Origin of Monasteries


Long before monasteries existed individuals chose a life of solitude where God could be worshipped in a place of quietness far away from a world full of cruelty, anarchy and selfishness. These people were known as hermits and they lived far away from society in caves with no comforts at all. Hermits have existed in all faiths of religion including Pagan, Jew, Buddhist, Moslem and Christianity. Some hermits were joined by small groups of followers who listened to their preaching. It could have been these bands of people who first developed the idea of a monastery. Little is known of these groups of people in the centuries before and during the Dark Ages but they did produce from their numbers many people who were to become saints. St. Colomba, St. Chad, St. Patrick and St. Cuthbert are to name a few. St. Columba arrived in Scotland from Ireland and brought Christianity with him. He founded a monastery at Iona. The monasteries of this time consisting of just simple huts.

British monasteries were famous across Europe especially the monastery at Whitby which was run by a woman called St. Hilda. She died in the year 680.

Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict founded several monasteries in Italy in the early sixth century (A.D. 500 to A.D. 550) including the monastery at Monte Cassino near Naples. Benedict devised a series of rules which had to be followed by his monks and his followers became known as the Benedictine Order. The rules were easy to follow and were adopted in many other countries as well. The monks had to obey three vows; poverty, chastity and obedience. This protected them from the deceits of the World, the lust of the flesh and the snares of the devil. Their day was divided into three parts. The first was devoted to services in the church; the second was devoted to work in the cloisters, reading, writing and meditation; and the third was devoted to manual labour, to help in the gardens or the infirmary.

Several sub-orders of St. Benedictine's rule emerged over time, including the Cluniacs, the Cistercians and the Carthusians. Details of these orders can be found on the following pages.

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine introduced Christianity into southern England in 597. He brought with him the Benedictine Order. Augustine converted the Pagan king Ethelbert to Christianity. Ethelbert gave Augustine an ancient building in Canterbury which had been a church belonging to earlier British Christians built by King Lucius. Augustine restored and rebuilt sections of the church and it became the centre of Christianity in Britain. The Augustinian Order was based on the rule of St. Augustine.