Benedict and other monastic founders wanted to create spiritual communities where people could concentrate on getting ready for life after death.
The Rules of the monastic orders required that members of the community observe vows such as:
Service to the poor and needy
Partake in Religious services and the religious life of the community
Because monks took vows of poverty, they had to rely on begging to meet many of their needs such as food and clothing.
However, as monasteries became more important they would receive endowments from nobles as well as gifts of land. By the High Middle Ages the Church owned 25% of all the land in Europe.
Monasteries would also be given religious objects as gifts such as:
Gold and silver crosses
Vestments and other religious paraphernalia
Monasteries became some of the most powerful institutions in Europe. The above reproduction is of the monastery at Cluny – at its height it housed thousands of monks.
What Shape is the cathedral built it?
Typical Layout of a Benedictine Monastery
Hard work was a major part of monastic life. Monks were required to help support the community by helping in the garden or learning some trade such as beer making, bee keeping or learning medicine.
One important similarity between manors and monasteries is that both institutions were basically self-sufficient.
The leader of the monastery was called an abbot – derived from the Aramaic “abba” which means father. In this illustration the abbot (holding his staff) is leading the monks in a religious service.
Monasteries were, in many parts of rural Europe, the only Church available for people.
Locals were invited to attend mass at the monastery and the brothers would hear confessions and settle local disputes.
The monks also provided religious training for the local peasants and nobles.
In most places around Europe, the clergy were the only literate people to be found.
Therefore, it is not surprising that monasteries became centers of learning along with cathedrals.
Monks came to see themselves as protectors of knowledge and culture in Europe. This role was especially prominent in Ireland where the Irish monks protected much of Western learning from disappearing during those uncertain times.
Libraries and Scriptoriums
Many of the larger monasteries were famous for their scriptoriums – giant rooms where monks would sit for hours everyday copying books by hand.
Monasteries were relatively safe places to keep these expensive books.
A handwritten Bible with illuminations from a medieval monastery Handwritten document from a monastic library.
Illuminated Bibles The classic Bible illuminated manuscript took several monks two years or more to produce.
Convents and the Role of Women
Although the monastic life seems strange to many of us today, it was a very attractive option for many people in the Middle Ages – including women.
Monasteries for women were called Convents .
To become a nun was very respectable and could bring a woman great prestige.
How were women viewed by Medieval Society?
St. Augustine was the first Christian theologian to develop the idea of Original Sin. This was the sin committed by Adam and Eve. Needless to say, Eve was perceived to be the more sinful of the two.
Women had very few options as far as the way society would perceive them:
- The Virgin Mary was the ideal woman – chaste yet still a loving mother and devoted wife.
- Witches and Prostitutes were at the other end of the spectrum.
Why did women become nuns?
Some were dedicated by their families at a young age as fulfillment of a religious promise made by the parents.
True piety – these women were genuinely devoted to their religion and wanted to spend their lives practicing their religion. So instead of marrying a man they chose to become “brides of Christ”.
Remaining chaste saved a woman from becoming like Eve and brought her redemption.
In some cases it was a way to escape marriage and childbearing – both of which could be very dangerous for a woman in the Middle Ages.
The promise of education and a life of contemplation – something they could not have in public/married life.
Convent life gave women a chance to play an important role in the religious life of the community. Here we see two nuns praying at a mass for the dead.
Choosing Mary over Eve Convent life offered women a chance to practice their religion in a professional manner - just like the men. If one lived an exceptional life there was the chance of eventually becoming a saint. This would bring a woman eternal respect and adoration – something she did not have in public life where she would have been viewed with contempt and suspicion. Spiritual Tree of Women Saints
Convent Life 2 AM – Mass 6 AM – Rise again for Mass 7 AM – Break fast and work, study and attend vespers. 7 PM – Bed time ( 8PM in the summer) The leader of a convent was called a abbess. Notice in this illustration that the abbess is holding a shepherd's staff like an abbot.
The vast majority of witches were condemned by secular courts with local courts especially noted for their persecutory zeal. The standard procedure in most countries was for accused witches to be brought before investigating tribunals and interrogated. In some parts of Europe, torture was rarely used; but where the witch-hunts were most intensive, it was a standard feature of the interrogations. Obviously, a large majority of accused who "confessed" to witchcraft did so as a result of the brutal tortures to which they were exposed. About half of all convicted witches were given sentences short of execution. The unluckier half were generally killed in public, often en masse , by hanging or burning. The witch-hunts waxed and waned for nearly three centuries, with great variations in time and space. The rate of witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging from a high of 26,000 deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland. Witch Hunts
Important Nuns From Medieval Times
St. Julian of Norwich is one of the great mystical writers of the Catholic Church.
Her writings are still widely read and are the object of much scholarly work.
She is considered to be one of the earliest voices for women by a woman in the West.
Another mystic who wrote down her visions.
This is a woodcut of St. Birgitta in her study looking through her books.
What did the Scholastic philosophers, like Anselm and Aquinas believe reason would allow them to accomplish?
If you were an architect, how would you reflect this optimism in churches?
Replaced the rounded arch of the Romanesque style.
The arcs soar upward like trees to the source of light. This gave Gothic churches an open and majestic feel – lifting the thoughts of the people who entered.
What are the hallmarks of the Gothic style?
The presence of light dominates Gothic churches just as divine revelation dominates and illuminates human reason.
Many of the stained glass windows portray stories and parables from the Bible for the illiterate in the congregation.
The light and color of the Gothic style stands in direct contrast to the older and darker churches built in the Romanesque style.
Gothic churches could have large, pointed windows like their related arches because the walls of the church were thinner.
Why were the Gothic builders able to construct thinner walls than the Romanesque builders?
Romanesque builders constructed thick walls to hold up the heavy stone roofs – this limited the amount of available space in the church.
Gothic builders constructed much thinner walls by using flying buttresses to keep the walls from buckling out and collapsing.
If it looks old it must be important! Princeton University Chapel built in the 20 th century looks like it came from the 12 th century.
Consider : Why did the architect want the cathedral to be the dominate building in the town?
Medieval Art Weeping on Christ dead 1303-1305 Painting during the Gothic period was practiced in 4 primary crafts: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass.