Overview of Medieval Monasticism – Part Three

December 28, 2007

Shapers of Later Monasticism

Basil of Caesurea (c.330-379): Considered the founder of Eastern monasticism, Basil (also called Basil the Great) along with his older sister, Macrina, helped give shape to the monastic life in the East. His Aescetica provided the foundational rules that still today guide the Eastern Orthodox practice. Basil is also known as one of the key theologians and preachers of the period and served as a bishop the last seven years of his life.

Benedict of Nursia (480-543): Considered the father of Western monasticism, Benedict originally took up the life of a hermit, but after being surrounded by numerous others, he founded a communal house at Monte Cassino.

His Rule became the foundational guide for Western practice (“Therefore, we intend to establish a schola [Lt. “school” or “combat unit”] for the Lord’s service.”). Almost all subsequent reform movements in the medieval period saw themselves as trying to recover the original purity of Benedictine practice. The Rule gave shape to the characteristic shape of Western monasticism. Some of the following are key aspects:

1. Benedictine monks made three vows:

Poverty: communal ownership of all property; simple dress and meals

Chastity: celibacy; self-control; pure thought life and body

Obedience: submission to all superiors and all monks who have previously entered the order.

2. Monks ordered their day about the office of prayer: eight hours each with characteristic emphasis:

Matins (during the night)

Lauds or Morning Prayer (at Dawn)

Prime or Early morning prayer (the First Hour = 6am)

Terce or Mid-morning Prayer (the Third Hour = 9am)

Sext or Mid-day Prayer (the Sixth Hour = 12pm)

None or Mid-afternoon Prayer (the Ninth Hour = 3 pm)

Vespers or Evening Prayer (at the lighting of the lamps)

Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring)

3. Daily life. This was divided between prayer, work, and study. Labour was meant to keep each house self-sufficient and free of idleness, though in later centuries, manual work was often taken care of by local peasants. Communal meetings, sleeping arrangements, and dining all enforced a community discipline. Silence and times of solitude were regularly practiced, as well.

4. The monastery set up the following offices:

Abbot: abba (Aram. “father”)–the spiritual and organizational leader of the house.

Prior: the second in command.

Dean: would oversee ten monks


Celtic Monasticism

At its height in 5th through 7th centuries, the Celtic monastic tradition was a different one than that of Benedict, and consequently, had some differences in practice and emphasis, including the practice of peregrination, wandering on land or sea without direction or planning, totally dependent upon God’s purposes. They observed a different calendar than that of Rome , and possibly some married monks were allowed. Celtic monasteries were also known for their rich book production and early missionary work in the British Isles and France . Many of their scholars would form the backbone of the Carolingian Renaissance in future centuries. Important early Celtic missionaries include Patrick of Ireland (c. 390-461), Columbanus (543-615) who founded Iona, and Aidan (d. 651) who founded Lindisfarne in Northumbria . At the Synod of Whitby in 633, the Celtic orders adopted Western practices, including the Western calendar.