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Christian Organization and Conflict in the Middle Ages

Monasteries | Morality and Division from the 8th to 12th Centuries | Against Witchcraft and Heresies | John Wycliffe and Jan Hus | Lorenzo Valla and the Donation of Constantine | The Spanish Inquisition


Disintegration in Western Europe contributed to the spread of eccentricities among Christians. Some engaged in self-torture as a substitute for martyrdom. Some, including a man named Benedict, rolled naked in thorny bushes. Some joined a new monastery movement that had appeared in Italy and Gaul. The monasteries attracted Christian conservatives opposed to the worldliness of the Church and the luxury with which some of the clergy lived, and there were men of wealth who retreated to monasteries for the sake of peace and quiet.

Monasteries for women appeared, which, in addition to spirituality, offered women an escape from male domination and from the polygamy that was still being practiced by some nobles and German kings. These convents offered positions such as abbess or prioress and provided the possibility for intellectual development or training in the arts.

Thirteen monasteries were established by Benedict – who had moderated his asceticism. His monasteries had three cardinal rules: poverty, chastity and obedience. Residents were to renounce their personal possessions, commit themselves to living their entire life in his community and to obey the monastery's leader: the abbot. The monastery was to be a family based on love, and the abbot was to consult all the brethren in matters of grave concern. Benedict believed that idleness was the enemy of the soul, and members were to spend their days at labor and prayer. The Benedictine monks reclaimed drained swamps, improved soil, carved woods, worked with metal, made glass, wove cloth, brewed beverages and reproduced manuscripts by hand.

In the chaos and continuing wars that plagued western Europe, a few monasteries were pillaged and burned. The Benedictine monastery at Monte Casino was sacked within sixty years of its founding in 529, and twice more within the next five hundred years. But, for the most part the Christian monasteries remained havens of peace and were to become a significant cultural force through the Middle Ages.

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