How the Monks Saved Civilization


The monks played a critical role in the development of Western civilization. But judging from Catholic monasticism’s earliest practice, one would hardly have guessed the enormous impact on the outside world that it would come to exercise. This historical fact comes as less of a surprise when we recall Christ’s words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.” That, stated simply, is the history of the monks.

A monk’s purpose in retiring to a monastery was to cultivate a more disciplined spiritual life and, more specifically, to work out his salvation in an environment and under a regimen suitable to that purpose. His role in Western civilization would prove substantial. The monks’ intention had not been to perform great tasks for European civilization, yet as time went on, they came to appreciate the task for which the times seemed to have called them.

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Although most educated people think of the medieval monasteries’ scholarly and cultural pursuits as their contribution to Western civilization, we should not overlook the monks’ important cultivation of what might be called the practical arts. Agriculture is a particularly significant example. In the early twentieth century, Henry Goodell, president of what was then the Massachusetts Agricultural College, celebrated “the work of these grand old monks during a period of fifteen hundred years. They saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it.” (7) Testimony on this point is considerable. “We owe the agricultural restoration of a great part of Europe to the monks,” observes another expert. “Wherever they came,” adds still another, “they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country; they pursued the breeding of cattle and agriculture, labored with their own hands, drained morasses, and cleared away forests. By them Germany was rendered a fruitful country.”
Another historian records that “every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located.” (8) Even the nineteenth-century French statesman and historian François Guizot, who was not especially sympathetic to the Catholic Church, observed: “The Benedictine monks were the agriculturists of Europe; they cleared it on a large scale, associating agriculture with preaching.” (9)
Manual labor, expressly called for in the Rule of Saint Benedict, played a central role in the monastic life. Although the Rule was known for its moderation and its aversion to exaggerated penances, we often find the monks freely embracing work that was difficult and unattractive, since for them such tasks were channels of grace and opportunities for mortification of the flesh. This was certainly true in the clearing and reclaiming of land. The prevailing view of swamps was that they were sources of pestilence utterly without value. But the monks thrived in such locations and embraced the challenges that came with them. Before long, they managed to dike and drain the swamp and turn what had once been a source of disease and filth into fertile agricultural land. (10)
Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries — and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. Monks stored up the waters from springs in order to distribute them in times of drought. In fact, it was the monks of the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin who, spying the waters of springs that were distributing themselves uselessly over the meadows of Saint Gervais and Belleville, directed them to Paris. In Lombardy, the peasants learned irrigation from the monks, which contributed mightily to making that area so well known throughout Europe for its fertility and riches. The monks were also the first to work toward improving cattle breeds, rather than leaving the process to chance. (15)
In many cases, the monks’ good example inspired others, particularly the great respect and honor they showed toward manual labor in general and agriculture in particular. “Agriculture had sunk to a low ebb”, according to one scholar. “Marshes covered once fertile fields, and the men who should have tilled the land spurned the plow as degrading.” But when the monks emerged from their cells to dig ditches and to plow fields, “the effort was magical. Men once more turned back to a noble but despised industry.” (16) Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590-604) tells us a revealing story about the abbot Equitius, a sixth-century missionary of noted eloquence. When a papal envoy came to his monastery looking for him, the envoy went immediately to the scriptorium, expecting to find him among the copyists. But he was not there. The calligraphers explained simply, “He is down there in the valley, cutting hay.” (17)
The monks also pioneered in the production of wine, which they used both for the celebration of Holy Mass and for ordinary consumption, which the Rule of Saint Benedict expressly permitted. In addition, the discovery of champagne can be traced to Dom Perignon of Saint Peter’s Abbey, Hautvilliers-on-the-Marne.

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The monks were also important architects of medieval technology. The Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order established at Cîteaux in 1098, are especially well known for their technological sophistication. Thanks to the great network of communication that existed between the various monasteries, technological information was able to spread rapidly. Thus we find very similar water-powered systems at monasteries that were at great distances from each other, even thousands of miles away. (19) “These monasteries,” a scholar writes, “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time.” (20)
The Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux in France leaves us a twelfth-century report about its use of waterpower that reveals the surprising extent to which machinery had become central to European life. The Cistercian monastic community generally ran its own factory. The monks used waterpower for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, and tanning. (21) And as Jean Gimpel points out in his book «The Medieval Machine», this twelfth-century report could have been written 742 times, since that was the number of Cistercian monasteries in Europe in the twelfth century. The same level of technological achievement could have been observed in practically all of them. (22)
Although the world of classical antiquity had not adopted mechanization for industrial use on any considerable scale, the medieval world did so on an enormous scale, a fact symbolized and reflected in the Cistercians’ use of waterpower: […]
The Cistercians were also known for their skill in metallurgy. “In their rapid expansion throughout Europe,” writes Jean Gimpel, the Cistercians must have “played a role in the diffusion of new techniques, for the high level of their agricultural technology was matched by their industrial technology. Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor.” (24) At times iron ore deposits were donated to the monks, nearly always along with the forges used to extract the iron, and at other times they purchased the deposits and forges. Although they needed iron for their own use, Cistercian monasteries would come in time to offer their surplus for sale; in fact, from the mid-thirteenth through the seventeenth century, the Cistercians were the leading iron producers in the Champagne region of France. Ever eager to increase the efficiency of their monasteries, the Cistercians used the slag from their furnaces as fertilizer, as its concentration of phosphates made it particularly useful for this purpose. (25)
Such achievements were part of a broader phenomenon of technological achievement on the part of the monks. As Gimpel observes, “The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known.” (26) And the monks, according to another study, were “the skillful and unpaid technical advisers of the third world of their times — that is to say, Europe after the invasion of the barbarians.” It goes on: In effect, whether it be the mining of salt, lead, iron, alum, or gypsum, or metallurgy, quarrying marble, running cutler’s shops and glassworks, or forging metal plates, also known as firebacks, there was no activity at all in which the monks did not display creativity and a fertile spirit of research. Utilizing their labor force, they instructed and trained it to perfection. Monastic know-how [would] spread throughout Europe. (27)
Monastic accomplishments ranged from interesting curiosities to the intensely practical. In the early eleventh century, for instance, a monk named Eilmer flew more than 600 feet with a glider; people remembered this feat for the next three centuries. (28) Centuries later, Father Francesco Lana-Terzi, not a monk but a Jesuit priest, pursued the subject of flight more systematically, earning the honor of being called the father of aviation. His 1670 book «Prodromo alla Arte Maestra» was the first to describe the geometry and physics of a flying vessel. (29)
The monks also counted skillful clock-makers among them. The first clock of which we have any record was built by the future Pope Sylvester II for the German town of Magdeburg, around the year 996. Much more sophisticated clocks were built by later monks. Peter Lightfoot, a fourteenth-century monk of Glastonbury, built one of the oldest clocks still in existence, which now sits, in excellent condition, in London’s Science Museum.
Richard of Wallingford, a fourteenth-century abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Saint Albans (and one of the initiators of Western trigonometry), is well known for the large astronomical clock he designed for that monastery. It has been said that a clock that equaled it in technological sophistication did not appear for at least two centuries. The magnificent clock, a marvel for its time, no longer survives, perhaps having perished amid Henry VIII’s sixteenth-century monastic confiscations. However, Richard’s notes on the clock’s design have permitted scholars to build a model and even a full-scale reconstruction. In addition to timekeeping, the clock could accurately predict lunar eclipses.
Archaeologists are still discovering the extent of monastic skills and technological cleverness. In the late 1990s, University of Bradford archeometallurgist Gerry McDonnell found evidence near Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, England, of a degree of technological sophistication that pointed ahead to the great machines of the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution. (Rievaulx Abbey was one of the monasteries that King Henry VIII ordered closed in the 1530s as part of his confiscation of Church properties.) In exploring the debris of Rievaulx and Laskill (an outstation about four miles from the monastery), McDonnell found that the monks had built a furnace to extract iron from ore.
McDonnell believes that the monks were on the verge of building dedicated furnaces for the large-scale production of cast iron—perhaps the key ingredient that ushered in the industrial age—and that the furnace at Laskill had been a prototype of such a furnace. “One of the key things is that the Cistercians had a regular meeting of abbots every year and they had the means of sharing technological advances across Europe,” he said. “The break-up of the monasteries broke up this network of technology transfer.” The monks “had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential.” (30)
Had it not been for a greedy king’s suppression of the English monasteries, therefore, the monks appear to have been on the verge of ushering in the industrial era and its related explosion in wealth, population, and life expectancy figures. That development would instead have to wait two and a half more centuries.
We shall look at the Church’s charitable works in more detail in a separate chapter. […]
Such examples constituted only a small part of the concern that monks showed for the people who lived in their environs; they also contributed to the building or repair of bridges, roads, and other such features of the medieval infrastructure.
The monastic contribution with which many people are familiar is the copying of manuscripts, both sacred and profane. This task, and those who carried it out, were accorded special honor. […]
Honored as it was, the copyist’s task was difficult and demanding. Inscribed on one monastic manuscript are the words, “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor; but though three fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary.” The monks often had to work through the most punishing cold. A monastic copyist, imploring our sympathy upon completing a copy of Saint Jerome’s commentary on the «Book of Daniel», wrote: “Good readers who may use this work, do not, I pray you, forget him who copied it: it was a poor brother named Louis, who, while he transcribed this volume, brought from a foreign country, endured the cold, and was obliged to finish in the night what he was not able to write by daylight. But Thou, Lord, wilt be to him the full recompense of his labors.” (35)
In the sixth century, a retired Roman senator named Cassiodorus had an early vision of the cultural role that the monastery was to play. Sometime around the middle of the century, he established the monastery of Vivarium in southern Italy, providing it with a very fine library—indeed, the only sixth-century library of which scholars are aware—and emphasizing the importance of copying manuscripts. Some important Christian manuscripts from Vivarium appear to have made their way to the Lateran Library and into the possession of the popes. (36)
Surprisingly, it is not to Vivarium, but to other monastic libraries and scriptoria (the rooms set aside for the copying of texts) that we owe the great bulk of ancient Latin literature that survives today. When these works weren’t saved and transcribed by the monks, we owe their survival to the libraries and schools associated with the great medieval cathedrals. (37) Thus, when the Church was not making original contributions of her own, she was preserving books and documents that were of seminal importance to the civilization she was to save.
The fact is, the Church cherished, preserved, studied, and taught the works of the ancients, which would otherwise have been lost.
Certain monasteries might be known for their skill in particular branches of knowledge. Thus, for example, lectures in medicine were given by the monks of Saint Benignus at Dijon, the monastery of Saint Gall had a school of painting and engraving, and lectures in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic could be heard at certain German monasteries. (42)
Monks often supplemented their education by attending one or more of the monastic schools established during the Carolingian Renaissance and beyond.
Western civilization’s admiration for the written word and for the classics comes to us from the Catholic Church that preserved both through the barbarian invasions.


from Thomas E. WOODS, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Regnery, Washington 2005, p. 25-47

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