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A general history of the monasticism in the West

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The monasticism appeared in the Christian world, in the East. First monks were hermits, namely people who lived in isolation, dedicating themselves to God. The word 'monk' comes from the Greek 'monos', meaning 'alone'. When those hermits came to become numerous, they eventually grouped together, giving birth to the 'cenobitic monasticism', that is convents where 'monks' were living together their dedication to the deity. It was in Egypt that monasticism had been born, under Roman emperor Diocletian which triggered the last persecutions against Christians. St Antoine (251-356), a hermit and then St Pacome (287-347), a cenobite and many others flew to the Egyptian desert northwest of current Cairo as Pacome's rule turned the first cenobitic one, which inspired the West then. Monasticism, thence, reached the West under various forms. But it was in Ireland, after the barbaric Invasions of the 5th century, that the center for the Western monasticism developed. It's from the island that the Irish missionaries left to reconquest the continent against latent paganism and the disorders caused by the struggles between the princes. It's the Benedictines, after that, those monks who followed a rule established by St. Benedict in Italy during the 6th century near Rome, who became the only monks in the West -and particularly during the Carolingian era. They replaced or incorporated the Irish foundations all over Europe, as 30,000 Benedictines abbeys and monasteries were built between the times of Charlemagne and those of the foundation of the Capetian dynasty by the end of the 10th century

The Monks During the Apogee of the Middle Ages

The following history of the monks in the West, after the Carolingians, is going to be related, on the one hand, to wills of reformation of the state of the Benedictines -as the most advanced of them will eventually turn into independent, new orders (that's why the Benedictines really are the 'fathers' to the whole Western monasticism), as, on the other hand, various events in the European history, will lead to the creation of new orders

The history of the Benedictines first settle into the Clunisians, this Benedictine order which, for the first time, is establishing a centralized authority upon the Benedictines, as it encompass most of their houses into its mother-house, in Cluny, Burgundy. Some Benedictines, at that time, are retaining their independence however. The next step for the Benedictines is the Lateran council in 1215, where it's decided that the Benedictines have to get organized into 'congregations', those groups of abbeys and monasteries by ecclesiastical province. Such an organization, by the way, is far much centralized and organized than St Benedict originally wanted to. The Benedictines, in the various European kingdoms, will come to that order gradually only, as it's under that form however that the Benedictines will exist until the times of the liberal revolutions of the end of the 18th century. It's under that form of the congregations too, that they will reach the times, in the 16th century, of the various blends of the Reformation, and then that they will resist to them. Cluny, which at its height, had reached 10,000 monks, thousand houses, 10 provinces and was a male only order, entered decay in the 12th century A.D., the flame of monasticism passing to new orders. Distant monasteries declared themselves free from the guardianship of Cluny. A form of renaissance, around the 1500, was swept away by Reformation, and a schism appeared around 1621 between a stricter rule and the older one. The reform in the XVIIth century by the Congregation of St-Maur did not touch Cluny for lack of a agreement between the two branches

The height of the Middle Ages gave to the West the Cistercians. The Cistercians are Clunisians -hence Benedictines- who wanted to return to a true respect of the rule of St. Benedict, in relation to how the Benedectines had declined and relaxed between the 10 and 11th centuries A.D. That had been due to their links to secular powerful as they had gotten distant from work or developed liturgy a lot. The Carthusians, the Camaldolese, the Vallombrosans, or the Grammontians are reformed Clunisians too at those medieval times, as they are stressing more a retirement from the world. Another trait of the Middle Ages is that they will give birth too to the mendicant ordres -the Dominicans (in the 12th century), and the Franciscans (in the 13th century) namely- who appear like an answer to the new needs related to the apparition of the cities and the urban life, with their tendency to get distant from religion. Both orders are preaching along the public squares, in the medieval cities, to bring people back to faith. The Carmelites, the Trinitarians, the Servites are part of that logics, as are the institutes of canons (Augustinians, Premonstratensians, Gilbertines). The military orders, at last, are related to the Middle Ages too (the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights) as they match the needs of the pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land


Most of the monastic orders however swiftly got into a marked decline as they cannot defend themselves against the control by the feudal lords and princes. Those are using the abbeys under the system of the 'in commendam', that is that the abbots were chosen by the lay potents as they did not live in, nor even care about, their community. That's why new orders -the Sylvesterines (about 1250), Celestines (1290) and the Olivetans (1313)- appear which fight against the fact. Next more important step in the history of the Western monasticism will occur at the times of the Protestant Reformation. The council of Trent -which figures the reformation which was pending into the Roman Catholicism since the end of the 15th century, but which could not have been performed by Church and had triggered the Reformation by the beginning of the 16th century- will call the religious orders to a strict respect of the rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictines, the Clunisians and the Cistercians are reformed. The Benedictines structured into congregations become the rule at last. St. John of Avila or Teresa of Avila are the famed reformers of their orders. The 'Counter-Reformation', that is the will of the Church to spread what it considers the real reformation of the Church -against the Protestant Reformation- sees too orders which belong to it properly and the purpose of the foundation of which is to fight against the Protestants or to address the social problems arisen from those troubled times, like the Jesuits, St. Vincent de Paul, teaching ordes, etc. The Cistercians are reformed in the 17th century by Rancé and brought back to a return to the rule of St. Benedict (they are termed the Trappists)

The liberal revolutions in the 18th century (the Enlightenment, the English and the French revolutions), then about 1848, wrought a powerful destruction upon the monasticism in Europe -as the Roman Catholic Church, generally, endures such a destruction. Some monks orders will manage to a re-birth along the 19th century and in various ways according to the European countries, as ancient -or renewed too- anti-religious movements will keep further to attack the Church and the monks. The 20th century, mostly after 1945, will bring a respite to the persecutions, on the one hand, and a tendency to a greater internationalization of the monasticism, on the other hand. That internationalization had already begun in the 19th century under the form of the missions sent outside Europe and in the European colonial empires. That translated, during the second part of the 20th century, into an increased presence of the religious orders worlwide, in most of the continents, maybe especially in Africa. The return of troubles in the world, by the end of the century, and the beginning of the 21st one, brought renewed threats against the Roman Catholic Church and the orders

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 11/6/2014. contact us at
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