Overview of Medieval Monasticism

Monks and Nuns of the Middle Ages

Let a man consider that God is always looking at him from heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels. . In order that he may be careful about his wrongful thoughts, therefore, let the faithful brother say constantly in his heart, "Then shall I be spotless before Him, if I have kept myself from my iniquity."
--from The Rule of St. Benedict


Christian monasticism is a structured, ascetic pursuit of the Christian life. It involves a return to God through attention to the classic spiritual disciplines of silence, chastity, prayer, fasting, confession, good works, obedience, and vigils. The monastic experience--from monas (Gk. "alone")--is an inward and solitary one, though it may be practiced in community.  The nature of the monastic pursuit is one that involves ora et labora (Lt. "prayer and work"), a submission of every aspect of one's life to a practiced awareness of God's presence.

Most monks and nuns were not priests, relying on the local parish to administer the sacraments; however, often isolated communities could seek to have one or more members ordained if needed. Likewise, bishops have often been chosen from monastic leadership.

Christian monasticism, while primarily concerned with the individual pursuit of the "spiritual life," that is an ascetic pursuit of God, has also arguably been responsible for: 

  1. the survival of education and culture during the period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire;
  2. the perpetuation of important Greco-Roman and early Christian manuscripts in monastery scriptoriums;
  3. the development of important early medicines in rudimentary pharmacies;
  4. the beginnings of Western capitalism with early advances in agricultural production, manufacturing, corporation law, and labor division;
  5. important advances in art, music, and cooking;
  6. social stability in Western and Eastern Europe, often serving as an outlet for the second sons and daughters of wealthy aristocratic families;
  7. and for important reform movements within Christendom.

The history of Christian monasticism, especially in Western Christianity, has been one of a cycle of reformation, stability, growing laxness and wealth, followed by new reformation, and so on.

Early Monasticism

I. Possible Predecessors

  • Nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21): Nazirites were of two types: those who were dedicated from birth to be a Nazirite (e.g. Samson and possibly John the Baptist) and those who undertake the vow for a limited time (Paul may have done this, cf. Acts 18:18). The Nazirite’s spiritual disciplines included not drinking wine or eating grapes, not cutting their hair until the end of the vow, extra strict rules for ritual defilement, and certain sacrificial dedications.
  • Qumran Community: Jewish ascetical communities located in Qumran ( Dead Sea ). They are primarily remembered because of The Manual of Discipline and The Damascus Document. They were led by an examiner, practiced communal ownership, keep strict rituals and an office of prayer, and practiced expulsion for violations of Torah.
  • Essenes: Described by Josepheus, the Essenes were mystical Jewish sects in the late 2nd century BC through the 1st century AD. Often associated with the Qumran community, they practiced a number of ascetical practices, including communal ownership, ritual bathing, isolation, special oaths, and food practices. They also seriously studied Jewish mystical and apocalyptical writings of the period.
  • Therapeutae: Early Jewish aesthetic hermits and communities described by Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century AD who lived in Egypt . They practiced solitude, ritual cleansing, prayer, fasting, etc. Philo saw them as examples of the contemplative existence. Apparently, their community was deeply involved in Jewish allegorical and mystical readings of the Old Testament and Apocryphal works, such as Enoch.

II. Medieval legends

  • Joseph of Arimathea: Medieval legends believed that Joseph of Arimathea founded the first monastic community in Glastonbury somewhere between 37 to 63 AD. The Grail legend is often associated with this. No real evidence exists for these claims, though Christian influence was relatively early in the British Isles.
  • Daughters of Philip (Acts 21:7-9): The four unmarried daughters of Philip the Evangelist were considered by medieval monks as early ascetics.

III. Models

  1. Jewish (Old Testament) Prophets: Elijah and Elisha are often cited as early examples of the monastic ideal
  2. John the Baptist: Called John the Forerunner in Eastern Christianity, John’s particular rigorous lifestyle and prophetic commitment to “decrease as he increases” were seen as modeling the monastic life.
  3. Mary: Mary’s simple obedience, radical submission to God’s will, humility and silence, as well as her chastity were all qualities seen as aspects of the ascetic life. Almost all medievals believed Mary to be a perpetual virgin, and this understanding became part of the prizing of virginity as a higher, more heavenly life and as a living martyrdom and espousal to Christ.
  4. Paul: Paul’s celibacy and tentmaking were prized as monastic.
  5. Jesus: Jesus’ celibacy and prayer life were seen as the highest of models.

IV. Early Types

  1. Eremetics: Hermits living alone, either living off what others brought them or by a simple means of subsistence existence, such as ropemaking. Paulus the Hermit (c. 230-342) was the first Christian monk known by name to history. Eventually, many adopted a modified eremitic existence, living as hermits but near each other for occasional gatherings and support. Marcarius first encouraged this form of living, nicknamed “the larvae.”
  2. Cenobitics: cenobium (Lt. “community): A gathered community of monks living together and following a common rule. Pachomius of Egypt (292-346) it is traditionally believed gathered the first community of monks, though this may have been one simply one of several loose associations.

V. The Desert Fathers

saint anthony abbot

Some of the earliest, if not the earliest Christian monastics, the desert monks of Egypt lived in both eremitic and cenobitic fashion. It is often claimed that they arose as a reaction to luxury and laxness after Christianity was declared legal and then favored in the Roman Empire . Anthony of Egypt, one of the earliest desert hermits, is sometimes known as the father of monasticism, though this is a bit of a misnomer, since other monks were practicing before him, yet the title is justified in a way, for his example, especially made popular through Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, inspired countless numbers to attempt the monastic life. His choice to enter the harsh life of the desert, his strict practice, and tales of his spiritual warfare became a call to ascetical heroics.

Shapers of Later Monasticism

Benediktas Nursietis

Basil of Caesurea (c.330-379): Considered the founder of Eastern monasticism, Basil (also called Basil the Great) along with his older sister, Macrina, helped give shape to the monastic life in the East. His Aescetica provided the foundational rules that still today guide the Eastern Orthodox practice. Basil is also known as one of the key theologians and preachers of the period and served as a bishop the last seven years of his life.

Benedict of Nursia (480-543): Considered the father of Western monasticism, Benedict originally took up the life of a hermit, but after being surrounded by numerous others, he founded a communal house at Monte Cassino. 

His Rule became the foundational guide for Western practice ("Therefore, we intend to establish a schola [Lt. "school" or "combat unit"] for the Lord's service."). Almost all subsequent reform movements in the medieval period saw themselves as trying to recover the original purity of Benedictine practice. The Rule gave shape to the characteristic shape of Western monasticism. Some of the following are key aspects:

1. Benedictine monks made three vows: 

  • Poverty: communal ownership of all property; simple dress and meals
  • Chastity: celibacy; self-control; pure thought life and body
  • Obedience: submission to all superiors and all monks who have previously entered the order

2. Monks ordered their day about the office of prayer: eight hours each with characteristic emphasis:

  • Matins (during the night)
  • Lauds or Morning Prayer (at Dawn)
  • Prime or Early morning prayer (the First Hour = 6am)
  • Terce or Mid-morning Prayer (the Third Hour = 9am)
  • Sext or Mid-day Prayer (the Sixth Hour = 12pm)
  • None or Mid-afternoon Prayer (the Ninth Hour = 3 pm)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (at the lighting of the lamps)
  • Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring)

3. Daily life was divided between prayer, work, and study. Labor was meant to keep each house self-sufficient and free of idleness, though in later centuries, manual work was often taken care of by local peasants. Communal meetings, sleeping arrangements, and dining all enforced a community discipline. Silence and times of solitude were regularly practiced, as well.4. The monastery set up the following offices:

  • Abbot: abba (Aram. "father")--the spiritual and organizational leader of the house.
  • Prior: the second in command.
  • Dean: would oversee ten monks

Celtic Monasticism

At its height in 5th through 7th centuries, the Celtic monastic tradition was a different one than that of Benedict, and consequently, had some differences in practice and emphasis, including the practice of peregrination, wandering on land or sea without direction or planning, totally dependent upon God’s purposes. They observed a different calendar than that of Rome, and possibly some married monks were allowed. Celtic monasteries were also known for their rich book production and early missionary work in the British Isles and France . Many of their scholars would form the backbone of the Carolingian Renaissance in future centuries. Important early Celtic missionaries include Patrick of Ireland (c. 390-461), Columbanus (543-615) who founded Iona, and Aidan (d. 651) who founded Lindisfarne in Northumbria . At the Synod of Whitby in 633, the Celtic orders adopted Western practices, including the Western calendar.


Reform Movements

I. Cluny

The Benedictian monastery at Cluny, Burgandy was established in 909/910 by the Duke of Aquitaine to be an abbey free of secular feudal control. For 200 years it functioned as a center of reform and social stability, and it was ruled by a succession of seven powerful and intelliegent abbots, including Breno and Peter the Venerable. The houses associated with Cluny (314 by the 12th century) practiced a more centralized form of governance in being answerably to the mother house at Cluny, a power structure not shared by the larger Benedictine order. Cluny became a great center of art and liturgy, responsible for the training of popes and other important church leaders. Eventually, the Cluniacs became enriched with their social wealth and influence.

abbazia di cluny pianta

Destroyed in the 18th century, the abbey-church at Cluny was an immense structure and became famous in the high medieval period. 555 feet in length, it was the largest church until St. Peter's at Rome was constructed. "It consisted of five naves, a narthex, or ante-church, and several towers. Commenced by St. Hugh, the sixth abbot, in 1089, it was finished and consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1131-32, the narthex being added in 1220" (Catholic Encyclopedia).

II. Carthusians

Begun by Bruno in 1084, the Carthusian order adopted their own rule, The Statutes, in opposition to the Benedictine rule. Bruno began the first house in Chartreuse in the Alps. The Carthusian order is still considered the strictest order of the Roman Catholic Church. They refused the dormitory-style common sleeping quarters of Cluny for single-cells, opting for a very simple, spare existence, hard manual labor, poor diet and clothing. The Carthusian order stressed a simplicity or absence of insignia. In many ways, the Carthusians returned to the early desert Cenobitic organization. The order famously claims "nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata" ("It needs no reform that has never been deformed.")

III. Cistercians

In 1098, Robert of Mosleme left the Benedictine order to begin a reform movement at Citeaux. By papal order, Robert was shortly replaced by Alberic, who died in 1109, then by Stephen Harding who ruled until 1134. The order stressed a return to the Benedictine rule in its original strictness, and as a result, they were in tension with Peter the Venerable at Cluny. They stressed manual, agricultural work, located themselves in wilderness self-contained retreats, and refused gifts from the wealthy. Bernard of Clarivaux, one of the most famous monks of the medieval period, took the order from 30 to 280 houses.

In the 13th century, Cistercian wool industry called for the creation of an order of lay brothers, relatively uneducated field workers and herdsmen, associated with the houses. The Cistercians adopted a polity half-way between the centralization of the Cluniacs and the complete independence of Benedictine houses. Cistercian abbots, elected by each house, were then subject to the yearly meeting of the chapter, the association of houses presided over by the Citeaux abbot.

IV. Augustinians 

In the 11th century, a number of independent monastic houses sprung up, ordering themselves under the Rule of St. Augustine. They were consolidated between 1243 and 1256 ("The Great Union") by Pope Innocent IV. Inspired by the ideal of "modesty and service," the OSA (Order of Saint Augustine) has operated schools, hospitals, retirement centers, and music foundations.

st francis of assisi cimabue

V. The Franciscans & The Dominicans

Franciscans: Begun by Francis and Clare of Assisi in the early 13th century as a preaching order concerned with the poor, the order was known for its work with the sick, destitute, and disenfranchised, as well as its unquestioning obedience to the pope. 

Under Francis’ charismatic leadership, the order expanded rapidly, and became known for its emphasis on evangelical poverty, winsome compassion, and missions. During but especially after Francis’ lifetime, the order became divided into stricter and laxer parties. The scholar Bonaventure led the Franciscans from 1257 to 1274, seeking to chart a moderate course, though condemning the excesses of the stricter Observationist or “Spiritual” party. The Spiritual Franciscans, along with strong mystical and apocalyptic beliefs, held to the doctrine of apostolic poverty, believing that Christ and the apostles owned nothing. This position was declared heretical in 1322. The Franciscan order in the following centuries spun off a number of separate sects and other orders.

Dominicans:The Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum)

Dominicans:The Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum) was founded by Dominiac in the 13th century as a medicant, or preaching, order. It was begun with an apologetical goal in mind—to convert Muslims, Jews, and heretics to the Catholic faith. Dominiac stressed vacility with vernacular languages, a strong academic education, especially in theology, and a life of simplicity and poverty so as to avoid hypocrisy. Two of its most famous members were the philosophers Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The order grew quickly in its first centuries of existence and its influence expanded as its members were chosen for church offices. Eventually, the order was charged with running the Roman Inquisition.

Knights Templar & Other Military Orders

Existing for about two centuries (1096-1314), the Knights Templar was the most well-known of the military orders. They were constituted as a monastic order after the First Crusade as an inspiration of Bernard of Clarivaux. The order was made-up of celibate lifetime members and temporary members, often married, from the knightly class who were mostly uneducated. The order also pioneered modern banking methods, such as credit and checking, to raise funds for the crusades, as well as to assist pilgrimages to the Holy Land . They served in the Holy Land campaigns, but eventually were accused of heresy by Philip the Fair and disbanded by Pope Clement V.

The Order of Christ, begun in 1318, succeeded the Knights Templar and absorbed many of its knights. It settled in Portugal . Over the centuries, it was reformed as both a religious order answerable to the pope and a civil order answerable to the king. The Knights Hospitaller, a 12th century order working with the sick, after the First Crusade divided itself into two parts, the newer one pledged to protecting pilgrimages to the Holy Land. They also fought with distinction in the Holy Land . Eventually, they absorbed much of the property of the Knights Templar, and its branches became military enclaves in later centuries, such as the Knights of Malta.


 251-356: Life of Anthony 

320: Pachomius (293-346) begins one of the first communal monasteries (Tabennisi, Egypt)

c. 330: Amoun and Macarius also found monasteries in the Egyptian desert

370: Basil,  Aescetica

386: Jerome founds monasteries in Bethlehem

390-459: Symeon the Stylite (c. 390 – 459) lives atop a column in Syria

401: Augustine of Hippo, On the Works of Monks , a work stressing value of manual labor

453: Patrick commissioned as missionary to Ireland

c. 526: Benedict writes his Rule

c. 563: Columbanus founds monastery at Iona, Scotland

597: Augustine (of Canterbury) sent to British isles as missionary by Pope Gregory I

635: Aidan founds Lindisfarne

c. 663: Synod of Whitby resolves differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity

731: Bede, History of the English Church and People

793: Vikings sack Lindisfarne

909: Berno founds Cluny.

936: Abbot Laffredus of Farfa poisoned by two monks for trying for enforcing the Benedictine rule

c.943: Dunstan calls for monastic reform in England

1084: Bruno founds the Carthusians

1098: Robert Molêsme founds Cistercian order

1099: First Crusade captures Jerusalem

1115: Bernard begins Cistercian abbey at Clairvaux

1118: The Knights Templar form in Jerusalem

1127: Bernard of Clairvaux, Apologia – prophetic critique of the Cluniacs

1128: Knights Templar adopt that Cistercian rule

1170-1221: Life of Dominic

1181/82-1226: Life of Francis of Assisi

1210: Pope Innocent III recognizes the Franciscans

1215: Fourth Lateran Council calls for monastic reform and regulation

1217: Pope Honorius III licenses the Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

1221: Death of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order

1233: Dominicans to staff the Roman Inquisition

1243-1256: Pope Innocent IV consolidates OSA (Order of Saint Augustine)

1314: Knights Templar disbanded

1318: Order of Christ succeeds Knights Templar

1323: Pope John XXII opposes doctrine of apostolic poverty

1328: William of Ockham excommunicated for Spiritual Franciscan views

 hildegard von bingen the origin of fire