power under Kings Edwy and Edgar; but his excesses called forth violent contentions between the monks and the seculars in England. He was a forerunner of Hildebrand and Thomas à Becket.