ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 6: A Framework of Monasteries

Steven Muhlberger

The decline of the Mediterranean city and the near-disappearance of its traditional pre-Christian culture served to give a renewed importance to a Christian institution which was equally capable of thriving in city or countryside, and which had in the course of a century or more become the school of Christianity: the monastery.

Monasteries had originated in an urge to foresake the evils of the world, a world that was symbolized for the early monks by the city, in which a still-living paganism coexisted with all the evils of worldly sophistication. The first monks had been individual ascetic heroes, but their example proved so popular that communities of monks soon arose. Before the fourth century was over, propagandists were praising the "cities of the desert" that provided an alternative to the ordinary world of sin, compromise and normal family life. By the end of the sixth century, such monastic settlements had become not so much refuges from the old world, but the linchpins of a new one.

Monasteries owed their success to three factors. First, they were clearly defined communities with a clearly defined purpose. Although the average monk did not, like Anthony, live in the desert in face-to-face confrontation with God, he was a man apart. When a monk was tonsured (had his hair shaved in a distinctive pattern) and promised himself to God's service in a monastery, he cut all his ties to the outside world. At least in theory, he had abandoned his family and the social position that he had been born to, and taken up a new life in a Christian society of charity and communism, a life available only to those who had renounced the comforts and trials facing the ordinary person, who was entangled in the obligations and temptations of the workaday world.

A second factor in monastic success was the recognition that other Christians increasingly gave to this monastic way of life. They largely accepted that the monastic life was the most perfect one, and that society was rightfully divided between those who had renounced the world and those who were still mired in it. Ideological and religious recognition led to endowment. During the sixth century, monasteries became favored recipients of largess from the rich and powerful. The monastic community shared the privileged status of the individual monk. As he was not part of the ordinary world, neither was his house. The property of a monastery belonged not to a taxpayer or a subject, but to God and the saints (especially the founder, alive or dead). Rather than being burdened by obligations to rulers, the monastic house benefited from gifts from them. What the monastery gave in return was, chiefly, its spiritual friendship.

Third, the monastery was adaptable to many economic and cultural environments. Constantinople, Alexandria and other large cities had many monasteries; but monasteries could equally well survive in the Juran Alps of present-day Switzerland or the islands of the Irish Sea. As cities were losing their power to extract resources from the surrounding countryside, and even bishoprics (like other urban institutions) were sometimes swept away by economic or demographic catastrophe, monasteries could, like other rural lords, extract the surplus production of the countryside directly.

During the sixth century, the monastery was becoming what the classical polis or civitas had once been: a community that stood apart from its environment thanks to economic and legal privileges. And like the towns of old, the monasteries had phenomenal powers of growth. To appreciate how great the advantages of monastic status were in promoting the spread of that way of life, it is useful to look at some specific examples.

Radegund, the most famous nun of the sixth century, is an appropriate person to begin with. Radegund was born in Thuringia, the daughter of a pagan king of central Germany. Around 530, her father's people were defeated by the Franks, and among the booty taken was Radegund, then about eight years old. Even at this age, she was considered, politically and personally, a valuable prize: the three Frankish kings fought over her, and the winner, Chlotar, sent her to a royal estate to be raised as a future queen. While there, Radegund learned Latin and read deeply in the lives of the saints. When Chlotar reclaimed and married Radegund about 540, he found that his barbarian wife had become a dedicated Christian and was determined to live an ascetic life of prayer.

Chlotar was not pleased, but like other royal Franks of this period he had other wives, and he tolerated Radegund's piety. Radegund, however, eventually ran away from her unwanted marriage and forced a terrified bishop to consecrate her as a nun. Chlotar and Radegund struggled for years more over her desire for a religious life, until Radegund finally won her point. Chlotar endowed Radegund with property near Poitier where she set up a convent, which she ruled until she died in 587.

In Radegund's time her house became an important center of the Frankish kingdom. She surrounded herself with other high-ranking women who wished a life of godly independence. Radegund's friendship was sought by literary and religious men. Her austerities gained her a reputation for personal holiness, too. Her standing as Christian leader allowed her to talk the Emperor Maurice into sending her a piece of the True Cross.

Radegund used the monastic vocation as a way out of the unpleasant obligations that her family history and her femaleness had saddled her with. Her position as an abbess allowed her far more autonomy, as the head of a wealthy aristocratic household, than would have been available to her in any other way. In a contemporary phrase she "changed her garments" (to modest clothing appropriate for a renunciate), and thus gained access to another world, where the usual gender-based restrictions were not so great. At the same time, however, her position in the world of the religiously dedicated reflected her pre-monastic status. Not every nun received gifts from an emperor, or could defy her bishop in the way Radegund sometimes did, trading on her queenly rank. Also, Radegund's biographer, the nun Baudonivia, makes it clear that Radegund continued to regard herself as a member of her husband's family, and acted as something of a godmother for the Frankish kings:

Because she loved all the kings, she prayed for the life of each and instructed us to pray without interruption for the stability [of the kingdoms]. Whenever she heard that they had turned against each other with hatred, she was greatly shaken and sent letters to the one and the other [imploring them] not to wage war and take up arms against each other...In the same way, she sent great men to give salutary advice to the illustrious kings so that the country should be made more salubrious both for the king and the people.

Baudonivia also reports that Radegund's regarded her relic of the true cross "as an instrument whereby the salvation of the kingdom would be secured and the welfare of the country assured." For all the talk of withdrawing from the world, Radegund like other monastic leaders had merely withdrawn to a different position in the world, from which she could exercise special functions: intercession with God for her kin and neighbors, and mediation among quarrelling Christians. In this way she paid for her privileges and acquired further respect.

More on Radegund.

Radegund, though a barbarian herself, acquired her religion and exercised her monastic vocation in what was still a Romanized society. The career of her contemporary, Columba, shows a similar figure at work in an area that had never been under Roman rule, Ireland and Northern Britain (today's Scotland). In both countries there were neither villages nor towns, merely dispersed farms ruled by a large number of kings based in forts hardly bigger than other homesteads. In such an environment, a new aristocratic household with supernatural and moral advantages over the others might flourish. Such was the monastery that Columba (a member of an important royal clan of Ulster, the Ui Neill) founded on Iona, an island off the shore of western Scotland, about 563.

Columba's reputation for prophecy, miracle-working, and heavenly visions, made his monastery a living example of Christian virtue in the northern seas, and gained for him a retinue of loyal followers, the essential element of power in a decentralized milieu. Iona grew to be a large settlement by local standards, no doubt rivalling the capitals of the local warlords. And Iona was just the beginning: it soon was the "mother-house" of a confederation of Columban monasteries, which made the founder and his successors at Iona (mostly members of his own family) a clerical overlord, as strong in his way as any Irish high king.

Columba's family of monasteries was an early example of a type of organization that came to dominate the Irish church and was important all over Western Europe in later centuries: a federation of houses under the protection of a famous saint and enjoying royal and aristocratic patronage. Indeed, between 590 and 610, another Irish monk, Columban, began a continental family by establishing houses in Frankish Burgundy, the country of the Alemans (Switzerland), and Lombard-ruled north Italy. Columban's ability to set up shop in these old Roman provinces, despite setbacks and opposition from established ecclesiastical authorities, shows how the role of the professed renunciate was becoming an international phenomenon; conventional boundaries between "civilization" and "barbarism" were becoming less relevant to Christians.

Perhaps the best example of an ambitious monastic leader is Bishop Gregory I of Rome (Pope Gregory the Great), a contemporary of Columban. Gregory was born in Rome in 540, when the Gothic war seemed won and the plague was yet unknown, but growing up in a time of unending crisis. Gregory's family was distinguished, and in the 570s he held the office of prefect of the city, once among the most prestigious in the entire empire. Soon afterwards, however, he turned to the monastic life. He became a monk himself and used his personal fortune to set up monasteries in Rome and on his rural estates. This decision may have resulted from a personal spiritual crisis, from Gregory's conviction that a tormented world was nearing its end. Like many other monks, Gregory was quickly called out of spiritual retirement, in his case to help with the many practical tasks that the Roman church had assumed in the city. For a while he was a deacon in charge of distributing charity to the poor (many of them refugees); he later became a papal diplomat, and was sent to Constantinople to argue for more imperial resources for the defense of Rome against the the still- expanding Lombards.

In 590, plague killed Bishop Pelagius, and Gregory was elected his successor. For the next fourteen years he wrestled with heavy responsibilities. Even before Justinian's death, the old capital been subordinated to Ravenna, the seat of the exarch or military governor. The defense of Italy was directed from there, and Rome was left, by default, to its bishop. The city was fed largely from papal estates in Sicily and other areas far from the battle lines; its garrison was usually paid out of church funds. Gregory found himself running an independent foreign policy, paying off Lombard raiders when he lacked the resources to fight them, despite the disapproval of the authorities in Ravenna.

On top of such local duties, Gregory did his best to maintain the Roman bishop's position as the chief priest of Christendom. He was in constant communication with the imperial court, defending papal jurisdiction and Rome's version of orthodoxy. He accepted appeals from other bishops and advised authorities in Sardinia, the Frankish kingdoms and elsewhere on what Christian teaching and ecclesiastical law required them to do.

All this activity was traditionally part of a Roman bishop's mandate, but Gregory approached them with a remarkable energy and determination, which derived, in great part, from his monastic commitment. As a monk, he knew that the present life was as nothing in the face of eternity, and preparation for eternity must take priority. This conviction led him to take extraordinary initiatives, most famously the mission he sent to Kent to convert the pagan English. The missionaries were monks, of course. It should be noted that they crossed the sea to the British Isles at about the same time Columbanus and his monastic followers were crossing in the other direction.

Gregory's utter seriousness about salvation led him to reject much of the past as irrelevant. He rebuked Bishop Desiderius of Vienne for teaching the classics: for the present age, other books were needed. Gregory provided some of them himself. One example is his Dialogues, a series of conversations in which he instructed his monks in the vital facts of recent history. The Dialogues begin with the busy Bishop Gregory telling Peter, one of his deacons, of his longing for the pure monastic life:

Gregory: At times I find myself reflecting with even greater regret on the life that others lead who have totally abandoned the present world... It was by spending their days in seclusion that most of them pleased their Creator.

Peter: I do not know of any persons in Italy whose lives give evidence of extraordinary spiritual powers, and therefore I cannot imagine with whom you are comparing yourself so regretfully. This land of ours has undoubtedly produced its virtuous men, but to my knowledge no signs or miracles have been performed by any of them; or if they have been, they were till now kept in such secrecy that we cannot even tell if they occurred.

Gregory: On the contrary, Peter, the day would not be long enough for me to tell you about those saints whose holiness has been well established and whose lives are known to me either from my own observations or from the reports of good, reliable witnesses.

From here the Dialogues proceeds to sketch the lives and miracles of Italy's holy men, the prize exhibit being Benedict of Nursia, author of the Rule of St. Benedict, soon to be the most popular Latin rule for monks. From such stories Gregory's audience was meant to learn the nearness of God and devil, even in their own country and their own time.

Gregory's zealousness for a tightly focussed Christian education was not unique, or even new; but it had a new significance at a time when, despite Desiderius, there was no organized alternative to a Biblically- oriented education. In fact, Gregory's works (which included Biblical commentaries and a guide for bishops) would serve as new classics for a Latin culture he was helping to create -- one Christian at the roots, including only what bits of the older classical curriculum were deemed essential to its Christian purpose.

In the sixth century, when so much that was traditional had ceased to be practical, monasticism worked. Gregory, Radegund, and Columba well represent an influential minority which knew exactly what it wanted, and was able to mobilize people and resources to accomplish its chosen ends.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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