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The Monastic Orders

Wenlock Priory

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

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 Cluniacs

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 Carthusians

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.

The Cistercians

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.

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What is the Benedictine Rule?

St._Benedict_delivering_his_rule_to_the_monks_of_his_order

 

In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.

Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.

The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.

The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.

The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.

Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.

It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.

In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.

The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.

The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.

The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.

For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.

 

 

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