Monasticism in Western Europe reached its zenith during the High Middle Ages of the late eleventh century and early twelfth century. Coming out of the ascetic tradition of the Desert Fathers at the end of the third century, monasticism grew to become a highly influential movement with centres of worship and learning throughout medieval Europe. In this paper I will describe the development of medieval monasticism and consider the spiritual benefits that it offered to men and women both inside and outside monastic communities. I will not provide a comprehensive analysis of the benefits. Instead I will look at examples from the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and manual work. I will conclude with a reflection on what spiritual benefit monasticism might offer the life of the church today.
A. The desert origins
Christian monasticism originated in the ascetic practices of hermits and anchorites who withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude and prayer in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine during the third century. The word monk is derived from the Greek word μόνος (mónos) meaning ‘alone.’ Jerome (c.347–420) stated that the first Christian anchorites were fleeing persecution under the Roman emperors. He described those who lived this austere life as white martyrs, in contrast to the red martyrdom of those who died in the persecution. Other commentators argue that asceticism was a way to prove their dedication to Christ when persecution had largely been replaced by tolerance following the conversion of Constantine. The quest for spiritual perfection by withdrawing from the world came from the example of Christ. Two strands of ascetical life developed during the fourth century which would later inspire and reinvigorate medieval monastic organisation. Firstly, the eremitical life, as followed by the desert hermits under the inspiration of Antony (c.251–356) and secondly the cenobitical life within a community, originated by Pachomius (c.292–346). Pachomius organised men’s and women’s monasteries in upper Egypt with colonies of several hundred monks and nuns under him as their abbot and living according to a rule.
B. The spread of monasticism
Monasticism spread in the Eastern provinces during the fourth century and by the beginning of the fifth century accounts of the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers became available to Christians in Western Europe, including the Life of St. Antony by Athanasius (c.296–373) and the Conferences of Scythian monk John Cassian (c.360–435). Leaving his Bethlehem monastery in about 385, Cassian travelled across Egypt visiting communities and learning from the anchorite abbots. He later settled in Gaul where he founded monasteries for men and women based on these communities and wrote the Conferences, a collection of the reflections and experiences of the Egyptian abbots, and also the Institutes, which was the first teaching on cenobitic life in Western Europe. Cassian thought the eremitic life was a higher calling and viewed the cenobitic life as for beginners. Although he acknowledged that communal living guarded the monk from the dangers of vanity and it ensured self-will was eradicated because he had to be subject to the abbot (Conference XIX). Cassian thus established that communal life was an end in itself as a means of perfection. Cassian’s writings became required reading for monks and shaped much of Western monasticism into the Middle Ages. During the fifth century, monasticism became firmly established in Gaul and Italy and it began to be integrated into the institutional church under the patronage and protection of bishops. By 600 there were at least 220 monasteries and convents in Gaul and around 100 in Italy.
C. The Rule of Benedict
The life of a monk or nun was governed by the rule that was observed in his or her monastery. Initially these were based on the strict asceticism of the cenobitic communities in Egypt, such as those of Pachomius. Benedict of Nursia (c.480–550) developed a less harsh rule, which he adapted from the Regula Magistri (Rule of the Master), following his experiences as abbot at monasteries in Subiaco and Monte Cassino. The Regula Magistri was written by an unknown abbot, referred to as the Master, probably in a monastery near Rome in about 500. Gregory the Great (c.540–604) wrote an account on the life of Benedict which helped to popularise Benedict and his Rule. Gregory described Benedict as ‘a man whose life was worthy of veneration … and blessed by grace.’ He relates how Benedict was a hermit in a cave in Subiaco for three years when a group of monks pleaded for him to become their abbot. A reluctant Benedict relented and introduced a rule which the errant monks found too strict and as a result tried to poison him. He returned to his cave and later founded twelve monasteries in the region each of twelve monks. In 530 Benedict moved to Monte Cassino and founded a large monastery and it was here that he wrote the Rule. It was both a practical guide to the governance of a cenobitic community and an instruction for the spiritual life of a monk. The Rule ordered the day with regular times for prayer, manual work and study, though not as harsh or burdensome as the Eastern ascetic practices. The most important task was the communal prayer Benedict called opus dei (work of God) that took place eight times a day between 2 a.m. and sunset. Monks studied the Bible and books by and about the Church Fathers, including the works of Cassian, by lectio divina (divine reading). Benedict wanted to create a ‘scola,’ more like a military academy than a school or retreat centre, where monks could prepare for spiritual warfare. In addition to the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Benedict added a fourth vow of stability in order to encourage monks to stay within their community. At the time of Benedict’s death his Rule was only observed at Monte Cassino and it was not until later that it spread to other monasteries in Europe, in part due to the role played by Gregory.
D. The growth of monasticism
Other forms of monasticism had developed elsewhere in Europe. In Britain and Ireland Celtic monasticism took root inspired by missionaries in the fifth and sixth centuries. Drawing on the eremitical tradition the Celtic monasteries spread in northern Britain often in isolated areas under the strict Rule of Columbanus.  In the seventh century, many monasteries in Gaul and Spain followed the ‘mixed rule’ of Benedict and Columbanus. Double monasteries also developed in Gaul with separate communities of men and women living in the same establishment. Often this would be under an abbess with the monks providing the priests and helping with manual tasks. During this period monastic schools were established, replacing the ancient systems of education following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Under the patronage of kings and emperors, monasticism continued to flourish throughout Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries with the Benedictine Rule becoming dominant.
E. Revival and reform
With growth came wealth and influence as monasteries accumulated land and endowments from benefactors. Consequently the social composition of monasteries began to change and by the ninth century most monks in the larger communities came from noble birth. The characteristics of monastic life also changed in some communities with opus manuum (manual work) being carried out by servants and tenants and more elaborate prayer performed by increasingly clerical monks. Sometimes observance of the rule became lax and political instability in parts of Europe saw monasteries under attack by Viking, Magyar and Saracen invaders. Many attempts were made to reform monasticism and revive a stricter observance of the Rule. In 909 Duke William of Aquitaine (875–918) founded a monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. The Cluniac Order became the most influential force in the reform of monasticism for the following two centuries, building many new monasteries and reforming older communities based on the Benedictine Rule and answerable only to the Pope. Cluny inspired other Benedictine revivals in the tenth century centred on Glastonbury and Abingdon in England and Gorze in Germany.
By the eleventh century the elaborate Benedictine tradition that was practiced at Cluny was viewed as having departed too far from the desert asceticism of the early church and there was a desire to return to the vita apostolica (apostolic life). The Carthusian order, named after the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France, were an eremitical movement formed in 1084 that were characterised by their solitude and silence. The monks lived in their own cells within the community in order to emulate the desert hermitages. The Cistercians, named after the French village of Cîteaux, were formed in 1098 as an attempt to return to the observance of the original Benedictine Rule. Other reform movements seeking the vita apostolica in the eleventh and twelfth centuries included the Canons Regular, who followed the Augustinian Rule based on a letter by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) written in 423, the Victorines (1113) from the Paris Abbey of St Victor and the Premonstratensians (1121). In the thirteenth century the Franciscan Order, founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181–1226), and the Order of Preachers, founded by Dominic de Guzman (1170–1221), were established as a reaction to the increased urbanisation in medieval society and outbreaks of heresy that arose at the time. Medieval monasticism had reached its height and from the thirteenth century, in part due to falling revenue but also due to a reduction in monks joining, the movement fell into decline.
The spiritual benefits of monasticism
Having looked at the story of medieval monasticism I now turn to the perceived spiritual benefits that the movement offered to men and women, inside and outside the monastery.
A. Opus Dei
Jeffrey Bingham believes the main task of the monk, opus dei, was valued by those outside the monastery because, ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective’ (Jas 5:16). He states that people found ‘confidence and peace’ as a result of the monks’ prayer support. The prayer was pure, brief, frequent and based on Scripture, since according to Benedict prayers are not heard due to many words but because ‘the heart is pure and the spirit penitent.’ Benedictine patterns of worship influenced the liturgy of the Western Church and the structure of both Catholic and Protestant forms of service can find their roots in monasticism.
B. Lectio Divina
Monks could spend up to three hours a day in lectio. Scripture was the main source of study for the monk with the Psalms a particular favourite to the extent that sometimes the entire Psalter was committed to memory. The first phase was the lectio (reading), followed by meditatio (meditation) leading to oratio (prayer) as a response. In the monastic schools, child oblates were taught basic literacy and in some communities children from outside of the monastery were also taught. The presence of learning in monastic scola would ultimately develop into scholasticism and the foundation of European universities.
C. Opus Manuum
George Ovitt argues that the opus manuum of early monasticism ‘influenced the course of Western economic, social and technological development.’ Monks believed their manual work was a personal act of worship but they accomplished major land improvements through the organisation and efficiency of communities working together. Both the example they set and the projects they achieved provided a social legacy to the economic organisation of Europe.
The spiritual benefit monasticism offers the life of the church today
One characteristic of monasticism that I believe would benefit both the church and society in general is that of silence. In an ever increasingly busy, noisy world that is full of information, new forms of media and entertainment the opportunity to pause and reflect is often lacking. The relatively recent reintroduction of communal one or two minutes silence at events to mark national tragedies shows, I believe, a fundamental human desire to have this space. Communal silence is an eremitic act in that the individual withdraws into the solitude of one’s own thoughts and yet it is practiced in a cenobitical way.
Medieval monasticism traces its origins to the white martyrdom of the desert ascetics who desired to lead a life of spiritual devotion by withdrawing from the world in order to reach perfection. Two forms of asceticism developed; the eremitical life of the hermit, regarded as the highest calling, and the cenobitical life within community. The writings of Cassian and others led to the establishment of monasticism in Western Europe. The Benedictine Rule with instructions for spiritual life and community governance became dominant, although other rules were adopted and occasionally monasteries followed a mixed rule. Monasticism flourished but some felt at the cost of its ascetic roots and so there were many attempts to reform and revive the movement and return to the vita apostolica. Examples of the spiritual benefits of monasticism include the value of the prayer support that monks gave to those outside the community, the development of education and the organisation and efficiency of manual work which led to social transformation. Many forms of medieval monasticism have lasted until the present day and it has a significant legacy in the history of the church.
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 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 1; Anchorite from the Greek ἀναχωρέω (anachōréō) to withdraw.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 18.
 Carolinne White, ed., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), xiii.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 2.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 4.
 Eremitical means ‘desert’ from the Greek word ἔρημος (eremos); Cenobitical means ‘common’ from the Greek word κοινός (koinos); Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 4.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 8; Abbot (Abbas) is from the Aramaic abba meaning my father.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 11-12; Scythia Minor is now in modern day Romania.
 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 12.
 Gaul is mostly the region that is modern day France; Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 13.
 Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 24.
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 Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 13.
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 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (2nd ed.; Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 221.
 Nursia is now known as Norcia, a town north east of Rome.
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 D. Jeffrey Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001), 105.
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 Bingham, “The Practice of Prayer in Early and Medieval Monasticism,” 112-113.
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 Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” 7.
 Ovitt, “Manual Labor and Early Medieval Monasticism,” 17-18.