Archaeology

Medieval Monks: The Life and Times of God’s Men in Robes

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a medieval monk? Perhaps you’ve wondered about the reasons behind becoming a monk, or what they do on a daily basis. Monasticism has existed for centuries and has been an essential part of ancient history. In fact, many of the historical records archaeologists have found were written by ancient monks. Since its development, monasticism has somewhat evolved throughout the years, and the spiritual beliefs of monks often depend on the specific religion they’re a part of. 

Below, we’ll talk about the history of monasticism, the development of monasteries, typical monk beliefs and behaviors, and how these concepts changed over time.

How Hermits Became Monks

Monastic lifestyles have a history that can be traced back as early as 600 BC. Though not yet called monasticism, records reveal that ancient Hinduism held a focus on isolation and living as hermits. These hermits, who had committed their lives to poverty to become more holy, would live in groups called ashramas. However, it is believed these groups of holy individuals were precursors to the later practicing of monasticism due to some small differences between the two. 

The shift toward monasticism occurred a few decades later in India. Jainism, an ancient Indian belief that teaches that bliss comes from a life of harmlessness and renunciation, stems from origins in Hinduism. Historians believe that early Jainists took the concept of these holy men from ancient Hinduists and developed the first official concept of monasticism. Under Jainism, two groups were formed: monks and nuns, and they were held under strict orders and given the heavy burden of reducing karma. 

From Hinduist monks came Buddhist monks, who are one of the best-known groups of monks in the world, even today. Buddhist monks dedicate themselves to their communities and the world by preaching, teaching, and feeding the community, rather than fully separating themselves from it. As a result, many modern-day communities of Buddhist monks throughout Asia have found great wealth, which has been a source of harsh criticism, although actually, nothing new for monasteries.

Buddhist monks outside Thai monastery (Public Domain)

Buddhist monks outside Thai monastery ( Public Domain )

Around the 2nd century BC, the Essenes became established. Part of Judaism, the Essenes are now known as the earliest form of monasticism within the Middle East. Essenes held values that aligned with monasticism, such as regular prayer time, manual labor, meditation, and the studying of religious texts (in this case, the Torah). The Essenes, displeased with being under Roman rule, soon developed the idea that the Messiah would someday arrive to save them from such a wicked rule. During this time, they are credited with producing the Dead Sea Scrolls , religious texts that gave historians a greater insight into early Judaist and Christian beliefs. 

Traditional Christian monks emerged just a few decades later in the 3rd century AD. Around this time, it is believed that some Christians decided to turn their lives away from material goods and flee to the desert to take on a life of minimalism. The goal of this escape was to leave behind worldly distractions to clear their spiritual vision and become closer to God. Many of these new Christian hermits fled to Egypt and Syria to live out their lives separated from the general public. 

Some Christians, however, did not leave by choice. Local persecution forced some Christians into remote areas, where they eventually met with other persecuted Christians. These Christians then banded together to create a new, isolated way of life. These early forms of monasteries shaped early monastic beliefs in the importance of community and relying on one another to survive in a sinful, persecuting world.

Claudio Rinaldi’s painting ‘Four Monks’ depicting medieval monks. (Public Domain)

Claudio Rinaldi’s painting ‘Four Monks’ depicting medieval monks. ( Public Domain )

The First Monasteries

The first official monastery during this time can be traced back to Western Europe, where Celtic Christians in Gaul adopted monastic beliefs. The monastery was built at Ligugé by Saint Martin, the third bishop of Tours. From here, the idea of monasticism spread widely throughout Europe.

In the 5th century AD, the Byzantine Empire and Roman Europe caught wind of monasteries in other regions. As a result, religious peoples in those areas began developing their own monastic practices based on the teachings of Saint Benedict of Nursia , a Christian saint among several denominations including Catholicism, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglicism. He lived between the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and is known as the “father of Western monasticism” due to his devotion to the practice. Those who followed his path were, of course, the Benedictine monks .

In these centuries, monasticism was focused on living simply, with only the bare necessities. This included simple foods, accommodations, and few or no personal possessions. Formal regulations were put in place, and men living as monks became known as “brothers” since they lived together and followed the same rules. Though all monasteries generally held the same beliefs about simple living, all monasteries were different in how they implemented these rules. Some monasteries were much stricter than others, allowing no possessions or interactions that brought individual pleasure, while others allowed personal belongings within reason for practical purposes (i.e. grooming, sleeping, etc.).

Though monasteries focused on males committed to simple, godly living, women were able to adopt these lifestyles as well. They were referred to as nuns instead of monks, and would live in nunneries instead of monasteries. In some cases, monasteries and nunneries were ruled under the same abbey, with separate living spaces but shared land and control.

Room in Monk’s Cell, Mount Grace Priory (Ambersky235 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Room in Monk’s Cell, Mount Grace Priory (Ambersky235 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

A Day in the Life of a Medieval Monk

Medieval monks dedicated their lives to worship. Regardless of the specific religion they were in, their days consisted of worshipping, reading, writing, and manual labor. Particularly in medieval times, most monks throughout Europe followed some form of Christianity, so they would frequently read their Bibles, pray privately, and meditate throughout the day. 

When monks weren’t reading their religious texts or praying, they were working physically in their monasteries. Chores that monks took on to keep the monastery up to standard included cleaning, cooking, planting and harvesting in gardens, haymaking, educating young boys, writing, and providing medical care to the community. They believed that to fulfill the wishes of God, they needed to invest their extra time into their home, the community, and future monks.

The primary motto for Benedictine monks for example was ‘Ora et Labora’ – Pray and Work. And this was how they lived their lives. Day after day they has a set schedule of prayer times and work.

Medieval monks also assigned roles to one another. Within a single monastery, you would have monks with different titles or occupations, such as abbot (the head of an abbey), cantor (choir leader), lector (creator and reader of church lessons), and sacrist (safe keeper of books, vessels, and overall monastery). There were additional positions as well, but each monk in a monastery had at least one position they were responsible for. In smaller monasteries, one monk may have more than one job, such as being both abbot and lector. 

Monks in medieval times also had specific parts of the day dedicated to different pastimes. Monasteries normally established routines to make sure there were no lapses in responsibilities, whether they were caring for the monastery or ensuring all monks had dedicated time to worship each day. In fact, monks even followed a text called the Book of Hours, a Christian devotional book that contains several prayers for specific intervals throughout the day. These books were used so often that they are actually the most commonly found surviving medieval documents throughout Europe. 

Within the Book of Hours, several different acts of worship are described that must be done to keep the monk close to God. These eight different “hours” include Matins (2am), Lauds (5am), Prime (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (noon), Nones (3pm), Vespers (before dark), and Compline (6pm). At these times of prayer, physical work ceased so monks could join in worship. To miss these hours was to disobey God. Monks often went to bed shortly after 6pm, following Compline to wake at 2am for Matins.

Saint Paul the Hermit, Stone fragment from Saint Lawrence Monastery, Buda, Hungary (Bjoertvedt/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Saint Paul the Hermit, Stone fragment from Saint Lawrence Monastery, Buda, Hungary (Bjoertvedt/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Religious Rules of Medieval Monks

General rules adopted by monks included living simply with few or no personal possessions and taking a vow of celibacy. As such, monks and nuns were prohibited from engaging in any sexual relationships and were not allowed to marry. To engage in these relationships would be to distract oneself from God, eliminating the entire point of monasticism.

Monks were often not allowed to speak, either. Vows of silence, at least in certain rooms of the monastery, were ways to illustrate one’s commitment to the faith. Regular silence in the monastery further illustrated its spiritual (and often physical) separation from the rest of the world. Any speaking needed to be in specific areas and only for practical purposes, rather than casual conversations. 

Monks presented themselves physically as well as a way to separate themselves from non-monks. They would shave the tops of their heads but leave a ring of hair just above the ears, and would cover themselves fully with their clothes. Often, they would wear robes, cloaks, tunics, linen underclothes, and socks. These loose garments would be tied around their waist by a leather belt or cord to keep them close to their bodies. 

The personal belongings of a monk were meager, if he was allowed any at all. Normal belongings for monks included a pen, knife, comb, handkerchief, and occasionally a sewing kit. Their mattresses were stuffed with straw and they were provided a handmade wool blanket to keep themselves warm. 

Monks were also often not allowed to leave the monastery. There were few exceptions to this, and all had to be approved by the abbot. Exceptions would be opportunities to preach to the public about monasticism, volunteer in the community, or travel to other monasteries for specific purposes. Opportunities to help their community included helping the poor, building hospitals, orphanages, public baths, and public housing, and educating young people with their libraries and texts. Beyond these, monks lived day in and day out in the monastery, always working and never leaving. 

Though individual monks were quite poor, having few personal belongings, monasticism itself later became rich as an institution in the medieval world. Monks’ lives were dedicated to a strict rhythm of payer and work, with no financial reward, for the individual monks at least. But the monasteries themselves grew rich, essentially from what was a source of free labor.

The monks worked the fields, kept animals, made beer, cheese and other products to sell. All of this created wealth, which could be invested in building larger monasteries and buying more land. By chance or by design, monasteries became a successful commercial sector.

Because they committed themselves to help their community, they would often be rewarded for their deeds and in later years received monetary benefits for their work. Often, monks were repaid with food, which helped them stay self-sufficient. Monks would receive animals for meat and plants for yielding fruits and vegetables, which provided them with plenty of sustenance for the entire year. For as little as monks had, they never worried about food shortages.

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England. A monastery was first founded on the headland in about 657 AD, and today the shell of the 13th-century Benedictine abbey is one of the largest and most impressive ecclesiastical ruins in the country. (Jeff Baumgart / Adobe Stock)

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England. A monastery was first founded on the headland in about 657 AD, and today the shell of the 13th-century Benedictine abbey is one of the largest and most impressive ecclesiastical ruins in the country.  ( Jeff Baumgart / Adobe Stock)

How Monks Got Started

You may be wondering: why exactly would one even become a monk? Though the thought of few physical possessions may turn some away, the idea of growing nearer to God was often enough for medieval monks. Many of them also felt gratification from their work in the community, able to educate the youth and provide care for the poor and sick. Plus, as stated previously, being a monk meant higher chances of never running out of food. Monks were typically held in high regard and they were respected throughout the community.

Beyond this, many monks were trained from a young age to become monks. Young boys who came from poor families would be brought to monasteries to give them a chance at an education and a career. Children as young as five could be brought, though most were pre-teens when they joined the monastery. Those below the age of 15 were called oblates, and those above 15 that were not yet monks were called novices. Monks supervised these young people and trained them in the ways of monasticism. After one year of being a novice, you could take your vows and become a full monk, though you could choose to leave at any point thanks to new rules developed in the 1200s. As a result, monasteries were never typically short on new monks. 

Modern Monks

Though monasticism isn’t as popular today as it was in medieval times, it does still exist! Today, there are approximately 200 communities of Anglican monks throughout the world. In particular, there has been significant growth in monasticism in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Modern monks look towards the future and strive to use their good works to make the world a better place and bring themselves closer to God. 

Perhaps now that you know about monasticism, you’re intrigued by the idea of it. On the other hand, perhaps the idea of anything less than your memory foam mattress topper makes you shudder. Either way, monasticism is a fascinating practice that seeks more to join each year. If you’re curious about monasticism in your area, reach out to your local church or monastery to learn about how they may be impacting your community.

Top image: Medieval monk praying with a Bible and a rosary. Source: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

By Lex Leigh


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