Monasticism in Western Europe During the 400 to 1100

In Western Europe, the rise of monasticism falls in the Middle Ages, during which religion was the most significant force. Monastic Christianity initially originated in Egypt and Palestine in the 3rd – 4th centuries and steadily transmitted to Western Europe. The essential concept of Christian monasticism is the alienation from society to get closer to God. This way, monks were prohibited from starting a family and getting pleasures from delicious food, sex, and communication with friends, they were obliged to wear simple and rough clothes (Hunt et al. 2019). In the Middle Ages, monks played an enormous role in the spread of literacy and the promotion of religious education and art (McGill 2017). Apart from this, monks and nuns cured the sick and assisted the indigent. Later, the high officials in the Christian Church were advisors of the countrys rulers. The current essay described the development of monasticism in Western Europe from the 5th to 12th centuries.

Talking about the spread of monasticism, it is essential to say a few words about Saint Basil, even though the paper describes monasticism from the 5th to 12th centuries. Saint Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, is a significant personality because he was the first to organize scattered hermits under a universal rule. Saint Basil is also famous for the establishment of the tradition that monks must be ascetic and helpful. Vlachos (2018) calls the bishop a “founding monastic legislator” (2). Basil contributed to the appearance of monasticism in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he created the basic principles of the priesthood that later reached Western Europe as well.

As has been mentioned above, the practice of monasticism appeared in a rather diatonic from European place – on the banks of the Nile river. Jerome, an Italian scholar who lived in the middle of the 4th century, is regarded as a person who brought Western monasticism into existence. The years from 335 to 337 and from 339 to 346 Jerome spent in exile in Trier, Germany, and Rome, Italy (Lawrence 2015). During these years, the scholar visited Athanasius of Alexandria, who inspired him with the ideas of the local monks (Lawrence 2015). Another significant person who contributed to the early development of monasticism in Western Europe was Hilary of Poitiers. Similar to Jerome, Hilary became an adherent of the ideals of monasticism in exile. After returning from the deportation to Asia Minor, Hilary “sponsored a group of ascetics” in the French city of Poitiers and, thus, contributed to the spread of Western monasticism (Lawrence 2015, 11). Therefore, it could be inferred that such a phenomenon as Western monasticism became possible due to the adoption of middle Eastern ideas.

The following significant step in the development of monasticism in Western Europe refers to the 6th century and Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Christian monastic order. Benedict lived ascetically after becoming disillusioned with the lifestyle and traditions that he witnessed while receiving an education in Rome. Thus, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to serving God in the self-founded monastery in the Italian town Monte Cassino.

Benedict is known for the establishment of Benedict’s Rule that, during the following three centuries, became a guide for Western monasticism. The Rule of Benedict is comprised of the regulations that decent monks and nuns should follow (Benedict 540). More precisely, Benedict (540) promoted obedience, stewardship, humility, discipline, and diligence described what monks should wear, how and when to pray, and how an abbot should be chosen. Benedict (540) claims that it is essential for monks to be engaged in manual labor. Thus, it is curious to notice that Benedict made physical work being godly and noble for “the first time in the Greek and Roman history” (Hunt et al. 2019, 228). The establishment of the Benedictine Order became the provider of stability and productiveness of Western monasteries. Besides, the adherence to Benedicts rules made monasteries not only religious centers, but also ones of education, economic development, and political management. The way of monastic life proposed by Benedict was flourishing until the 20th century when it began to decline being replaced by the rise of Franciscan and Dominican orders.

Another essential milestone for Western monasticism is the formation of the Order of Cistercians at the end of the 11th century. The Cistercians are closely connected to the Benedictines because the goal of the former was resistance to the latter. The founders of the Order are Robert of Molesme, Stephen Harding, and Alberic of Citeaux. The initial purpose of Benedict of Nursia was to make monks humble, hardworking, and obedient. By the 11th century, the adherence to the rules proposed by Benedict made monasteries immensely powerful and wealthy institutions. The purpose of the Cistercian lifestyle was to come back to the fundamental understanding of The Rule of Benedict. The Cistercians are also known as “white monks” because, in contrast to the Benedictines who wore black robes, their presence was so simplistic that they even denied the necessity to dye clothes and, consequently, wore white dresses (Hunt et al. 2019). This way, it becomes evident that the Cistercians promoted the return to manual labor and simple life.

The Cistercian Order that originated in a French monastery Citeaux in 1098 influenced the reorganization of monasteries. The particular roll was performed by the establishment of the general chapter that is regarded as “the most distinctive and influential innovation of the new order” (Lawrence 2015, 172). The general chapter implies that all abbots were guided by universal principles. Additionally, the chapter emphasized that abbots had only local autonomy and were answerable to the higher authorities. Although nuns were the significant drivers of the spread of the Cistercian Order, this female branch experienced a downturn in the late Middle Ages. The decline was caused by financial crises, social unrest, plagues, and wars (Jordan 2012). Despite this fact, the critical accomplishment of the Cistercians was the creation of the strict order, unity, and accountability of monasteries in Western Europe.

To sum up, the spread of monasticism in Western Europe was a long process that was not completed in the 12th century. The formation of the Franciscan and the Dominican Mendicant Orders in the 13th century also significantly affected Western religious life. Still, the event described in the current essay created the ground without which the further development of monasticism would be impossible. During the indicated period, the key personalities were the Italian scholar Jerome, Hilary of Poitiers, Benedict of Nursia, Robert of Molesme, Stephen Harding, and Alberic of Citeaux. Even though all these monks are famous for their different achievements, the fact that unifies them is that they strived to simplicity and purity and tried to instill these features to other churchmen.


Benedict. The Rule of Benedict. Translated by Carolinne White. London, England: Penguin Classics, 540.

Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Boston, USA: Macmillan Learning, 2019.

Jordan, Erin L. “Roving Nuns and Cistercian Realities: The Cloistering of Religious Women in the Thirteenth Century”. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42, no. 3 (2012): 597 – 614.

Lawrence, Clifford Hugh. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. New York, USA: Routledge, 2015.

McGill, Sara Ann. Monasticism in Medieval Europe. Toledo, Spain: Great Neck Publishing, 2017.

Vlachos, Georgios. “Monasticism, Its Birth, Evolution and Characteristics”. Pharos Journal of Theology 99, (2018): 1 – 20.