To the 1st century BC

The first monks: before 600 BC

Hinduism, the earliest among the world's great religions, is also probably the first to involve a form of monasticism. The rejection of worldly goods and desires, central to the Hindu concept of holiness, inclines devotees to conditions of poverty - among them the life of a hermit. There is evidence that before about 600 BC some Hindu hermits live in groups descibed as ashramas.

But they remain a collection of solitary holy men rather than a community of monks. They do not seem to have accepted any form of communal rule.

Jain monks: from the 6th century BC

The change from hermit to monk comes with the emergence, from within Hinduism, of the stricter Jainists. The followers of Mahavira in the 6th century BC are organized in strict orders of monks and nuns, devoting themselves to reducing the spiritual burden of karma while their few physical needs are looked after by lay members of the community.

The same natural progression later occurs among Christian hermits living far from civilization in the deserts of Egypt.

Buddhist monks: from the 6th century BC

In no religion have monks played such a central part as in Buddhism. Leading his followers into holiness a generation after Mahavira, Buddha also organizes them into communities. But his own glimpse of the divine truth specifically excludes the extreme asceticism of the Jains.

The order of Buddhist monks, known collectively as Sangha, is much involved in the world. Monks circulate in society preaching, teaching, collecting their daily food in their begging bowls, soliciting alms for the monastery. They involve the lay public rather than keeping it at arm's length, with the result that monks have played a prominent part in all Buddhist societies.

One result of such involvement in everyday life is that Buddhist monasteries, as opposed to individual monks, have tended to become increasingly rich and influential. This has often led to hostility and persecution, most notably with Buddhists in china.

The close interconnection between monks and the community survives today in southeast Asia. In Burma, Cambodia and Thailand it is customary for boys and young men to lead the life of a monk for at least several months, receiving religious instruction and discovering the perspective of poverty.

The Essenes: 2nd - 1st century BC

In the Jewish and Christian tradition Elijah and Elisha are inspiring examples of godly hermits, and Judaism provides the earliest known order of monks in the Middle East - the Essenes. It is likely that they first opt out of Jewish society in the 2nd century BC in protest against a secular leader, Simon maccabaeus, becoming the high priest in the Temple.

The Essenes live a closely regulated monastic life. The brothers meet at dawn for prayers, then work at practical tasks throughout the day except for two meals, at midday and in the evening, which are eaten together in silence. On the Sabbath manual work is replaced by prayer, meditation and study of the Torah.

After 63 BC there is more than the rule of the Maccabees to fuel Essene disgust at the condition of the world. Judaea is under Roman rule, and the Essenes begin to place renewed faith in an old dream - the arrival of the Messiah. He is no longer to be a temporal ruler from the house of David, bringing in a superior form of government. By now he has become an apocalyptic figure, who will destroy this wicked world and lead the elect into a better one. The Essenes are not the only desert hermits with this in mind. John the baptist is their contemporary.

A great deal is known about one community of Essenes from the survival at Qumran of their holy texts and documents - the Dead Sea Scrolls.

From the 1st century AD

Christian hermits: 3rd - 4th century AD

The traditional account of Christian monasticism begins with St Paul of Thebes retreating to a cave in the Egyptian desert in AD 250 to avoid the persecution initiated by Decius. St Paul himself is probably a mythical figure, but there may well have been Egyptian hermits at this time. At the other end of the north African coast the bishop of Carthage, St cyprian, goes into hiding in the same year and for the same reason.

Certainly there are Christian hermits in Egypt by the early 4th century. The best known of them is St Anthony, whose famous temptations take lurid and often sexual forms which later prove irresistible to generations of painters.

Early in the 4th century, perhaps in response to the new favour shown to Christianity by Constantine, Anthony organizes other hermits, living nearby in the desert, into a partly shared existence. For most of the week they maintain their solitary life. But on Sundays they come together for worship and a communal meal.

In this there is the beginning of a monastic community. One of the world's oldest monasteries, named after St Anthony and established soon after his death, still survives in the desert near the Red Sea - below the mountain cave in which the saint spent his last years.

The coenobitic life: 4th century AD

The move to fully communal monasticism also takes place in Egypt. Pachomius, a Christian hermit living beside the Nile at Dandara from about AD 320, persuades others to join him in what is effectively a village of anchorites. Each man lives in his own hut, but they eat their meals in common - usually in the open air. Pachomius establishes ten more communities of the same kind, two of them for women.

Pachomius writes a 'rule' by which each community must live and worship, thus forming the basis for coenobitic monasticism (from Greek koinos 'common' and 'bios' life). The rule of St Pachomius is now lost, but it is known to St benedict when he establishes the pattern of western monasticism.

Eastern monasticism: from the 4th century AD

The monastic tradition of eastern Christianity remains true to its ascetic origins, with the discomfort of the hermitage carried to extremes in the strange tradition of the stylites. Even today the monasteries of the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia, together with the Greek Orthodox communities of Mount Athos and Meteora in Greece and of St Catherine's below Mount Sinai, give the impression of subsisting at the furthest possible remove from the everyday life of fertile valleys.

Celtic monasticism in the west has the same quality. But the much more influential Benedictines will be closely involved in the world. Meanwhile the unusual experiment of St Jerome, a westerner in the east, deserves a mention.

St Jerome translator and monk: 4th - 5th century AD

Jerome acquires a firm commitment to the monastic life during his travels in the Middle East as a young man. These include two years living as a hermit in the desert. Like St anthony before him, he suffers vivid sexual hallucinations. His description of beating his breast to drive them away becomes a favourite theme for artists (painterly tradition provides him with the large stone which he uses for the purpose).

Jerome is not entirely suited to the desert life. In Rome, in AD 382, he experiments with a different sort of monasticism, living with a group of rich Roman widows and virgins. He teaches them Hebrew and they look after him, while he begins his translation of the Bible into Latin.

In 385 Jerome and his virgins go on pilgrimage together to Palestine and to the Monasteries of egypt. In 386 they settle in Bethlehem. Here Paula, a widow leading the group of women, organizes the building of a monastery with Jerome at its head, an adjacent convent under her own supervision, and a hostel for pilgrims.

Bethlehem remains Jerome's home for the remaining thirty-four years of his life. Here he writes a large number of religious and literary works, including several biographies. But his greatest achievement is his translation of the Bible (the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek) into the version which becomes the standard Latin text, known as the Vulgate.

Western monasticism: from the 4th century AD

The first people in western Europe to adopt the life of hermits are Celtic Christians in Gaul in the early 4th century. And the first monastery in the west is founded there, at Ligugé near Poitiers in AD 360, by St Martin. He later creates a much larger monastic complex at Marmoutier, near Tours, where he becomes the bishop in 372. By the end of the century a monastery of this kind is founded on Lérins, an offshore island in the bay of Cannes.

It is no doubt the Celtic link which carries this tradition to Ireland, where monasticism - at first of the rocky-island variety - makes a major contribution to the spread of Christianity.

Christianity in Ireland: 5th - 6th century AD

The most telling images of early Christianity in Ireland are the beehive cells on the inhospitable rock of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry. In these, from the 5th century, Celtic monks live in an ascetic tradition which relates back to the first Desert fathers in Egypt. Cold, rather than heat, is here their local penance.

Missionary efforts in Ireland during the 5th century - including those of St Patrick - give the Christian religion a firmer footing. By the 6th century the time is ripe for the founding of the great Irish monasteries (powerful establishments, as opposed to the cluster of hermits' cells on Skellig Michael) from which Celtic Christianity exerts its far-flung influence.

Charismatic leaders, founding monasteries and being remembered as saints, are a feature of 6th-century Ireland. The first is St Finnian, who establishes the monastery of Clonard in Meath. Then there is St Ciaran, the father-figure of Clonmacnois on the Shannon, and St Brendan, the founder of Clonfert in Galway. Pre-eminent among them is St Columba, responsible for two foundations on the mainland - at Derry and Durrow - before setting sail (Christ-like with twelve companions) to take the faith to Scotland.

In 563 he and his party make their base on the island of Iona, from which offshoots are later established as far afield as Lindisfarne (known for this reason as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland.

By the end of the 6th century Irish monks are carrying their Celtic version of Christianity even further afield. In 590 St Columban sets sail for France (again with twelve companions), where he founds a monastery at Luxeuil. But by now Celtic Christianity is controversial. In 603 he is criticized by a synod of French bishops for keeping Easter according to the Celtic rather than the Roman rite.

He moves to Switzerland (where one of his companions, St Gall, settles as a hermit in the place now named after him), and then on into Italy. By the time of his death in 615 Columban has founded another famous monastery, at Bobbio - the extreme outpost, under the pope's own nose, of Celtic Christianity.

St Benedict and the Benedictines: 6th - 8th century AD

At exactly the moment in the late 6th century when Celtic monks from Ireland are bringing their version of Christianity into continental Europe, Italian monks are travelling in the opposite direction - under the leadership of Augustine - on a papal Mission to england. There is no evidence that Augustine and his companions are Benedictines. But gradually, over the next two centuries, the Benedictine pattern prevails. Benedictine monasteries, as great centres of learning, provide the framework within which the barbarians of northern Europe evolve a Christian civilization.

St Benedict, founding his first monasteries at Subiaco early in the 6th century, would be surprised at the wide results of his initiative.

The only source of information about Benedict is a brief account written some fifty years after his death by Gregory I - the pope who does much to spread the influence of the Benedictine order. He says that Benedict, a rich young Roman, is so shocked by the licentious city of his birth that he retires to a hermit's life in a cave above Subiaco (c.520). Disciples gather about him, and he forms them into twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. Later he moves south to establish a new monastery at Monte Cassino (c.530).

The 'rule' which Benedict writes for his monks at Monte Cassino becomes the basis, after his death, of the Benedictine order.

The Rule of St Benedict: AD c.535

In writing his Rule, Benedict makes use of several earlier forms of monastic regime. The great success of his version, which eventually prevails throughout Roman Catholic Europe, derives mainly from its clarity and its good sense as a practical basis for communal life. Part of its appeal, too, is that its demands are not extreme. In this it differs from the ascetic traditions of Egypt or Ireland. Benedictine monks are not expected to suffer unduly.

This option does not keep the best of them from tireless and dangerous exertions to convert the pagans of northern Europe - a commitment seen above all in the life of St Boniface.

Benedictine nuns: 7th century AD

Within a century of St Benedict's death there are nuns following his rule, and tradition even dates the female order from his own time - seeing its founder as his sister, St Scholastica, who under his instruction lives a life of holy virginity.

The strong tradition of nuns in the western church goes back even earlier (to include, for example, the Roman matrons accompanying St jerome), and almost every religious order in Roman Catholicism has soon acquired a sisterhood. Sometimes the founders are contemporaries and friends, as in the case of St francis and st clare - whose credentials as a partnership are more firmly historical than those of Benedict and Scholastica.

From the 9th century

Monastic reform: 9th - 11th century AD

It has been an observable fact, in every religion with monastic traditions, that monasteries tend to get rich and monks fat. In some circumstances this leads to persecution by secular rulers (emperors in T'ang China or Henry viii in 16th-century England), but more often it inspires reform movements from within.

The story of western monasticism includes several waves of reform, at first within the Benedictine movement.

The first monasteries to follow the Rule of St Benedict are small independent communities, consisting for the most part of laymen who work the land to support themselves and who spend their free time in prayer, study and religious devotion. They are still, in effect, groups of hermits gathered together in a communal life.

The first attempts at reform are organizational. Carolingian rulers - Charlemagne, and his son Louis the Pious - attempt to harness the civilizing potential of the monasteries (centres of learning in a barbarous world) by uniting them in a single federation. They have some success. But the example of one monastery in particular, in the next century, is more effective.

The monastery of Cluny, near Mâcon, is founded in 909 by another ruler whose name in history credits him with special virtue - William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. Under a succession of exceptionally talented abbots, Cluny develops an administrative structure capable of being widely extended.

Other monasteries, wishing to learn from Cluny, are encouraged to follow exactly the same rule. A network of related houses evolves. Gradually it becomes accepted that the abbot of Cluny has rights of seniority over the others, and powers of appointment.

By the 11th century there are more than 1000 monasteries following the Cluniac version of the Benedictine rule. At a time when Europe is entering a period of prosperity and rapid development, the Black Monks - as the Benedictines are known from their habits - are well placed to play a central role in the arts, education and even politics.

Abbeys and their cloisters are where the best Romanesque Architecture and Sculpture is commissioned. Monastery libraries are treasure houses of the Manuscripts copied and illuminated by monks specializing in these crafts. Monastic schools benefit from specialist teachers, and large monastic estates require monks who are skilled stewards.

Rich and varied activities of this kind, though excellent in themselves, are a long way from St Benedict's life of hard work and prayer. Reaction is inevitable. The last years of the 11th century bring two new initiatives - each in its own way extremely successful.

One, dating from 1084, is a reinvention of the earliest monastic inspiration, that of a community of hermits; the Carthusian order adapts the ancient theme of the first Egyptian monks to suit a more settled age. The other, the Cistercian reform of about 1098, is a more specific return to the beginnings of the Benedictine tradition, laying new emphasis on manual work and the simple life.

Carthusians: AD 1084

St Bruno, previously head of the cathedral school in Reims, retires in 1084 with six companions into the Chartreuse region of the French Alps. In this remote place they build themselves a church, where they worship together, and separate huts in which each can live alone. This place eventually develops into the monastery known as La Grande Chartreuse (from which the English word 'charterhouse' derives, to describe any Carthusian monastery).

The combination of solitude with occasional flashes of communal life proves so successful, for monks who are inclined to be hermits, that St Bruno's order is one of the very few which has never required reform.

The standard architectural pattern of a charterhouse provides, in the most elegant manner, for the requirements of slightly pampered hermits. The monks live in cells arranged along three sides of a courtyard. Each cell is in effect a tiny house, with a room for work, a room for prayer, a bedroom and a miniature garden. A hair shirt is worn, but meals are prepared by lay brothers and are passed in through a hatch.

The monks leave their cells only at night, to worship together in the monastery church, and on Sundays and feast days for a communal meal - during which there is a period for conversation.

The inward-looking rigours of the Carthusian order limit its appeal to a minority of those with a monastic calling. Equally the individual requirements for each monk restrict the number who can be accommodated in a charterhouse. Even La Grande Chartreuse, the parent house, has only thirty-five cells.

By contrast the other successful reform movement of the 11th century, that of the Cistercians, offers infinite scope for expansion. The Cistercian parent house, at Cîteaux, acquires a population of 700 monks and lay brothers within half a century of its founding in 1098.

Cistercians: 11th - 12th century

In about 1098 a group of Benedictine monks, from the abbey of Molesme, form a new community at Cîteaux with the express intention of observing to the letter the Rule of st benedict. In contrast to the large and rich Benedictine monasteries, Cistercian monks (Cistercium is the Latin word for Cîteaux) return to manual work and a simple, communal life far removed from the rest of society.

After difficult beginnings, the new order is transformed by the arrival at Cîteaux in 1112 of a 22-year-old with a large and motley company. They are some thirty friends and relations, persuaded by the novice to abandon their everyday lives and to follow him into the monastery.

The persuasive young man is St Bernard, known as St Bernard of Clairvaux from the new Cistercian monastery of which he becomes the founding abbot just three years later. Under his sterm leadership the order begins to grow at an astonishing speed. By the time of his death, in 1153, there are 338 Cistercian monasteries in Europe. Eventually there as many as 742 monasteries and some 900 nunneries.

These monasteries are not small; many include several hundred people. They are built in a more restrained style than Benedictine cloisters (St Bernard dislikes ornamentation), but they are far from being either poor or simple. Nor, in the circumstances, could they be.

The economic basis of the Cistercian monasteries is, paradoxically, a blueprint for worldly success. Rejecting the riches of cities and of fertile plains, the monks settle on the periphery of cultivated life where land is easily available. But their contribution of hard work and free labour rapidly makes this marginal land profitable.

Small settlements develop almost inevitably into vast and rich abbeys, such as Fountains in Yorkshire. But the success of the White Monks (carefully distinguished by their habits from the black Benedictines) derives also from the administrative discipline of the Cistercian order.

The Cistercians lay a great deal of emphasis on consistency (the same rule everywhere, within the same layout of buildings) and on channels of communication - between daughter houses and their founding abbots, and between the abbots themselves in an annual gathering at Cîteaux.

This is in essence a feudal hierarchy. St Bernard, at its head, plays an important role in the ecclesiastical politics of Europe in the 12th century. But already, in his lifetime, this has ceased to be the simple impoverished order which he joined. The next wave of reform, in the early 13th century, rejects yet again the example of wealthy monks and takes an entirely new direction - inspired by St Dominic and St Francis.

Innocent and the holy beggars: AD 1210-1215

The most lasting achievement of Innocent III's pontificate is his recognition of a new movement within the western church. The monasteries have shown an incorrigible tendency to accumulate wealth. In 1210 and 1215 the pope receives in Rome two visionaries with a strikingly different concept of how to follow the example of Christ.

The first visit is from Francis of assisi and eleven of his companions. They are laymen who have given up their worldly possessions. They want to live among the poor, particularly in the rapidly growing towns, preaching and bearing witness to a Christian life. The pope encourages them.

Five years later Innocent's visitor is a Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, who has much experience of preaching (to the Cathars) and a specific interest in correcting doctrinal error. Like Francis, he and his fellows have embraced poverty. They work amid the bustle and argument of the towns. They too are given Innocent's blessing.

From these encounters are born the two great orders of mendicant (or begging) friars, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Western monasticism rediscovers a truth more often remembered in the east, in Hinduism and Buddhism - that the holy man's only possession is his begging bowl. But neither mendicant order, growing in power, will find the ideal of poverty easy.

The formal foundation of each order falls within the pontificate of Innocent's successor, Honorius III. He establishes the Dominicans in 1216 and the Franciscans in 1223.

This papal foundation distinguishes the friars from the more independent monastic orders, established in earlier centuries when the papacy was able to exercise only a relatively loose control. The two mendicant orders are seen and are used as an instrument of papal policy. They will be joined in this respect, after the crisis of the Reformation, by a third and even more powerful order - that of the Dominicans (who differ from the Dominicans and the Franciscans in not sharing their ideological devotion to poverty).

Monks nuns and friars in the modern world

The prestige of the religious orders suffers almost fatally from the anti-clerical spirit of the late 18th century (culminating in the Suppression of the jesuits), and from violent hostility during the French Revolution. Monasteries, even in Catholic countries, never again recover the economic power which they once enjoyed. And the preaching orders lose much of the influence acquired during the fervour of the Catholic reformation.

Nevertheless the 19th century sees a strong return to a more religious mood in society, and to a romantic rediscovery of the great Christian centuries of the Middle Ages when monasticism was at its peak.

In the 19th century convents and monasteries are even established for Protestants (unthinkable at any previous time since the Reformation), with the Anglican church giving the lead in the 1840s. In most western countries, in the late 20th century, monks and nuns and friars retain a presence in educational and charitable fields - with a few houses still devoted strictly to the first purpose of monasticism, that of contemplation.

Meanwhile in the east, the original home of the monastic ideal, monks remain a familiar feature in Buddhist countries, taking part in the everyday life of the community as naturally as they once did in Europe.
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