forgive me my tagents...

By 537 AD, Pope Justinian had already banned the practice of Hebrew worship and again drove the culture of the sacred book underground. However, at the same time, Europe was largely itself descending into a protracted social and intellectual hibernation, as the cultural stability and economic conditions necessary to sustain wide-spread learning dwindled with the waning powers of the Holy Roman Empire. For the vast majority of the former imperial provinces, subsistence became the one, true focus and it is in this context that the Church, by controlling a remote network of monasteries, became the sole guardian of knowledge for almost six centuries of bitter hardship as the Republic gave way to theocratic feudalism.

In 529 AD, St. Benedict established his Rule, as a framework of study, work and prayer under which, by the 11th century, thousands of monks in 300 monasteries reaching from the British Isles to Palestine, would toil. The emphasis here, it must be said, was placed largely on maintaining skills of reading, writing and copying among the devoted and the texts deemed significant to the faith. Preservation for posterity was the divine motivation in the endless work undertaken by the various brotherhoods (...sound familiar, anyone?).

Any benefits of education or creative development or expression were considered secondary, quite possibly even deemed detrimental to the true task at hand. Books in the scriptoriums and libraries of medieval monasteries were frequently chained in place (known as cantenati) which should be interpreted as a significant symbol of the Church's approach to the dissemination of information at the time. If you needed a book, you needed certain Christian and officially-sanctioned credentials in order to gain admission to the monastery and library (which is not an entirely remote concept, given the limited access treatment and clauses which accompany the provisions of many on-line corporate resources).

It was not until 1096 that the Roman Papacy felt confident enough to undertake any concerted effort at re-vitalizing their place in the world, but the Crusades* (which continued until 1270 AD), even in failing their objective to reclaim the Holy Land, did re-open Europe to the cultures of the world, and also sparked the trade which made the rise of a new merchant class possible in Italy. The Islamic world, in the meantime, had introduced pulp paper to Europe through its occupation of Spain, and the general reverence in that culture for learning and the written word meant the Libraries in the Near East were still very well preserved. The Persian vizier Abdul Kassem Isbaid (938-995 AD) is said to have traveled nowhere in his land without his personal library, some 17, 000 volumes, which were borne by a caravan of 400 camels, trained to walk in order so as to maintain the alphabetical order of the collection. Pulp paper being fairly light and durable, bound into book format, permitted for the development of this unique kind of bibliomania, and more importantly allowed for the easier storage and transport of vast stores of knowledge when necessary. In Europe, for example, as trade later increased and city states in Italy began to expand, the repositories of knowledge for so long cloistered away in distant monasteries began to appear in the libraries of newly constructed cathedrals, added to collections of secular material. Finally, as a middle class of traders and noblemen began to expand in its influence, education beyond the confines of religion returned as a priority, and universities began to appear in Italy, France and Germany, supporting studies in law, medicine and philosophy. It was around this time banking also developed, again requiring careful documentation and meticulously-kept accounting, so that by the 1300s a thirst for knowledge and spirit of exchange has spread throughout the West.
Note: * Historians and more recently novelists, interested in the development of information, have put forward the hypothesis or interpretation that the Crusades can in fact be viewed as a concerted effort by the Roman Catholic Church to regain not the simply the territory, but rather the intellectual property contained in the Holy Land during this period (besides providing Europe with much needed economic stimulus)- and can therefore be loosely considered the first, and arguably most protracted Information War- even if Europe eventually abandoned the effort in 1270 AD. Certainly the recapture of the Royal Library in Constantinople would be another example. See Schottloher's Books and the Western World (McFarland: London, 1989) p. 25

It is important to note that monasticism is not by any means limited to Christianity. Forms of monasticism existed long before the birth of Jesus Christ. For Hindus, the laws of Manu say that after a man or woman has completed their duties to their family, if he or she is a member of one of the three upper castes, he or she may retire to a hermit life and seek truth in contemplation. Buddha also created a monastic order; many of the rules he laid out for it have similarities in later Christian beliefs. The Greek members of the Orphic brotherhood lived in solitude; followers of various Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, also followed monastic tendencies. In the early Jewish orders (pre-Jesus), there were the Essenes, who had many of the characteristics of religious orders. Later, among the followers of Islam, some communities of Sufis settled in monasteries as early as the 8th century CE.

The first Christian hermits established themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, lived and worshipped. Soon the deserts of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the Roman persecutions of the early Christians. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. There were economic concerns-- how was the new Church, its ranks swelled by converted barbarians, to pay for all of its expenses? It needed to start owning land. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, and caring for land, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate cells called laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. The name cenobite (Greek koinos bios, "common life"), means a life divided between prayer and common work, and this term is how a certain class of monks is distinguished.

Christian Monasticism began in the fourth century A.D. when men decided not to marry; they thought that the unmarried life offered more time for God, and often lived in silence in order to pray and meditate. Some consider St. Augustine of Hippo, a black philosopher and one of the most prominent figures in the Roman Catholic faith, to have sparked interest in men becoming closer to God when he wrote City of God, a book that described his faith, along with many doctrines of the Church at this time. The men that secluded themselves from mainstream society and remained unmarried, saying that their "bride was the church," were called monachoi, which means "single" in Greek. (The English word "monk" has its etymological roots in this word.)

The life of a monk was not easy or comfortable by today's standards, but it was peaceful. Monks lived in religious orders and communities called abbeys or monasteries. Each monk was called 'Brother,' and the head of each abbey was titled 'Father.' These men who sought to serve God and others devoted their lives to the poor, the Church, and a simple life. One brother would stand outside the monastery's gate handing out bread and broth to the poor. Another brother, called an almoner, would stand outside the gate as well, but would give alms to the blind, poor, and crippled.

Monks pledged celibacy and renounced worldly possessions. Some took an oath of silence so that they could not sin 'by their tongues.' When a man joined an abbey, he would be given a tunic and scapular, over which was worn a long, hooded robe called a cowl. Some monasteries required the head to be shaved in a halo style. The diet of a monk was as simple as their lifestyle. Primarily only ale and water were drunk, and porridge, bread, vegetables, herbs, and broth were eaten. Meat was forbidden and so was wine, unless it was diluted with water. Meals were taken once a day, with a light repast later in the day only if absolutely necessary. Some monks fasted, and would do so on bread, water, and salt. (Fasting is abstinence from, or a small intake of, food for any given period of time.)

The usual day of a monk began by waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. in the summertime, later in the winter months. Then, prayers would be offered, sometimes called vespers. If not fasting, porridge, bread, and ale would be served for the morning meal. Four to eight hours of prayer, worship, and confessions followed. Then the brothers would engage in gardening, clerical work, or artistry to sell in order to keep the monastery in working order, not wealthy. Monks kept only the bare minimum for survival and gifted the rest to others. Not many Christian abbeys exist today; only thirty or so remain.

Mo*nas"ti*cism (?), n.

The monastic life, system, or condition.



© Webster 1913.

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