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Monastic reform: 9th - 11th century

It has been an observable fact, in every religion with monastic traditions, that monasteries tend to get rich and monks fat. In some circumstances this leads to persecution by secular rulers (emperors in T'ang China or Henry VIII in 16th-century England), but more often it inspires reform movements from within.

The story of western monasticism includes several waves of reform, at first within the Benedictine movement.


The first monasteries to follow the Rule of St Benedict are small independent communities, consisting for the most part of laymen who work the land to support themselves and who spend their free time in prayer, study and religious devotion. They are still, in effect, groups of hermits gathered together in a communal life.

The first attempts at reform are organizational. Carolingian rulers - Charlemagne, and his son Louis the Pious - attempt to harness the civilizing potential of the monasteries (centres of learning in a barbarous world) by uniting them in a single federation. They have some success. But the example of one monastery in particular, in the next century, is more effective.


The monastery of Cluny, near Mâcon, is founded in 909 by another ruler whose name in history credits him with special virtue - William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. Under a succession of exceptionally talented abbots, Cluny develops an administrative structure capable of being widely extended.

Other monasteries, wishing to learn from Cluny, are encouraged to follow exactly the same rule. A network of related houses evolves. Gradually it becomes accepted that the abbot of Cluny has rights of seniority over the others, and powers of appointment.


By the 11th century there are more than 1000 monasteries following the Cluniac version of the Benedictine rule. At a time when Europe is entering a period of prosperity and rapid development, the Black Monks - as the Benedictines are known from their habits - are well placed to play a central role in the arts, education and even politics.

Abbeys and their cloisters are where the best Romanesque architecture and sculpture is commissioned. Monastery libraries are treasure houses of the manuscripts copied and illuminated by monks specializing in these crafts. Monastic schools benefit from specialist teachers, and large monastic estates require monks who are skilled stewards.


Rich and varied activities of this kind, though excellent in themselves, are a long way from St Benedict's life of hard work and prayer. Reaction is inevitable. The last years of the 11th century bring two new initiatives - each in its own way extremely successful.

One, dating from 1084, is a reinvention of the earliest monastic inspiration, that of a community of hermits; the Carthusian order adapts the ancient theme of the first Egyptian monks to suit a more settled age. The other, the Cistercian reform of about 1098, is a more specific return to the beginnings of the Benedictine tradition, laying new emphasis on manual work and the simple life.


Carthusians: 1084

St Bruno, previously head of the cathedral school in Reims, retires in 1084 with six companions into the Chartreuse region of the French Alps. In this remote place they build themselves a church, where they worship together, and separate huts in which each can live alone. This place eventually develops into the monastery known as La Grande Chartreuse (from which the English word 'charterhouse' derives, to describe any Carthusian monastery).

The combination of solitude with occasional flashes of communal life proves so successful, for monks who are inclined to be hermits, that St Bruno's order is one of the very few which has never required reform.


The standard architectural pattern of a charterhouse provides, in the most elegant manner, for the requirements of slightly pampered hermits. The monks live in cells arranged along three sides of a courtyard. Each cell is in effect a tiny house, with a room for work, a room for prayer, a bedroom and a miniature garden. A hair shirt is worn, but meals are prepared by lay brothers and are passed in through a hatch.

The monks leave their cells only at night, to worship together in the monastery church, and on Sundays and feast days for a communal meal - during which there is a period for conversation.


The inward-looking rigours of the Carthusian order limit its appeal to a minority of those with a monastic calling. Equally the individual requirements for each monk restrict the number who can be accommodated in a charterhouse. Even La Grande Chartreuse, the parent house, has only thirty-five cells.

By contrast the other successful reform movement of the 11th century, that of the Cistercians, offers infinite scope for expansion. The Cistercian parent house, at Cîteaux, acquires a population of 700 monks and lay brothers within half a century of its founding in 1098.


Cistercians: 11th - 12th century

In about 1098 a group of Benedictine monks, from the abbey of Molesme, form a new community at Cîteaux with the express intention of observing to the letter the rule of St Benedict. In contrast to the large and rich Benedictine monasteries, Cistercian monks (Cistercium is the Latin word for Cîteaux) return to manual work and a simple, communal life far removed from the rest of society.

After difficult beginnings, the new order is transformed by the arrival at Cîteaux in 1112 of a 22-year-old with a large and motley company. They are some thirty friends and relations, persuaded by the novice to abandon their everyday lives and to follow him into the monastery.


The persuasive young man is St Bernard, known as St Bernard of Clairvaux from the new Cistercian monastery of which he becomes the founding abbot just three years later. Under his sterm leadership the order begins to grow at an astonishing speed. By the time of his death, in 1153, there are 338 Cistercian monasteries in Europe. Eventually there as many as 742 monasteries and some 900 nunneries.

These monasteries are not small; many include several hundred people. They are built in a more restrained style than Benedictine cloisters (St Bernard dislikes ornamentation), but they are far from being either poor or simple. Nor, in the circumstances, could they be.


The economic basis of the Cistercian monasteries is, paradoxically, a blueprint for worldly success. Rejecting the riches of cities and of fertile plains, the monks settle on the periphery of cultivated life where land is easily available. But their contribution of hard work and free labour rapidly makes this marginal land profitable.

Small settlements develop almost inevitably into vast and rich abbeys, such as Fountains in Yorkshire. But the success of the White Monks (carefully distinguished by their habits from the black Benedictines) derives also from the administrative discipline of the Cistercian order.


The Cistercians lay a great deal of emphasis on consistency (the same rule everywhere, within the same layout of buildings) and on channels of communication - between daughter houses and their founding abbots, and between the abbots themselves in an annual gathering at Cîteaux.

This is in essence a feudal hierarchy. St Bernard, at its head, plays an important role in the ecclesiastical politics of Europe in the 12th century. But already, in his lifetime, this has ceased to be the simple impoverished order which he joined. The next wave of reform, in the early 13th century, rejects yet again the example of wealthy monks and takes an entirely new direction - inspired by St Dominic and St Francis.


Innocent and the holy beggars: 1210-1215

The most lasting achievement of Innocent III's pontificate is his recognition of a new movement within the western church. The monasteries have shown an incorrigible tendency to accumulate wealth. In 1210 and 1215 the pope receives in Rome two visionaries with a strikingly different concept of how to follow the example of Christ.

The first visit is from Francis of Assisi and eleven of his companions. They are laymen who have given up their worldly possessions. They want to live among the poor, particularly in the rapidly growing towns, preaching and bearing witness to a Christian life. The pope encourages them.


Five years later Innocent's visitor is a Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, who has much experience of preaching (to the Cathars) and a specific interest in correcting doctrinal error. Like Francis, he and his fellows have embraced poverty. They work amid the bustle and argument of the towns. They too are given Innocent's blessing.

From these encounters are born the two great orders of mendicant (or begging) friars, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Western monasticism rediscovers a truth more often remembered in the east, in Hinduism and Buddhism - that the holy man's only possession is his begging bowl. But neither mendicant order, growing in power, will find the ideal of poverty easy.


The formal foundation of each order falls within the pontificate of Innocent's successor, Honorius III. He establishes the Dominicans in 1216 and the Franciscans in 1223.

This papal foundation distinguishes the friars from the more independent monastic orders, established in earlier centuries when the papacy was able to exercise only a relatively loose control. The two mendicant orders are seen and are used as an instrument of papal policy. They will be joined in this respect, after the crisis of the Reformation, by a third and even more powerful order - that of the Jesuits (who differ from the Dominicans and the Franciscans in not sharing their ideological devotion to poverty).


Monks, nuns and friars in the modern world

The prestige of the religious orders suffers almost fatally from the anti-clerical spirit of the late 18th century (culminating in the suppression of the Jesuits), and from violent hostility during the French Revolution. Monasteries, even in Catholic countries, never again recover the economic power which they once enjoyed. And the preaching orders lose much of the influence acquired during the fervour of the Catholic Reformation.

Nevertheless the 19th century sees a strong return to a more religious mood in society, and to a romantic rediscovery of the great Christian centuries of the Middle Ages when monasticism was at its peak.


In the 19th century convents and monasteries are even established for Protestants (unthinkable at any previous time since the Reformation), with the Anglican church giving the lead in the 1840s. In most western countries, in the late 20th century, monks and nuns and friars retain a presence in educational and charitable fields - with a few houses still devoted strictly to the first purpose of monasticism, that of contemplation.

Meanwhile in the east, the original home of the monastic ideal, monks remain a familiar feature in Buddhist countries, taking part in the everyday life of the community as naturally as they once did in Europe.


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