This discussion relates to the dynamic change which underwent Monastic Movements in the period 1000-1300. It saw fascinating and diverse change.

The Discussion

This period was one of growth and proliferation in relation to monastic orders. This growth came in several stages. It began with the reform of the Benedictine order in the 11th century spearheaded by Cluny. Then came the Cistercian order and the Augustinian Canons who both felt the Benedictine order had lost its original purpose. The 13th century saw the Friars arrive with the Dominicans and the Franciscans. There was a desire to find the holy way that God willed to be followed and each of these orders found their own particular way of doing so. When looking at why this occurred one would obviously see the hermit movement of the late 10th and early 11th (peaked between 1075 and 1125) century as an indication of dissatisfaction with the contemporary way. Individuals acted and initiated new ways, some of which remained and grew, others of which died. The changing society of this period may well be the key to what was happening: the growth in cities, population, increasing literacy, birth of universities, influence of the east, expanding agriculture in both size and efficiency, and an expanding Christendom. There was much land to be settled, many decayed churches to be renewed, and a city populace that had not yet been properly catered for and fully exploited. Thus one can see the setting was right for a fundamental shift to occur. This would mean the dominance of a single order would be destroyed and replaced by competing orders each unique.

The Benedictine order by 1050 reigned supreme. It was seen as the ultimate expression of the Christian faith. At its core lay obedience to the Abbot, to the gospel and the rule. But there were problems with it. In Cluny, which led Benedictine reform ritualism and involvement with knightly society were crucial. Anselm of Aosta’s request that monks do not:

“Despise even the minutiae of their order, testifying that through contempt of small things they would fall to destroying and despising every good thing”
Indicates the increasing prominence of debate and murmuring against excessive ritualism and petty detail. This ritualism led to disgruntlement amongst some. The hermetic movement was an indication of this. It was an attempt to live out the gospel and find the core of its message, which was felt, was perverted by undue emphasis on ritual. Aybert of Crepin refused to touch money and secured massive lay support. Economically the Benedictines were also suffering. They had been based on massive grants of swathes of lands but this was no longer possible. Thus new foundations were given small clippings for example St. Mont Priory in Gascony and old ones found their lands decreasing. Thus there was decline in many monasteries across Europe such as Fulda monastery in Germany where once there had been 200monks there were now only 20-30 by the 11th century. Thus the old order was weakened and the potential for change greater.

The Cistercians were a reaction against the current Benedictine order. They began with a group of disgruntled monks leaving Molesme Abbey and founding Citeaux. Bernard their greatest figure attacked the gaudiness and extravagance of Cluny. His letters give an insight into the mindset of the Cistercian reformers. When writing to Abbot Suger of St. Denis he expressed his idea of what it meant to render what was due to God:

Continence is cultivated, discipline maintained, spiritual reading encouraged, for the silence is now unbroken, and the hush from all the din of secular affairs invites the minds to heavenly thoughts.”
He also expressed his deep belief in the importance of loving individuals and ensuring that this was all one owed them: “owe no man anything except to love him”. He showed the difference between the Cistercians and the Benedictines:
“Does salvation rest rather in soft raiment and high living than in frugal fare and moderate clothing”.
But it is good to note the guilt Bernard felt for not being able to ignore worldly events. He became involved in the Papal succession dispute in which he successfully supported Pope Innocent II and had to play a crucial role in running the Cistercian order and intervening where he saw fit. The ideal of withdrawal from the world which he and his order propounded often became his attempting to give support to fellow members of his order for example over the appointment of the Archbishop of York.

The Cistercians used the Rule of St. Benedict and claimed to be restoring it to its right use. They tried to flee from the world but in settling areas away from settlement they hit upon the most sensible economic plan. They became colonisers in an age of expansion and it was in these areas that there were lands large enough to satisfy the foundations of large monasteries. They also used lay brethren as the foundation of their economy and gave them a strict rule of life. The order had a very advanced organisation and they developed new ideas such as the General Chapter so as to unify and bind the order across Europe. They legislated for small details such as the position of pigsties and the such-like. Thus the powerful organisation coupled with the serious religious intent made the order able to establish itself and expand as it gained the confidence of the nobility. Alfonso VII of Castile between 1132 and 1148 founded 13 great Cistercian houses. The nobility of Europe saw the Cistercians as a valuable ally in colonising lands. Their belief in lack of embellishments meant there was little to spend the money they made on and so it was put back into expanding their monasteries. Thus their expansion occurred rapidly and was self-propelling. Yet theirs was a more conventional form of reform as they objected to manner of imposing the Rule of St. Benedict. The Augustinian Canons however wished to start afresh.

The Augustinian Canons sought to revive the vita apostolica. They used St. Augustine of Hippo as their basis and his name was a deliberate break with the Benedictine past. 1039 saw the Bishop of Avignon give a church to four clerks “so that they could live there in a religious way. Thus the Augustinian Canons were born. They were a very practical order and often found their home in churches that required renewal. Their rules were rather vague and it was this flexibility that aided their expansion. But even more crucial was their ease in being set up. Their way was humble and so required only small amounts of money. Thus lesser nobles who wished to have a community to pray for them could now afford one, for example Robert d’Oily of Oxford setting up a community at Osney. But this ease of creation also meant that the order could adapt to specific needs and so the Trinitarian movement was set up and then withered away once the need for it had died. Pope Paschal II stated that:

“The dispensation of the word of God, the offices of preaching, baptising, and reconciling penitents have always been a function of… The Augustinian order”.
The strength of the Augustinians was their ability to satisfy townspeople by fulfilling the needs of areas whilst providing a sense of a greater spiritual aspect. They tapped into to the urban reserve and in doing so found an ideal means of provision for their order.

The Friars were the next major order to be set up. These were the Order of the Preachers (the Dominicans) and the Order of the Friars minor (the Franciscans). In the 13th century the atmosphere was ready for the creation of various mission movements such as the Apostles. Most of these failed to outlive their founders, but the Dominicans and Franciscans became two of the most powerful orders in Western Europe. St. Dominic set up his order initially to convert the Cathars of Languedoc. As an Augustinian Canon he saw the failure of the Cistercians to adopt an apostolic life as a fundamental barrier to success. Thus his order was born out of the immediate need of the church and his own impulsiveness. By 1217 his order was spreading to Spain, Paris and Rome from Toulouse and the emphasis on the conversion of Languedoc was abandoned. Thus the order itself was transformed shortly after its inception and its purposes for existence changed. But its essence was recognised in 1216 when Dominic and 16 friars were recognised as an order of canons regular with a special instruction to preach. According to C.L.Brooke: “He Dominic turned to the church at large, to recruiting in student centres, to organising a peripatetic order to preaching everywhere and to everyone” St. Dominic created a very structured organisation which established the idea of committee government and saw Dominic relinquish his power several years before he died. After 1217 he put little effort into controlling the order he created.

The Franciscans were born out of St. Francis’s individual piety and attitude. St. Francis developed an urban devotion to poverty. His attitude was created by the expanding cities, which created large numbers of isolated poor. In [1209 he began preaching and gained disciples who were inspired by his action of literally living out the Gospel. He wrote several rules and as stated by R.B.Brooke:

“His mission and the mission of his followers was not to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel, but to show forth the beauty of the way it revealed in the example of their own lives.”
Poverty was the key to his outlook and he wished his friars to be poorer than the poorest of the poor. St. Dominic also believed in poverty but never made it so crucial as St. Francis did. But his aims like St. Dominic’s also saw change: by 1213 he decided his order would encompass the whole of Christendom. Yet for all his control of the order, all his ambition, all his great example there was a movement within his order that wished to temper his attitude. After his death the words “take nothing with you on your journey” were struck out by appeal to the Pope from the Rule. His order had serious trouble implementing organised poverty and ultimately his vision was compromised.

Both these movements were urban: an organised community of beggars could only survive in towns where there were a large number of people who were not on the verge of want. They relied on transitory charity and refused to possess income-producing property. As stated by Southern:

“They satisfied every common religious need: they were poor and needed relief; they were a place of burial for the great and of memorial for the less great; they would sing masses for the dead and pronounce an absolution over the dying. They made the road to heaven easier for everyone”.
The friars were not only inspiring to the religious but also very practically useful. They provided a means of escape from the battle for ecclesiastical offices that went on for those who sought to teach at universities. Robert Bacon who became a Dominican in 1227 was able to resign his benefice and continue to teach at Oxford. Thus many of the educated who could preach and teach preachers were conveniently most likely to join the friars a fact which undoubtedly aided their success and which they actively encouraged. By 1234 out of 15 doctors of divinity in Paris 9 were Dominicans! The strictness of the order such as the 1228 order that all preachers must have spent at least 3 years studying theology was also vital in strengthening it. Thus one can see the need for a receptive church at large, a potential both financial and spiritual that is there to be tapped and the ability of the orders themselves to adapt to the situation they face.

Thus there were various reform initiatives and each had its own particular reason for success. As Peter the Venerable told Pope Innocent III: “In matters of religion, new houses can be founded more easily than old ones can be repaired”. Clearly this is a crucial point. The new orders enlivened the Christian faith in a way that reform of the older orders could not have done and when each one’s growth seemed to falter a new organisation would appear that could reignite the passion.

Yet the change came in many ways. Often the reform could be self-imposed such as the old order of Amorbach being abolished and the order of Hisau adopted by one group. There were often compromises such as at St. Saviour in Aix-en-Provence where a new chapter of regular canons was founded alongside old ones so as to gradually replace them. Orthodox Christian influences from those such as Simeon of Armenia who visited France and Italy and the Calabria monks who founded Bertscheid near Aachen may have had some effect. Even the ascetic Celtic influence seems to have influenced Aeldred of Rievaulx and Godric of Finchale. The expansion of preaching and of the universities was crucial in the shifting of influence from monks to friars. But one can begin to see the sheer complexity that one has to deal with when considering so wide a movement of reform. F. Scott Fitzgerald is cited by Constable as saying:

“Some generations are close to those that succeeded them; between others the gap is infinite and unbridgeable”.
Change was occurring in rapid spurts and with this the perception of faith in practice was being transformed. But perhaps Lynn White is close to the truth of the fundamental ongoing change when she states of man and his environment: “he ceased to be nature’s child and became her exploiter”. Thus population growth and development were crucial as man became more self-confident in Western Europe at least. Salvation shifted from the communal to the individual

One must always temper the urge to draw conclusions from seemingly convincing evidence. Giles Constable draws to one’s notice similar shifts in Islam, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the way faith was treated. The importance of the soul of the individual came to the fore across religious boundaries and this provokes the question why and the answer could be very important to this question. Yet it is a rather vague and difficult idea to actually come to grips with and leaves one unconvinced as to its validity. Furthermore Murray’s description of the friars also undermines the standard analysis that one makes: “The friars were…morally freakish figures in a typical age”. Thus one is left to question how easily produced were these orders. This uncertainty permeates any attempt to answer the issue of conditions and inspirations for the inception of new monastic orders. When one looks at the individual orders one can see differences but it difficult to bring it all together to establish the overall picture. Of this only broad generalisations can be made. Basically that an expanding Europe produced a society that was receptive to the inception of new orders in spurts and that there were men willing and able to inspire and implement new religious ways of life.

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