Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. Monks in the Middle Ages |
The search for sanctity that laid the foundations of the modern world

Monks in the Middle Ages is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Though their minds were focused not on this life but the next, monks and nuns in their thousands began to rebuild bruised and battered Europe

Monks in the Middle Ages - The search for sanctity that laid the foundations of the modern world

Monks in the Middle Ages - The search for sanctity that laid the foundations of the modern world
An illuminated page, dating to the eleventh century, from Augustine’s The City of God. His vision of a heavenly city, “surpassingly glorious,” inspired legions of men and women in the Middle Ages to embrace monastic life. The manuscript is in the Laurenziana Library, Florence, Italy.

If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most about the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this — C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)

The church founded by Jesus Christ faced a desperate prospect in the early medieval era. By 750, Islam had sliced off half of Christendom, and its swords were still hacking furiously. With the ninth century came the Vikings–huge, blond, unrelentingly vicious, and arguably the best sailors ever known. They fell upon Europe’s coasts and ascended far up the rivers to burn towns, pillage monasteries, murder or enslave people, and destroy whatever they couldn’t steal. And from the East erupted the Magyars, successors of the Huns, and fully their equal in terror and destruction. Amid this maelstrom, every European–prince, prelate or peasant–had excellent reason to focus on staying alive.

Yet Christ’s followers at that time did not focus on mere physical survival. Death being inevitable, their deeper concern was eternal salvation. In the West, Christians especially revered Augustine of Hippo, a fourth-century bishop who taught that every human heart is divided between the City of God and the City of Man. (See previous volume Darkness Descends.) The heavenly realm can only be served through caritas, acts of self-sacrificial love. In contrast, a person who acts from cupiditas (selfish avarice and ambition) enters an evil city, which is doomed to destruction. Through three dark centuries and for five more into the second millennium, many a good monarch and bishop served God by attempting to construct a human society that would reflect the Messiah’s message of love.

At the heart of that emerging medieval civilization knelt an extraordinary figure, that of the monk or nun. He or she lived largely apart from this world, the better to concentrate on achieving holiness and ultimately an entry to the City of God. Yet these men and women had a profound impact on this world as well. In an illiterate age, they needed to read the Bible, a requirement that prompted them to reestablish scholarship in the West. Although sworn to personal poverty, monks attracted massive donations in the form of land. Thus they spearheaded a recovery of agriculture, and revived the entire Western economy. Their influence over government, charity, arts, schooling and much else was also pivotal. Without exaggeration, European and later American civilization rose on the foundation laid largely by ascetics who strove to deny this world.

Monasticism represents the highest ideals of Christianity, writes the American historian Henry Osborn Taylor (The Medieval Mind), and “since these often prove unattainable by men, its history is one of a continual falling away from them and return.” Western monasteries, with roots dating back to the fourth century, flourished again in the eighth under the Frankish emperor Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious. These Carolingian sovereigns strongly favored the Rule of Benedict, a monastic code originally developed by Benedict of Nursia, and in the view of many scholars, promoted by Pope Gregory the Great in the 600s. (Some, however, contend that Gregory did not actually possess Benedict’s Rule, but rather a composite of several different versions of it and other rules.)

About one hundred years later, however, Benedictine monasticism, as well as much of the church, had again declined. Viking and Magyar raiders targeted the monasteries as storehouses of loot and slaves, inflicting enormous disruption. Disillusionment and sloth pervaded much of what survived. Many brothers, ignoring their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were living in the very cloisters with wives, concubines and children.1 Some were highway robbers. Drunkenness was common. Church prelates functioned as merchant traders. In Rome, the men history would label as “the bad popes” outdid one another in scandal. (See sidebar, page 78.)

Even the famed house established by St. Martin of Tours during the 360s had deteriorated so abjectly by 909 that two godly men, Odo and Aldegrin, fled its slatternly premises. Yet their personal faith and calling remained strong. Odo, born to a wealthy family, had been smitten at age sixteen by migraine headaches. They grew worse until his father admitted to reneging on a vow, made when Odo was an infant, to commit the boy as an oblate (one offered to God) at the monastery of St. Martin. Odo therefore fulfilled the vow himself as a young man, which ended his headaches. Now thirty years old, the idealistic monk traveled the countryside with Aldegrin searching for a brotherhood still dedicated to the Rule of St. Benedict. But none could be found. In despair, Odo became a hermit in the woods near Tours.

Aldegrin, the older of the pair, continued alone. One day, he entered the green valley of the Jura River (near the modern French—Swiss boundary) where the little monastery of Baume nestled against rocky gray cliffs. There his quest ended. At Baume the Benedictine Rule was still strictly kept, the monks exuding that peculiar joy in things done right that from time immemorial has marked every good regiment, every good athletic team, and every truly successful business enterprise. On hearing the news, Odo wholeheartedly enlisted at Baume. Ironically, Aldegrin failed to settle down to the frictions of communal monastic life. Now it was he who became a hermit near the monastery, although even his stringent privations never led him to complete peace. But his bones still rest in a reliquary on the high altar at Baume.

About a year after Odo’s arrival, Abbot Berno of Baume received a summons from William, Duke of Aquitaine. The old duke, who was dying without an heir, told Berno that in his youth he had murdered a man, and burdened by guilt, he wanted to donate one of his estates for a new monastery. Berno knew just the right one. But that, protested the duke, was the best hunting ground in all his domain! Would Berno please pick another? “What do you suppose will serve you best before God,” Berno inquired, “the baying of hounds or the prayers of monks?” Duke William opted for the monks, and on that estate grew the most influential monastery of its era. It was called Cluny.

Its hallmarks were scholarship, discipline, missionary zeal and unstinting generosity. A network of monasteries–some already existing, others newly founded–mushroomed across Frankish lands, spreading into Britain and elsewhere. Virtually everywhere, recruiting and donations surged. Odo, who proved to be a capable successor to Abbot Berno, was himself followed by leaders who strongly influenced popes and emperors in the direction of church reform. Although alternate streams of monasticism never ceased to flow, Cluniacs would predominate in terms of shaping Western society for two centuries, until the rise of their fellow Benedictines, the Cistercians.

The Benedictine ascendancy owed much to the astonishing diversity of its monks. As historian Joan Evans notes in Monastic Life at Cluny, they included every kind of human being: contemplatives, men of action, penitent criminals, dedicated scholars and ambitious serfs. Historian Ludo J. R. Milis (Angelic Monks and Earthly Men) contends that many were highborn people who feared eternal damnation through wealth and power. Bernard of Uxelles, renowned as a great soldier, took vows at Cluny and eventually became its grand prior. Eudes Harpin, captured in war and ransomed, was prior of the monastery La Charité. Guy II, count of Macon, entered as a young married man with thirty of his knights, while their wives and daughters “took the veil” as nuns at the Cluniac convent of Marcigny.

Most medieval monks and nuns hailed from the aristocracy due to social class barriers and the fact that few peasants were free to leave their farmland. Many men, and women too, joined a monastery in their gray years as the culminating act of their journey through life. A list of the monks and nuns who served the Benedictine monastery of Prémontré in its first two hundred and fifty years shows about four hundred, some ten percent, admitted as death neared.2

Often they bequeathed to it much of their wealth, as did Stephen, Count of Boulogne, for example, as he renounced “the transitory pomp of the world.” Lord Berkeley of Bristol was buried in a monk’s cowl at the Abbey of St. Augustine, leaving it a vast estate. Countess Matilda of Tuscany always kept a nun’s veil handy for her final commitment to a convent. Not untypical was the testament of Robert of Alne, dated 1180:

Know all men, present and future, that I Robert, clerk of Alne, have quit-claimed to the monastery of Winchcombe the land which I held at Medfurlong, to wit, three and a half acres, which are clearly of the Abbey demesne. Moreover, I have given to the said monks forever, to the health of mine own soul and that of Alice my wife and our ancestors, all my land at Alne between the two valleys, called Kendredsled. In return for which donation the monks have granted me twenty shillings and a monk’s allowance of bread and beer such as are daily laid on the refectory table, so often as I may come to Winchcombe on their business, or mine own. Moreover, they have granted to receive me at my latter end as a monk, and then support me; and to Alice my wife they have granted her in all good deeds which are done in the convent of Winchcombe, and burial at her latter end if she desires it.

All monks are ascetics, a term drawn from the Greek askesis, which means “training.” Just as athletic training develops physical strength, monastic asceticism develops the capacity for caritas. Monastic techniques include liturgical and individual prayer, poverty, absolute celibacy, fasting, contemplation, labor, caring for companions and more–Christian duties drawn from scripture and carefully honed by monastic leaders into life-embracing rules. Although Benedict’s Rule became the most popular due to its practicality and balance, highly respected rules were also written by Basil the Great in the East, Ireland’s Columban and others. Many a monastery had its own rule, tailored for local circumstances from the classics. In every case, abbots, abbesses and other monastic leaders acted like coaches, providing instruction and accountability for their spiritual athletes.

Always the goal was to emulate Jesus. The early twentieth-century British historian G. G. Coulton spent a lifetime documenting medieval monasticism. When strife and battle informed almost every man’s thoughts, Coulton writes, men saw Christ himself as a warrior. In one medieval play, Jesus is depicted as bursting the imprisoning gates of hell. However, observes historian Noreen Hunt (Cluniac Monasticism in the Central Middle Ages), “when the monastics saw themselves as dying to the world, what they had in mind was not death in battle against the infidel, but the consummation of their pilgrimage through a real entry into the promised land.” In short, the profession of a monk or nun was, in the words of the Fourth Gospel (John 3:3), to be “born again.” Historian David Knowles (Christian Monasticism) observes that no generation ever has believed that men can become true Christians without conscious rebirth.

For many, monastic training began in childhood. Up to the thirteenth century, volunteering a son as an oblate in Christ’s service was considered a meritorious act for parents, and a substantial bequest usually accompanied the youngster. At about age seven, the boy was brought before the abbot, dressed in linen shirt and monastic cloak. His commitment to the service of Christ was formally read and signed by his parents. The abbot blessed the youngster, and his cowl, and he was enrolled in the monastery school.

Oblates slept in their own dormitory, lived under a modified version of the monastic rule, and sang in the choir at the daily services. They were exempted from the more severe fasts, however, and required to attend only part of the middle-of-the-night prayer service called Matins. (If a boy began nodding, his master would give him a heavy book to hold to keep him awake.) No oblate might ever be alone with an older monk; when they met, communication was restricted to mutual bows of courtesy. No oblate might be struck with fist or palm, only punished when necessary with a stick. How rigidly such restrictions were observed is unknowable, but it probably varied. The eleventh-century monk Thietmar of Merseberg records that some of the boys there broke bounds one night and were discovered by the schoolmaster in a local tavern. Benedict would not have been amused.

At fifteen, oblates and other candidates for the novitiate were presented first before the entire assembly of the monks, called the chapter, and then before the abbot or his deputy. “What do you request?” they were asked. “God’s mercy, your compassion, and we wish to share your fellowship,” was the reply. The abbot then formally warned them of the difficult life they were undertaking. Did they still purpose to do so? Receiving an affirmative reply, he prayed: “May the Lord thus bring you to perfection in this undertaking, so that you may merit everlasting life.” Then, before the altar in the church their beards were shaved off (if beards they had), and they were tonsured and issued the novice’s cowl and habit.3

Their training was much concerned with scripture, including memorizing the entire book of Psalms and other biblical passages. Also mastered were the myriad rites and routines of monastic life–when to bow, genuflect, sit or stand; how to intone and chant the offices; when to allow the hands to show from beneath the habit and when not; how to use the monks’ sign language during the long periods of silence. After about one year, sometimes less, the novice was formally admitted to the brotherhood, each carrying to the altar his written profession, and repeating vows of stability, transformation of life, and obedience to his monastery’s rule. Prostrating themselves three times before the abbot, the novices recited the words of the psalm: “Receive me according to your word, Lord.” Finally, after observing three days of dead silence wearing their new cowls, they were considered fully professed.

Prayer and care of the soul was their chief duty. The Benedictine Rule specified eight “offices” (prayer services) a day, the first at two in the morning, the last at nightfall.4 Once daily, the Mass was celebrated, and a meeting of the chapter held where individual monks were expected to publicly confess any infractions of the rule. If a brother omitted to mention a transgression, his fellows were expected to report him. Total silence was required except for the half-hour following the chapter meeting.

Benedictine monks ate their two daily meals (dinner and supper) at long tables in a large, military-style mess hall, called the refectory. Decorated with paintings on walls and ceiling, it had three higher tables for the abbot, responsible for all Cluniac monasteries; the grand prior, in charge of monks at the motherhouse alone (at its peak nearly five hundred); and the claustral prior, director of routine administration in the motherhouse. At some point, half-width tables were developed, so the monks could all sit on one side, facing in the same direction, their attention on the reader or preacher, the hoods of their cowls preventing distraction by the man on either side. A four-monk squad, rotated daily and assisted by servants, provided the meals. The rule specified total abstinence from meat (except for the sick), which Cluny in its great days observed, though fish was allowed on Thursdays, Sundays and feast days. Dinner consisted of a dish of dried beans, plus cheese or eggs or fish when permitted, plus vegetables fried in oil (except during Lent). Every member, oblates included, got a daily half-liter of wine.

Each man was also expected to perform several hours of work daily, often the arduous task of copying manuscripts, since Benedict had stressed physical work as indispensable to spiritual development. Agricultural labor in the Cluniac period was performed by hired workers. Even so, the daily routine left many initiates exhausted. Knowles quotes one Cluniac newcomer who details a strenuous day from which the evening gives no respite: “Often before all are seated in the cloister, and before anyone has uttered a word, the bell rings for Vespers.… After Vespers, supper; after supper, the servers’ meal and office of the dead; after that a reading; and so straight to Compline.”

Temptations abounded, starting with the vow of poverty that must contend against the human craving for ownership. The monk must call nothing “mine” except his mother and father, and this regulation could prove tricky to maintain. Senior administrators needed allowances to travel, for example, while scholars required books and writing materials. Cardinal Hugh de St-Cher, around 1250, identifies “the greed and love of private property” as the chief cause of monastic decay. The Benedictine abbot Caesarius of Heisterbach found a halfpenny coin in a dead monk’s habit. He buried him outside the abbey cemetery, throwing the coin on the body as it was lowered into the ground, with a stern: “Let your money perish with you!” The dead man was his own brother. Caesarius commented: “If he’s going to be saved, the insult will do him no harm, and may profit him. And if he is to be damned, burial in the cemetery wouldn’t help him. I’ve done this to strike terror into the rest of you. The vice of proprietas (ownership) separates you from the communion of the righteous.”

However, some monastic reformers, Odo among them, found in sexual temptations a far graver spiritual danger. “The sins which above all others have brought man to perdition are pride and lust, especially lust,” he writes. What was called “custody of the eyes” (to avoid lustful temptation) was deemed crucial by the early medieval church, but not usually to the point of condemning womankind. Veneration of the Virgin Mary, both official and popular, continued to intensify. Moreover, Cluny’s convents controlled great property ably administered by their nuns. (See subchapter, page 34.) Beyond their theology, most monks were devoted to the women (often very few) whom they knew directly. Take for example the tribute of Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, commending the body of his mother, a Cluniac nun, to the care of the convent at Marcigny:

Now this humble handmaid of God lies buried under your pious eyes, and although lifeless and silent, yet addresses to you, if you give ear, earnest and frequent prayers. She is always appearing before your eyes, that you may remember her and that you may not forget yourselves. A sister, she speaks to her sisters; and dead, she addresses the living. She shows you what she is now and what you soon shall be. She recalls to you the place where you shall be buried, the sphere to which your soul shall take its flight. –From Monastic Life at Cluny by Joan Evans.

Laughter presented another possible pitfall. Cruel snickers and riotous guffaws were officially forbidden by Benedict, and one twelfth-century moralist provides a vision of monks being beaten in purgatory for having laughed inappropriately on earth. Yet sheer joy and a merry disposition are the universally cherished qualities of the exemplary monk, then and later. One chronicler comments that Odo’s treasured talent for making his men laugh was really a distinctive form of “spiritual gaiety” that “instilled an inner happiness in our hearts.”

But the monk primarily saw himself as a serious soldier, and he sensed his enemies on every side. As Anthony and his third-century ascetics had struggled with demons in the Egyptian desert, medieval monks wrestled them in cloister, church, refectory, dormitory, workshop, field and cell.5 “They are scattered everywhere like dust,” laments Richalm, abbot of Clairvaux. “They come down upon us like rain; their multitude fills the whole world, the whole air; the whole air, I say, is but a thick mass of devils.”

Hell was a huge concern. Medieval folk accepted as authoritative the teaching that at least five men would be eternally damned for every one saved, says Coulton. Even the purifying agony of purgatory, although preparatory for heaven, was seen as frighteningly arduous. A single day in purgatory would be harsher than one hundred years of combative penance against the diabolical forces in this world.

The devils were seen as highly organized, one monastic chronicler reporting that demons have their own monastic order, complete with abbots and priors, scheduled routines and assigned duties. Other chroniclers claim to have overheard demons talking, often reviling the monks. “They despise us,” says one account, “calling one a ‘whoreson,’ and another ‘a filthy bald rat.’” Richalm describes a senior demon upbraiding his minions for missing Mass, where their duty was to distract and irk the officiating priest. Demons also encouraged any traits likely to irritate one’s fellow monks. “All this snoring and coughing and sneezing and spitting in choir is their work,” says Richalm. Some monks claim to have actually spoken with the demons. “Why don’t you leave me alone?” one monk pleaded. “Not until you begin fornicating like other men,” the demon is said to have replied.

But the severest test of all is the sin known as acedia. It translates as “listlessness,” the monks recognizing it as a near-lethal paralysis of the will, which rendered every duty an unremitting bore, every prayer an intolerable burden, life itself a purposeless drudgery. Escape could become all but impossible from this depression, described by the psalmist as “the destruction that destroyeth in the noonday” (Ps. 91:6). The emphasis that monastic writers lay upon the value of helping monks who are so afflicted, and the danger of vexing them, writes Coulton, can scarcely be exaggerated.

On account of this dread disease of the soul, it is said, many a man abandoned his calling. If he later sought to return, he had to appear naked at the door, be readmitted by the whole chapter, and accept whatever penalty the abbot decreed, probably a beating. Many would not return. They saw the monastic standard as impossibly high, says Taylor, causing them to give up all moral effort entirely and descend into “all manner of sin.” Augustine of Hippo concurs. “I have scarcely known any better men than those who have profited in monasteries,” he writes, “but I have never known worse than those who have fallen in monasteries.”

As usual, of course, the “worse” tended to command more attention. Reformers throughout the Middle Ages make their case for change by citing the conduct of monks gone bad. There was scant mention of the fidelity and holiness of the majority who did not “go bad,” and whose conduct, being unremarkable, went unremarked. Records of church councils similarly tend to feature the more sordid cases. Yet even the dour Coulton allows that the “true monk” did exist–the man “ripened by years of discipline, strict to himself, kindly to others, radiant with spiritual cheerfulness behind all his avoidance of actual laughter.” Such men were “very real,” he remarks.

Cluny’s early abbots epitomized the strengths of true monks. The first was Berno of Baume, the little monastery that so captivated the searching Aldegrin. Berno founded Cluny itself through Duke William’s bequest. From the start, it was endowed with what would prove a decisive advantage: It came directly under the pope. Unlike many monasteries, it was free of local political and ecclesiastical intervention, and just at the time when the popes were regaining control of the church. The popes therefore made the Cluniacs their agents in ridding the church of governmental control–although at times the popes themselves seemed to be agents of Cluny.

Under Berno’s direction, the monastery’s reputation spread far and wide, attracting so many recruits, all keen to share its rigorous life, that revenue failed for a time to cover basic necessities. When Odo took over from the dying Berno in 926, in fact, Cluny was so successful as to be bankrupt, and the brothers sometimes found themselves near starvation. Before long, however, swelling bequests caused money to match manpower.

Other monasteries began placing themselves under Cluniac direction, but some resisted vigorously. One was ancient Fleury, where rested the relics of Benedict himself.6 At the urgent request of the Duke of the Franks, Odo arrived to set it in order, and was blocked at its gates. Fleury, he was told, was uninterested in upstart fads. Abbot Odo would not even be allowed entry unless he came on a donkey in token of humility. He cheerfully complied and Fleury’s renaissance proceeded. Other monasteries produced darker reactions. At Farfa, in Lazio, Italy, two abbots were poisoned to thwart reform. A third took over the abbacy by purchasing it, then successfully made the changes. While Odo yet lived, the pope placed ten monasteries under Cluniac direction, one of them St. Paul’s in Rome.

“Must we not justly mourn,” lamented Odo, “that Christianity, which ought to have grown stronger as it grew older, is instead bent on hastening headlong into evil?” But he remained generous-minded, admitting one distraught penitent as a novice even after discovering the man had flourished as a thief. The fellow became a model monk. On his deathbed, however, he confessed to two additional thefts. While a monk, he had taken a cloak to give to a poor man, then stolen a piece of rope to wrap around his waist as a reminder not to steal. Would God forgive him? God would indeed, said Odo, and the monk died in peace.

Before Odo himself died in 944, he had become the friend of kings and popes. Rudolf of Burgundy, king of the Franks, had conferred astonishing powers on Cluny, even authorizing it to issue its own coinage. Odo’s successor, Aymar, was quite different. Shunning the company of princes, he quietly improved administration, increased land holdings, and bettered the lot of the serfs who came with every bequeathed estate. Any attack on a Cluniac serf was deemed an attack on Cluny. A knight named Richer who killed such a serf, Joan Evans recounts, was required by the Viscount of Vienne to become a serf himself. “I deliver my person and my head to the Abbey of Cluny,” Richer acknowledged. “The abbot and the monks have the power to keep me in their hands, to keep me or to sell me.”

After Abbot Aymar came Abbot Maiol, who declined an offer to become pope. More monasteries were constantly being added, and he strove to enhance their charitable work. When Maiol retired, exhausted and blind in 994, Cluny was entering its period of greatest growth and greatest influence. Over the next one hundred and fifteen years, only two abbots reigned, both brilliantly.

The life of Odilo of Mercoeur, abbot from 994 to 1049, is surrounded by stories of the marvelous and the miraculous. As a frail toddler barely able to stand, it was said, little Odilo crept into a church, tried to pull himself erect on the altar cloth and his limbs suddenly became strong. As a man he cured the blindness of a farmer’s child. Indeed he very frequently healed the sick, and restored to sanity an army deserter gone berserk. After his death, healings at his tomb were frequently reported.

In Odilo’s time, a fundamental administrative change took place. Previously, each monastery had named its own abbot. Now there was to be just one abbot, at Cluny itself. Other monasteries were to be headed by men with the title “prior.” Appointed by the abbot of Cluny, they would all meet there annually as a kind of grand chapter. So the movement was no longer a federation of monasteries, but a religious order. Vast building programs were launched, and hundreds of churches were staffed by Cluniac priests.7 And still the extraordinary gifts cascaded upon it–uncultivated land, forests, fishing rights, vineyards, farms and their serfs, villages, manor houses, feudal castles. The abbot became something akin to the chief executive officer of a twenty-first-century corporation.

During the ensuing sixty-year regime of Abbot Hugh of Semur, in fact, Cluny went multinational, spreading through Italy, Christian Spain, and England. (The powerful German monasteries, however, looked for leadership elsewhere.) Estimates of the number of Cluniac monasteries vary wildly. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops (The Church in the Dark Ages) sets it at one thousand four hundred and fifty. In the year 1100, he writes, Cluniac monks totaled more than ten thousand. By then, only eleven monasteries seemingly called themselves abbeys, the rest having become priories.

Abbot Hugh, another confidant of popes and kings, is particularly remembered for the construction, over a twenty-year period, of Cluny’s basilica, reputedly the world’s largest church until the sixteenth century.8 This tough disciplinarian, says his biographer, stored food for the hungry, personally patched clothes for the needy, forgave murderers (including the man who killed his brother), and dealt patiently and adroitly with human frailty. One new monk, for instance, was the wealthy Count Guigo, accustomed to wearing fur and silk. He complained to Abbot Hugh that he could not bear the coarse monastic garb next his skin. Fine, said Hugh, go back to silk. Soon Guigo returned. The other monks thought him soft, he said, despising him as his soldiers used to despise cowards in battle. So Guigo willingly returned to the standard issue.

What did Cluny achieve? Christian historians credit the movement with spiritually awakening the whole Western church, and thereby saving tens of thousands of souls from eternal perdition. What achievement could be greater? But for secularists who would credit something more “practical,” there was a great deal more. The accomplishments of Cluny’s monks have, in fact, filled volumes.

To begin with, they restored the soil of western Europe to food production, and made it far more productive than ever before. Fully half of the land of Europe came into the hands of the church, writes Prosper Boissonnade in his Life and Work in Medieval Europe, and many a “monk” carried a pruning hook in his girdle to signify his occupation. The ecclesiastical domains pioneered agricultural science, animal breeding and husbandry, and improved forestry practices. The monks came to be recognized as highly efficient farmers and imitated by secular lords, says Paul Johnson in his History of Christianity. “A great and increasing part of the arable land of Europe passed into the hands of highly disciplined men, committed to a doctrine of hard work. They were literate. They knew how to keep accounts. Above all, perhaps, they worked to a daily timetable and an accurate annual calendar, something quite alien to the farmers and the landowners they replaced.”

The monks drained many swamps and cultivated that land. In other circumstances, they set up irrigation and water distribution systems. They created ponds and established fisheries. They constructed bridges and ran ferries across the rivers. They operated cheese factories. They also began the manufacture of linen and lace, writes the Count de Montalembert in The Monks of the West, wove cloth and tanned leather. Many of the great vineyards of France, Germany, Spain and Italy date from this period. The orchards of Germany began producing apples and pears in quantity.

From the ninth century onward, writes economic historian Robert Latouche in The Birth of the Western Economy, slavery declined in Europe. Water-powered mills and animals replaced slave labor, which the church discouraged and monks refused to use. Instead, the monasteries substituted crop sharing systems with peasant farmers, and the term mancipia (slaves) disappeared from title deeds. Serfdom arose due to the need for protection, but serfdom was not slavery. The serf belonged with the land and he could not be sold away from it. Very slowly throughout the Middle Ages, serfs evolved into farmers with freehold title to their land.

Where rivers could not serve, marketing crops required roads, which the monks constructed, along with hostelries to accommodate pilgrims headed for Rome or Jerusalem or the shrines of the saints. Individual monks could not own money, St. Paul describing the love of lucre as the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). On the other hand, the growing towns and the monasteries themselves could not carry on without cash for buying, selling, collecting fees and so forth. Historian Lester K. Little, writing in Religious Poverty and Profit in the Middle Ages, points out the convenience of the bequests and gifts that initially nourished the monastic movement. “So solidly established, both materially and spiritually, was the monastic order that the transition from ‘gift economy’ to money economy was made without worry or reflection,” Little comments.

Trade proving unavoidable, the Christian cities of Venice and Genoa became citadels of capitalism. Beyond their boundaries, the Jews labored as the first businessmen of Europe, the terms “Jew” and “merchant” becoming interchangeable. True to the monastic anti-money tradition, one preacher likened them to “filth and fecal matter,” while another decried this “nation of Judases.” But Jews had powerful allies as well as foes. Devout Christian monarchs, in need of trade and revenue, encouraged Jewish enterprises, even setting up some individuals in business.

But Europe’s biggest enterprise was probably Cluny itself, as can be deduced at the end of the eleventh century by its building program alone. The monastic movement triggered an extraordinary period of construction, the great Romanesque churches evolving into Gothic cathedrals that one observer called “symphonies in stone”–structures that would overwhelm the beholder right through to the twenty-first century.

Benedictine monasteries educated mainly their own monks, but their scholars laid down the medieval syllabus. In the trivium, the monk learned grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, followed by the quadrivium, covering arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Meanwhile, the reading and writing of words became indispensable duties and tools of the monastic life. Bookmaking flourished. Libraries came into being. Although monks constituted barely one half of one percent of the population, says Milis, they produced between sixty-five and ninety-eight percent of all written information. In copying and preserving the classics of Greece and Rome,” Johnson writes, they became “the carriers of culture.”

Medieval monks regarded works of charity as even more important than learning. De Montalembert records that in the regime of Hugh, the motherhouse at Cluny annually fed and otherwise assisted seventeen thousand people. Nor were these “alms” always distributed out of “mere superfluity.” The annals show that the monastery’s last loaf of bread frequently went to the poor. In more festive terms, the custom of the “washing of the feet” arose in France and England. On the anniversary of the abbey’s founding, the abbot would gather as many poor people as there were monks in his monastery, feast them with good food and wine, and then wash their feet–in emulation of course, of Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:4—16).

Peasants who lived near monasteries considered themselves highly favored. Aphorisms emerged that soon became old sayings. “It is good living under the crosier,” was one of these (referring to the crook-shaped staff carried by bishops and sometimes by abbots and abesses), and people spoke of “going to the charity of the monks.” Thus began the tradition of care for the poor and infirm that came to characterize every Christian country, and still characterizes their descendent nations. For the monk, nevertheless, works of charity were not so much motivated by human concern as by devotion to Jesus Christ.

Traditional records indicate that Cluny’s fall was almost as spectacular as its rise, even making allowances for dramatic tale-telling by reformers and rivals. Abbot Hugh’s successor in 1109 was Pons (or Pontius) de Melgueil, a nobly born incompetent. The new abbot spent lavishly on the splendor of the abbey, and acquired at great cost its three most precious relics.9 His extravagance so scandalized some of his monks, however, that they complained to Rome. Summoned by the pope, Pons resigned and undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But that was not the end of his story.

His successor at Cluny, Hugh II, died after three months in office. In 1122, the monks chose Pierre Maurice de Montboissier, known as Peter the Venerable, a Cluniac from childhood and the last of its great abbots. His regime proved turbulent, to say the least. Three years after he took office, Pons returned from Jerusalem and conspired with his many supporters. During Lent, while Abbot Peter was away visiting subsidiary priories, Pons organized a small army of renegade monks, local knights, mercenary soldiers, criminals, drifters and a mob of Cluny citizens, and led an armed attack against the motherhouse. Driving out the loyal monks, the mob looted it, pillaged its stores of grain and farm equipment, and once more proclaimed Pons abbot. He thereupon played the feudal lord, burning villages and killing anyone who opposed him.

Rome, seemingly dumfounded at first, finally ordered Pons to appear before a synod at Lyons. When he refused, he and his supporters were excommunicated. Assailed by misgivings, the supporters deserted their leader, repented, and were forgiven. But Pons, who was imprisoned, remained defiant–no repentance for him. No one but St. Peter himself, he said, had authority to excommunicate him. He died about a year later. Peter the Venerable allowed his burial at Cluny, but over his tomb was erected the figure of the rebellious abbot, with his feet bound, his right hand amputated, and his left hand clutching a broken crosier.

Joan Evans details Peter’s subsequent struggle to hold the movement together: how the younger novices rebelled against restoration of discipline; how one monk barricaded himself in a tower, threatening to stone anyone who came near until he was issued better clothing; how another set fire to a warehouse; how one hard-line prior was poisoned by his monks, and another had to call on Rome to support him; how eighteen houses defied Peter and elected their own abbots; how the Cluny treasury, stripped by Pons, couldn’t pay the bills and Peter began selling off properties until Rome forbade him to continue; and how Henry of Winchester had to donate seven thousand marks of silver to keep the monks fed.

But Peter soldiered on, his pen excoriating backsliding monks for flagrant breaking of vows. Many had taken to eating meat. “Like hawks and vultures,” chided Peter, “they gather wherever they see smoke from a kitchen, wherever they smelt meat cooking.” He called an assembly of all the Cluniac priors, presented to them a somewhat modified Benedictine regimen, only to discover that this too would be disregarded. Monasteries became a public scandal. Some accumulated debt, often due to grandiose building programs, and had to borrow money. Others, still prosperous, went into the loan business. One chronicler describes how his brethren quickly broke up a dice game to rush into chapel, when they heard that choristers were to be paid to sing God’s praises. Another chronicler complained that monks had become so obsessed with money that “we sell Christ more shamefully than Judas did.” Coulton lists ten church councils between 1000 and 1150 at which the decay of the monasteries was on the agenda, sometimes centrally.

Peter the Venerable died on Christmas Day, 1156. He was renowned as a scholar, a deft ecclesiastical diplomat, and an articulate Christian apologist against Islam and Judaism, but he had failed to restore Cluny–perhaps an impossible feat. With fitful efforts at revival, the great house held on until the French Revolution, when its bells were melted to make cannons. In November 1791, the magnificent basilica was sacked by a mob, its windows smashed, and the grave of the abbot Hugh I desecrated. The monastery’s books, manuscripts, vestments and wooden statuary were all destroyed in a huge fire in the town market place. Seven years later, two local citizens bought the ruin of the abbey, and in 1811, much of what remained standing was demolished. Cluny had become a safety hazard.

But monasticism, far from vanishing with the Cluniac decline, regenerated itself once more. Between 1020 and 1120, eight new orders of monks appeared, all seeking to serve through communal life the City of God.10 In particular, at the turn of the twelfth century (beyond the period of this volume) would come the Cistercians, whose accomplishments would rival the achievements of the black-garbed Cluniacs. Cistercian Benedictines would wear white, emphasizing their purity, and the ensuing contest between the black and white brethren absorbed the interest of medieval Europeans well into the second millennium.

This is the end of the Monks in the Middle Ages category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Monks in the Middle Ages from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at