A Short History of Monasticism

For centuries, monasteries have offered an alternative way of life.

Posted Apr 30, 2017

How did monasticism develop? What's the difference between a monk and a friar, or between a Dominican and a Jesuit? What are the arguments for and against monasticism? These are just some of the questions that this article seeks to answer.


Broadly speaking, monasticism is the religious renunciation of worldly pursuits to fully devote oneself to spiritual work. It is an important feature of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, and also, in substantially different forms, of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.


In Europe, monasticism had a number of pre-Christian incarnations. As a young man, Pythagoras of Samos took the advice of Thales of Miletus and travelled to Memphis to take instruction from Egyptian priests. At the age of 40, in around 530 BC, he established a philosophical and religious community in Croton, Southern Italy, which admitted both men and women. Those in the community’s inner circle adhered to a strict set of rules, forsaking personal belongings, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and observing long periods of silence. Music played an important part in their lives: they recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure diseases of body and soul. They believed that ‘All is number’, and, thus, that any number could be expressed as a ratio of integers. One day, or so it goes, the Pythagorean Hippasus of Metapontum discovered irrational numbers and was drowned for his efforts!


Some 150 years later, in 387 BC, Plato founded a school (technically a thiasos, or religious confraternity) of mathematics and philosophy in a sacred garden called ‘Academia’ after the legendary Attic hero Akademos. Those with the means took up residence in neighbouring houses, and those without resided with others. The school became known as the Academy, and Plato remained its head or scholarch until his death some forty years later. He admitted two women, Axiothea of Phlius and Lastheneia of Mantinea—although they did have to dress like men. Later Athenian schools inspired by Plato’s example include Aristotle’s Lyceum and Epicurus’ Garden. Aristotle taught at the Lyceum for some twelve years, collecting the first great library of the Ancient World. Plato’s Academy survived in one form or other for some 900 years before being closed down by the Christian emperor Justinian in 529, a date that is often cited for the end of classical antiquity.

Paul of Thebes and the early Christian hermits

St Paul of Thebes (c. 227-342) is commonly regarded as the first Christian hermit. He fled into the Egyptian desert in around 250 during the persecution of Decius and Valerianus, and lived for almost a century in a cave near a clear spring and palm tree. Early Christians moved into the wilderness either to escape persecution or draw closer to God. In this, they followed the example of Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and John the Baptist, and of Christ himself, who fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert while being tempted by Satan. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that ‘there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’ (Matt 19:12). He counsels: ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven…’ (Matt 19:22).


It is said that St Anthony the Great (c. 251-356) met with Paul in around 342, conversing with the 113-year-old hermit for one day and one night. As a young man, Anthony had spent 15 years in a tomb, resisting the temptations and torments of the devil—an episode that has often been depicted in art, including by modernists such as Cézanne and Dalí. He then spent 20 years in an abandoned fort in the desert before other hermits coaxed him out to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet, ‘Father of All Monks’ (‘monk’ and ‘monastery’ derive from the Greek monos, ‘alone’). Although the hermits still lived separately, they came together on Sundays to worship and break bread. The Life of Anthony by the near contemporary bishop St Athanasius of Alexandria inspired many to seek out the monastic life.

St Anthony abbot meets St Paul the hermit, by David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690)
Source: Wikicommons


In around 323, St Pachomius the Great (292-348) brought some hermits together at Tabennisi in Upper Egypt, thereby creating the first coenobitic (Greek, koinos bios, ‘common life’) monastery. The hermits, or monks, each had their own hut or room, but shared a common space for praying, working, and eating, under the authority of an abbot or abbess (Aramaic, abba, ‘father’). Pachomius established several such communities, including some for women, opening up the spiritual life to those lacking the physical and mental constitution to survive alone in the desert.

Basil and the Eastern tradition

Influenced by Pachomius, St Basil the Great (329-379) founded monasteries in Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey. The moderate Rule of St Basil, or Ascetica, set the model for Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Another important treatise in the Eastern tradition is the Ladder of Divine Ascent (Scala Paradisi), composed by St John Climacus in around 600. The Scala consists of thirty parts or ‘steps’, pointing to the highest religious perfection. John Climacus headed the monastery on Mount Sinai, built by Justinian to enclose the Chapel of the Burning Bush. The monastery, now St Catherine’s Monastery, contains the world’s oldest continuously operating library. In northeastern Greece, the monastic traditions of the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos) stretch back to the 8th century, in the Byzantine era. Mount Athos is home to twenty monasteries and over two thousand monks under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the 270th holder of the title. Although technically part of the European Union, the free movement of people and goods is prohibited, and only men can enter.

St Catherine's Monastery
Source: Pixabay

Monasticism in the West

After emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in 313, it became the principal Roman religion, with violent persecution morphing into ascetic deprivation as a means of martyrdom. In the West, monasticism began by imitating the Egyptian model. In around 361, St Martin of Tours (d. 397) established a hermitage near Poitiers, now called Ligugé Abbey, after the Latin for ‘small hut’, locaciacum. In around 388, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) with some friends founded a lay ascetic community in Thagaste, North Africa, to be re-founded, centuries later, as the Augustinian Order. In 415, inspired by his travels in Palestine and Egypt, St John Cassian (360-435) built a model monastery, later the Abbey of St Victor, in Marseille, with complexes for both men and women (a 'double monastery').


John Cassian’s Conferences of the Desert Fathers, consisting of interviews with 24 Egyptian monastics, exerted a strong influence on St Benedict of Nursia (480-543/7), who is regarded as the father of Western monasticism, and Western equivalent of St Basil. Benedict lived for many years as a solitary hermit in a cave at Subiaco, near Rome. He became the abbot of a nearby monastery but proved unpopular with the monks, who may have tried to poison him. He later founded several monasteries around Subiaco, and, in around 529, the great monastery of Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples. The moderate Rule of St Benedict, with its almost equal emphasis on prayer and work (ora et labora), set the pattern for monastic rules across Europe, and, more than 1,400 years later, remains the most commonly adopted rule.

Celtic monasticism

Celtic monasticism, which flourished in Ireland in the 5th to 7th centuries, resembled Egyptian monasticism in its rigour and mysticism: even the Celtic cross with a circle in the middle appears to derive from Coptic Egypt. In the Irish Church, abbot-bishops administered the faithful along tribal, rather than territorial, lines. The strong emphasis on learning preserved Greek and Roman texts and culture on the fringes of a continent in chaos, and a zeal for itinerant missionary work evangelized large parts of the British Isles. Aside from St Patrick, who is regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland, important figures include St Columba (521-597), who founded Iona Abbey in Scotland; St Aiden (590-651), who founded Lindisfarne Priory in Northumberland; and St Columbanus (543-615), who founded several monasteries including Luxeuil Abbey in France and Bobbio Abbey in Italy. It has been said that, whereas the Rule of Saint Benedict taught people to become good monks, the rules of Celtic monasteries taught people to become saints. The Rule of St David (500-589), the patron saint of Wales, stipulated that monks must drink only water and eat only bread, and pull the plough themselves. David and his followers came to be called the Watermen, owing to their predilection for water, and their custom of reciting the 150 psalms while standing up to their neck in an icy river.


From the earliest days, an alternative to being a hermit or monk was to become an anchorite, withdrawing from the world by being walled up into a cell, or anchorhold. The committal service contained elements of a funeral rite, with the anchorite becoming something of a living saint. Typically, the anchorhold was built against a church, with a window opening into the church to listen to services, receive the Eucharist, and dispense spiritual advice to visitors. There were two more windows to the anchorhold, one for light, and the other for food, drink, and other necessities. Most anchorites were anchoresses: the most famous is Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), whose Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in English to have been written by a woman.

Monastic orders

Most early monasteries, both in the East and West, had only around 12 members. When a monastery grew, members were sent out to found a new monastery. In later times, some monasteries housed hundreds of monks, and became important landowners. In 1098, a group of Benedictine monks founded Cîteaux Abbey to the south of Dijon, with the aim of returning to literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict. In 1113, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) joined Cîteaux with 30 companions, and, over the years, greatly expanded the Cistercian Order. Over the decades and centuries, many Cistercian monasteries relaxed their mores and habits. In the 17th century, another reform movement began at the Abbey of la Trappe in Normandy, giving rise to the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists.

More austere still is the Carthusian Order, founded by St Bruno of Cologne (1030-1101) in 1084. Unlike the Cistercians and Trappists, the Carthusians are not a branch of the Benedictines, but follow their own Rule, called the Statutes. Each charterhouse encloses a ‘community of hermits’, with each monk eating, working, sleeping, and praying in his own cell—much like the first monks in Egypt. The Carthusian Motherhouse in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble is noted for the liqueur Chartreuse, which is made from distilled alcohol aged with 130 herbs, plants, and flowers. Today, the Carthusian Order numbers some 370 monks and 75 nuns across 25 charterhouses.

Grande Chartreuse
Source: Wikicommons

In contrast to the ‘contemplative’ orders above, of which there are many more, ‘active’ orders are immersed in mainstream society, seeking to reach out rather than remain remote and cloistered. The balance between action and contemplation differs from one community to another. Because active orders do not aim at self-sufficiency, they usually live off the generosity of others, making them so-called mendicant (‘begging’) orders. Adherents of mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, are called friars (from the Latin frater, ‘brother’) rather than monks.

The Franciscans (greyfriars) are a group of related mendicant orders established in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who sought to return to the source by emulating the simplicity and engagement of Jesus. Franciscans generally follow the example of their founder, radical at the time, of wandering, preaching, and begging, although there are communities that are more focused on contemplation. For more on St Francis, see the film by Franco Zeffirelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Like the Franciscans, the Dominicans (Order of Preachers, blackfriars, jacobins) committed themselves to making faith more relevant to the people. But unlike the Franciscans, they sought to achieve their aims by preaching the Gospel and combating heresy. Founded in 1216 in France by St Dominic of Caleruega (1170-1121), the order is renowned for its intellectual tradition, and can boast several eminent philosophers and theologians, not least Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the doctor angelicus. The religious orthodoxy and intellectual dexterity of the Dominicans put them at the forefront of the Inquisition: punning on their name, people dubbed the Dominicans the ‘Hounds of the Lord’ (Domini canes).

Founded in 1540 in France by soldier-turned-mystic St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) are colloquially referred to as ‘God’s soldiers’. The order emphasizes education, missionary evangelism, and obedience to the papacy. It does not require members to live strictly in community, giving them more latitude to go out and travel. Jesuits seek to ‘find God in all things’, and dedicate themselves to the good of humanity ‘for the greater good of God’ (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam). The teaching in their many schools and universities is broad and liberal, and they also run spiritual retreats—St Ignatius being the author of the influential Spiritual Exercises. With a presence in 112 countries, the Jesuits are one of the largest groups in the Roman Catholic Church. As missionaries, they played an important part in the Counter-Reformation, but have generally stood on the margins of Church hierarchy. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope.

Influence of monasticism

Leaving aside the religious and spiritual dimensions, monasticism served a number of important social functions. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the monasteries helped to preserve important texts, and education and culture in general. They also created culture, by their highly disciplined monks and nuns, and as important patrons of art, music, and architecture. To this day, university life is modeled on the monastic ideal, with quadrangles and cloisters, communal meals, dormitory residences, and elaborate robes and rituals. In feudal societies, the monasteries provided refuge from war, famine, and disease, and served as outlets for the younger sons of aristocratic families, celibates, and other misfits. In their drive for self-subsistence, they contributed to the development of agriculture and manufacturing, for example, turning viticulture and winemaking into high arts. Only in modern times did the state supersede them in the provision of social services such as health and education.

Criticisms of monasticism

Critics have argued that monasticism involves an unnatural degree of self-abnegation for which there is no biblical basis. It creates a certain image of the virtuous life, congenial to some but not to others, whereas the virtuous life can take more than one form. It creates a hierarchy of believers, and demands subordination to that hierarchy: in that much, it might even be a form of 'holier-than-thou' vanity. By promoting celibacy and sequestration, it undermines family and society; and with its tendency to decadence, can grow parasitic. Monasticism is not a feature of Islam, Zoroastrianism, or the Baha'i Faith. In Europe, movements such as the Protestant Reformation, the English Reformation, the French Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War led to the dissolution and destruction of many monasteries

Monasticism today

Western monasticism is in long-term decline, with growth in Asia and Africa unable to offset reductions elsewhere. In contrast, Eastern monasticism has been undergoing a revival, especially in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Monasticism continues to attract interest, even in Europe and America. The diverse New Monasticism movement seeks to translate monastic insights and practices into forms that are better suited to the modern world: communities are typically ecumenical, with a focus on contemplation, community, and charity, but without the traditional vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience.

If you have any thoughts on monasticism today or yesterday, please share them in the comments section.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? and other books.

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Neel Burton
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