Monastic school

Last updated

Monastic schools (Latin : Scholae monasticae) were, along with cathedral schools, the most important institutions of higher learning in the Latin West from the early Middle Ages until the 12th century. [1] Since Cassiodorus's educational program, the standard curriculum incorporated religious studies, the Trivium, and the Quadrivium. In some places monastic schools evolved into medieval universities which eventually largely superseded both institutions as centers of higher learning. [2]



Since the cenobitic rule of Pachomius (d. 348 AD) and the sixth-century Rule of the Master and the Rule of St. Benedict, monks and nuns were required to actively engage in reading. [1] This reading took on the characteristics of a school that dealt with both religious and secular subjects. [3] Beginning in the 5th century a variety of abbots took upon themselves the responsibility of educating those who entered the monastery at a young age. The earliest of these monastic schools had more of a spiritual and ascetic focus than a scriptural or theological one, but it has been suggested that these were the qualities that led many monks trained at the monastic school at Lerins to be selected as bishops. [4]

Boys going to school. Bolognese manuscript of the Decretum Gratiani, 14th century Schueler+.JPG
Boys going to school. Bolognese manuscript of the Decretum Gratiani, 14th century

The Roman statesman Cassiodorus had abandoned politics in 537 and later in the century established a monastery on his own lands at Vivarium in southern Italy. Cassiodorus stipulated that his monastery would be a place of study, providing a guide for that study in his Introduction to the Divine and Human Readings (Institutiones), which encompassed both religious texts and works on the liberal arts. Cassidorus set out this program of study as a substitute for the Christian school he and Pope Agapetus had hoped to establish in Rome. [5] In any event, the curriculum that Cassiodorus set out involved the literary study of well-established texts that he had listed in his Institutiones, following the rules that he laid out in his De orthographia. [6]

Centers of learning were also found in seventh-century Spain, both at major monasteries and at episcopal centers. Students at the monastery of Saints Cosmas and Damian, at Agali near Toledo, learned such scientific subjects as medicine and the rudiments of astronomy. [7]

In the heyday of the monastic schools in the 9th and 10th centuries, the teachings of important scholars such as Alcuin, Hrabanus Maurus, Heiric of Auxerre and Notker Balbulus raised the prestige of their abbeys and attracted pupils from afar to attend their courses. [1]

Although some monastic schools contributed to the emerging medieval universities, the rise of the universities did not go unchallenged. Some monastic figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux considered the search for knowledge using the techniques of scholasticism to be a challenge to the monastic ideal of simplicity. [8] The rise of medieval universities and scholasticism in the Renaissance of the 12th century offered alternative venues and new learning opportunities to the students and thus led to a gradual decline of the monastic schools. [1]

Contributions to Science in the Middle Ages

The monastery played a large role in the preservation and continuation of science throughout the Middle Ages. The largest part of their contribution was keeping the textual traditions of philosophers the likes of Aristotle and Plato alive in the transition from the height of Classical learning into the Middle Ages. In between prayer, meals, and sleeping, monks engaged in various labor activities in accordance to the Benedictine Rule. These activities ranged from gardening to copying texts. Through the latter, monks became learned in the Classical Greek texts and later began to contribute their own knowledge to more practical and daily texts. Much of the great libraries and scriptoria that grew in monasteries were due to obligation of the monks to teach the young boys who came them having been committed to the monastic life by their parents. [9]

Cassiodorus (ca.480-ca.575) wrote a handbook for his monastery in which he recommends numerous pagan authors for studying by the monks. Although it is understood that Cassiodorus recommended those studies that enhanced spiritual learning or served some kind of sacred purpose, [10] it is vital to remember that the study of classical and secular text did exist in monasteries. The idea that many great texts of the Classical period would have been lost without the dedication of the monks, is a very real one. It may even be said that they saved many of the Classical Greek texts from extinction. [11]

Medical practice was highly important in medieval monasteries. Caring for the sick was an important obligation. There is evidence of this from the monastery Vivarium, the monastery of Cassiodorus, whose monks were instructed to read the medical works of Greek writers such as Hippocrates, Galen, and Dioscorides. There is also evidence for the use of secular texts on medicine. It is likely that most monasteries had large amounts of expertise in medical practice. [12] Despite the monastery school’s obvious focus on theological instruction, they did hold a place for Classical and secular medical texts. It is through medical instruction in monasteries that the Classical medical texts survived through the early part of the Middle Ages. [13]

Herbals are one of the largest and most well-known contributions of monastic schools to science, offering some of the most comprehensive amounts of historical evidence. Monasteries were, and are still today, isolated centers. This meant that they had to be able to provide treatment for themselves, including treating the monks who would become ill. Since maintaining a hospital wing was a necessity, it is no surprise that monks invested a lot of time on medical treatment. At the time, this was almost exclusively through herbal medicine. Much of the evidence for their contributions to this field can be found as notes in the margins of herbal texts of the Medieval time period. Some of the contributions that they made were to the general agriculture of growing herbs such as which plants can be or should be grown in the same vicinity, and what is the best location in the garden for the optimum amount of sunlight to reach any given plant. Much of the knowledge of exotic plants that can be found in herbals are due to trading of the plants themselves and knowledge between monasteries. [14] While not a monk, Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who lived an equally cloistered life to the monks, is well known for her contributions to the medical tradition in the Middle Ages. [15]

Although Medieval monasteries are most known for their contributions to medical tradition, they also had a hand in other sciences. One of these sciences that would have been important to life in the monastery is Astronomy. While they did not put forth new information or advancements in the field, they did continue its use. If they were not going to add to astronomy, then why was it important? As previously stated, monasteries had to be self-sufficient. That meant that in order to comply to their religious obligations they had to be able to tell the time. This ranged from a day to day timekeeping for prayer to yearly observations. Astronomy was particularly important to the yearly religious calendar and the observation of such feasts as Christmas and Easter.

In the grand scheme of intellectual advancement, monasteries and monastery schools make up a small portion of the larger whole. They were, however, important in their own right in their contribution to the preservation of textual philosophical and scientific tradition. Monasteries provided a stable environment for learning in Medieval Europe. While much of the learning was contained to the confines of the monastery walls, knowledge did extend beyond the relatively isolated centers through travelers and pilgrims who would stay at the monasteries.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Kottje 1999
  2. Riché 1976 , pp. 126-7, 282-98
  3. Riché 1976 , pp. 112-20
  4. Riché 1976 , pp. 100-5
  5. Riché 1976 , pp. 132-4
  6. Riché 1976 , pp. 158-69
  7. Riché 1976 , pp. 296-7
  8. Leclercq, Jean (1982) [1961], The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (Third ed.), New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 198–207, ISBN   0-8232-0407-3
  9. Lindberg 2007 , pp. 154
  10. Lindberg 2007 , pp. 155
  11. Haskins 1955
  12. Lindberg 2007 , pp. 322-323
  13. Lindberg 2007 , pp. 327
  14. Voigt 1979
  15. Sweet 1979

Related Research Articles

Scholasticism Predominant method of critical thought in academic pedagogy of medieval European universities, circa 1100–1700

Scholasticism was a medieval school of philosophy that employed a critical method of philosophical analysis predicated upon a Latin Catholic theistic curriculum which dominated teaching in the medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. It originated within the Christian monastic schools that were the basis of the earliest European universities. The rise of scholasticism was closely associated with these schools that flourished in Italy, France, Spain and England.

Cassiodorus Roman senator and scholar

Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman, renowned scholar of antiquity, and writer serving in the administration of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Senator was part of his surname; not his rank. He also founded a monastery, Vivarium, where he spent the last years of his life.

Scriptorium Room in medieval European monasteries for writing

Scriptorium, literally "a place for writing", is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes. However, lay scribes and illuminators from outside the monastery also assisted the clerical scribes.

Medieval medicine of Western Europe

Medieval medicine in Western Europe was composed of a mixture of pseudoscientific ideas from antiquity. In the Early Middle Ages, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, standard medical knowledge was based chiefly upon surviving Greek and Roman texts, preserved in monasteries and elsewhere. Medieval medicine is widely misunderstood, thought of as a uniform attitude composed of placing hopes in the church and God to heal all sicknesses, while sickness itself exists as a product of destiny, sin, and astral influences as physical causes. On the other hand, medieval medicine, especially in the second half of the medieval period, became a formal body of theoretical knowledge and was institutionalized in the universities. Medieval medicine attributed illnesses and disease, not to sinful behaviour, but to natural causes, and sin was only connected to illness in a more general sense of the view that disease manifested in humanity as a result of its fallen state from God. Medieval medicine also recognized that illnesses spread from person to person, that certain lifestyles may cause ill health, and some people have a greater predisposition towards bad health than others.

Religion in Medieval England

Medieval Religion: Unlike religion in the modern world, medieval religion had deep significance and central importance in the lives of most individuals and nations. There was hardly any concept of a secular nation where religion did not play any role in the affairs of the states.

The history of education extends at least as far back as the first written records recovered from ancient civilizations. Studies of modern peoples remote from western or other civilizations and with little history of a written culture, nevertheless all demonstrate often complex ways of educating both children and adults and imparting an oral tradition of history and their culture. It is therefore likely that the true history of education extends as far back as the first hominids.

<i>Matha</i> Hindu monastery

A matha, also written as math, mutt, or mut, is a Sanskrit word that means 'institute or college', and it also refers to a monastery in Hinduism. An alternative term for such a monastery is adheenam.

Buddhism in Laos

Theravada Buddhism is the largest religion in Laos, which is practiced by 66% of the population. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada Buddhism and is at the basis of ethnic Lao culture. Buddhism in Laos is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas.

Æthelwold of Winchester 10th-century Bishop of Winchester

Æthelwold of Winchester was Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984 and one of the leaders of the tenth-century monastic reform movement in Anglo-Saxon England.

Cathedral school

Cathedral schools began in the Early Middle Ages as centers of advanced education, some of them ultimately evolving into medieval universities. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, they were complemented by the monastic schools. Some of these early cathedral schools, and more recent foundations, continued into modern times.

Academy of Gondishapur Sasanian center of education in Iran

The Academy of Gondishapur, also known as the Gondishapur University, was one of the three Sasanian centers of education and academy of learning in the city of Gundeshapur, Iran during late antiquity, the intellectual center of the Sasanian Empire. It offered education and training in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty were versed in Persian traditions. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world during the 6th and 7th centuries.

A monastic garden was used by many people and for multiple purposes. Gardening was the chief source of food for households, but also encompassed orchards, cemeteries and pleasure gardens, as well as providing plants for medicinal and cultural uses. Gardening is the deliberate cultivation of plants herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables.

Manuscript culture uses manuscripts to store and disseminate information; in the West, it generally preceded the age of printing. In early manuscript culture, monks copied manuscripts by hand. They copied not just religious works, but a variety of texts including some on astronomy, herbals, and bestiaries. Medieval manuscript culture deals with the transition of the manuscript from the monasteries to the market in the cities, and the rise of universities. Manuscript culture in the cities created jobs built around the making and trade of manuscripts, and typically was regulated by universities. Late manuscript culture was characterized by a desire for uniformity, well-ordered and convenient access to the text contained in the manuscript, and ease of reading aloud. This culture grew out of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the rise of the Devotio Moderna. It included a change in materials, and was subject to remediation by the printed book, while also influencing it.

Byzantine science

Byzantine science played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world and to Renaissance Italy, and also in the transmission of Islamic science to Renaissance Italy. Its rich historiographical tradition preserved ancient knowledge upon which splendid art, architecture, literature and technological achievements were built.

Transmission of the Greek Classics

The transmission of the Greek Classics to Latin Western Europe during the Middle Ages was a key factor in the development of intellectual life in Western Europe. Interest in Greek texts and their availability was scarce in the Latin West during the earlier Middle Ages, but as traffic to the East increased, so did Western scholarship.

Ancient higher-learning institutions

A variety of ancient higher-learning institutions were developed in many cultures to provide institutional frameworks for scholarly activities. These ancient centres were sponsored and overseen by courts; by religious institutions, which sponsored cathedral schools, monastic schools, and madrasas; by scientific institutions, such as museums, hospitals, and observatories; and by respective scholars. They are to be distinguished from the Western-style university, an autonomous organization of scholars that originated in medieval Europe and has been adopted in other regions in modern times.

European science in the Middle Ages

European science in the Middle Ages comprised the study of nature, mathematics and natural philosophy in medieval Europe. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the decline in knowledge of Greek, Christian Western Europe was cut off from an important source of ancient learning. Although a range of Christian clerics and scholars from Isidore and Bede to Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme maintained the spirit of rational inquiry, Western Europe would see a period of scientific decline during the Early Middle Ages. However, by the time of the High Middle Ages, the region had rallied and was on its way to once more taking the lead in scientific discovery. Scholarship and scientific discoveries of the Late Middle Ages laid the groundwork for the Scientific Revolution of the Early Modern Period.

The history of herbalism is closely tied with the history of medicine from prehistoric times up until the development of the germ theory of disease in the 19th century. Modern medicine from the 19th century to today has been based on evidence gathered using the scientific method. Evidence-based use of pharmaceutical drugs, often derived from medicinal plants, has largely replaced herbal treatments in modern health care. However, many people continue to employ various forms of traditional or alternative medicine. These systems often have a significant herbal component. The history of herbalism also overlaps with food history, as many of the herbs and spices historically used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds, and use of spices with antimicrobial activity in cooking is part of an ancient response to the threat of food-borne pathogens.

Christianity and science

Most sources of knowledge available to early Christians were connected to pagan world-views. There were various opinions on how Christianity should regard pagan learning, which included its ideas about nature. For instance, among early Christian teachers, Tertullian held a generally negative opinion of Greek philosophy, while Origen regarded it much more favorably and required his students to read nearly every work available to them.


Further reading