Medieval Monasticism as Preserver of Western Civilization

The term “Dark Ages” was once erroneously applied to the entire millennium separating late antiquity from the Italian Renaissance (500-1500 AD). Today’s scholars know better. There is a widespread acknowledgment among them (see David Knowles’ The Evolution of Medieval Thought, London: Longman, 1988) that the 14th century i.e., the century of Dante and Petrarca’s Humanism, not only was not part of the Dark Ages but was the essential precursor of the Italian Renaissance. It was the century when ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts preserved in monasteries were discovered and read and discussed once again thus paving the way for the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity which, in synthesis with Christianity, produces a unique new civilization.

Scholars have also become aware that the High Middle Ages (the first three centuries of the second millennium) were far from dark and intellectually retrograde. Those were the centuries of the cathedrals which still stand there as monuments to an incredibly complex and enlightened civilization, despite the designation of “gothic” as a disparaging term, the equivalent of retrograde and uncivilized, by Voltaire. As the founder of the European Union Robert Schuman used to quip: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” That statement is revealing and throws light on the fact that those centuries may have shaped the very identity of Modern Western European civilization. We ignore them at the risk of forever losing our cultural identity which, even for a great many Americans, is rooted in Western Europe.

But there is more; scholars keep pushing further back the designation “Dark Ages” and have now excluded from it the eight, ninth and tenth centuries (the era of the so called Carolingian Renaissance, from 700 to 1000 AD). So the dubious distinction of Dark Ages, properly speaking, belongs to the sixth and seventh centuries (500 to 700 AD) which indeed were centuries of meager fruits in education, literary output and other cultural indicators. Those were the centuries of cultural retrogression, the centuries of the Barbarian invasions in Italy and elsewhere which effectively wrecked Roman civilization as we know it. Those invasions destroyed cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, institutions such as law, government, you name. It was in fact the Church that stepped in the vacuum and maintained a modicum of order within a crumbling civilization. As Christopher Dawson aptly writes: “The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.”

How was this accomplished? By the establishment of Western monasticism by St. Benedict of Nursia at Montecassino Italy (some fifty miles south of Rome) in 529 AD. St. Benedict’s immediate intention was not to do great deeds for European civilization but that was the result. At its height the Benedictine order boasted 37,000 monasteries throughout Europe. No wonder St. Benedicts has been declared the patron saint of Europe and the present Pope assumed his name at his elevation to the Papacy.

Besides praying and working out their salvation and preaching the gospel, what else did monks pursue in those monasteries? The practical arts, agriculture were two of their most significant enterprises. They literally saved agriculture in Europe. They taught the folks how to cultivate the land, especially in Germany where they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country. Manual labor was intrinsic part of their rule which proclaimed “ora et labora” (pray and work). In England they owned one fifth of all its cultivable land. The monks would introduce crops, industries and production methods with which the people were not yet familiar: the rearing and breeding of cattle, horses, the brewing of beer, the raising of bees and fruits. The corn trade in Sweden was established by the monks, in Parma it was cheese making, in Ireland salmon fisheries, and in many places vineyards.

From the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin the monks redirected the waters of St. Gervais and Belleville to Paris. They taught people irrigation on the plains of Lombardy which has always been some of the richest and most productive in Europe. They constructed technologically sophisticated water-powered systems at monasteries which were hundred of miles away from each other. The monasteries themselves were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe. Water-power was used to crush wheat, sieving flour, making cloth, and tanning. Not even the Roman world had adopted mechanization for industrial use to such an extent.

The monks were also known for their skills in metallurgy. In the 13th century they became the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France. They quarried marble, did glass-work, forged metal plates, mined salt. They were skilful clock-makers. One such clock installed in Magdeburg around 996 AD is the first ever. Another sits in excellent condition in London’s science museum. They also made astronomical clocks. One such was at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Alban; it was designed by Abbot Richard of Wallingford. In short, monastic know-how pervaded Europe thus preventing a complete reverting to barbarism.

But there was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of the copying of ancient manuscripts. It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: those were rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.

The other place where the survival of manuscripts had priority were the schools associated with the medieval cathedrals. It was those schools of medieval times which lay the groundwork for the first University established at Bologna Italy in the eleventh century. The Church had already made some outstanding original contributions in the field of philosophy and theology (the various Church fathers among whom Plautinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Don Scotus) but she was also saving books and documents which resulted indispensable later on for the preserving of Western civilization.
The best know of those scholars of the Dark Ages was Alcuin, a polyglot theologian who worked closely with Charlemagne to restore study and scholarship in the whole of West-Central Europe. In describing the holdings of his library at York he mentions works by Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, Virgil. In his correspondence he mentions Horace, Ovid, Terence. And he was not alone. The abbot of Ferrieres (c. 805-862) Lupus quotes Cicero, Horace, Martial, Seutonius, and Virgil. The abbot of Fleury (c. 950-1104) demonstrated familiarity with Horace, Sallust, Terence, Virgil.

The greatest of abbots after Benedict, Desiderius, who eventually became Pope Victor III in 1086, personally oversaw the transcription of Horace and Seneca, Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and Ovid’s Fasti. His friend Archbishop Alfano (also a former monk at Montecassino) was familiar with the works of ancient writers quoting from Apuleius, Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Varro, Virgil. He himself wrote poetry imitating Ovid and Horace. Saint Anselm, as abbot of Bec, commended Virgil and other classical writers to his students.

The other great scholar of the so called Dark Ages was Gerbert of Aurillac who later became Pope Sylvester II. He taught logic but also ancient literature: Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Persius, Terence, Statius, Virgil. Then there is St. Hildebert who practically knew Horace by heart. Thus it is a great fallacy to assert that the Church encouraged the destruction of ancient pagan culture. To the contrary she helped preserve that culture which would have otherwise been lost.

There were monasteries, moreover, which specialized in other fields of knowledge besides literature. There were lectures in medicine by the monks of St. Benignus at Dijon, in painting and engraving at Saint Gall, in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic in certain German monasteries. Some monks after learning all they could in their own monastery would then travel to other monastic schools established during the Carolingian Renaissance. For instance Abbot Fleury went on to study philosophy and astronomy at Paris and Rheims.

Montecassino, the mother monastery, underwent a revival in the eleventh century which scholars now consider “the most dramatic single event in the history of Latin scholarship in the 11th century” (see Scribes and Scholars by L. D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, 1991). Because of this revival manuscripts which would have been forever lost were preserved: The Annals and Histories of Tacitus, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De Lingua Latina, Frontius De Aquis and thirty odd lines of Juvenal’s satire that are not found in any other manuscript in the world.

The devotion to books of those monks was so extraordinary that they would travel far and wide in search or rare manuscripts. St. Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth monastery in England, traveled widely on five sea voyages for that purpose. Lupus asked a fellow abbot permission to transcribe Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars and asked another friend to bring him Sallust’s accounts of the Catilinarian and Jugurthan Wars, the Verrines of Cicero and De Republica. He borrowed Cicero’s De Rhetorica and wrote to the Pope for a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintillian’s Institutiones, and other texts. Gerbert assisted another abbot in completing incomplete copies of Cicero’s and the philosopher Demosthenes. A monk of Muri said it all: “Without study and without books, the life of a monk is nothing.” So, we would not be far off the mark in asserting unequivocally that Western civilization’s admiration for the written word and the classics of antiquity have come to us via the Catholic Church which preserved them through the barbarian invasions.

Although education was not universal, many of the nobility were sent to monastery schools to be educated. One such as Thomas Aquinas who was educated by the monks of Montecassino before joining the Dominican order. St. Benedict himself instructed the sons of Roman nobles. St. Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany; the same was done by St. Augustine and his monks in England and St. Patrick in Ireland. Irish monasteries developed as great centers of learning and transcription of manuscripts.

It was the monk’s commitment to reading, writing, and education which ensured the survival of Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the Barbarians. They laid the foundations for European universities and became the bridge between antiquity and modernity. Admittedly this is a mere cursory survey of a vast subject but hopefully it renders the idea.

A final footnote, for all it’s worth. The monastery of Montecassino was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The last time it was destroyed it was not by the barbarians of old but by super-civilized, super-enlightened modern man fighting a destructive war. It was raised to the ground by American bombers in 1944 under orders from an English general. The declared strategic objective was to dislodge the Germans who were thought to have taken refuge in the monastery (which turned out not to be the case). The result was that the Germans found the ruins of the monastery a more ideal place from which to continue the conflict. It would be safe to assume that neither the English general nor the bombers had read Virgil or Seneca and were aware of the cultural heritage they were about to destroy. One is left to wonder if Vico’s description of the “barbarism of the intellect,” which he considered more sinister than physical material barbarism of old, is indeed an appropriate designation for such a sad event. Be that as it may, the monastery, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, has since been rebuilt as a replica and it stands there on the hill beckoning the busy traveler on the autostrada del sole to come and rest in an oasis of peace and reason, beauty and truth.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!