Monastic Orders - Sarah Woodbury

Monastic Orders

Wales was home to many different monastic orders in the Middle Ages. As we’ve talked about this season, at first these saints founded monasteries and convents throughout Wales without the formalization of belonging to a particular worldwide order. In these early monastic communities, starting in the 5th century, the participants were seeking to model the life of Jesus Christ, who owned nothing and devoted his energies toward others. In founding these early monasteries, there was a very clear communal awareness and self-denial at odds with the human inclination toward self-interest and self-promotion.

Over time, in other places (as in Wales), in the first centuries of Christianity, individual saints developed their own rules. The Rule of St. Augustine had the greatest following initially and gave rise to the Augustinian Order, which still exists today. These rules were further formalized in the 7th century by St. Benedict, who emphasized the importance of manual labor and daily prayer as a means of worship and communion with God. Monks many times a day, beginning before dawn and ending in the evening, when they were not at work or at communal activities. These monks called themselves Benedictines.

They were followed by new orders seeking to modify or reform what came before. The Cluniacs, for example, in the 10th century, wanted to worship God through beautiful art and churches, and the monks themselves did not perform manual labor. The Cistercians thought the Cluniacs were too focused on material things and retreated to the countryside, where they did not employ servants but did their own work. The Carthusians thought even the Cistercians weren’t isolated enough and focused on individual contemplation and prayer. Carthusian monasteries were open to men and women, who lived separately but came together for worship.

In addition to the Benedictine orders, there were the mendicants, who lived in poverty and relied on the kindness of others to survive (supposedly). The Franciscans emphasized devotion and service through a life of simplicity mirroring Jesus’s ministry. The Dominicans focused on education and scholarship in apprehending God’s will. They were also the order primarily involved in the medieval inquisition and suppressing heresy.

Finally, in response to the Crusades, martial orders arose: the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights. I’ll be talking about the Templars in a later video, so I won’t go into detail about them now. The Hospitallers were the first martial order, founded to care for the wounded, sick, and infirm in Jerusalem. As the centuries passed, they became focused on caring for pilgrims to the Holy Land and then, after the fall of the Templars in 1307, they inherited many of their possessions and became the military arm of the Church.

The Teutonic Knights were the last order to be established and were also created to help pilgrims reach the Holy Land. They established hospitals and cared for the sick while also acting as a military contingent for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, based in Akka. The knights later expanded their efforts into Europe, serving Christians and Christian nobility both as healers and mercenaries. They grew increasingly powerful, seizing lands for their own purposes throughout Eastern Europe and managed to survive until the 19th century.

Next week we’ll talk in more detail about the most common and influential monastic order in Wales, the Cistercians.

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