The glorious period of monasticism fell in the Middle Ages, and more especially in the period that is engaging our attention. The convent was the chief centre of true religion as well as of dark superstition. With all the imposing movements of the age, the absolute papacy, the Crusades, the universities, the cathedrals and scholasticism, the monk was efficiently associated. He was, with the popes, the chief promoter of the Crusades. He was among the great builders. He furnished the chief teachers to the universities and numbered in his order the profoundest of the Schoolmen. The mediaeval monks were the Puritans, the Pietists, the Methodists, the Evangelicals of their age.536 All these classes of Christians have this in common, that they make earnest with their religion, and put it into zealous practice.
If it be compared with the monachism of the earlier period of the Church, the mediaeval institution will be found to equal it in the number of its great monks and to exceed it in useful activity. Among the distinguished Fathers of the Post-Nicene period who advocated monasticism were St. Anthony of Egypt, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict of Nursia. In the Middle Ages the list is certainly as imposing. There we have Anselm, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus among the Schoolmen, St. Bernard and Hugo de St. Victor, Eckart, and Tauler among the mystics, Hildegard and Joachim of Flore among the seers, the authors of the Dies irae and Stabat mater and Adam de St. Victor among the hymnists, Anthony of Padua, Bernardino of Siena, Berthold of Regensburg and Savonarola among the preachers, and in a class by himself, Francis d’Assisi.
Of the five epochs in the history of monasticism two belong to the Middle Ages proper.537 The appearance of the hermit and the development of the eremite mode of life belong to the fourth century. Benedict of Nursia of the sixth century, and his well-systematized rule, mark the second epoch. The development of the Society of Jesus in the sixteenth century marks the last epoch. The two between are represented by the monastic revival, starting from the convent of Cluny as a centre in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and the rise and spread of the mendicant orders in the thirteenth century. Cluny was for a century almost the only reforming force in Western Europe till the appearance of Hildebrand on the stage, and he himself was probably trained in the mother convent. Through its offshoots and allied orders Cluny continued to be a burning centre of religious zeal for a century longer. Then, at a time of monastic declension, the mendicant orders, brought into existence by St. Francis d’Assisi and Dominic of Spain, became the chief promoters of one of the most notable religious revivals that has ever swept over Europe.
The work done by men like William of Hirschau, Bruno and Norbert in Germany, Bernard and Peter the Venerable in France, and St. Francis in Italy, cannot be ignored in any true account of the onward progress of mankind. However much we may decline to believe that monasticism is a higher form of Christian life, we must give due credit to these men, or deny to a series of centuries all progress and good whatsoever.
The times were favorable for the development of monastic communities. If our own is the age of the laic, the mediaeval period was the age of the monk. Society was unsettled and turbulent. The convent offered an asylum of rest and of meditation. Bernard calls his monks "the order of the Peaceful." Feud and war ruled without. Every baronial residence was a fortress. The convent was the scene of brotherhood and co-operation. It furnished to the age the ideal of a religious household on earth. The epitaphs of monks betray the feeling of the time, pacificus, "the peaceful"; tranquilla pace serenus, "in quiet and undisturbed repose"; fraternae pacis amicus, "friend of brotherly peace."
The circumstances are presented by Caesar of Heisterbach under which a number of monks abandoned the world, and were "converted"—that is, determined to enter a convent. Now the decision was made at a burial.538 Now it was due to the impression made by the relation of the wonderful things which occurred in convents. This was the case with a young knight, Gerlach,539 who listened to an abbot who was then visiting a castle, as he told his experiences within cloistral walls. Gerlach went to Paris to study, but could not get rid of the seed which had been sown in his heart, and entered upon the monastic novitiate. Sometimes the decision was made in consequence of a sermon.540 Caesar of Heisterbach himself was "converted" by a description given by Gerard of Walberberg, abbot of Heisterbach, while they were on the way to Cologne during the troublous times of Philip of Swabia and Otto IV. Gerard described the appearance of the Virgin, her mother Anna, and St. Mary Magdalene, who descended from the mountain and revealed themselves to the monks of Clairvaux while they were engaged in the harvest, dried the perspiration from their foreheads, and cooled them by fanning. Within three months Caesar entered the convent of Heisterbach.541
There were in reality only two careers in the Middle Ages, the career of the knight and the career of the monk. It would be difficult to say which held out the most attractions and rewards, even for the present life. The monk himself was a soldier. The well-ordered convent offered a daily drill, exercise following exercise with the regularity of clockwork; and though the enemy was not drawn up in visible array on open field, he was a constant reality.542 Barons, counts, princes joined the colonies of the spiritual militia, hoping thereby to work out more efficiently the problem of their salvation and fight their conflict with the devil. The Third Lateran, 1179, bears witness to the popularity of the conventual life among the higher classes, and the tendency to restrict it to them, when it forbade the practice of receiving motley as a price of admission to the vow.543 The monk proved to be stronger than the knight and the institution of chivalry decayed before the institution of monasticism which still survives.
By drawing to themselves the best spirits of the time, the convents became in their good days, from the tenth well into the thirteenth century, hearthstones of piety, and the chief centres of missionary and civilizing agencies. When there was little preaching, the monastic community preached the most powerful sermon, calling men’s thoughts away from riot and bloodshed to the state of brotherhood and religious reflection.544 The motto aratro et cruce, "by the cross and the plough," stood in their case for a reality. The monk was a pioneer in the cultivation of the ground, and, after the most scientific fashion then known, taught agriculture, the culture of the vine and fish, the breeding of cattle, and the culture of wool. He built roads and the best buildings. In intellectual and artistic concerns the convent was the chief school of the times. It trained architects, painters, and sculptors. There the deep problems of theology and philosophy were studied; there manuscripts were copied, and when the universities arose, the convent furnished them with their first and their most renowned teachers. In northeastern Germany and other parts of Europe and in Asia it was the outer citadel of church profession and church activity.
So popular was the monastic life that religion seemed to be in danger of running out into monkery and society of being transformed into an aggregation of convents. The Fourth Lateran sought to counteract this tendency by forbidding the establishment of new orders.545 But no council was ever more ignorant of the immediate future. Innocent III. was scarcely in his grave before the Dominicans and Franciscans received full papal sanction.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the important change was accomplished whereby all monks received priestly ordination. Before that time it was the exception for a monk to be a priest. Extreme unction and absolution had been administered in the convent by unordained monks.546 With the development of the strict theory of sacerdotalism, these functions were forbidden to them, as by the ninth oecumenical council, 1123. The synod of Nismes, thirty years earlier, 1096, thought it answered objections to the new custom sufficiently by pointing to Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, and Augustine as cases of monks who had priestly ordination. On the other hand the active movement within the convents to take a larger part in the affairs of society was resisted by oecumenical councils, as, for example, the Second Lateran, 1139, which forbade monks practising as physicians or lawyers.
The monastic life was praised as the highest form of earthly existence. The convent was compared to Canaan547 and treated as the shortest and surest road to heaven. The secular life, even the life of the secular priest, was compared to Egypt. The passage to the cloister was called conversion, and the monks converts, conversi, or the religious.548 They reached the Christian ideal. Renouncing the vow was pronounced turning to the company of the lost, to the lion’s mouth, and to the realm of blackness and death.549
Bishop Otto of Freising speaks of the monks as, spending their lives like angels in heavenly purity and holiness. They live together one in heart and soul, give themselves at one signal to sleep, lift up as by one impulse their lips in prayer and their voices in reading.... They go so far, that while they are refreshing the body at table, they listen to the reading of the Scriptures.... They give up their own wills, their earthly possessions, and their parents, and, following the command of the Gospel and Christ, constantly bear their cross by mortifying the flesh, being all the while full of heavenly homesickness."550
The enthusiastic advocacy of the monastic life can only be explained by a desire to get relief from the turbulence of the social world and a sincere search after holiness. There is scarcely a letter of Anselm in which he does not advocate its superior advantages. It was not essential to become a monk to reach salvation, but who, he writes, "can attain to it in a safer or nobler way, he who seeks to love God alone or he who joins the love of the world with the love of God?"551 He loses no opportunity to urge laymen to take the vow. He appeals to his kinsmen according to the flesh to become his kinsmen in the Spirit.552
Bernard was not at peace till he had all his brothers and his married sister within cloistral walls.
Honorius of Autun, in his tract on the cloistral life,553 after declaring that it was instituted by the Lord himself, calls the convent a shore for those tired on the sea, a refuge for the traveller from the cold and anxieties of the world, a bed for the weary to rest on, an asylum for those fleeing from the turmoils of the state, a school for infants learning the rule of Christ, a gymnasium for those who would fight against vices, a prison career for the criminal from the broad way till he goes into the wide hall of heaven, a paradise with different trees full of fruits and the delights of Scripture.
The monastic life was the angelic life. "Are ye not already like the angels of God, having abstained from marriage," exclaimed St. Bernard, in preaching to his monks,554 and this was the almost universal representation of the age.
Kings and princes desired to be clad in the monastic habit as they passed into the untried scenes of the future. So Frederick II., foe of the temporal claims of the papacy as he was, is said to have died in the garb of the Cistercians. So did Roger II. of Sicily, 1163, and Roger III., 1265. William of Nevers was clad in the garb of the Carthusian order before he expired. Louis VI. of France passed away stretched on ashes sprinkled in the form of a cross. So did Henry, son of Henry II. of England, expire, laid on a bed of ashes, 1184. William the Conqueror died in a priory with a bishop and abbot standing by.555
It was the custom in some convents, if not in all, to lay out the monks about to die on the floor, which was sometimes covered with matting. First they rapped on the death table. Waiting the approach of death, the dying often had wonderful visions of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. The imagination at such times was very vivid, and the reports which the dying gave on returning for a moment to consciousness seem to have been generally accepted.556
The miraculous belonged to the monk’s daily food. He was surrounded by spirits. Visions and revelations occurred by day and by night.557 Single devils and devils in bands were roaming about at all hours in the cloistral spaces, in the air and on foot, to deceive the unwary and to shake the faith of the vigilant. The most elaborate and respectable accounts of monks, so beset, are given by Peter the Venerable in his work on Miracles, by Caesar of Heisterbach, and Jacobus de Voragine. Caesar’s Dialogue of Miracles and Voragine’s Golden Legend are among the most entertaining storybooks ever written. They teem with legends which are accepted as true. They simply reflect the feeling of the age, which did not for a moment doubt the constant manifestation of the supernatural, especially the pranks and misdemeanors of the evil one and his emissaries.
Peter the Venerable gives a graphic picture of how these restless foes pulled the bedclothes off from sleeping monks and, chuckling, carried them to a distance, how they impudently stood by, making fun while the modest monastic attended to the necessities of nature,558 and how they threw the faithful to the ground, as at night they went about through convent precincts making "holy thefts of prayer."559 Peter tells a good story of a poor monk who suddenly saw before him an immense demon standing at his bedside, who with difficulty bore his weight with his wings. Two others appeared at once and exclaimed to the first, "What are you doing here?" "I can do nothing," was the reply, "on account of the protection which is given by the cross and the holy water and the singing of psalms. I have labored all night and can do nothing." The two replied, "We have come from forcing a certain Gaufrid to commit adultery and the head of a monastery to fornicate with a boy, and you, idle rogue, do something, too, and cut off the foot of this monk which is hanging outside his bed." Seizing a pickaxe which was lying under the bed, the demon struck with all his might, but the monk with equal celerity drew in his foot and turned to the back side of the bed and so escaped the blow. Thereupon the demons took their departure.560
It is fair to suppose that many of these experiences were mere fancies of the brain growing out of attacks of indigestion or of headache, which was a common malady of convents.561
The assaults of the devil were especially directed to induce the monk to abandon his sacred vow. Writing to a certain Helinand, Anselm mentions the four kinds of assault he was wont to make. The first was the assault through lust of the pleasures of the world, when the novice, having recently entered the convent, began to feel the monotony of its retired life. In the second, he pushed the question why the monk had chosen that form of life rather than the life of the parish priest. In the third, he pestered him with the question why he had not put off till late in life the assumption of the vow, in the meantime having a good time, and yet in the end getting all the benefits and the reward of monkery. And last of all, the devil argued why the monk had bound himself at all by a vow, seeing it was possible to serve God just as acceptably without a vow. Anselm answered the last objection by quoting Ps. 76:11, and declaring the vow to be in itself well pleasing to God.562
It is unfair to any institution to base our judgment of its merits and utility upon its perversions. The ideal Benedictine and Franciscan monk, we should be glad to believe, was a man who divided his time between religious exercises and some useful work, whether it was manual labor or teaching or practical toil of some other kind. There were, no doubt, multitudes of worthy men who corresponded to this ideal. But there was another ideal, and that ideal was one from which this modern age turns away with unalloyed repugnance. The pages of Voragine and the other retailers of the conventual life are full of repulsive descriptions which were believed in their day, and presented not only a morbid view of life but a view utterly repulsive to sound morality and to the ideal. A single instance will suffice. In the curious legend of St. Brandon the Irish saint, whose wanderings on the ocean have been connected with America, we have it reported that he found an island whereon was an abbey in which twenty-four monks lived. They had come from Ireland and had been living on the island eighty years when they welcomed St. Brandon and his twelve companions. In all this time they had been served from above every week day with twelve loaves of bread, and on Sabbaths with double that number, and they had the same monotonous fare each day, bread and herbs. None of them had ever been sick. They had royal copes of cloth of gold and went in processions. They celebrated mass with lighted tapers, and they said evensong. And in all those eighty years they had never spoken to one another a single word! What an ideal that was to set up for a mortal man! Saying mass, keeping silence, going in processions with golden copes day in and day out for eighty long years, every proper instinct of nature thus buried, the gifts of God despised, and life turned into an indolent, selfish seclusion! And yet Voragine, himself an archbishop, relates that "Brandon wept for joy of their holy conversation."563
Gifts of lands to monastic institutions were common, especially during the Crusades. He who built a convent was looked upon as setting up a ladder to heaven.564 Battle Abbey, or the Abbey of St. Martin of the Place of Battle, as the full name is, was built by William the Conqueror on the battle-field of Hastings and finally dedicated by Anselm, 1094. The Vale Royal in Cheshire, the last Cistercian home founded in England, was established by Edward I. in fulfilment of a vow made in time of danger by sea on his return from Palestine. He laid the first stone, 1277, and presented the home with a fragment of the true cross and other relics.
Most of the monastic houses which became famous, began with humble beginnings and a severe discipline, as Clairvaux, Citeaux, Hirschau, and the Chartreuse. The colonies were planted for the most part in lonely regions, places difficult of access, in valley or on mountain or in swamp. The Franciscans and Dominicans set a different example by going into the cities and to the haunts of population, howbeit also choosing the worst quarters. The beautiful names often assumed show the change which was expected to take place in the surroundings, such as Bright Valley or Clairvaux, Good Place or Bon Lieu, the Delights or Les Delices (near Bourges), Happy Meadow or Felix Pré, Crown of Heaven or Himmelskrone, Path to Heaven or Voie du Ciel.565 Walter Map, writing in the last part of the twelfth century, lingers on the fair names of the Cistercian convents, which, he says, "contain in themselves a divine and prophetic element, such as House of God, Gate of Salvation," etc.566
With wealth came the great abbeys of stone, exhibiting the highest architecture of the day. The establishments of Citeaux, Cluny, the Grande Chartreuse, and the great houses of Great Britain were on an elaborate scale. No pains or money were spared in their erection and equipment. Stained glass, sculpture, embroidery, rich vestments, were freely used.567 A well-ordered house had many parts,—chapel, refectory, calefactory, scriptorium for writing, locutorium for conversation, dormitory, infirmary, hospital.568 Not a single structure, but an aggregation of buildings, was required by the larger establishments. Cluny, in 1245, was able to accommodate, at the same time, the pope, the king of France, and the emperor of Constantinople, together with their retinues. Matthew Paris says Dunfermline Abbey, Scotland, was ample enough to entertain, at the same time, three sovereigns without inconvenience the one to the other. The latest conveniences were introduced into these houses, the latest news there retailed. A convent was, upon the whole, a pretty good place to be in, from the standpoint of worldly well-being. What the modern club house is to the city, that the mediaeval convent was apt to be, so far as material appointments went. In its vaults the rich deposited their valuables. To its protection the oppressed fled for refuge. There, as at Westminster, St. Denis, and Dunfermline, kings and princes chose to be buried. And there, while living, they were often glad to sojourn, as the most notable place of comfort and ease they could find on their journeys.
The conventual establishment was intended to be a self-sufficient corporation, a sort of socialistic community doing all its own work and supplying all its own stuffs and food.569 The altruistic principle was supposed to rule. They had their orchards and fields, and owned their own cattle. Some of them gathered honey from their own hives, had the fattest fish ponds, sheared and spun their own wool, made their own wine, and brewed their own beer. In their best days the monks set a good example of thrift. The list of minor officials in a convent was complete, from the cellarer to look after the cooking and the chamberlain to look after the dress of the brethren, to the cantor to direct the singing and the sacristan to care for the church ornaments. In the eleventh century the custom was introduced of associating lay brethren with the monasteries, so that in all particulars these institutions might be completely independent. Nor was the convent always indifferent to the poor.570 But the tendency was for it to centre attention upon itself, rather than to seek the regeneration and prosperity of those outside its walls.
Like many other earthly ideals, the ideal of peace, virtue, and happy contentment aimed at by the convent was not reached, or, if approached in the first moments of overflowing ardor, was soon forfeited. For the method of monasticism is radically wrong. Here and there the cloister was the "audience chamber of God." But it was well understood that convent walls did not of themselves make holy. As, before, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine had borne testimony to that effect, so now also did different voices. Ivo of Chartres (d. 1116) condemns the monks who were filled with the leaven of pride and boast of their ascetic practices and refers to such passages as 1 Tim. 4:8 and Rom. 14:17. The solitudes of the mountains and forests, he says, will not make men holy, who do not carry with them rest of soul, the Sabbath of the heart, and elevation of mind. Peter of Cluny wrote to a hermit that his separation from the world would not profit unless he built a strong wall against evil in his own heart, and that wall was Christ the Saviour. Without this protection, retirement to solitude, mortifications of the body, and journeyings in distant lands, instead of availing, would bring temptations yet more violent. Every mode of life, lay and clerical, monastic and eremitic, has its own temptations.
But prosperity was invariably followed by rivalry, arrogance, idleness, and low morals. If Otto of Freising gives unstinted praise to the cloistral communities, his contemporary, Anselm of Havelberg,571 condemns the laziness and gossip of the monks within and without the convent walls. Elizabeth of Schoenau and Hildegard of Bingen, while they looked upon the monastic life as the highest form of earthly existence, saw much that was far from ideal in the lives of monks and nuns.572 There is a chronique scandaleuse of the convents as dark and repulsive as the chronique scandaleuse of the papacy during the pornocracy, and under the last popes of the Middle Ages. In a letter to Alexander III., asking him to dissolve the abbey of Grestian, the bishop of the diocese, Arnulf, spoke of all kinds of abuses, avarice, quarrelling, murder, profligacy. William of Malmesbury,573 writing in 1125, gives a bad picture of the monks of Canterbury. The convent of Brittany, of which Abaelard was abbot, revealed, as he reports in his autobiography, a rude and shocking state of affairs. Things got rapidly worse after the first fervor of the orders of St. Francis and Dominic was cooled. Teachers at the universities, like William of St. Amour of Paris (d. 1270), had scathing words for the monkish insolence and profligacy of his day, as will appear when we consider the mendicant orders. Did not a bishop during the Avignon captivity of the papacy declare that from personal examination he knew a convent where all the nuns had carnal intercourse with demons? The revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden (d. 1375), approved at the councils of Constance and Basel, reveal the same low condition of monastic virtue. Nicolas of Clemanges (d. 1440) wrote vigorous protests against the decay of the orders, and describes in darkest colors their waste, gluttony, idleness, and profligacy. He says a girl going into a convent might as well be regarded as an abandoned woman at once. It was true, as Caesar of Heisterbach had said in a homily several centuries before, "Religion brought riches and riches destroyed religion."574
The institution of monasticism, which had included the warmest piety and the highest intelligence of the Middle Ages in their period of glory, came to be, in the period of their decline, the synonym for superstition and the irreconcilable foe of human progress. And this was because there is something pernicious in the monastic method of attempting to secure holiness, and something false in its ideal of holiness. The monks crushed out the heretical sects and resented the Renaissance. Their example in the period of early fervor, adapted to encourage thrift, later promoted laziness and insolence. Once praiseworthy as educators, they became champions of obscurantism and ignorance. Chaucer’s prior, who went on the pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas à Becket, is a familiar illustration of the popular opinion of the monks in England in the fourteenth century: —
"He was a lord full fat and in good point;
His eyen stepe and rolling in his head
That stemed as a fornice of a led;
His botes souple, his hors in gret estat,
Now certainly he was a sayre prelat.
He was not pale as a forpined gost;
A fat swan loved he best of any rost;
His palfrey was as broune as is a bery."
And yet it would be most unjust to forget the services which the monastery performed at certain periods in the history of mediaeval Europe, or to deny the holy purpose of their founders. The hymns, the rituals, and the manuscripts prepared by mediaeval monks continue to make contribution to our body of literature and our Church services. An age like our own may congratulate itself upon its methods of Church activity, and yet acknowledge the utility of the different methods practised by the Church in another age. We study the movements of the past, not to find fault with methods which the best men of their time advocated and which are not our own, but to learn, and become, if possible, better fitted for grappling with the problems of our own time.