Monks or wonks?

When we think of medieval monasticism, the last think we associate monks and nuns with is expertise. Admittedly, you’ll say, there’s the expertise of prayer, contemplation, devotion, writing even, but beyond that there isn’t much else in the way of prowess and competence. And yet, monasteries were post-Roman Europe’s seedbeds of knowledge, science and progress. In the period between the decline of the Roman Empire in the West and the rise of cities and local economies in the 12th and 13th centuries, monasteries chaired developments in all areas of life and human culture. If after the 13th century, monasteries entered a general state of decline and atrophy in regards to the role they played in shaping the culture, that is because they’d already played their part in the almost one thousand preceding years.

The general view of monasteries in the West is that they filled the vacuum left by the crumbling Roman structures. But that is a passive role to play, like molten iron seeping into the crevices of a mould. Monasteries were as revolutionary in the West as they were innovating, spearheading multiple cultural shifts leading to new societies and new cultures. Their position was privileged. They held the quasi-monopoly of writing and literate culture. The single most important contribution that ancient Rome had made to subsequent centuries in the West was a culture based on language, and not any language. Monasteries were the direct beneficiaries of this endowment. Running parallel to or as a result of it, the economics of the cenobitic model (monks living together in a community as opposed to socially-isolated hermits, hence hermitic) was such that monasteries concentrated the resources of the community and maximised their use. Monasteries became the most rationalised economic structures in the West. In terms of leadership and governance, Benedictine monasteries innovated in ways which set the tone for the rest of European culture. Most importantly, in the area of election. The Rule of St Benedict provided for the election of an abbott by “the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God […] even if he is the last in community rank” (Chapter 64). As Alicia Keys sang in the Underdog, “You’ll find that someday soon enough, You will rise up, rise up, yeah”. Today we fail to appreciate the significance of this innovation against a backdrop of medieval hereditary succession and the rule of violence.

As incubators of knowledge, science, management and politics, not to mention spiritual powerhouses and networks of collaboration, the medieval monasteries fashioned Europe and the modern world in ways which we are not very keen to acknowledge today. But even this reluctance is a product of a long process which began in the buzzing cloistered silence of the abbey.

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