Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Antiquity of Monastic life
Causes which led to it
Oriental asceticism
Religious contemplation
Insoluble questions
Basil the founder of Monasticism
His interesting history
Gregory Nazianzen
Vows of the monks
Their antagonism to prevailing evils
Vow of Poverty opposed to money-making
That of Chastity a protest against prevailing impurity
Origin of celibacy
Its subsequent corruption
Necessity of the vow of Obedience
Benedict and the Monastery of Monte Casino
His rules generally adopted
Lofty and useful life of the early monks
Growth and wealth of Monastic institutions
Magnificence of Mediaeval convents
Privileges of the monks
Luxury of the Benedictines
Relaxation of discipline
Degeneracy of the monks
Compared with secular clergy
Benefits which Monasticism conferred
Learning of the monks
Their common life
Revival of Learning
Rise of Scholasticism
Saint Bernard
His early piety and great attainments
His vast moral influence
His reforms and labors
Rise of Dominicans and Franciscans
Zeal of the mendicant friars
General benefits of Monastic institutions

Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions

A.D. 1091-1153.

One of the oldest institutions of the Church is that which grew out of monastic life. It had its seat, at a remote period, in India. It has existed, in different forms, in other Oriental countries. It has been modified by Brahminical, Buddhistic, and Persian theogonies, and extended to Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. Go where you will in the East, and you see traces of its mighty influence. We cannot tell its remotest origin, but we see everywhere the force of its ideas. Its fundamental principle appears to be the desire to propitiate the Deity by penances and ascetic labors as an atonement for sin, or as a means of rising to a higher religious life. It has sought to escape the polluting influences of demoralized society by lofty contemplation and retirement from the world. From the first, it was a protest against materialism, luxury, and enervating pleasures. It recognized something higher and nobler than devotion to material gains, or a life of degrading pleasure. In one sense it was an intellectual movement, while in another it was an insult to the human understanding. It attempted a purer morality, but abnegated obvious and pressing duties. It was always a contradiction,–lofty while degraded, seeking to comprehend the profoundest mysteries, yet debased by puerile superstitions.

The consciousness of mankind, in all ages and countries, has ever accepted retribution for sin–more or less permanent–in this world or in the next. And it has equally accepted the existence of a Supreme Intelligence and Power, to whom all are responsible, and in connection with whom human destinies are bound up. The deeper we penetrate into the occult wisdom of the East,–on which light has been shed by modern explorations, monumental inscriptions, manuscripts, historical records, and other things which science and genius have deciphered,–the surer we feel that the esoteric classes of India, Egypt, and China were more united in their views of Supreme Power and Intelligence than was generally supposed fifty years ago. The higher intellects of Asia, in all countries and ages, had more lofty ideas of God than we have a right to infer from the superstitions of the people generally. They had unenlightened ideas as to the grounds of forgiveness. But of the necessity of forgiveness and the favor of the Deity they had no doubt.

The philosophical opinions of these sages gave direction to a great religious movement. Matter was supposed to be inherently evil, and mind was thought to be inherently good. The seat of evil was placed in the body rather than in the heart and mind. Not the thoughts of men were evil, but the passions and appetites of the body. Hence the first thing for a good man to do was to bring the body–this seat of evil–under subjection, and, if possible, to eradicate the passions and appetites which enslave the body; and this was to be done by self-flagellations, penances, austerities, and solitude,–flight from the contaminating influences of the world. All Oriental piety assumed this ascetic form. The transition was easy to the sundering of domestic ties, to the suppression of natural emotions and social enjoyments. The devotee became austere, cold, inhuman, unsocial. He shunned the habitations of men. And the more desirous he was to essay a high religious life and thus rise in favor with God, the more severe and revengeful and unforgiving he made the Deity he adored,–not a compassionate Creator and Father, but an irresistible Power bent on his destruction. This degrading view of the Deity, borrowed from Paganism, tinged the subsequent theology of the Christian monks, and entered largely into the theology of the Middle Ages.

Such was the prevailing philosophy, or theosophy–both lofty and degraded–with which the Christian convert had to contend; not merely the shameless vices of the people, so open and flagrant as to call out disgust and indignation, but also the views which the more virtuous and religious of Pagan saints accepted and promulgated: and not saints alone, but those who made the greatest pretension to intellectual culture, like the Gnostics and Manicheans; those men who were the first to ensnare Saint Augustine,–specious, subtle, sophistical, as acute as the Brahmins of India. It was Eastern philosophy, false as we regard it, which created the most powerful institution that existed in Europe for above a thousand years,–an institution which all the learning and eloquence of the Reformers of the sixteenth century could not subvert, except in Protestant countries.

Now what, more specifically, were the ideas which the early monks borrowed from India, Persia, and Egypt, which ultimately took such a firm hold of the European mind?

One was the superior virtue of a life devoted to purely religious contemplation, and for the same end that animated the existence of fakirs and sofis. It was to escape the contaminating influence of matter, to rise above the wants of the body, to exterminate animal passions and appetites, to hide from a world which luxury corrupted. The Christian recluses were thus led to bury themselves in cells among the mountains and deserts, in dreary and uncomfortable caverns, in isolated retreats far from the habitation of men,–yea, among wild beasts, clothing themselves in their skins and eating their food, in order to commune with God more effectually, and propitiate His favor. Their thoughts were diverted from the miseries which they ought to have alleviated and the ignorance which they ought to have removed, and were concentrated upon themselves, not upon their relatives and neighbors. The cries of suffering humanity were disregarded in a vain attempt to practise doubtful virtues. How much good those pious recluses might have done, had their piety taken a more practical form! What missionaries they might have made, what self-denying laborers in the field of active philanthropy, what noble teachers to the poor and miserable! The conversion of the world to Christianity did not enter into their minds so much as the desire to swell the number of their communities. They only aimed at a dreamy pietism,–at best their own individual salvation, rather than the salvation of others. Instead of reaching to the beatific vision, they became ignorant, narrow, and visionary; and, when learned, they fought for words and not for things. They were advocates of subtile and metaphysical distinctions in theology, rather than of those practical duties and simple faith which primitive Christianity enjoined. Monastic life, no less than the schools of Alexandria, was influential in creating a divinity which gave as great authority to dogmas that are the result of intellectual deductions, as those based on direct and original declarations. And these deductions were often gloomy, and colored by the fears which were inseparable from a belief in divine wrath rather than divine love. The genius of monasticism, ancient and modern, is the propitiation of the Divinity who seeks to punish rather than to forgive. It invented Purgatory, to escape the awful burnings of an everlasting hell of physical sufferings. It pervaded the whole theology of the Middle Ages, filling hamlet and convent alike with an atmosphere of fear and wrath, and creating a cruel spiritual despotism. The recluse, isolated and lonely, consumed himself with phantoms, fancied devils, and “chimeras dire.” He could not escape from himself, although he might fly from society. As a means of grace he sought voluntary solitary confinement, without nutritious food or proper protection from the heat and cold, clad in a sheepskin filled with dirt and vermin. What life could be more antagonistic to enlightened reason? What mistake more fatal to everything like self-improvement, culture, knowledge, happiness? And all for what? To strive after an impossible perfection, or the solution of insoluble questions, or the favor of a Deity whose attributes he misunderstood.

But this unnatural, unwise retirement was not the worst evil in the life of a primitive monk, with all its dreamy contemplation and silent despair. It was accompanied with the most painful austerities,–self-inflicted scourgings, lacerations, dire privations, to propitiate an angry deity, or to bring the body into a state which would be insensible to pain, or to exorcise passions which the imaginations inflamed. All this was based on penance,–self-expiation,–which entered so largely into the theogonies of the East, and which gave a gloomy form to the piety of the Middle Ages. This error was among the first to kindle the fiery protests of Luther. The repudiation of this error, and of its logical sequences, was one of the causes of the Reformation. This error cast its dismal shadow on the common life of the Middle Ages. You cannot penetrate the spirit of those centuries without a painful recognition of almost universal darkness and despair. How gloomy was a Gothic church before the eleventh century, with its dark and heavy crypt, its narrow windows, its massive pillars, its low roof, its cold, damp pavement, as if men went into that church to hide themselves and sing mournful songs,–the Dies Irae of monastic fear!

But the primitive monks, with all their lofty self-sacrifices and efforts for holy meditation, towards the middle of the fourth century, as their number increased from the anarchies and miseries of a falling empire, became quarrelsome, sometimes turbulent, and generally fierce and fanatical. They had to be governed. They needed some master mind to control them, and confine them to their religious duties. Then arose Basil, a great scholar, and accustomed to civilized life in the schools of Athens and Constantinople, who gave rules and laws to the monks, gathered them into communities and discouraged social isolation, knowing that the demons had more power over men when they were alone and idle.

Saint Bernard From the painting by Filippino Lippi, La Badia, Florence

Saint Bernard From the painting by Filippino Lippi, La Badia, Florence

This Basil was an extraordinary man. His ancestors were honorable and wealthy. He moved in the highest circle of social life, like Chrysostom. He was educated in the most famous schools. He travelled extensively like other young men of rank. His tutor was the celebrated Libanius, the greatest rhetorician of the day. He exhausted Antioch, Caesarea, and Constantinople, and completed his studies at Athens, where he formed a famous friendship with Gregory Nazianzen, which was as warm and devoted as that between Cicero and Atticus: these young men were the talk and admiration of Athens. Here, too, he was intimate with young Julian, afterwards the “Apostate” Emperor of Rome. Basil then visited the schools of Alexandria, and made the acquaintance of the great Athanasius, as well as of those monks who sought a retreat amid Egyptian solitudes. Here his conversion took place, and he parted with his princely patrimony for the benefit of the poor. He then entered the Church, and was successively ordained deacon and priest, while leading a monastic life. He retired among the mountains of Armenia, and made choice of a beautiful grove, watered with crystal streams, where he gave himself to study and meditation. Here he was joined by his friend Gregory Nazianzen and by enthusiastic admirers, who formed a religious fraternity, to whom he was a spiritual father. He afterwards was forced to accept the great See of Caesarea, and was no less renowned as bishop and orator than he had been as monk. Yet it is as a monk that he left the most enduring influence, since he made the first great change in monastic life,–making it more orderly, more industrious, and less fanatical.

He instituted or embodied, among others, the three great vows, which are vital to monastic institutions,–Poverty, Obedience, and Chastity. In these vows he gave the institution a more Christian and a less Oriental aspect. Monachism became more practical and less visionary and wild. It approximated nearer to the Christian standard. Submission to poverty is certainly a Christian virtue, if voluntary poverty is not. Chastity is a cardinal duty. Obedience is a necessity to all civilized life. It is the first condition of all government.

Moreover, these three vows seem to have been called for by the condition of society, and the prevalence of destructive views. Here Basil,–one of the commanding intellects of his day, and as learned and polished as he was pious,–like Jerome after him, proved himself a great legislator and administrator, including in his comprehensive view both Christian principles and the necessities of the times, and adapting his institution to both.

One of the most obvious, flagrant, and universal evils of the day was devotion to money-making in order to purchase sensual pleasures. It pervaded Roman life from the time of Augustus. The vow of poverty, therefore, was a stern, lofty, disdainful protest against the most dangerous and demoralizing evil of the Empire. It hurled scorn, hatred, and defiance on this overwhelming evil, and invoked the aid of Christianity. It was simply the earnest affirmation and belief that money could not buy the higher joys of earth, and might jeopardize the hopes of heaven. It called to mind the greatest examples; it showed that the great teachers of mankind, the sages and prophets of history, had disdained money as the highest good; that riches exposed men to great temptation, and lowered the standard of morality and virtue,–“how hardly shall they who have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” It appealed to the highest form of self-sacrifice; it arrayed itself against a vice which was undermining society. And among truly Christian people this new application of Christ’s warnings against the dangers of wealth excited enthusiasm. It was like enlisting in the army of Christ against his greatest enemies. Make any duty clear and imperious to Christian people, and they will generally conform to it. So the world saw one of the most impressive spectacles of all history,–the rich giving up their possessions to follow the example and injunctions of Christ. It was the most signal test of Christian obedience. It prompted Paula, the richest lady of Christian antiquity, to devote the revenues of an entire city, which she owned, to the cause of Christ; and the approbation of Jerome, her friend, was a sufficient recompense.

The vow of Chastity was equally a protest against one of the characteristic vices of the day, as well as a Christian virtue. Luxury and pleasure-seeking lives had relaxed the restraints of home and the virtues of earlier days. The evils of concubinage were shameless and open throughout the empire, which led to a low estimate of female virtue and degraded the sex. The pagan poets held up woman as a subject of scorn and scarcasm. On no subject were the apostles more urgent in their exhortations than to a life of purity. To no greater temptation were the converts to Christianity subjected than the looseness of prevailing sentiments in reference to this vice. It stared everybody in the face. Basil took especial care to guard the monks from this prevailing iniquity, and made chastity a transcendent and fundamental virtue. He aimed to remove the temptation to sin. The monks were enjoined to shun the very presence of women. If they carried the system of non-intercourse too far, and became hard and unsympathetic, it was to avoid the great scandal of the age,–a still greater evil. To the monk was denied even the blessing of the marriage ties. Celibacy became a fundamental law of monachism. It was not to cement a spiritual despotism that Basil forbade marriage, but to attain a greater sanctity,–for a monk was consecrated to what was supposed to be the higher life. This law of celibacy was abused, and gradually was extended to all the clergy, secular as well as regular, but not till the clergy were all subordinated to the rule of an absolute Pope. It is the fate of all human institutions to become corrupt; but no institution of the Church has been so fatally perverted as that pertaining to the marriage of the clergy. Founded to promote purity of personal life, it was used to uphold the arms of spiritual despotism. It was the policy of Hildebrand.

The vow of Obedience, again, was made in special reference to the disintegration of society, when laws were feebly enforced and a central power was passing away. The discipline even of armies was relaxed. Mobs were the order of the day, even in imperial cities. Moreover, monks had long been insubordinate; they obeyed no head, except nominally; they were with difficulty ruled in their communities. Therefore obedience was made a cardinal virtue, as essential to the very existence of monastic institutions. I need not here allude to the perversion of this rule,–how it degenerated into a fearful despotism, and was made use of by ambitious popes, and finally by the generals of the Mendicant Friars and the Jesuits. All the rules of Basil were perverted from their original intention; but in his day they were called for.

About a century later the monastic system went through another change or development, when Benedict, a remarkable organizer, instituted on Monte Cassino, near Naples, his celebrated monastery (529, A.D.), which became the model of all the monasteries of the West. He reaffirmed the rules of Basil, but with greater strictness. He gave no new principles to monastic life; but he adapted it to the climate and institutions of the newly founded Gothic kingdoms of Europe. It became less Oriental; it was made more practical; it was invested with new dignity. The most visionary and fanatical of all the institutions of the East was made useful. The monks became industrious. Industry was recognized as a prime necessity even for men who had retired from the world. No longer were the labors of monks confined to the weaving of baskets, but they were extended to the comforts of ordinary life,–to the erection of stately buildings, to useful arts, the systematic cultivation of the land, to the accumulation of wealth,–not for individuals, but for their monasteries. Monastic life became less dreamy, less visionary, but more useful, recognizing the bodily necessities of men. The religious duties of monks were still dreary, monotonous, and gloomy,–long and protracted singing in the choir, incessant vigils, an unnatural silence at the table, solitary walks in the cloister, the absence of social pleasures, confinement to the precincts of their convents; but their convents became bee-hives of industry, and their lands were highly cultivated. The monks were hospitable; they entertained strangers, and gave a shelter to the persecuted and miserable. Their monasteries became sacred retreats, which were respected by those rude warriors who crushed beneath their feet the glories of ancient civilization. Nor for several centuries did the monks in their sacred enclosures give especial scandal. Their lives were spent in labors of a useful kind, alternated and relieved by devotional duties.

Hence they secured the respect and favor of princes and good men, who gave them lands and rich presents of gold and silver vessels. Their convents were unmolested and richly endowed, and these became enormously multiplied in every European country. Gradually they became so rich as to absorb the wealth of nations. Their abbots became great personages, being chosen from the ranks of princes and barons. The original poverty and social insignificance of monachism passed away, and the institution became the most powerful organization in Europe. It then aspired to political influence, and the lord abbots became the peers of princes and the ministers of kings. Their abbey churches, especially, became the wonder and the admiration of the age, both for size and magnificence. The abbey church of Cluny, in Burgundy, was five hundred and thirty feet long, and had stalls for two hundred monks. It had the appointment of one hundred and fifty parish priests. The church of Saint Albans, in England, is said to have been six hundred feet long; and that of Glastonbury, the oldest in England, five hundred and thirty. Peterborough’s was over five hundred. The kings of England, both Saxon and Norman, were especial patrons of these religious houses. King Edgar founded forty-seven monasteries and richly endowed them; Henry I. founded one hundred and fifty; and Henry II. as many more. At one time there were seven hundred Benedictine abbeys in England, some of which were enormously rich,–like those of Westminster, St. Albans, Glastonbury, and Bury St. Edmunds,–and their abbots were men of the highest social and political distinction. They sat in Parliament as peers of the realm; they coined money, like feudal barons; they lived in great state and dignity. The abbot of Monte Cassino was duke and prince, and chancellor of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Tins celebrated convent had the patronage of four bishoprics, sixteen hundred and sixty-two churches, and possessed or controlled two hundred and fifty castles, four hundred and forty towns, and three hundred and thirty-six manors. Its revenues exceeded five hundred thousand ducats, so that the lord-abbot was the peer of the greatest secular princes. He was more powerful and wealthy, probably, than any archbishop in Europe. One of the abbots of St. Gall entered Strasburg with one thousand horsemen in his train. Whiting, of Glastonbury, entertained five hundred people of fashion at one time, and had three hundred domestic servants. “My vow of poverty,” said another of these lordly abbots,–who generally rode on mules with gilded bridles and with hawks on their wrists,–“has given me ten thousand crowns a year; and my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.”

Among the privileges of these abbots was exemption from taxes and tolls; they were judges in the courts; they had the execution of all rents, and the supreme control of the income of the abbey lands. The revenues of Westminster and Glastonbury were equal to half a million of dollars a year in our money, considering the relative value of gold and silver. Glastonbury owned about one thousand oxen, two hundred and fifty cows, and six thousand sheep. Fontaine abbey possessed forty thousand acres of land. The abbot of Augia, in Germany, had a revenue of sixty thousand crowns,–several millions, as money is now measured. At one time the monks, with the other clergy, owned half of the lands of Europe. If a king was to be ransomed, it was they who furnished the money; if costly gifts were to be given to the Pope, it was they who made them. The value of the vessels of gold and silver, the robes and copes of silk and velvet, the chalices, the altar-pieces, and the shrines enriched with jewels, was inestimable. The feasts which the abbots gave were almost regal. At the installation of the abbot of St. Augustine, at Canterbury, there were consumed fifty-eight tuns of beer, eleven tuns of wine, thirty-one oxen, three hundred pigs, two hundred sheep, one thousand geese, one thousand capons, six hundred rabbits, nine thousand eggs, while the guests numbered six thousand people. Of the various orders of the Benedictines there have been thirty-seven thousand monasteries and one hundred and fifty thousand abbots. From the monks, twenty-one thousand have been chosen as bishops and archbishops, and twenty-eight have been elevated to the papal throne.

From these things, and others which may seem too trivial to mention, we infer the great wealth and power of monastic institutions, the most flourishing days of which were from the sixth century to the Crusades, beginning in the eleventh, when more than one hundred thousand monks acknowledged the rule of Saint Benedict. During this period of prosperity, when the vast abbey churches were built, and when abbots were great temporal as well as spiritual magnates, quite on an equality with the proudest feudal barons, we notice a marked decline in the virtues which had extorted the admiration of Europe. The Benedictines retained their original organization, they were bound by the same vows (as individuals, the monks were always poor), they wore the same dress, as they did centuries before, and they did not fail in their duties in the choir,–singing their mournful chants from two o’clock in the morning. But discipline was relaxed; the brothers strayed into unseemly places; they indulged in the pleasures of the table; they were sensual in their appearance; they were certainly ignorant, as a body; and they performed more singing than preaching or teaching. They lived for themselves rather than for the people. They however remained hospitable to the last. Their convents were hotels as well as bee-hives; any stranger could remain two nights at a convent without compensation and without being questioned. The brothers dined together at the refectory, according to the rules, on bread, vegetables, and a little meat; although it was noticed that they had a great variety in cooking eggs, which were turned and roasted and beaten up, and hardened and minced and fried and stuffed. It is said that subsequently they drank enormous quantities of beer and wine, and sometimes even to disgraceful excess. Their rules required them to keep silence at their meals; but their humanity got the better of them, and they have been censured for their hilarious and frivolous conversation,–for jests and stories and puns. Bernard accused the monks of degeneracy, of being given to the pleasures of the table, of loving the good things which they professed to scorn,–rare fish, game, and elaborate cookery.

That the monks sadly degenerated in morals and discipline, and even became objects of scandal, is questioned by no respectable historian. No one was more bitter and vehement in his denunciations of this almost universal corruption of monastic life than Saint Bernard himself,–the impersonation of an ideal monk. Hence reforms were attempted; and the Cluniacs and Cistercians and other orders arose, modelled after the original institution on Monte Cassino. These were only branches of the Benedictines. Their vows and habits and duties were the same. It would seem that the prevailing vices of the Benedictines, in their decline, were those which were fostered by great wealth, and consequent idleness and luxury. But at their worst estate the monks, or regular clergy, were no worse than the secular clergy, or parish priests, in their ordinary lives, and were more intelligent,–at least more learned. The ignorance of the secular clergy was notorious and scandalous. They could not even write letters of common salutation; and what little knowledge they had was extolled and exaggerated. It was confined to the acquisition of the Psalter by heart, while a little grammar, writing, and accounts were regarded as extraordinary. He who could write a few homilies, drawn from the Fathers, was a wonder and a prodigy. There was a total absence of classical literature.

But the monks, ignorant and degenerate as they were, guarded what little literature had escaped the ruin of the ancient civilization. They gave the only education the age afforded. There was usually a school attached to every convent, and manual labor was shortened in favor of students. Nor did the monks systematically and deliberately shut the door of knowledge against those inclined to study, for at that time there was no jealousy of learning; there was only indifference to it, or want of appreciation. The age was ignorant, and life was hard, and the struggle for existence occupied the thoughts of all. The time of the monks was consumed in alternate drudgeries and monotonous devotions. There was such a general intellectual torpor that scholars (and these were very few) were left at liberty to think and write as they pleased on the great questions of theology. There was such a general unanimity of belief, that the popes were not on the look-out for heresy. Nobody thought of attacking their throne. There was no jealousy about the reading of the Scriptures. Every convent had a small library, mostly composed of Lives of the saints, and of devout meditations and homilies; and the Bible was the greatest treasure of all,–the Vulgate of Saint Jerome, which was copied and illuminated by busy hands. In spite of the general ignorance, the monks relieved their dull lives by some attempts at art. This was the age of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts. There was but little of doctrinal controversy, for the creed of the Church was settled; but pious meditations and the writings of noted saints were studied and accepted,–especially the works of Saint Augustine, who had fixed the thinking of the West for a thousand years. Pagan literature had but little charm until Aristotle was translated by Arabian scholars. The literature of the Church was puerile and extravagant, yet Christian,–consisting chiefly of legends of martyrs and Lives of saints. That literature has no charm to us, and can never be revived, indeed is already forgotten and neglected, as well it may be; but it gave unity to Christian belief, and enthroned the Christian heroes on the highest pedestal of human greatness. In the monasteries some one of the fraternity read aloud these Lives and Meditations, while the brothers worked or dined. There was no discussion, for all thought alike; and all sought to stimulate religious emotions rather than to quicken intellectual activity.

About half the time of the monks, in a well-regulated monastery, was given to singing and devotional exercises and religious improvement, and the other half to labors in the fields, or in painting or musical composition. So far as we know, the monks lived in great harmony, and were obedient to the commands of their superiors. They had a common object to live for, and had few differences in opinion on any subject. They did not enjoy a high life, but it was free from distracting pleasures. They affected great humility, with which spiritual pride was mingled,–not the arrogant pride of the dialectician, but the self-satisfied pride of the devotee. There was no religious hatred, except towards Turks and Saracens. The monk, in his narrowness and ignorance, may be repulsive to an enlightened age: he was not repulsive to his own, for he was not behind it either in his ideas or in his habits of life. In fact, the more repulsive the monk of the dark ages is to this generation, the more venerated he was by bishops and barons seven hundred years ago; which fact leads us to infer that the degenerate monk might be to us most interesting when he was most condemned by the reformers of his day, since he was more humane, genial, and free than his brethren, chained to the rigid discipline of his convent. Even a Friar Tuck is not so repulsive to us as an unsocial, austere, narrow-minded, and ignorant fanatic of the eleventh century.

But the monks were not to remain forever imprisoned in the castles of ignorance and despair. With the opening of the twelfth century light began to dawn upon the human mind. The intellectual monk, long accustomed to devout meditations, began to speculate on those subjects which had occupied his thoughts,–on God and His attributes, on the nature and penalty of sin, on redemption, on the Saviour, on the power of the will to resist evil, and other questions that had agitated the early Fathers of the Church. Then arose such men as Erigena, Roscelin, Bérenger, Lanfranc, Anselm, Bernard, and others,–all more or less orthodox, but inquiring and intellectual. It was within the walls of the cloister that the awakening began and the first impulse was given to learning and philosophy. The abbey of Bec, in Normandy, was the most distinguished of new intellectual centres, while Clairvaux and other princely abbeys had inmates as distinguished for meditative habits as for luxury and pride.

It was at this period, when the convents of Europe rejoiced in ample possessions, and their churches rivalled cathedrals in size and magnificence, and their abbots were lords and princes,–the palmy age of monastic institutions, chiefly of the Benedictine order,–that Saint Bernard, the greatest and best representative of Mediaeval monasticism, was born, 1091, at Fontaine, in Burgundy. He belonged to a noble family. His mother was as remarkable as Monica or Nonna. She had six sons and a daughter, whom she early consecrated to the Lord. Bernard was the third son. Like Luther, he was religiously inclined from early youth, and panted for monastic seclusion. At the age of twenty-three he entered the new monastery at Citeaux, which had been founded a few years before by Stephen Harding, an English saint, who revived the rule of Saint Benedict with still greater strictness, and was the founder of the Cistercian order,–a branch of the Benedictines. He entered this gloomy retreat, situated amid marshes and morasses, with no outward attractions like Cluny, but unhealthy and miserably poor,–the dreariest spot, perhaps, in Burgundy; and he entered at the head of thirty young men, of the noble class, among whom were four of his brothers who had been knights, and who presented themselves to the abbot as novices, bent on the severest austerities that human nature could support.

Bernard himself was a beautiful, delicate, refined young man,–tall, with flaxen hair, fair complexion, blue eyes from which shone a superhuman simplicity and purity. His noble birth would have opened to him the highest dignities of the Church, but he sought only to bear the yoke of Christ, and to be nailed to the cross; and he really became a common laborer wrapped in a coarse cowl, digging ditches and planting fields,–for such were the labors of the monks of Citeaux when not performing their religious exercises. But his disposition was as beautiful as his person, and he soon won the admiration of his brother monks, as he had won the affection of the knights of Burgundy. Such was his physical weakness that “nearly everything he took his stomach rejected;” and such was the rigor of his austerities that he destroyed the power of appetite. He could scarcely distinguish oil from wine. He satisfied his hunger with the Bible, and quenched his thirst with prayer. In three years he became famous as a saint, and was made Abbot of Clairvaux,–a new Cistercian convent, in a retired valley which had been a nest of robbers.

St. Bernard Counselling Conrad III. After the painting by Adolph Maria Mucha

But his intellect was as remarkable as his piety, and his monastery became not only a model of monastic life, to which flocked men from all parts of Europe to study its rules, but the ascetic abbot himself became an oracle on all the questions of the day. So great was his influence that when he died, in 1153, he left behind one hundred and sixty monasteries formed after his model. He became the counsellor of kings and nobles, bishops and popes. He was summoned to attend councils and settle quarrels. His correspondence exceeded that of Jerome or Saint Augustine. He was sought for as bishop in the largest cities of France and Italy. He ruled Europe by the power of learning and sanctity. He entered into all the theological controversies of the day. He was the opponent of Abélard, whose condemnation he secured. He became a great theologian and statesman, as well as churchman. He incited the princes of Europe to a new crusade. His eloquence is said to have been marvellous; even the tones of his voice would melt to pity or excite to rage. With a long neck, like that of Cicero, and a trembling, emaciated frame, he preached with passionate intensity. Nobody could resist his eloquence. He could scarcely stand upright from weakness, yet he could address ten thousand men. He was an outspoken man, and reproved the greatest dignitaries with as much boldness as did Savonarola. He denounced the gluttony of monks, the avarice of popes, and the rapacity of princes. He held heresy in mortal hatred, like the Fathers of the fifth century. His hostility to Abélard was direful, since he looked upon him as undermining Christianity and extinguishing faith in the world. In his defence of orthodoxy he was the peer of Augustine or Athanasius. He absolutely abhorred the Mohammedans as the bitterest foes of Christendom,–the persecutors of pious pilgrims. He wandered over Europe preaching a crusade. He renounced the world, yet was compelled by the unanimous voice of his contemporaries to govern the world. He gave a new impulse to the order of Knights Templars. He was as warlike as he was humble. He would breathe the breath of intense hostility into the souls of crusaders, and then hasten back to the desolate and barren country in which Clairvaux was situated, rebuild his hut of leaves and boughs, and soothe his restless spirit with the study of the Song of Songs. Like his age, and like his institution, he was a great contradiction. The fiercest and most dogmatic of controversialists was the most gentle and loving of saints. His humanity was as marked as his fanaticism, and nothing could weaken it,–not even the rigors of his convent life. He wept at the sorrows of all who sought his sympathy or advice. On the occasion of his brother’s death he endeavored to preach a sermon on the Canticles, but broke down as Jerome did at the funeral of Paula. He kept to the last the most vivid recollection of his mother; and every night, before he went to bed, he recited the seven Penitential Psalms for the benefit of her soul.

In his sermons and exhortations Bernard dwelt equally on the wrath of God and the love of Christ. Said he to a runaway Cistercian, “Thou fearest watchings, fasts, and manual labor, but these are light to one who thinks on eternal fire. The remembrance of the outer darkness takes away all horror from solitude. Place before thine eyes the everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth, the fury of those flames which can never be extinguished” (the essence of the theology of the Middle Ages,–the fear of Hell, of a physical and eternal Hell of bodily torments, by which fear those ages were controlled). Bernard, the loveliest impersonation of virtue which those ages saw, was not beyond their ideas. He impersonated them, and therefore led the age and became its greatest oracle. The passive virtues of the Sermon on the Mount were united with the fiercest passions of religious intolerance and the most repulsive views of divine vengeance. That is the soul of monasticism, even as reformed by Harding, Alberic, and Bernard in the twelfth century, less human than in the tenth century, yet more intellectual.

The monks of Citeaux, of Morimond, of Pontigny, of Clairvaux, amid the wastes of a barren country, with their white habits and perpetual vigils and haircloth shirts and root dinners and hard labors in the field, were yet the counsellors and ministers of kings and the creators of popes, and incited the nations to the most bloody and unfortunate wars in the whole history of society,–I mean the Crusades. Some were great intellectual giants, yet all repelled scepticism as life repels death; all dwelt on the sufferings of the cross as a door through which the penitent and believing could surely enter heaven, yet based the justice of the infinite Father of Love on what, when it appeals to consciousness, seems to be the direst injustice. We cannot despise the Middle Ages, which produced such beatific and exalted saints, but we pity those dismal times when the great mass of the people had so little pleasure and comfort in this life, and such gloomy fears of the world to come; when life was made a perpetual sacrifice and abnegation of all the pleasures that are given us to enjoy,–to use and not to pervert. Hence monasticism was repulsive, even in its best ages, to enlightened reason, and fatal to all progress among nations, although it served a useful purpose when men were governed by fear alone, and when violence and strife and physical discomfort and ignorance and degrading superstitions covered the fairest portion of the earth with a funereal pall for more than a thousand years.

The thirteenth century saw a new development of monastic institutions in the creation of the Mendicant Friars,–especially the Dominicans and Franciscans,–monks whose mission it was to wander over Europe as preachers, confessors, and teachers. The Benedictines were too numerous, wealthy, and corrupt to be reformed. They had become a scandal; they had lost the confidence of good men. There were needed more active partisans of the Pope to sustain his authority; the new universities required abler professors; the cities sought more popular preachers; the great desired more intelligent confessors. The Crusades had created a new field of enterprise, and had opened to the eye of Europe a wider horizon of knowledge. The universities which had grown up around the cathedral schools had kindled a spirit of inquiry. Church architecture had become lighter, more cheerful, and more symbolic. The Greek philosophy had revealed a new method. The doctrines of the Church, if they did not require a new system, yet needed, or were supposed to need, the aid of philosophy, for the questions which the schoolmen discussed were so subtile and intricate that only the logic of Aristotle could make them clear.

Now the Mendicant orders entered with a zeal which has never been equalled, except by the Jesuits, into all the inquiries of the schools, and kindled a new religious life among the people, like the Methodists of the last century. They were somewhat similar to the Temperance reformers of the last fifty years. They were popular, zealous, intelligent, and religious. So great were their talents and virtues that they speedily spread over Europe, and occupied the principal pulpits and the most important chairs in the universities. Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus were the great ornaments of these new orders. Their peculiarity–in contrast with the old orders–was, that they wandered from city to city and village to village at the command of their superiors. They had convents, like the other monks; but they professed absolute poverty, went barefooted, and submitted to increased rigors. Their vows were essentially those of the Benedictines. In less than a century, however, they too had degenerated, and were bitterly reproached for their vagabond habits and the violation of their vows. Their convents had also become rich, like those of the Benedictines. It was these friars whom Chaucer ridiculed, and against whose vices Wyclif declaimed. Yet they were retained by the popes for their services in behalf of ecclesiastical usurpation. It was they who were especially chosen to peddle indulgences. Their history is an impressive confirmation of the tendency of all human institutions to degenerate. It would seem that the mission of the Benedictines had been accomplished in the thirteenth century, and that of the Dominicans and Franciscans in the fourteenth.

But monasticism, in any of its forms, ceased to have a salutary influence on society when the darkness of the Middle Ages was dispersed. It is peculiarly a Mediaeval institution. As a Mediaeval institution, it conferred many benefits on the semi-barbarians of Europe. As a whole, considering the shadows of ignorance and superstition which veiled Christendom, and the evils which violence produced, its influence was beneficent.

Among the benefits which monastic institutions conferred, at least indirectly, may be mentioned the counteracting influence they exerted against the turbulence and tyranny of baronial lords, whose arrogance and extortion they rebuked; they befriended the peasantry; they enabled poor boys to rise; they defended the doctrine that the instructors of mankind should be taken from all classes alike; they were democratic in their sympathies, while feudal life produced haughtiness and scorn; they welcomed scholars from the humblest ranks; they beheld in peasants’ children souls which could be ennobled. Though abbots were chosen generally from the upper classes, yet the ordinary monks sprang from the peasantry. For instance, a peasant’s family is deprived of its head; he has been killed while fighting for a feudal lord. The family are doomed to misery and hardship. No aristocratic tears are shed for them; they are no better than dogs or cattle. The mother is heartbroken. Not one of her children can ordinarily rise from their abject position; they can live and breathe the common air, and that is all. They are unmolested in their mud huts, if they will toil for the owner of their village at the foot of the baronial castle. But one of her sons is bright and religious. He attracts the attention of a sympathetic monk, whose venerable retreat is shaded with trees, adorned with flowers, and seated perhaps on the side of a murmuring stream, whose banks have been made fertile by industry and beautiful with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. He urges the afflicted mother to consecrate him to the service of the Church; and the boy enters the sanctuary and is educated according to the fashion of the age, growing up a sad, melancholy, austere, and pharisaical member of the fraternity, whose spirit is buried in a gloomy grave of ascetic severities, He passes from office to office. In time he becomes the prior of his convent,–possibly its abbot, the equal of that proud baron in whose service his father lost his life, the controller of innumerable acres, the minister of kings. How, outside the Church, could he thus have arisen? But in the monastery he is enabled, in the most aristocratic age of the world, to rise to the highest of worldly dignities. And he is a man of peace and not of war. He hates war; he seeks to quell dissensions and quarrels. He believes that there is a higher than the warrior’s excellence. Monachism recognized what feudalism did not,–the claims of man as man. In this respect it was human and sympathetic. It furnished a retreat from misery and oppression. It favored contemplative habits and the passive virtues, so much needed in turbulent times. Whatever faults the monks had, it must be allowed that they alleviated sufferings, and presented the only consolation that their gloomy and iron age afforded. In an imperfect manner their convents answered the purpose of our modern hotels, hospitals, and schools. It was benevolence, charity, and piety which the monks aimed to secure, and which they often succeeded in diffusing among people more wretched and ignorant than themselves.


Saint Bernard’s Works, especially the Epistles; Mabillon; Hélyot’s Histoire des Ordres Monastiques; Dugdale’s Monasticon; Döring’s Geschichte der Monchsorden; Montalembert’s Les Moines d’Occident; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Morison’s Life and Times of Saint Bernard; Lives of the English Saints; Stephen Harding; Histoire d’Abbaye de Cluny, par M.P. Lorain; Neander’s Church History; Butler’s Lives of the Saints; Vaughan’s Life of Thomas Aquinas; Digby’s Ages of Faith.

Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages