Preserving Middle Age Information

On "The Keepers of Knowledge"

St. Anthony, the Father of Monasticism, reads on a hill in a drawing from 1519
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They began as "men alone," solitary ascetics in wattle huts in the desert who lived off berries and nuts, contemplating the nature of God and praying for salvation. Before long, others joined them, living nearby for comfort and safety rather than friendship or festivity. Individuals of wisdom and experience like Saint Anthony taught the ways of spiritual harmony to monks who sat at their feet. Rules were established by holy men like Saint Pachomius and Saint Benedict to govern what had become a community despite their intentions.

Holy Learning

Monasteries, abbeys, and priories were built to house men or women (or both, in the case of double monasteries) who sought spiritual peace. For the sake of their souls, people came to live lives of work, self-sacrifice, and strict religious observance to help fellow humans. Towns and sometimes cities grew around them, and the brothers or sisters served the secular community in many ways—by growing grain, making wine, raising sheep, and so on—while usually keeping separate. Monks and nuns filled many roles, perhaps the most significant and far-reaching being keepers of knowledge.

Books and Manuscripts

Very early in their collective history, the monasteries of Western Europe became repositories for manuscripts. Part of the Rule of Saint Benedict charged followers with reading holy writings every day. While knights underwent special education that prepared them for the battlefield and the court and artisans learned their craft from their masters, the contemplative life of a monk provided the perfect setting for learning to read and write, as well as acquiring and copying manuscripts whenever the opportunity arose. Reverence for books and their knowledge was not surprising among monastics, who turned creative energy toward writing their own books and turning manuscripts into beautiful works of art.

Books were acquired, but not necessarily hoarded. Monasteries made money selling copied manuscripts by the page. A book of hours would be made expressly for the layman; one penny per page would be considered a fair price. It was not unknown for a monastery to sell part of its library for operating funds. Still, they prized books among their most precious treasures. Whenever they had time or a warning, if a monastic community came under attack—usually from raiders like the Danes or Magyars, but sometimes from their secular rulers—monks would take whatever treasures they could into hiding in the forest or another remote area until danger passed. Manuscripts were always among such valuables.

Secular Concerns

Though theology and spirituality dominated a monastic life, not all books collected in the library were religious. Histories, biographies, epic poetry, science, and mathematics were all collected and studied in the monastery. One might be more likely to find bibles, hymnals, graduals, lectionaries, or missals, but secular pursuits were also important to a seeker of knowledge. Thus was the monastery both a repository and distributor of wisdom and learning.

Almost all scholarship took place inside the monastery until the 12th century, when Viking raids ceased as an expected part of everyday life. Occasionally a high-born lord would learn letters from his mother, but mostly it was the monks who taught the oblates⁠—monks-to-be⁠—in the classical tradition. Using first a stylus on wax, then later a quill and ink on parchment once command of their letters improved, young boys learned grammar, rhetoric, and logic. When they mastered these subjects, they moved on to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Latin was the only language used during instruction. Discipline was strict, but not necessarily severe.

Outgrowing Monastery Traditions

Teachers did not always limit themselves to knowledge taught and retaught for centuries. There were advances in mathematics and astronomy from several sources, including Muslim influences. Teaching methods were not as dry as one might expect; in the 10th century, Gerbert, a renowned monastic, used practical demonstrations whenever possible. He created a prototypical telescope to observe heavenly bodies and used organistrum (a kind of hurdy-gurdy) to teach and practice music.

Not all young men were suited to monastic life, though most were at first forced into it. Eventually, some monasteries began maintaining schools outside of their cloisters for men not destined for the cloth. In time, these secular schools grew, became more common, and evolved into universities. Still supported by the Church, they were no longer part of the monastic world. With the advent of the printing press, monks were no longer needed to transcribe manuscripts.

Slowly, monastics relinquished those responsibilities to return to the purpose for which they originally gathered: the quest for spiritual peace. Their role as keepers of knowledge lasted a thousand years, making Renaissance movements and the birth of the modern age possible. Scholars will forever be in their debt.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision. Collins, 2009.
  • Rowling, Marjorie. Life in Medieval Times. Berkley Publishing Group, 1979.