Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603

By William Croft Dickinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
Monks and Friars

THE FOUNDING of the monasteries of Subiaco and Monte Cassino by St Benedict early in the sixth century marked the beginning of a monastic movement which rapidly spread throughout western Europe. When the barbarians were overrunning the west, the monasteries were 'retreats' into which men could go to lead a Christian life away from the ills and evils of the world.

The Benedictine monks, having taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and living a corporate life within their own community, followed a 'rule' laid down by St Benedict. 1 Their house was 'a school for the service of God'; their first duty was worship, which was 'the work of God'; thereafter their hours were to be employed in manual labour or study, and in manual labour they became ardent agriculturalists. The monk and the community were bound together; a monk, once admitted to a monastery, lived and died there. In this the Benedictines differed from the Irish monks who went out from their monasteries to act as missionaries or to lead hermit lives.

Later, when Europe had become more settled, monasteries were still founded as 'houses of God' -- a very profusion of foundations took place in the eleventh and twelfth centuries -- and they still attracted men with the same idea of a 'retreat' from the world. Then, in addition to 'the work of God', they became centres of education and scholarship, and much of our knowledge of mediaeval times comes from the 'chronicles' kept by monastic houses -- as, for example, in Scotland, the chronicle kept by the abbey of Melrose. The monks also encouraged the crafts of masonry, woodcarving, metal work and pottery; they improved agricultural methods; and they provided hospitality for both rich and poor.2

____________________
1
So, in the ranks of the clergy, the 'regulars' were those who were members of an order observing a 'rule' (as, for example, the Augustinians, or 'canons regular', and the cloistered monks), while the 'secular clergy' were those 'living in the world' (as, for example, the bishops and the parish priests).
2
Not all monasteries kept a chronicle, maintained a school, and encouraged the arts and learning. Moreover, in all this there was soon a serious decline. The Scottish evidence, which shows how little was done by the monasteries after the first fervour had died out, is examined in G. G. Coulton, Scottish Abbeys and Social Life.

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