By the fourteenth century there were four major monastic orders: the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians and the Cistercians. The three later orders began as reform movements. Most monastic movements began with the intention of reflecting the austere life of the desert monks of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, but over time they became increasingly remote from their origins and there would come a point when someone would think that things needed to change.
The Benedictines dated from the sixth century and they were the dominant order from the ninth century on. Their way of life was based around the Rule of St Benedict. They lived in community, slept in dormitories and ate together in a refectory. Each monastery was an independent entity under the control of its abbot. The monks wore black habits.
Throughout the Dark Ages the Benedictines managed to keep scholarship and liturgical worship going. Their abbeys were centres of learning throughout the Middle Ages.
In England they became rich and powerful, owning vast swathes of land.
The Rule was very flexible and its practitioners eventually came to be seen as lax, both by monks and by people outside the monasteries.
The first reform movement began with the abbey at Cluny in 910. It was founded by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. One of the major differences from the Benedictines was that the abbot of Cluny controlled all the daughter houses. Everything was centralised, and English or French monks owed their allegiance to Cluny rather than to church authorities in their own countries.
The Cluniacs had an elaborate liturgy and the architecture of their buildings was extravagant. They also wore more expensive clothing than that worn by other monks. Their focus was on prayer and they did little manual labour.
Their first English house was founded in 1077 at Lewes. Wenlock Priory, pictured above, was a Cluniac house.
The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse were founded in 1085 by St Bruno of Cologne. They did not have their own rule, but followed the Benedictine Rule in a different way. Their way was austere. These monks were silent and they fasted for much of the time. They took vows of austerity, humility and silence.
The monks slept in cells rather than in dormitories, reflecting a desire to return to the roots of the desert hermits. Each cell had its own garden and each monk had a patch of land to cultivate. For three days a week they were allowed only bread and water. On other days they had fish, eggs and vegetables. They usually ate alone, but ate together on feast days.
The monks met together only for Mattins, Lauds and Vespers. They celebrated the other liturgical hours alone in their cells.
Each house contained a prior and twelve monks with eighteen lay brothers. These last looked after the crops and animals belonging to the house. The Carthusians wanted to avoid a priory growing too large or becoming too well endowed.
Their monasteries were called charterhouses and the first one in England was built in 1178.
Robert of Molesme founded the abbey at Cîteax in 1098, clearly believing that the Carthusians were insufficiently austere. The Cistercians’ clothing was made of undyed wool, hence they were called white monks. They ate neither fish nor eggs. They lived in cells and slept on boards. They worked in the fields and did not study. They used lay brothers to do much of the manual labour so that they could devote themselves to prayer. Their churches were plain with white walls and had no stained glass, or towers.
The most famous Cistercian was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). He arrived a Cîteaux a few years after it was founded. A former soldier, he had a difficult fight against the temptations of the flesh, but he preferred to fight on his own rather than with the assistance of his fellow monks. He believed in fasting and physical suffering, and was considered extreme even by the Cistercians. He was sent to Clairvaux to set up a monastery. He almost died in the early days, but Clairvaux became the most influential monastery in Europe. Under Bernard’s guidance all Cistercian abbeys became very similar in their layout. There were 343 Cistercian abbeys in Europe by Bernard’s death.
In 1132 the Cistercians founded Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was remote and desolate. They were experts at transforming the landscape and exploiting mineral resources. By the end of the twelfth century they owned so much land and so many sheep that they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. They chose sheep originally because they had so many uses. Their fleece became wool; their milk made cheese and butter; and their skins could be turned into vellum for books or sold to glovemakers.
The Cistercians were entrepreneurs, which went against the Rule. Benedict had prescribed that monks should not engage with the world. In another contravention of the Rule, each Cistercian house was subject to the house from which it had been founded, rather than ruled independently by its abbot.
Their first house in England was founded in 1128. They usually built in remote places and made them flourish by their labour.
The Fourteenth Century
There’s no denying that by the fourteenth century St Benedict would have recognised few monasteries as living in accordance with the Rule. Even though the Rule was flexible, many abbots and monks bent it until it broke. Monasteries were wealthy landowners; monks had servants; they ate meat and they were no longer respected by the people around them. The writing was on the wall in the thirteenth century and men like St Francis and St Dominic found a different route to reformation, as we shall see next week.