After the year 600 and for five centuries thereafter, the Benedictines promoted a rich liturgical spirituality and high intellectual pursuits. During these centuries, the monks served as church administrators. By and large, they were the only educators and writers of the ages.
Living the Liturgy
Medieval culture was synonymous with Christian culture. Monasteries celebrated the year of grace with simple beauty. Every day of the calendar year was identified with a saint’s name and not with a number, as we do today. Peasants paused and prayed at Noon, three o’clock, and at six to mark three Hours of the liturgy. Sacramental celebrations were village celebrations. People punctuated their greetings with adieu, adios, or good bye, the equivalent of "God be with you."
The Practical Arts
The monks were the agriculturalists of Europe. The list of their accomplishments is almost limitless: They drained swamps and converted them from disease-ridden places into fertile regions; cleared away forests for the neighboring inhabitants, introduced new crops, and stored up waters from springs to distribute in times of droughts. They ran a basic hospital for the sick. Not surprisingly, the Benedictines pioneered the production of wine in addition to the discovery of champagne. In all these endeavors, they linked their activity with preaching the gospel (Woods, 28ff).
The Monks as Technical Advisers
The monks built their own monastery chapels and other monastery buildings. With their expertise, they advised the people as technologists in areas such as metallurgy, iron works, marble quarrying, glassworks for stained glass windows, all done with monastic savoir-faire. They saw the beauty of creation everywhere (Woods, 34ff).
Ministry of Hospitality and Other Charitable Works
Anyone who has ever visited a Benedictine monastery or abbey knows first-hand about its gracious manners and warm hospitality. The monasteries served as gratuitous inns providing a safe and peaceful resting place for the foreign traveler, pilgrim, and the poor.
“A special bell rang every night,” reports Woods, “to call any wandering traveler or to anyone overtaken by the intimidating forest darkness. The people called it ‘the bell of the wanderers’” (38).
The Scriptorium and Preservation of Manuscripts
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Many monasteries came to be known for special skills: some, for medicine, others for painting and engraving, producing and copying illuminated manuscripts of the Ancients. Still others composed and copied the music that had been handed down to them or shared with them from other monasteries.
A monk would be sent to another monastery to learn new music being sung there. Then he would return to his scriptorium where adaptations might be made. Copyists recorded this music or the music that was composed within that monastery. A monk with beautiful handwriting was assigned to do the calligraphy; gifted monks pained illuminated letters. Every once in a while, a jokester-monk might write in the margin of a page: ‘I’ve been here for four hours.’ These artistic works were without signature, done anonymously and for God’s glory. Today, museums are indebted to the monastics for the preservation of all types of manuscripts.
Education in the Middle Ages was conducted within the confines of the monastery by monks, and later, by nuns. They offered religious and general education to youth who intended to enter the monastic or clerical life and to youth who were preparing for public life. These lived at home. Young children of six or seven years of age were taught the basics. The majority, especially potential monks and nuns, were taught to read Latin, writing, chant, arithmetic, and learning how to read time on the sun dial. The main text was the Psalter. From the eighth century onward, students were taught the seven liberal arts, the trivium, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. The ideal monastery of the Benedictine Orderwas that of Saint Gall in present-day Switzerland where the town flourished around the monastery.
The So-Called Dark Ages
“The monks gave to the whole of Europe a network of factories, centers of breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, preservation of manuscripts of earlier ages, especially of Greece and Rome, the art of manners, the art of hospitality,” writes Woods (5). These disciplines were supported and advanced under the guidance of the Church in the so-called Dark Ages. By the eighth century, Benedictine monasteries had spread from Italy to Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, to present-day France, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia.