Medieval Monasticism: Faith Propagation and the Paradox of Poverty

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7 min readNov 20, 2023

Many orders established during the medieval period still exist today. These institutions were a response to the needs of the theocentric times and served not only religious functions but also social ones. How did monastic orders come about in the Middle Ages? How was monastic life conducted? We’ll delve into these and other questions below.

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In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was one of the most influential institutions, perhaps even the most influential. Clergy held exclusive control over religious practices in the theocentric society, granting them virtually unlimited power. Over time, the lives of priests began to resemble secular life. Medieval orders stood in opposition to this trend, although it’s important to note that even monks were not immune to temptations and often succumbed to the desire for wealth themselves.

History of Monastic Orders in the Middle Ages

The history of medieval orders begins in the early 6th century when Benedict of Nursia announced a new rule. This led to the founding of the first monastery on Monte Cassino, where the Benedictine order gathered. Soon, monks set out to various countries in the Old Continent, establishing their residences in almost every country.

The essence of Saint Benedict’s rule lay in the words “ora et labora,” meaning “pray and work.” The lives of monks were centered around prayer and mainly physical labor, but also intellectual pursuits. They had limited contact with the outside world and, upon taking vows, spent their days within the monastery walls until their deaths.

Saint Benedict’s idea gained recognition. Laypeople financially supported the order. Consequently, monasteries became powerful landholders, and the daily lives of senior monks began to deviate from the accepted rule. This was met with general criticism, leading to the emergence of the Cistercians in the early 12th century.

Founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order adopted a rule similar to the Benedictines but more rigorous. They aimed to revive the ideals of rigor and evangelical poverty. For a while, the monks managed to uphold these principles, but by the end of the 12th century, the rigor of the Cistercians began…