Hi, I’m Colin Sanders, this is the History Books Review and this episode covers the rise of monasticism as described by Edward Gibbon in Chapter 37 of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Gibbon was to my mind almost certainly an atheist. He never says so, but to say so would have been illegal and he was a member of parliament so had more reason than most to be law abiding. But he is so scathing of Christianity that it seems almost impossible to count him as a believer. Socially of course in the seventeenth century he had no choice but to go along with it. But being an English protestant he could get away with being a lot more critical than a lot of Europeans could have done at the time. He could simply use the descriptor Catholic if he wanted to be particularly critical. And he had a pretty free run against monasteries as well. There were no monasteries in Gibbon’s Britain. There aren’t very many in modern Britain. There were and are plenty of ruins of monasteries.
When you live here you tend to think of that as the norm. I was on a business trip in a Catholic country once and found myself with an unexpected free afternoon. I checked a map and saw there was a monastery nearby. I popped over to see it expecting to be able to while away a few hours enjoying an historic monument. It turned out to be a very modern building with a car park full of new cars. The people inside were doing whatever it is you do in a monastery and it was clearly not a place for idle tourists. It was a good example of how our own personal histories affect our view of things.
Monasteries have always had a bad press in England. If you are familiar with English history you will recall that Henry the Eighth shut them down and confiscated their extensive wealth. So they were fair game. It was also handy that there wouldn’t be any actual monks in Gibbon’s own social circle to object. Gibbon lets rip in the way that only he can – we are treated to a freak show of the bizarre behaviours of monks. That their mental health is questionable is assumed. That they are a drain on the state is taken as read.
The origins of monasticism can be traced back to St Anthony in the third century. Anthony was a friend of Athanasius who wrote a biography of him when he wasn’t busy imposing orthodoxy on the rest of the church from his base as bishop of Alexandria.
The movement started before Christianity was official, but was already steadily moving into the mainstream of Roman society. So when Christianity was adopted as the empire’s religion, monks were already part of the package. I suppose the rather half hearted persecution that Christianity had received had made it appeal edgy and radical – which attracts a particular type of person. As it grew in popularity it attracted more regular people who didn’t have the commitment of the early adopters. It is a problem faced by indie rock bands, make up brands, political parties and all sorts of similar propositions. One solution is to have a more demanding option for the truly committed.
When PCs first came out you needed a fair degree of determination just to get the damn things to work, let alone get any use out of them. As they got more popular they got easier to use until even old people could be productive with them. Pioneers found that what used to be their own special thing was now widely available. The status and cachet they possessed as pioneers faded as their skills and knowledge became widespread. The solution was to come up with Linux – an operating system that retains the impenetrability of early PCs and which cannot be accessed without a good dash of arcane knowhow.
Monasticism was perhaps the same idea. Now that basically anyone could be a Christian, what could you do with the fanatics? The last thing Athanasius would have wanted was them striking out and creating another rival form of Christianity. There were enough of those already. So the answer was to create a high demand form of the orthodox brand that could appeal to the more extreme without putting off the growing numbers of people who wanted a religion that didn’t take over their lives. Monasteries were born. And where better to locate them than out of the way in the desert. The more distance you could keep between the nutters and the normal the better.
So the monastic life was created. Anthony holed himself up in a disused Roman fort with a group of disciples who lived a life of work, prayer and poverty. This became the model for a movement that was to last for centuries and has not entirely disappeared even today. The actual monastery he founded was fully operational until the end of the middle ages and in the twentieth century has been restored as a tourist attraction. As the world became a grimmer and grimmer place, escaping it became more and more popular. Many monks renounced significant personal fortunes to follow their spiritual yearnings. But in a pre-industrial society not that many people had any fortune to give up. Switching from secular poverty to a religiously enforced version was probably not much of a sacrifice. Indeed given that humans in general appreciate certainty, they probably felt better off.
Early monasticism was serious stuff. It was about renouncing the world and all its pleasures. This didn’t just mean a low calorie diet, avoiding sex and no booze. It did mean all those things but it could also mean renouncing all normal human contact with ones family. It could mean submitting oneself to the absolute dictates of the abbot. The whims of the abbot were various. It might mean watering a staff for three years to see if it would sprout branches. It might mean attempting to lift an unliftable object. The early monks might have been saints, or they might have been mad. It would have been hard to tell the difference. One thing they weren’t were intellectuals. They were mystics looking for a higher truth and were not remotely interested in the culture of the world around them or contributing anything to it themselves. The stereotype we all have of the monk bent over his illuminated manuscript comes from much later in the history of monasticism.
But the early phase did not last very long. I am pretty sure that in origin it wasn’t the original object, but the ambitious church leaders soon saw the advantages the monasteries gave them. For a start it was a handy source of manpower. Monks don’t cost a lot to run, particularly if they fast a lot. It was also a geat source of prestige. The monasteries started carrying out charitable works which was great for getting positive PR. And the extravagant behaviours got talked about and created celebrities. St Anthony himself was wheeled out in a dispute with the Arians. He was also invited to meet the emperor Constantine. He declined. Saints are too cool to talk to the mere rulers of the world. The majority of monks however weren’t celebrities, but even so they could be turned into valuable aids to the growing power of the church. They could be turned to making simple industrial goods – wooden sandal soles for example. Their ascetic lifestyles made them ideal as low paid workers, and you could even use your workforce’s piety as a marketing angle. What’s not to like?
I think there is an interesting way in which the ideas of asceticism and self sacrifice have persisted to the present day. It is easy enough to see that that early Christians were impressed by and influenced by some of the more austere branches of Greek philosophy which talked up the value of avoiding the pleasures of the senses. They took these to even more extremes in their desire to get in touch with the world of the spirit and escape from the world of the flesh. In some ways our ideas of what is supposed to be healthy still reflect these notions. We don’t fast any more, but we do diet. And we have an idea of detoxing, where we renounce worldly pleasures like burgers and wine in favour of salads and mineral water. Nobody questions the details of how this is supposed to be beneficial, it just seems to be obviously the case that it is. I have a feeling that St Anthony would probably approve.
The monasteries grew and grew in popularity. The empire struggling to simply defend its borders had fewer and fewer other opportunities. And as the size of the monasteries grew they became a seriously attractive career option. They spread throughout the empire but were particularly popular in Egypt.
Athanasius introduced the idea to Rome. Martin of Tours took the idea forward in Gaul. They spread to Ireland and Irish monks travelled to the coast of what is now England and founded Lindisfarne. Christianity now had premises from the shores of the North Sea all the way to the banks of the Nile. As the church grew so did its network of communities.
Gibbon was as even handed as would be expected from a member of the eighteenth century English establishment. He admitted that the monks had had a role in the transmission of Latin and Greek culture, but lost no time in pointing out the absurdities and abuses of the monastic system. He also points out that whole legions of potential manpower were sequestered in the cloisters unavailable to fight the barbarians. But he was pushing at an open door there. Knocking the papists would have been second nature. It is worth remembering that this was a bit more deep seated than simple prejudice. In Gibbon’s time Britain was still an agricultural society. The Industrial Revolution was already underway and beginning to make a difference but even so a state’s power was still a function of its population and its ability to raise an army and taxes to pay for it. England and Scotland would have had a population of about 6 million, almost all protestant. The population of Ireland was about 3 million almost all catholic. So although protestants were in a majority in the kingdom, the majority was a pretty modest one. Britain’s last Catholic king had in fact attempted to maintain his position by raising an Irish army. Take into account the existence of Catholic France – a true superpower with a population of around 25 million a mere 20 miles away across the Channel, you can see why protestants were a bit insecure and happy to hear the worst about popish institutions such as monasteries that they had got rid of. The notion that they could weaken a powerful state was a very comforting one.
Fortunately today we have left both the prejudices and the historical situation that led to them behind. So lets see how close to the mark Gibbon was. Did the institution of monasticism actually materially contribute to the fall of the Western empire? At first sight there is one bit of evidence that undermines the notion from the start. Monasticism started in the Eastern empire and all the indications are that it was most popular in Egypt. If it was a serious drain on resources shouldn’t it have been the East that would have suffered. But that is a very superficial analysis. It is still possible that the drain on the more limited resources of the West could have had a decisive effect. Is there any further information available.
Sadly there aren’t many hard facts. We don’t even have much solid information on the size of the population in the late empire. We only have estimates drawn from inadequate documentation for the early empire. When it comes to the late empire we aren’t a lot better off than straight guesswork. So it is rather hard to know just how many of the empire’s inhabitants were too busy praying to God to man the walls. The earliest figure I can find comes from a thousand years later. The number of monks in Catholic countries in the fifteenth century has been estimated at 0.3%. After a millennium of being a major cultural institution it is unlikely that the figure will have gone down. It would seem reasonable therefore to assume that in the Roman period, even the very late Roman period, that monks were a tiny and almost insignificant fraction of all able bodied men. They might well have impacted on the number of professional troops the empire was able to maintain to some extent. Every dinner going to a monastery was one that wasn’t going to the barracks. But even so it is hard to imagine that this was enough to tip the balance compared to the size of the job of defending the borders.
There were murmurs about the role of the monks. As they grew in power they provoked some resentment. As they started to gather wealth from donations and bequests it became possible for their lives of contemplation and good works to be funded by rents from their farmland, or the produce of directly employed workers. Gibbon finds a quote from someone who pointed out that in order to relieve the poor they beggared a great many people. This mismatch between their overt spiritual mission and their actual behaviour was going to cause problems in the future. There would be many attempts at reform, but ultimately the institution was to become one that was widely despised and in many countries was to end up being suppressed altogether. England is a well known example of this, but similar events happened in Holland and other countries. Less known is that buddhist monasteries followed the same trajectory and were also suppressed in some Asian countries. It seems that a desire to escape the world is a widespread one, but one that is ultimately one that if acted on just adds to the troubles of the world the penitent wants to escape.
Next time I’ll be mainly reading a chunk of actual Gibbon – so that will be a bit different. I hope you’ll join me to enjoy it. In the meantime, thanks for listening.