To wean converts from their old heathen life, it was necessary to separate them entirely, for a time, from their old ties and old customs; to remove them from the distracting influences, the silent or open persecutions, the innumerable temptations, to which they would be subject in their own homes; and put them into a situation where they could first practise their new life in ease and safety. For this the monastery was admirably adapted. While it gave the seclusion and religious training necessary, it was in itself almost another world, with pursuits and qualities adapted and attractive to every variety of disposition. For the energetic, it had its labors; for the burning devotee, its austerities; for strong will, its discipline; for the thoughtful, its contemplation ; for the gentle, its serene repose ; for those thirsting after knowledge, its studies and instructions. Thus the monastery attracted the barbarians within its walls, detached them from their heathen superstitions and brutal habits, trained them in Christian and civilized life, and then sent them out to teach others the lessons they had learned.

Simultaneously with religious culture, provision was made in the monastery for mental education. The imperial schools which, under the Roman rule, had been scattered over Western Europe, had been overthrown by the fall of the Empire. The devastations and disorders which attended the establishment of the barbarian nations on the ruins of the Roman world, and which continued for a long period afterwards, had occasioned the almost universal destruction or loss of books. Only in the cloister, and the schools attached to the great convents and conducted by the monks, had the light of knowledge been kept alive in Western Europe. The library was from the earliest times a regular part of every monastery. Many monastic communities, especially those of the south and east of Europe, had preserved their books and their learning intact through all the devastations that accompanied the fall of the Roman empire. From these treasuries, the other monasteries derived the riches of ancient knowledge. The monks of Western and Northern Europe rarely returned from their pilgrimages to the south and east, without bringing back a copy of some old master or famous saint. The collecting and copying of manuscripts was a work enjoined by the Benedictine rule. The work of the scribes was considered the most commendable employment with which the monk could fill his leisure moments. The new acquisitions were therefore soon reproduced, multiplied, and spread abroad among the neighboring abbeys. Libraries were thus gathered, and learning advanced. From the fifth to the eleventh century, the monastery alone furnished the books and instructors sought by all in pursuit of knowledge. To the monasteries, the great cities, the noble families, and the royal houses, sent their sons to be educated. Whoever, young or old, desired to devote himself to the pursuit of letters, sought to enter into the favored Order, and enjoy its treasures of knowledge and the quiet and leisure of its life. The foundations of almost all the eminent schools of Europe were laid by the monks, and many of them still bear the traces of their monastic origin.

The Scriptures, the works of the Fathers, and theology in all its branches, were of course the topics which occupied the first place in the studies of the conventual schools. But they were not limited to those. Aristotle, Pliny, Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil were known and studied in the darkest part of the Middle Age. Science and art received attention as well as literature. Physics, chemistry, botany, medicine, law, painting, and the art of illumination, were all pursued within the walls of the cloister. The monastery became the spring of whatever intellectual activity, whatever development and progress, there was in those ages, the source of whatever cultivation and higher life the times allowed. From the monastery issued new philosophies, bold theories, decisive inventions, reforms in church, state, and society, the great movements of the times. It was the monastery that gave birth to Realism and Nominalism, the scholastic theology, and the rationalistic philosophy. It was the monk Hildebrand who led the great reform of the church in the eleventh century; and his supporters and allies in the movement were the monks. It was Peter the Hermit who excited enthusiasm for the first Crusade, and the abbot Bernard who roused Europe to the second Crusade. A Benedictine monk, Gratiano, was the father of the science of canon

law; and the Benedictines were the great authorities and writers on that subject. Another Benedictine, Guido d'Arezzo, was the inventor of the gamut, and the first who instituted a school of music. The monks were the parents of Gothic architecture, the inventors or improvers of the implements used in painting, the discoverers and preparers of some of the finest colors. “ As architects, as glass-painters, as mosaic-workers, as carvers in wood and metal, they were,” says Mrs. Jameson, “ the precursors of all that has yet been achieved in Christian art.” By exciting the emulation of the secular clergy, and the enforcement of celibacy among its members, which gave them leisure for study, they kept the other branch of the clergy from sinking universally into the total ignorance which in some quarters prevailed among them.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, society had become settled enough to give opportunity for carrying religious instruction among the community at large, and a general thirst for religious knowledge and experience arose. There was found a great want of Christian teachers for the common people. Preaching, the special function of the bishops, had pretty generally fallen into disuse. The only general teaching was the ritual, mechanically administered by a priesthood generally very ignorant, in some quarters unable to read the service. The priests were comparatively few in number, inert, and out of sympathy with the people. The existing orders of monks were, by their principle of seclusion, unable to meet this want. It would seem improbable, that the institution which had afforded relief to a diametrically opposite condition of society should be the one to come forward with relief for this. Yet so it was. By two new orders, the Dominican and the Franciscan, Europe was overspread by a host of zealous and active men, who mixed familiarly with all classes, and devoted themselves to popular instruction. They preached in village and city, in market-place and in camp, performing a great and muchneeded work; making prevalent the custom of popular preaching, and supplying an abundance of fervid preachers and assistants to the parochial clergy; and thus soon making the


Church doctrine familiar among every class and in every corner of Christendom.

It would be extravagant to say, that the rise of Europe from the chaos, barbarism, and heathenism in which it lay when Benedict's rule began its work, up to the condition of a civilized Christian community, was owing entirely to the monks and the monastic institution, or that it would have been impossible without them; but it is not extravagant to say, that the monastic institution contributed more than any other single element to that result. The moral development which monasticism succeeded in producing, was doubtless deformed by superstition; the intellectual development crude and scanty; the social development rude ; the civilization, in a word, imperfect. But it was better, assuredly, that brute violence should have been fettered by the bonds of superstition, than that it should have rioted without control; better the faint and feeble illumination of the cloister, than that the darkness which lay on the mind of man should have remained unbroken. And is it not simply because the modern world had the starting-point of this imperfect civilization to proceed from, that it has been able to attain its own higher civilization ?

The world has also been indebted to the monasteries for the example of a generous charity. In the East, the Xenodochium, or asylum for the strangers and poor, was a regular appendix to every monastery. The cloisters of Egypt are found providing subsistence for the unfruitful districts of Libya, and sending shiploads of grain and clothing for distribution among the suffering Alexandrians. In practical Western Europe, this became a still more prominent service of the monks. Requiring but simple and frugal fare themselves, they could devote a large portion of the fruit of their labor to supplying the necessities of the neighboring poor. Many of them had large possessions, whose income was devoted to the same purpose. They were continually exciting the rich and great to deeds of beneficence; and they offered ever-open channels by which that beneficence might be profitably distributed. The monasteries were the almshouses of the Middle Age, asylums for the widow and orphans, the helpless and the forsaken, inns for

travellers, and hospitals for the unfortunate sick, whether suffering in mind or body. “In the relief of indigence,” says Hallam, whose caution of statement is so well known, “it may be asserted, that the monks did not fall short of their professions.” And in estimating the value of this charity we must recall, as it has been remarked, a social condition very different from our own,-a period when there was no public provision for the poor; when, for the wretched, there was absolutely no resource but in private beneficence.

Another service of the monastic institution was its influence in ennobling poverty, and in creating the spirit of equality and fraternity. “We inquire not,” says Isidore, the distinguished Spanish abhot, “ whether the novice be rich or poor, bond or free. Neither age nor sex matters among monks.” The sons of the rich and heirs of the proudest houses had to practise the same denials and to perform the same labors as the poorest. Within the monastery's walls, not a few nobles, not a few princes even, cleaned the platters and oiled the shoes of villeins. By the rule of Benedict, the Superior of each monastery was chosen by the suffrages of its inmates. Through the monastery, many a serf, who otherwise would have vegetated in perpetual bondage, worked his way to the chair of the abbot, the mitre of the bishop, sometimes even to the papal throne, and so took his place among nobles, or even above the heads of kings. The democratic element thus penetrated through the barriers of privilege, gained a foothold in the government, and diffused itself through society. Such sights afforded to the poor a precious consolation in their hardships. This fraternity was of great importance also as a connecting link between parts otherwise widely separated in interests and feelings: even among the different nations of Europe, it was a valuable bond of union. Belonging to one order, under one law and discipline, speaking a common language, with a constant communication and circulation between the different national divisions of their own commonwealth, the monks did much in uniting them into a great Christian commonwealth, and thus enabling Christendom to resist the invading league of Islam.

To the constant presence of monasticism were owing the

« ElőzőTovább »