Christian Monasticism

Emergence in the East

Christian monasticism emerged under the Roman Empire (ca. 0-500), with the appearance of solitary monasticism around the eastern Mediterranean. Valuing rigorous asceticism, the earliest Christian monks lived alone, in simple houses, ruins, or caves. Before long, these hermits were joined by a less extreme form of monasticism, in which devotees congregated in permanent religious communities. The residential complex of such a community is called an abbey (see Abbey).4,5,6

Adoption in the West

Monasticism did not flourish in Western Europe until the Dark Ages (ca. 500-1000). The conflict and deurbanization of this period were likely catalysts, since abbeys were self-sustaining and relatively safe. They were also sanctuaries of compassion in a harsh world, accommodating visitors and passing travellers in their guest rooms, and providing the impoverished with donations of money and goods. Medieval rulers, convinced of the role of abbeys in achieving spiritual salvation for their kingdoms, tended to encourage and support religious orders.1,2,3

Western abbeys (unlike eastern religious communities, which tended to focus mainly on spiritual matters) also served as centres of art, scholarship, and craftsmanship. Though much ancient learning was lost in medieval Europe, monasteries ensured that much survived.


The father of monasticism in Western Europe is Saint Benedict, an Italian monk who established the Benedictine Order (the first Western religious order) during the Dark Ages. The organization and lifestyle of this order became the most influential model for subsequent orders throughout Western Europe.A158,3,4

Nonetheless, the character of religious communities in Western Europe varied widely. At one extreme were mendicant orders, whose members lived spartan lives funded purely by donations. At the other were abbeys of extraordinary wealth and power, whose members occupied high offices in the Church and national governments. Like all human organizations, religious orders were forces of both good and ill throughout history.

1 - "Middle Ages", Encarta. Accessed August 2009.
2 - "Western Architecture: The Christian West » Romanesque", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
3 - "Abbey", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
4 - "Monasticism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
5 - "Christianity: Monasticism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
6 - "Anthony, Saint", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.