Monasteries and Cloisters as Centres of learning and Culture.

Saint, Columbkille, Cross, Kells, Irland,
Saint Columbkille’s Cross, Kells with Inscriptions in Ancient Irish Character’.


The history of monasticism reveals the fact that In every field of thought and activity this institution wrought good and evil.

Religion, government, education and industry have been “both furthered and hindered by the monks. To a Roman Catholic the monk is regarded as the highest type of Christian living; to the Protestant who protests against asceticism, a different view is taken.

After a careful and sympathetic study of monastic history one is compelled to deduce that monasticism while not uniformly a blessing to mankind, was not an unmitigated evil. While the methods of monasticism may be justly censured, it is beyond any question of doubt that many monks groping their way through an age of ignorance and superstition toward the light were inspired by the purest motives.

The disorder and terror attending the invasion of the barbarians and the overthrow of the Empire in the West, resulted in monasteries to spread in an astonishing short space of time throughout all the Western countries where Christianity had gained a foothold.

With the destruction of cities and towns with their literary collections, much that represented the old culture was obliterated, and books became more and more scarce. As the need for an education which prepared for governmental and law positions passed away, the Roman schools also gradually died out.

This left the Church in complete control of education. Amid the ruins of the ancient civilisation the Church stood as the only conservative and regenerative force, and naturally what learning remained passed into its hands and under its control. Almost everything that we today mean by civilisation in that age was found within the protecting walls of monastery or church.

In this age of lawlessness and disorder the one opportunity for a life of repose and contemplation lay in the monasteries. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, known as Cassiodorus the Fourth (c. 485 – c. 585), who, as Chancellor of King Theodoric, had taken an active part in the government of the Gothic kingdom of Italy passed the last thirty years of his life as a monk and later as Abbot in the Monastery of Vivaria in Calabria. He serves as a connecting link between the world of classic Rome which he survived, and that of the new Europe of the Middle Ages, the beginning of which he lived to see. He helped in the transfer of control and direction of the affairs of the community from the hands of the monarchs and the leaders of the armies to the Church and to the monasteries.

A Greek by ancestry, and a Roman by training, Cassiodorus’ experience included work and achievements as statesman, orator, scholar, author, and ecclesiastic. He was seventy years of age when consecrated Abbot of the Monastery of Vivaria, which took place about 550 A.D., and lived until 575, in the ninety-sixth year of his age.

It was he who through all the devastations of civil wars and of foreign invasions had succeeded in preserving a great collection of classic books and who exercised a great influence upon the culture of Europe for centuries to come. He gave the literary impetus to the Benedictine Order, and, no doubt, it was his magnificent collection of manuscripts that supplied material for the monastic scribes.

In the Benedictine system early Western monasticism is to be seen at its best. Their monasteries furnished retreats where the scholar might study and write. Benedict’s famous Rule is as important as any constitution that was ever drawn up for a state; with it the adjustment between monasticism and the Church was complete.

This Rule was adopted generally by the monasteries throughout what is now France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England. This Rule subsequently led to the establishment of schools and libraries. The monks became teachers, and under the shelter of the monasteries, the established schools became the nurseries of learning during the earlier Middle Ages, and for centuries, the homes of the best intellectual life of Europe,

The most important of Benedict’s Rules from, the standpoint of education and civilisation were numbers 38, concerning the weekly reader; 42, concerning silence during the reading of selections on the lives of the Fathers; and 48, concerning the daily manual labor, reading, and study.

The monks also became copyists, and with great painstaking and industry gathered and multiplied ancient manuscripts and thus preserved and transmitted to the modern world much classical learning and literature that would otherwise have been lost. Almost all the remains of the Greek and Latin classics that we possess have come to us through the agency of the monks.

The monks also became the chroniclers of the events of their own times, so it is to them that we are indebted for a large and important part of our knowledge of the life and happenings of the early medieval centuries. If they had done nothing else, these quiet working monks would be entitled to the lasting gratitude of the Church and the world.

The Benedictine monks’ influence upon Europe is incalculable. They helped to keep alive the enthusiasm of religion. From their numbers no less than twenty-four popes and forty-six hundred bishops and archbishops have been chosen. They can boast also of almost sixteen thousand writers, some of great distinction. This fact in itself would lead one to deduce that the monasteries furnished retreats where the scholars might study and write in spite of the prevailing disorder of the times.

The monks became the most expert farmers and craftsmen of the early Middle Ages as the result of the rule requiring of them manual labor.

Irland, Monastic, Tara, statue, St. Patrick,
Tara at Sunset. The statue of St. Patrick on left, and the Lia Fall, or Stone of Destiny, on the right.

One part of Western Europe, where something of the old learning was retained during this period, was in Ireland, and in parts of England which had not been overrun by the Germanic tribes. Probably as early as 425 A.D. Christian civilisation and monastic life had been introduced into Ireland.

In the sixth century extensive churches and monasteries were founded all over Ireland in which religion and learning were zealously cultivated. From these establishments numerous missionaries issued during the succeeding centuries, carrying the doctrines of Christianity under great difficulties into the still pagan countries of Europe, whose inhabitants they surprised and impressed by their self-devotion and asceticism.

Among the eminent native Irish of these times were Saint Columba (521-597), founder of the celebrated monastery of Iona, Comgall, who established the convent of Bangor, in the County of Down; Ciarán of Clonmacnoise (512-544); and Adamnan, Abbot of Iona (628-704) and biographer of Columba.

Of the Irish missionaries to the continent the more distinguished were Columbanus, founder of Bobio; Gallus of St. Gall, in Switzerland; Dichuill, patronised by Clotaire; and Ferghal, or Virgilius, the evangeliser of Carinthia. It was at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Yarrow that the Venerable Bede was educated and remained as a lifelong student.

His “Ecclesiastical History of England” gives us our chief picture of education in Britain in his time. This culture in Ireland and Britain was of a much higher standard than that on the Continent at the time, because the old learning there had been less corrupted.

During the reign of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) and his son Louis the Pious, learning was zealously cultivated by the monks of Germany. The most important scholar was Alcuin, who was brought into Frankland from York, England.

Organising first a Palace School he began the instruction of Charlemagne’s immediate household. After fourteen years as Charlemagne’ teacher and minister of education, Alcuin *) retired to the Monastery of Tours, where, as Abbot he spent the remainder of his life in directing the copying of books and in training monks.

*) Alkuin (Anglo-Saxon Ealhwine, also Alhwin, Alchoin, inscribed ALCHVVINVS, Latinised Albinus with surname Flaccus; born 735 near York in Northumbria; died 19 May 804 in Tours?) was an early medieval scholar and Charlemagne’s most important advisor.

The history of monasticism presents one dominant fact, – ever-renewed reform movements in the monasteries Scarcely was a monastery or a monastic order established before the acquisition of wealth brought in self-indulgence and laxity of discipline. But there was always among the backsliding dwellers in the cloisters a “saving remnant”, and upon these choice souls the spirit of reform was sure to descend, and thus it happens that with the reform movements marking the history of the monks are associated the names of many of the purest and most exalted characters of the medieval ages.

A moral ordering of life increases thoughtfulness and may stimulate study. In the latter part of the tenth century the Clunic reforms, like earlier ones, affected letters favourably in the monasteries. Here and there an exceptional man created an exceptional situation.

Monasticism has been regarded by some apologists as a refuge for sorrowful and discontented souls. Whatever we may think, the fact remains that monasticism never sank below the surrounding level and, on the whole, it was a leader and a guide until stronger forces began to work.


  • Monastic centres of hymn writing and their influence on hymnody, by Allan Fraser, 1932.
  • Ireland by Beatrice Home. London: A. and C. Black, 1914.
Illustration, Manis, Dasypodidae
Manis Dasypodidae


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