History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

The Barbarians and Monasticism

I. The Teutonic Invaders

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The great Teutonic, Gothic, or Germanic branch of the human race which, during the fifth and sixth centuries, overran Europe was made up of several distinct peoples. Little by little they divided among them the broad Roman Empire, but not by any friendly arrangement; each tribe seized what it could, and kept possession by force of arms, unless driven off by some more powerful new-comers. As time went on, the different European nations began to be formed, and it is possible to say to which of the tribes each owes its origin, though it must not be thought that the countries had the same boundaries or the same names as they have now, or that the people of to-day are the direct descendants of these old Gothic tribes alone. Indeed, we have only to think of our own English history to learn how sometimes many races go to make up one people.

The principal tribes and the nations they founded are somewhat as follows:

  1. The Ostrogoths, or Eastern Goths, who first occupied the North of Italy, and who later on were driven back to Hungary and Turkey.
  2. The Visigoths, or Western Goths, who settled in Spain and in the South of France.
  3. The Franks, who occupied a tract of country comprising the North of France and Germany as far as the Rhine.
  4. The Burgundians, who conquered the South-East of France.
  5. The Vandals, who settled first in Spain and then in North Africa.
  6. The Angles  and Saxons, who spread over the South of Denmark, that part of North Germany to the east of the Rhine, and into Britain.
  7. The Scandinavians, or Danes, the conquerors of Norway, Sweden, and North Denmark; and
  8. The Lombards, the last comers, who occupied first Hungary and then advanced into the North of Italy, whence they drove out the former occupants, the Ostrogoths.

With the exception of the Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Scandinavians, who were heathens, all the Teutonic invaders were Arians. It had so happened that the earliest advancing Teutonic tribes settled for a time in the land north of the Danube. This was early in the fourth century, when Arianism was at its height. Ulfilas, Arian patriarch of Constantinople, undertook to convert these Gothic people. He invented the Gothic alphabet, and translated the Bible for their use. All these bold warriors were therefore converted, not to Catholic Christianity, but to Arian Christianity, and wherever they conquered and settled they took their belief with them.

Settlement of barbarians


The fate of the conquered peoples was not everywhere the same. Where the invaders were pagans, or where they met with a fierce resistance, they swept everything before them: the inhabitants were massacred, driven away, or reduced to slavery, churches and homesteads were destroyed, and whole tracts of land were laid desolate. This was notably the case in Britain and in the North of Europe. The Arian invaders generally settled down among the subjugated peoples, leaving them a portion of their goods, and in some cases their form of government also. The new-comers mingled their language with that of the former Roman possessors of the soil, and formed a new nation by the blending of the conquering and conquered races.

Though the Gothic invasions caused much suffering, they were far from being an unmixed evil. The Roman people had lost all their nobler qualities—their bravery, their simplicity of manners, and their devoted love of their country. They had become enslaved to luxury and fine living, and had sunk into a state of sensuality, from which the Church vainly endeavoured to rouse them, and in which virtue and learning alike were neglected. With a rough hand, the Gothic barbarians swept all this corruption from their path, and the way was prepared for a healthier civilization. The vigorous character of the Germanic invaders, especially where not spoiled by the influence of heresy, their fierce contempt for cowardice of any kind, their respect for law, and their reverence for women, produced the happiest results when brought under the influence of the Church. Hardly had the invaders settled down in the conquered land than we find apostles busily at work, living saintly lives among them, preaching to them and winning them to the fold of Christ, though in some cases the Arians succeeded by persecution in imposing for a time their belief on the conquered people. It is a most remarkable thing that these bold Teutons ever respected the courage of the missionaries; a persecution of the faith is hardly to be met with in their history, and the martyrs who suffered at their hands are very few indeed when compared with those put to death under the Roman Empire.

Side by side with the faith, civilization was planted, for the Church has ever acted thus. Her missionaries labour at softening the manners of the wild tribes among whom they settle, and at teaching them all the useful arts of a peaceful life. To turn hordes of savage barbarians into order-loving and civilized nations was, however, in some places, the work of centuries. The influence which wrought this happy change was, according to Sanderson, a Protestant, the monastic institutions and the power of the Popes. The revival of learning which marked the sixth and seventh centuries is attributed by him to the use of the Latin tongue in the liturgy of the Church. Thus, as Hallam says, "Religion made a bridge across the chaos, and linked the periods of ancient and modern culture."

II. The Apostles of the Teutons

The monastic institutes which, after the fall of the Roman Empire, arose in the West were numerous:

  1. The Monastery of Condat in the Jura Mountains, with its branch houses;
  2. that of Marmoutier, founded by St. Martin of Tours, whose traditions St. Patrick carried into Ireland;
  3. that great house of learning and sanctity, Bangor in Wales;
  4. the monasteries of St. Columba in Scotland and North England;
  5. the widespread though short-lived institute of the Irish St. Columban in Gaul and Germany; besides
  6. several others in Spain, all date from this time; but they yield in importance to
  7. the Order founded by St. Benedict, whose rule they all adopted as years went on.

The story of St. Benedict is beautifully told by St. Gregory the Great, himself a Benedictine monk. About the year A.D. 480, St. Benedict was born of illustrious parentage, the Anicii, at Nursia in Umbria. While very young he was taken to Rome to attend the public schools. It was not long before the boy saw that the lives of his masters and companions were such as would most likely lead him into evil, and he fled from the danger and hid himself in a desert place about thirty miles from Rome. On the rocky slopes overhanging the little town of Subiaco (Sublacum) was a small lake fed by mountain streams, and somewhat higher up, and almost inaccessible, there was a deep and narrow cavern. This was shown to Benedict by a monk from a neighbouring monastery, named Romanus, who, seeing the fervour of the boy, helped him in his desire of leading a holy and solitary life.

St. Benedict.


For three years the young Saint dwelt alone in this desolate spot, unknown to all but Romanus, spending his time in prayer and fasting and in resisting the attempts of the Evil One to make him give up his holy purpose. At length he was discovered. Numbers of persons of every rank and nation flocked to him for instruction and guidance, and gradually the fame of his sanctity spread to distant lands. After some years he was chosen Abbot by the monks of Vicovaro, a neighbouring monastery. St. Benedict consented with reluctance to undertake the charge; but before long, finding that the monks were not disposed to live according to his views of perfection and sanctity, and that they were even trying to poison him, he left them and returned to his solitude at Subiaco.

Here so many disciples gathered round him that he was obliged to build a monastery to receive them. As time went on, and still more came to follow his Rule, he founded one little monastery after another, till they were twelve in number, all scattered about the heights of Subiaco. The monks themselves laboured at the buildings, which were very poor and simple; they tilled the neighbouring lands and lived on the produce of their toil. Many persons of noble birth brought their sons to St. Benedict, begging him to educate them. This was the beginning of monastic schools for children.

But it was not till A.D. 529 that the most famous part of St. Benedict's career commenced. A cruel and wicked persecution against the holy solitaries of Subiaco by a priest named Florentius, caused St. Benedict to withdraw with all his monks from the first cradle of his Order, and to settle with them in the mountain region of Cassino. After destroying an idol of Apollo that was still venerated by the ignorant people around, St. Benedict built, on the summit of a precipitous hill, the celebrated monastery which, frequently ruined and as often rebuilt, exists to the present day. Already some of his monks had carried the faith afar, but it was only after the foundation of Monte Cassino that the actual spread of the Order commenced. Bands of fervent religious were sent out, who, settling among distant peoples, began the work of conversion and civilization which has rendered their name so famous.

It was here that St. Benedict drew up his Rule, the fruit of long years of sanctity and of experience. Before his death St. Benedict had a remarkable vision, in which the future glory of his Order was shown him, as well as the trials to which it would be exposed.

The last days of the Saint were so filled with Death of deeds of holiness and with miracles that it would St. Benedict be impossible even to name them here. Almost the last event that is told of the life of St. Benedict is his meeting with his sister, St. Scholastica, who, wishing to keep him a little longer with her to talk of holy things, obtained by prayer a miraculous storm of rain that obliged him to remain that night in the little house where they had met.

St. Scholastica died a few days later, and St. Benedict did not long survive his holy sister. Forewarned of his death, he caused all to be in readiness. When the day came, he bade his monks carry him to the church. At the foot of the altar he received the last Sacraments, and, supported by his sorrowing children, he stood praying, until his soul took its flight to heaven, A.D. 543.

The spread of the Benedictine Order was very rapid. Monasteries soon covered the land in Italy, Sicily, France, England, and Germany, especially in places where there were no monasteries founded by the Irish Saint Columban. Spain was rather later in receiving the Benedictines, but when once they were introduced they multiplied extensively. Wherever the monks settled, they drained the marshes, cut down woods, tilled the barren lands, and built a monastery with its church and schools.

The great Benedictine monasteries were all built on the same general plan, which was only that of an ancient Roman villa, much enlarged, and with a church added. Thus, the covered peristyle became the cloisters, round which the principal community rooms were grouped, and into which they all opened. Instead of the magnificent garden of Roman days, with its fountains and statuary, the abbey had its cemetery, with a great central crucifix. The monastic enclosure, like the Roman villa, contained work-shops, where was carried on every trade needed for the support and clothing of the inmates. Thus it was that in the monasteries every useful trade, every art known at the time, was practised, every science—Divine and human—was studied, and all were brought to high perfection.

Villages sprang up on and around the abbey lands, as in those troublous times the dwellers near a monastery enjoyed a peace not known on the estates of the great nobles, who were always at feud with one another. On the monastery lands were reared numerous flocks, whose wool the monks taught the people to weave into cloth, and whose skins furnished the monastery with parchment for books. These were written by hand, the margins of the pages being painted in colours and gold with marvellous skill. Great works, like the Holy Scriptures and the Divine Office, were often bound in covers rich with metal-work, inlaid with enamels and embossed with jewelry. All the monasteries had well-stocked libraries—for instance, that of Rheims alone possessed 6,000 volumes, all written by hand. The great library of York was especially famous.

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Other monks kept chronicles, or wrote learned books. Almost all we know of the history of these times is drawn from the writings of these busy monks of old. Much of this literary toil was carried on in a great hall called the scriptorium, where each monk had a little cell to himself to write and study in. The heavier work, such as carving, working in metals, bell-founding, sculpturing, making of glass, was done in the 'Opera,'  or workshop. Here, too, music was practised. Thus, the name used for one kind of musical composition recalls the old days when the monks practised their sacred songs in the great halls of their monastic dwellings.

But this was not all. Every monastery had its school, where the best learning the age could give was to be had by all, and for nothing. Some of the Universities still celebrated in our own days owe their beginning to these schools. It is said that Oxford, Paris, and Fulda, among others, can trace their origin to a Benedictine monastic school.

A guest-house was invariably attached, where travellers of every rank were entertained and lodged, and where the poor were fed. The building called the "Abbot's kitchen" was that where the food for the guests was prepared, apart from that for the community, which was of a more frugal quality.

Monasteries, too, had always their herb-garden, in which were grown the materials for the simple remedies in use in those days. These were freely distributed at the abbey gates, whither the poor flocked for help in every need of soul or body.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame

The power for good of such an Order as the Benedictine may be guessed when we remember that at the time of its greatest development it numbered 37,000 monasteries and colleges; that during the lapse of ages it has given birth to thousands of canonized Saints and martyrs; that innumerable Bishops have been trained in its cloisters; and that it has given about thirty Popes to the Christian world.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame