The Monks (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.5)

One of the most important groups of people in the Middle Ages were the monks. Monks are men who have chosen to dedicate their lives to praying and studying the Bible. They usually live together in buildings called monasteries. Monks do not get married, have careers, or own anything of their own.

Monasticism, the way of life lived by monks, began early in the history of Christianity with men and women who refused to get married and have children. These men and women wanted to dedicate all of their time to worshipping God and serving other Christians by taking care of those who could not take care of themselves.

When Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, becoming a Christian became a very popular thing to do in the Roman Empire. Many Christians thought that, while it was good that more people were becoming Christians, people were becoming Christians for the wrong reasons. They were becoming Christian because it was popular and because it would help them get a good job rather than because they really believed in Jesus. Some of these Christians decided to get away from the churches that were filling up with these new Christians and go into the wilderness to live a quiet life away from people so they could spend more time praying.

One of the most famous of these Christians to live the cities and go to the wilderness was St. Anthony. Anthony was born to wealthy parents in Alexandria, Egypt, near the end of the 3rd century. Anthony’s parents died when he was a teenager, leaving him with a great amount of money as well as a younger sister to care for. One day, as Anthony was walking through the streets of Alexandria, he wandered into a church where a worship service was going on. As he came in, the priest read the words of Jesus in the Bible, “go, sell all that you have, and, come, follow me.” Anthony immediately left the church to follow this command. He sold everything he owned and gave the money to the poor. He then left his sister in the care of a group of Christian women and went into the desert in the southern part of Egypt to live a life of prayer and quiet.

The people who lived in the villages near where Anthony lived in the desert began to tell stories about the holy man who lived near them. The stories spread all over Egypt and beyond. Eventually, people began to travel from all over Europe, Africa, and Asia to visit Anthony in the desert, to receive advice from him, and to follow his way of life. These men became known as monks. The women who adopted this lifestyle were known as nuns.

Others throughout Europe and Africa imitated the way of life Anthony had adopted. St. Benedict, for example, started the first monastery on the Italian peninsula in the 6th century. In his monastery, monks prayed together up to seven times a day and spent the rest of their time reading holy books, working in the fields where the monastery’s food was grown, and praying on their own in their rooms.

The monks played an important role early in the Middle Ages by preserving many of the great books of Greece and Rome. When the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire, they stole much of the great art and destroyed many of the important books. The monasteries, however, were mostly left alone because the barbarians knew the monks were mostly poor and had nothing worth stealing. What the monks did have, however, were copies of all of the important books that had been written by the Greeks and Romans. The monks kept these books safe in their libraries and even made new copies of them when the old copies were worn out. In this way, the monks preserved the writings of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and great Greek and Roman literature like the works of Homer. Without the monks, we would not have the great books of the ancient world.


Review Questions

1. Who was the most important early monk?

2. Who built the first monastery on the Italian peninsula?

3. What did the monks do that helped preserve the great writings of Greece and Rome?

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