A Complete History of Western Monasticism | Church History

One of the hallmarks of the Middle Ages in Europe was the development of monastic orders. Fraternities of monks and sororities of nuns formed under common rules across the continent. Now, monasticism did not begin in the Middle Ages, nor did it begin in Europe. Christians who sought to develop holy lives apart from the business of the world had gone out into the deserts alone or formed communities together since the fourth century. When Athanasius wrote on the Life of St. Antony in Egypt in 365, describing Antony’s life as a monk, the idea of monasticism became more popular. When we refer to a monastic rule, we mean a written set of priorities, schedules, lifestyles, character traits, and theology of a group of monks and nuns. 

Perhaps the earliest rule was put into place by Basil the Great and his sister, Macrina, of Cappadocia, which is in eastern Turkey today. Basil and Macrina flourished in the mid-fourth century. The Rule of St. Basil, established in the years of 358-364, emphasizes prayer and work. The Rule exists in a question-and-answer format and stipulates that monasteries should be built near towns to work with local churches and serve people in need. Vows of poverty and chastity were the foundation of a moral code for monks and nuns in this order. Byzantine monasteries based their own rules on those of Basil, so the influence of Basil and Macrina on monasteries and convents in the Eastern Orthodox world is significant and extensive. 

Benedict of Nursia, who lived from about 480-550, was disappointed by the immorality he witnessed in Rome. In about the year 500, he left Rome and lived a humble and pious life in a cave in Subiaco, not far from Rome. Eventually, he would found twelve monasteries, each consisting of twelve monks. His Rule, which was developed by the year 540, was based on the Rule of Basil and was adopted by all western monasteries by the year 670. Benedict’s Rule is unique in that it requires the abbots to own everything in a monastery and prohibits monks from owning anything. The idea behind this was to fight against greed and what Benedict referred to as “the vice of private ownership.” The chief tasks of Benedictine monks are to pray, read, and work. For his legacy, Benedict of Nursia would be referred to as the “father of western monasticism.”

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430, and became one of the most influential theologians in church history. He himself was mentored by Monica; his friends Alypius Nebridius, and Evodius; and by Ambrose of Milan, Simplicianus, and Valerius. Augustine also became a mentor to many as the Bishop of Hippo in modern day Algeria. His urban church ministry included ministry training; however, it was not until the sixth century that a monastic Rule attributed to Augustine and his theological writings surfaced and began to be practiced. In the eleventh century, there was a revival of interest in an Augustinian form of monasticism. It emphasized the practices of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Augustinian monks were divided into the canons regular and mendicant friars. Mendicant means that monks begged for donations from townspeople to support themselves rather than draw a salary from church donations. Martin Luther would become an Augustinian monk prior to leading the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century.

Other mendicant orders of monks that developed in the thirteenth century included the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The Dominicans take their name from Dominic, a Spanish priest, who lived from 1170-1221. In 1199, Dominic joined a group of cathedral priests in the town of Osma in Castile. At that time, there was a theological controversy involving the Albigensians in southern France, so Dominic traveled to the region to attempt to convert the heretics to the Catholic faith. Part of this effort involved Dominic’s establishing an order dedicated to defending against heresy but also emphasized preaching, and teaching. Their work was academic in nature rather than physical like other orders. They became known as the “Friars Preachers” or “Black Friars” (because they wore black robes). They were instrumental in the defense of Catholic theology in the later Crusades, the Counter- (or Catholic-) Reformation, and the Inquisitions. Thomas Aquinas was their champion theologian in the thirteenth century.

The Franciscans take their name from Francis of Assisi in Italy. He lived from 1182-1226. While Dominic was known for his shedding light on heresy, Francis was known for his showing love toward everyone—especially those in need. He took a personal vow of poverty. His followers walked around in bare feet and wore gray clothes without any dye in an attempt to symbolize their poverty. They were given preliminary approval by Pope Innocent III in 1210 and then formally approved by Pope Honorius III, under the condition that Francis swear obedience to the pope. There were three editions of a Franciscan Rule in 1209, 1221, and 1223. The Franciscans were generally known for their preaching to the common people and helping the poor wherever they found themselves.

There are five things that distinguish these new mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans from previous monastic orders. First, The Dominicans and Franciscans were devoted to personal poverty, not to experiencing comforts some previous monks had enjoyed at the expense of the church. Second, they were very engaged in preaching and teaching. The Franciscans especially preached to anyone anywhere, but both orders placed influential teachers in important positions in European schools. Third, they developed sub-orders such as orders for nuns and orders for lay people who wanted to remain married and continue to work but also to belong to an order that shaped their worldview and religious life. Fourth, the Dominicans and Franciscans became supremely loyal to the papacy throughout their history. Both orders took it upon themselves to defeat heretics and defend the popes against the state, bishops, and the world. Both orders were directly subject to the authority of the papacy. Fifth, Dominicans and Franciscans were very mobile, which bode well for them as the shipping industry improved and missionary efforts increased around the world. The discovery of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, for example, created a whole new mission field for Dominican and Franciscan monks and nuns. There were many epic rivalries between the Dominican and Franciscan monks, but in the final view of history, both were like twin brothers of the papacy with mere sibling rivalries in their desire to serve their father, the pope. 

There was room for just one more monastic order during the height of the Protestant Reformation. The Jesuits, also known as the Society of Jesus, was founded by Ignatius of Loyola in Paris in 1534 and given formal approval by Pope Paul III in 1540. Ignatius himself was a soldier until he sustained a major leg injury. During his healing, he spent time reading about the life of Christ and biographies of the saints, which inspired him to hang up his sword, exchange clothes with a beggar, and devote himself to becoming a soldier of Christ. The Jesuits were especially known for their reform efforts within the church and their missionary work in the New World.

The monastic movement began in the fourth century when Athanasius’s book, Life of St. Antony, circulated widely around the Christian world. However, in the Middle Ages, several monastic orders formed as the result of individual Christians wishing to belong to fraternities and sororities of monks and nuns. These major monastic orders, organized according to a written Rule, made their impacts on all sectors of the Medieval church and continue to exert an influence on the Catholic and Orthodox Churches today. Although Protestants have their own heroes, denominations, and parachurch organizations; they never adopted the model of monasticism to the extent it existed in the Catholic and Orthodox parts of the church through Rules of Basil, Benedict, Augustine, Dominic, Francis, and Ignatius. 

  1.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Basil, Rule of St.,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  2.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Benedict, St.,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  3.  Ed Martin, “Benedict, Saint,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Church History (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 63-64.
  4.  Benedictine Rule, 55:16.
  5.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Benedict, Rule of St.,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  6.  Ed Smither, Augustine as Mentor (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 125-212.
  7.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augustine of Hippo, Rule of St.,” and “Augustinian Canons,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  8.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Five—The Middle Ages, A.D. 1049-1294 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 358.
  9.  Ed Hindson, “Dominicans” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Church History (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2013), 122.
  10.  Joseph Early, Jr., A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 173.
  11.  Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, second edition (Dallas: Word, 1995), 213.
  12.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 484.
  13.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Five—The Middle Ages, A.D. 1049-1294 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 379-388.
  14.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Ignatius Loyola, St.,” and “Jesuits,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).