History of the christian church



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CHAPTER VIII.
THE MONASTIC ORDERS.
§ 61. The Revival of Monasticism.
Literature.—The Letters of Anselm, Bernard, Peter the Venerable, William of Thierry, Hildegard, etc.—Abaelard: Hist. calamitatum, his autobiography, Migne, 178.—Honorius of Autun: De vita claustrali, Migne, 172, 1247 sqq.—Bernard: De conversione ad clericos sermo, in Migne, 182, 853–59, and De praecepto et dispensatione, 851–953.—The Treatments of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, etc., in their Summas.—Petrus Venerablis: De miraculis, in Migne, 189. Caesar of Heisterbach (ab. 1240): Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. by J. Strange, 2 vols. Col. 1851. Excerpts in German trans. by A. Kaufmann, 2 parts, Col. 1888 sq.—Thos. à Chantimpré (d. about 1270): Bonum universale de apibus, a comparison of a convent to a beehive. Excerpts in German by A. Kaufmann, Col. 1899; Annales monastici, ed. by Luard, 5 vols. London, 1865–69.—Jacobus de Voragine: Legenda aurea, English by W. Caxton (about 1470), Temple classics ed. 7 vols. London, 1890. — William of St. Amour (d. 1272): De periculis novissorum temporum in Denifle Chartularium Univ., Paris, vol. 1.

The Lives of Anselm, Bernard, William of Thierry, Francis, Dominic, Norbert, etc.—H. Helyot (Franciscan, d. 1716): Hist. des ordres monastiques, religieux et militaires et des congrégations séculières de l’une et de l’autre sexe qui ont été établies jusqu’ àprésent, 8 vols. Paris, 1714–19; Germ. trans., 8 vols. Leip. 1753–56. He gives a long list of the older authorities.—Mrs. Jamieson: Legends of the Monastic Orders, London, 1850.—A. Butler: Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, 12 vols. Dublin, 1868 sqq.—Sir William Dugdale: Monasticon anglicanum, ed. by J. Caley, etc., 8 vols. London, 1846. Based on the ed. of 1817.—T. D. Fosbroke: Brit. Monasticism, or Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England, London, 1803, 3d ed. 1845.—Montalembert: Les moins d’occident depuis St. Benoit jusqu’ à St. Bernard, Paris, 1860–77; EngI. trans., 7 vols. London, 1861 sqq.—O. T. Hill: Engl. Monasticism, Its Rise and Influence, London, 1867.—S. R. Maitland: The Dark Ages, ed. by Fred. Stokes, 5th ed., London, 1890.—Wishart: Short Hist. of Monks and Monasticism, Trenton, 1900.—E. L. Taunton: The Engl. Black Monks of St. Benedict, 2 vols. London, 1897.—A. Gasquet: Engl. Monastic Life, London, 1904, and since.—Hurter: Innocent III., vol. IV. 84–311.—J. C. Robertson: View of Europe during the Middle Ages, in introd. to his Life of Chas. V.—H. Von Eicken: Gesch. und System der mittelalterlichen Weltanschauung, Stuttgart, 1887.—A. Jessopp: The Coming of the Friars, London, no date, 7th ed., chap. Daily Life in a Med. Monastery, 113–166.—Harnack: Monasticism, Giessen, 1882, 5th ed. 1901, trans. by C. R. Gillett, N. Y., 1895.—Stephens: Hist. of the Engl. Church, chap. XIV. (Monastic Orders).—Hauck, III. 441–516, IV. 311–409.—Littledale: Monachism, ’in Enc. Brit.—Denifle: Luther und Lutherthum, Mainz, 1904 sq., draws in his treatment of monasticism, upon his great resources of mediaeval scholarship.


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.6 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, 539who 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.2 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 Canaan 547and 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."0

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?"1 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,3after 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, 554and 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.6

The miraculous belonged to the monk’s daily food. He was surrounded by spirits. Visions and revelations occurred by day and by night.7 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, 558and 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.1

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.2

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."3

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.4 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. 565Walter 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.7 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.

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