Medieval Monks

In the early ages of Christianity, also the early Middle Ages, monasticism became one of the most dominant forms of religious expression among the devout. Through oblation or voluntary avowal, the ranks of monks (and nuns--excluding special mention what I say applies to both) in western European monasteries swelled. This 'spiritual workforce,' if I may be so bold as to coin a phrase, did not enjoy a leisurely cloistered life. In addition to sacrificing any wealth and their sexuality (supposedly), monks also worked long hours working in the fields or before an altar praying for the good fortune of the wealthy benefactors of the church, as well as his brothers.

His gain, however, was threefold:

The last point, probably the most surprising, was in many cases also the most important factor for a monk's devotion. Early in the history of monasticism, things were not nearly as contained and restricted as the modern accepted stereotype depicts: the scene with the hooded masochists from Monty Python is especially misleading here--they were flagellants, a very special breed of monk, and not at all appreciated/endorsed by the Church. Actually, the idea of a monk underwent several drastic changes through history, so I suppose I better glance over a few of them.

Pre-Church Monks

Before Constantine's conversion, when Christianity was transformed from a crime to a virtue, monks existed as the very paradigm of Christian life. They lived live secluded from the Roman culture rejecting the often rampant Roman promiscuity, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and infanticide. Hermitic ascetics lived ideal which many other early Christians only dreamed. In effect they were free, as other Christians were not, to live a holy life as they saw fit (before a pesky institutional Church emerged to define exactly what this life was. Women especially profited as nuns. Whereas as Romans they often had to deal with the acceptance of male infidelity (conversely, an adulteress could be rightfully killed by her husband), as hermits they lived a life a peaceful celibacy. And in some cases some equality.

Monks in the Church and St. Benedict

After the rise of the Church, monasticism was more regulated. Any old hermit with a fondness for God couldn't be a monk. In addition, monks were expected to serve the Church, and not just God, as members of a institutional system of monastery land. St. Benedict's Rule was perhaps the most important document in this regard: it classified the various monks according to holiness in the following manner:

  1. Cenobites (type of monk that live obediently and cloistered)
  2. Anchorites (hermitic monks, lived stationary but independent lives)
  3. Sarabites (“detestable” live in towns in twos and threes)
  4. Gyrovagues
  5. (traveler monks that "indulge in their own wills” much like St. Francis's friars, who come later)
Even after these influential restrictions, monkhood still offered a measure of freedom that was a rare thing indeed in the Middle Ages. It was perhaps the only real lifestyle choice available to the majority of the European population. It offered some amount of peace, a guaranteed measure of control, and what was nearly unanimously considered the greatest freedom of all: eternal life.

My overpriced education
Excerpts from the Rule of St. Benedict in Readings in Medieval History, as edited by Patrick Geary.

*many monasteries were pillaged, nuns raped and murdered. Face it, there really wasn't a safe place to hide in the middle ages, other than under the Pope's robe.