A History of Monasteries

By Tim Lambert

Early Monasteries

One of the first Christian monasteries was founded in Egypt in the 4th century by St Pachomius. In Western Europe, early monasteries followed the pattern set by St Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.550). In about 525 Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy. He drew up a ‘rule, which stated how monasteries should be run. Monks were expected to work as well to pray and be obedient.

Between the 6th century and the 11th century, thousands of Benedictine monasteries were founded in Western Europe. The most famous was at Cluny.

Cluny was founded in 910 by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine (Southwest France). It was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. The abbey at Cluny received donations from rich men and by the 12th century, it had priories (‘daughter’ abbeys) across Europe. The first Cluniac priory in England was founded at Lewes in Sussex in 1077. However, from the mid-12th century, the abbey at Cluny declined in importance. Finally, in 1790 it was closed during the French Revolution.

Monasteries in The Middle Ages

Meanwhile, new orders of monks were founded. In 1084 in France St Bruno of Cologne founded a strict and austere order called the Carthusians. In 1098 St Robert of Molesme in France founded another strict order called the Cistercians. The Cistercians flourished as shepherds and wool traders.

In the 13th century, the friars were formed. (The word friar is derived from the French word for brother frere). Like monks, they took vows of poverty and obedience yet unlike monks they did not withdraw from the world. Instead, they went out to preach and to help the poor. There were four main orders of friars Augustinians, Franciscans (called grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominicans or black friars, and Carmelites or white friars.

In the Middle Ages, monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals where they tried to help the sick as best they could. They also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travelers (although as time went by there were an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night).

In a medieval monastery, there was an almonry where food or money was given to the poor, a refectory where the monks ate, a dormitory, an infirmary, and cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the poor, the infirmarian looked after the sick and a hospitaller looked after visitors.

In England, the first monastery was founded by Augustine at Canterbury in 598. Many more monasteries followed. However, the English monasteries were devastated by the Viking raids of the 9th century. Yet Alfred the Great revived them.

In the Middle Ages, monasteries held vast estates but in the 16th century, Henry VIII dissolved them. In 1536 he dissolved monasteries with incomes of less than 200 pounds a year. The larger monasteries were dissolved in 1539-1540. Monasteries did not return to England until the late 18th century.

Through the centuries the monks and nuns did a great deal of good work. Most importantly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the monasteries preserved learning. They collected books and copied them. Monasteries also provided schools.

Last revised 2024

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