There were many small ascetic movements in early Christian communities, but they were not regulated for productive communal living. The eventual spread of urbanization in Europe made it difficult for monastic groups to live ascetic lifestyles, so many of them dispersed into rural areas where they began to develop their own self-sustaining communities. Communal monastic living during the early medieval period played an important role in Europe’s agricultural production and economy.
The most popular form of medieval monasticism developed during the 6th century from St. Benedict of Nursia, who spent many years living in a cave as a hermit. Benedict’s Rule provided viable regulations and principles for monastic community living that emphasized the virtues of moderation, reason, discipline, obedience, chastity, poverty, and stability. Benedictine monasticism prevailed in Europe until the 11th century, when other monastic orders began to emerge and challenge these traditional regulations.
This decline in regulation of monastic living inevitably led to corruption. Different orders became politicized and succumbed to the influence of the elite aristocracy, who often gave monasteries huge donations to enhance their public image. Many wealthy families even built monasteries on their own properties. The massive accumulation of wealth within monasteries and the new civic bonds between monks and the political elite became a huge conflict of interest for pious Christians who wanted to live according to the traditional austere tenets of monasticism.
Another revival of monasticism developed during the High Middle Ages in response to this corruption. A significant figure of this reform was Bernard of Clairvaux, who defended the rights of the Church against the encroachments of kings and princes. St. Bernard’s spirituality incorporated the Benedictine Rule and traditional elements of Christian mysticism—such as re-emphasizing the importance of prayer and meditation when contemplating Scripture.
Like many monks, Bernard left behind a vast amount of literary works such as letters, sermons, and treatises. This relates to one of the greatest contributions of monasticism during the Middle Ages: the production of religious manuscripts. In a culture with such low literacy rates, monks possessed the precious skill of being able to read, write, and duplicate texts—which allowed Christianity to survive and dominate as the world’s largest religion. In general, monks were very admired and seen as heroes during the Middle Ages, leaving behind a strong cultural legacy in Christian history.