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Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
Matthew 19:21



St. Francis

   Medieval monasticism was a powerful vehicle for Christianity. Most ascetics took the above saying of Jesus literally and became the poor, wandering messengers of Jesus' gospel. Acesticism is not a Christian invention. It can be found among many religions such as Buddhism and even amongst the Jews. Christian asceticism derived out of earlier traditions set forth by the Jewish Essenes and other ascetic groups. The difference Christian asceticism had over other ascetic peoples was that it played a vital role in the beginning and formation of Christianity, particularly in Europe.

  Early Christian monasticism, of which the later Medieval monasticism would be based upon, came out of the desert. Although there were other desert ascetics before him, one of the most influential of these desert eremites was St. Anthony. His story, written down by St. Athanasius in the fourth century A.D. (or C.E.), described a highly virtuous man who lived in poverty and constantly rebuked the devil himself. The type of asceticism St. Anthony embodied was the eremitical, or hermetical kind. That meant he lived in a cell or cave or wherever he pleased, but away from others, secluded to dwell only on spiritual matters. There was another type of asceticism which eventually became the dominant form for medieval monastics. This type was called cenobitical monasticism.

   Cenobitical, or communal, monasticism had its beginnings with St. Pachomius along the Nile river in the early fourth century. In these communities, there would be several men living under one "rule" and would give strict obedience to the Abbot. Instead of contemplating on spiritual matters in solitude, these communities provided a setting conducive to spiritual thought in a supportive way. The great Rule's for these type of communities did not really come about until St. Benedict in the seventh century.

   The Rule of St. Benedict eventually became the most prolific of all the medieval Rules. Its effectiveness is proved by the fact that it is still being practiced to this day all over the world. St. Benedict's rule provided for all the functions of a working monastery, particularly the aspect of strict obedience to the Abbot. This was required for the monastery to function as a working spiritual environment.

  The idea of the "warrior" monk found its origin with St. Martin of Tours, probably the most known monk of early medieval times. Martin was a monk of the fourth century who came to his faith while serving in the Roman army. He is often depicted as a warrior, but after his discharge from the army, he no longer performed any military services or functions. His life was written down by his friend Sulpicious Severus. One of the most important events in his life occurred when he was in the army. It was in the middle of winter and there was an old beggar asking for pity from all the soldiers walking by. Most laughed at him, but Martin took his sword and cut his only garment, his military cloak, in half and gave half to the beggar. The next night, Martin had a dream and in it, Jesus appeared wearing half of Martin's cloak. Martin was amazed and because of this vision, he "hastened to be baptized." Martin's life was spent in a constant quest for the grace of God through Jesus. His story persuaded many to follow the monastic vocation.

   One of the most enduring legacies of medieval monasticism is the Classical civilization that monks helped to keep in our world history. As mentioned in the Celtic History section, St. Patrick converted an enormous amount of the Irish people to Christianity. His converts tended to congregate in the monastic way since, unlike the rest of Europe, there were no large urban centers in Ireland for the Church to base itself in. These monasteries became the centers for learning and spirituality in Ireland. From these monasteries, monks went out towards the pagan British to convert the heathen. The monasteries founded, such as Iona, Lindisfarne, Jarrow, and others, in the northern areas of the British Isles became the basis of learning and education in these areas and of Europe in general. The monks at these monasteries copied thousands of texts by hand, in effect preserving Classical history for future generations. Most of Europe at this time, roughly the sixth and seventh centuries, was in constant chaos as migrations were coming from eastern Europe towards the west. Most people did not have time for reading or writing because they had to deal with the constant warfare and quest for survival. These monastic scribes in the far reaches of Christendom practically saved Classical history and civlization through their work.



  • Athanasius, St. "The Life of St. Anthony." The Fathers of the Church: Early Christian Biographies. ed. Roy J. Deferrari. trans. Sister Mary Emily Keenen,S.C.N., p.127-224. Washington D.C., The Catholic University Press, 1952.

  • Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York, Nan A. Talese, 1995.
  • Chadwick, Henry. "The Ascetic Ideal." Monks, Hermits, and the Ascetic Tradition. Papers Read at the 1984 Summer Meeting and the 1985 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society." ed. W.J. Sheils. p.1-23. Padstow,U.K., T.J. Press, 1985.
  • Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. p.7-36. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1969.
  • Lawrence, C.H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. New York, Longman Group, 1984.
  • Severus, Sulpicius. The Life of St. Martin of Tours. Willits, California, Eastern Orthodox Books, n.d.
  • Workman, Herbert B. The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal. p.3-135. Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.


©1998 Jason J. Nugent
Created: May 4th, 1998
Last modified: July 19th, 2000