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 Main Index : History : Sketches of Church History : Part 2, Chapter X
Chapter IX | Chapter Index | Chapter XI

Part 2

      In the times of which I have lately been speaking, the manks did much valuable service to the Church and to the world in general. It was mostly through their labours that heathen nations were converted to the Gospel, that their barbarous roughness was tamed, and that learning, although it had greatly decayed, was not altogether lost Often, where monks had built their houses in lonely places, little clusters of huts grew up round them, and in time these clusters of huts became large and important towns. Monks were very highly thought of, and sometimes it was seen that kings and queens would leave all their worldly grandeur, and would withdraw to spend their last years under the quiet roof of a monastery. But it was found, at the same time, that monks were apt to fall away from the strict rules by which they were bound, so that reforms were continually needed among them.

      As the popes became more powerful, they found the monks valuable friends and allies, and they gave exemptions to many monasteries; that is to say, they took it on themselves to set those monasteries free from the control which the bishops had held over them, so that the monks of these exempt places did not own any bishop at all, and would not allow that any one but the pope was over them.

      I have already told you of the rule which was drawn up for monks by St. Benedict of Nursia. Some other rules were afterwards made, such as that of Columban, an Irish abbot, who for many years (AD 589-6I5) laboured in France, Switzerland, and the north of Italy. Columban went more into little matters than Benedict had done, and laid down exact directions in cases where Benedict had left the abbots of monasteries to settle things as they should think fit. Thus Columban's rule laid down that any monk who should call anything his own should receive six strokes, and appointed the same punishment for everyone who should omit to say "Amen" after the abbot's blessing, or to make the sign of the cross over his spoon or his candle; for every one who should talk at meals, or should cough at the beginning of a psalm. There were ten strokes for striking the table with a knife, or for spilling beer on it; and for heavier offenses the punishment sometimes rose as high as two hundred: besides that, other punishments were used, such as fasting on bread and water, psalm-singing, humble postures, and long times of silence.

      Still, however, Benedict's rule was that by which the greater part of the Western monks were governed. But, although they were under the same rule, they had no other connection with each other; each company of monks stood by itself, having no tie outside its own walls. There was not as yet, in the West, anything like the society which St. Pachomius had long before established in Egypt, where all the monasteries were supposed to be as so many sisters, and all owned the mother-monastery as their head. It was not until the tenth century that anything of this kind was set on foot in the Western Church.

      (1.) In the Year 912, an abbot named Berno founded a new society at Cluny, in Burgundy. He began with only twelve monks; but by degrees the fame of Cluny spread, and the pattern which had been set there was copied far and wide, until at length more than two thousand monasteries were reckoned as belonging to the "Congregation" (as it was called) or Order of Cluny; and all these looked up to the great abbot of the mother-monastery as their chief. The early abbots of Cluny were very remarkable men, and took a great part in the affairs both of the Church and of kingdoms: some of them even refused the popedom; and bishops placed themselves under them, as simple monks of Cluny, for the sake of their advice and teaching.

      The founders of the Cluniac order added many precepts to the rule or St. Benedict. Thus the monks were required to swallow all the crumbs of their bread at the end of every meal; and when some of them showed a wish to escape this duty, they were frightened into obedience by an awful tale that a monk, when dying, saw at the end of his bed a great sack of the crumbs which he had left on the table rising up as a witness against him. The monks were bound to keep silence at times; and we are told that, rather than break this rule, one of them allowed his horse to be stolen, and another let himself be carried off as a prisoner by the Northmen. During these times of silence they made use of a set of signs, by which they were able to let each other know what they wanted.

      This congregation of Cluny, then, was the first great monkish order in the West, and others soon followed it. They were mostly very strict at first-some of them so strict that they not only forbade all luxury in the monks, but would not allow any fine buildings, or any handsome furniture in their churches. But in general the monks soon got over this by saying that, as their buildings and their services were not for themselves, but for God, their duty was to honour Him by giving Him of the best that they could.

      These orders were known from each other by the difference of their dress: thus the Benedictines were called Black Monks, the Cistercians were called White Monks, and at a later time we find mention of Black Friars, White Friars, Grey Friars, and so forth.

      (2.) About the time of Gregory VII, several new orders were founded; and of these the most famous were the Carthusians and the Cistercians.

      As to the beginning of the Carthusian order, a strange story is told. The founder, Bruno, is said to have been studying at Paris, where a famous teacher, who had been greatly respected for his piety, died. As his funeral was on its way to the grave, the corpse suddenly raised itself from the bier, and uttered the words, "By God's righteous judgement I am accused!" All who were around were struck with horror, and the burial was put off until the next day. But then, as the mourners were again moving toward the grave, the dead man rose up a second time, and groaned out, "By God's righteous judgement I am judged!" Again the service was put off; but on the third day, the general awe was raised to a height by his lifting up his head and saying, "By God's righteous judgment I am condemned!" And it is said that on this discovery as to the real state of a man who had been so highly honoured for his supposed goodness, Bruno was so struck by a feeling of the hollowness of all earthly judgment that he resolved to hide himself in a desert.

      I have given this story as a sample of the strange tales which have been told and believed; but not a word of it is really true, and Bruno's reasons for withdrawing from the world were of quite a different kind. It is, however, true that he did withdraw into a wild and lonely place, which is now known as the Great Chartreuse, among rough and awful rocks, near Grenoble, and there an extremely severe rule was laid down for the monks of his order (AD 1084). They were to wear goatskins next to the flesh, and their dress was altogether to be of the coarsest and roughest sort. On three days of each week their food was bread and water; on the other days they were allowed some vegetables; but even their highest fare on holidays was cheese and fish, and they never tasted meat at all. Once a week they submitted to be flogged, after confessing their sins. They spoke on Sundays and festivals only, and were not allowed to use signs like the Cluniacs. It is to be said, to the credit of the Carthusians, that, although their order grew rich and built splendid monasteries and churches, they always kept to their hard way of living, more faithfully, perhaps, than any other order.

      (3.) The Cistercian order, which I have mentioned, was founded by Robert of Molesme (AD 1098), and took its name from its chief monastery, Citeaux, or, in Latin, Cistercium, The rule was very strict. From the middle of September to Easter they were to eat but one meal daily. Their monasteries were not to be built in towns, but in lonely places. They were to shun pomp and pride in all things. Their services were to be plain and simple, without any fine music. Their vestments and all the furniture of their churches were to be coarse and without ornament. No paintings, nor sculptures, nor stained glass were allowed. The ordinary dress of the monks was to be white.

      At first it seemed as if the hardness of the Cistercian rule prevented people from joining. But the third abbot of Citeaux, an Englishman named Stephen Harding, when he was distressed at the slow progress of the order, was comforted by a vision in which he saw a multitude washing their white robes in a fountain; and very soon the vision seemed to be fulfilled. In 1113 Bernard (of whom we shall hear more presently) entered the monastery of Citeaux, and by-and-by the order spread so wonderfully that it equalled the Cluniac congregation in the number of houses belonging to it. These were not only connected together like the Cluniac monasteries, but had a new kind of tie in the general chapters, which were held every year. For these general chapters every abbot of the order was required to appear at Citeaux, to which they all looked up as their mother. Those who were in the nearer countries were bound to attend every year; those who were further off, once in three, or five, or seven years, according to distance. Thus the smaller houses were allowed to have a share in the management of the whole; and the plan was afterwards imitated by Carthusians and other orders.

      (4.) I need not mention any more of the societies of monks which began about the same time, but I must not omit to say that the Crusades gave rise to what are called "military orders", of which the first and most famous were the Templars and the Hospitallers, or Knights of St. John.

      These orders were governed by rules which were much like those of the monks; but the members of them were knights, who undertook to defend the Holy Land against the unbelievers. The Hospitallers were at first connected with a hospital which had been founded at Jerusalem for the benefit of pilgrims by some Italian merchants, and took its name from St. John, an archbishop of Alexandria, who was called the Almsgiver. They had a black dress, with a white cross on the breast, and, from having been at first employed in nursing the sick and relieving the poor, they became warriors who fought against the Mussulmans.

      The Templars, who wore a white dress, with a red cross on the breast, were even more famous as soldiers than the Hospitallers. The knights of both these orders were bound by their rules to remain unmarried, to be regular and frequent in their religious exercises, to live plainly, to devote themselves to the defence of the Christian faith and of the Holy Land; and for the sake of this work emperors, kings, and other wealthy persons bestowed lands and other gifts on them, so that they had large estates in all the countries of Europe. But as they grew rich, they forgot their vows of poverty and humility, and, although they kept up their character for bravery, they were generally disliked for their pride and insolence.

      We shall see by-and-by how it was that the order of the Temple came to ruin. But the Hospitallers lasted longer. When the Christians were driven out of the Holy Land, the knights of this order removed first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes: and, last of all, to Malta, where they continued even until quite late times.

      Other military orders were founded after the pattern of the Templars and the Hospitallers. The most famous of them were the Teutonic (or German) knights, who fought the heathens on the shores of the Baltic Sea, and got possession of a large country, which afterwards became the kingdom of Prussia; and the order of St. James, which belonged to Spain, and there carried an a continual war with the Mahometan Moors, whose settlement in that country has already been mentioned.

Chapter IX | Chapter Index | Chapter XI

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