Monks and Friars



IT may be that the Church was saved not by the tortures of the Inquisition but by the rise of new monastic orders that took out of the mouths of heretics the gospel of evangelical poverty, and for a century gave to the older monastic orders, and to the secular clergy, a cleansing example of sincerity.

The monasteries had multiplied during the Dark Ages, reaching a peak in the troubled nadir of the tenth century, and then declining in number as secular order and prosperity grew. In France, about 1100, there were 543; about 1250 there were 287;1 possibly this loss in the number of abbeys was compensated by a rise in their average membership, but very few monasteries had a hundred monks.2 It was still a custom in the thirteenth century for pious or burdened parents to commit children of seven years or older to monasteries as oblates—“offered up” to God; St. Thomas Aquinas began his monastic career so. The Benedictine order considered the vows taken for an oblate by his parents as irrevocable;3 St. Bernard and the new orders held that the oblate, on reaching maturity, might without reproach return to the world.4 Generally an adult monk required a papal dispensation if he wished, without sin, to renounce his vows.

Before 1098 most Western monasteries followed, with variable fidelity, some form of the Benedictine rule. A year of novitiate was prescribed, during which the candidate might freely withdraw. One knight drew back, says the monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, “on the cowardly plea that he feared the vermin of the [monastic] garment; for our woolen clothing harbors much vermin.”5 Prayer occupied some four hours of the monk’s day; meals were brief, and usually vegetarian; the remainder of the day was given to labor, reading, teaching, hospital work, charity, and rest. Caesarius tells how his monastery, in the famine of 1197, gave as many as 1500 “doles” of food in a day, and “kept alive till harvest time all the poor who came to us.”6 In the same crisis a Cistercian abbey in Westphalia slaughtered all its flocks and herds, and pawned its books and sacred vessels, to feed the poor.7 Through their own labor and that of their serfs, the monks built abbeys, churches, and cathedrals, farmed great manors, subdued marshes and jungles to tillage, practiced a hundred handicrafts, and brewed excellent wines and ales. Though the monastery seemed to take many good and able men from the world to bury them in a selfish sanctity, it trained thousands of them in mental and moral discipline, and then returned them to the world to serve as councilors and administrators to bishops, popes, and kings.*

In the course of time the growing wealth of the communities overflowed into the monasteries, and the generosity of the people financed the occasional luxury of the monks. The abbey of St. Riquier was not among the richest; yet it had 117 vassals, owned 2500 houses in the town where it was placed, and received from its tenants yearly 10,000 chickens, 10,000 capons, 75,000 eggs … and a money rent individually reasonable, cumulatively great.8 Much richer were the monasteries of Monte Cassino, Cluny, Fulda, St. Gall, St. Denis. Abbots like Suger of St. Denis, Peter the Venerable of Cluny, or even Samson of Bury St. Edmund’s, were mighty lords controlling immense material wealth and social or political power. Suger, after feeding his monks and building a majestic cathedral, had enough resources left to half-finance a crusade.9 It was probably of Suger that St. Bernard wrote: “I lie if I have not seen an abbot riding with a train of sixty horses and more”;10 but Suger was prime minister, and had to clothe himself in pomp to impress the populace; he himself lived with austere simplicity in a humble cell, observing all the rules of his order so far as his public duties would allow. Peter the Venerable was a good man, but he failed, despite repeated efforts, to check the progress of the Cluniac monasteries—once the leaders of reform—toward a corporate wealth that enabled the monks, while owning nothing, to live in a degenerative idleness.

Morals fall as riches rise, and nature will out according to men’s means. In any large group certain individuals will be found whose instincts are stronger than their vows. While the majority of monks remained reasonably loyal to their rule, a minority took an easier view toward the world and the flesh. In many cases the abbot had been appointed by some lord or king, usually from a rank accustomed to comfort; such abbots were above monastic rules; they enjoyed hunting, hawking, tournaments, and politics; and their example infected the monks. Giraldus Cambrensis paints a merry picture of the abbot of Evesham: “None was safe from his lust”; the neighborhood reckoned his offspring at eighteen; finally he had to be deposed.11 Worldly abbots, fat and rich and powerful, became a target of public humor and literary diatribe. The most merciless and incredible satire in medieval literature is a description of an abbot by Walter Map.12 Some cloisters were known for their fine food and wines. We should not grudge the monks a little good cheer, and we can understand how weary they were of vegetables, how they longed for meat; we can sympathize with their occasional gossiping, quarreling, and sleeping at Mass.13

The monks, in vowing celibacy, had underestimated the power of a sexual instinct repeatedly stirred by secular example and sights. Caesarius of Heisterbach tells a story, often repeated in the Middle Ages, of an abbot and a young monk riding out together. The youth saw women for the first time. “What are they?” he asked. “They be demons,” said the abbot. “I thought,” said the monk, “that they were the fairest things that ever I saw.”14 Said the ascetic Peter Damian, nearing the end of a saintly but acerbic life:

I, who am now an old man, may safely look upon the seared and wrinkled visage of a blear-eyed crone. Yet from sight of the more comely and adorned I guard my eyes like boys from fire. Alas, my wretched heart!—which cannot hold scriptural mysteries read through a hundred times, and will not lose the memory of a form seen but once.15

To some monks virtue seemed a contest for their souls between woman and Christ; their denunciation of woman was an effort to deaden themselves to her charms; their pious dreams were sometimes softened with the dews of desire; and their saintly visions often borrowed the terms of human love.16 Ovid was a welcome friend in some monasteries, and not least thumbed were his manuals of the amorous art.17 The sculptures of certain cathedrals, the carvings of their furniture, even the paintings in some missals, portrayed riotous monks and nuns—pigs dressed as monks, monastic robes bulging over erect phalli, nuns sporting with devils.18 A relief on the Portal of the Judgment at Reims shows a devil dragging condemned men to hell; among them is a mitered bishop. Medieval ecclesiastics—perhaps seculars envying regulars —allowed such caricatures to remain in place; modern churchmen thought it better to have most of them removed. The Church herself was the severest critic of her sinning members; a noble succession of ecclesiastical reformers labored to bring monks and abbots back to the ideals of Christ.

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