Medieval Religion and Political Engagement, Part 3: Monasticism

[This post is part of an ongoing series, inspired by the upcoming presidential election in the United States, seeking to answer the question: What does the medieval period have to tell us about Christianity and political engagement? For previous posts, see Part 1 and Part 2.]

When we think of the medieval period and religion, one of the most enduring symbols is that of the monk: the figure pursuing religious devotion and prayer, promising to follow a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God, separate from society, behind the walls of a monastery. With this popular conception, monasticism represents a separation from the world, one that seemingly yields little for considering religion and political engagement in the medieval period. Yet monasticism provides a number of rich examples that challenge what we might think of as a “separation” between church and state in the Middle Ages.

Saint Benedict of Nursia, from a fresco by Fra Angelico (c.1400–1455) in the Basilica San Marco, Florence.

In early Christianity, many ideas of religious asceticism emerged, including holy men and women escaping to solitude in the desert, becoming hermits, or joining together in small communities outside of cities. As more people sought lives of religious asceticism away from common society, with the biblical Acts of the Apostles chapters 2 and 4 as models of communal life, monasticism emerged.

Much of Western monasticism owes its debt to Benedict of Nursia (c.480-543). He established the organization of a communal life for those seeking to seclude themselves from everyday life in religious pursuit in what is now known as the Rule of St. Benedict (composed c.530-43). For Benedict, the dual purposes informing all monastic life were “ora et labora” (“pray and work”), which manifested variously over the following centuries. In many ways, the politics of Benedict’s view of monasticism are biblically communist in the sharing and distribution of wealth and the social goals of cloistered living. This view became the basis of Benedictine monasteries in the medieval West, as well as later outgrowths based on the same set of rules.

But none of this is to suggest that monks were wholly disengaged from political questions. As the most literate class through much of the medieval period, monks were the ones writing and copying many of the books that survive, including those that address the issues I have outlined so far. Sometimes, those who sought out a cloistered religious life were those who had been heavily involved in government: sons and daughters of nobles, even former kings and queens. Monastic communities also relied on the generosity of benefactors like weatlhy, powerful nobles; and, in return, many monks wrote propaganda for their patrons.

In one instance, the English monk Bede (672/3-735) was very concerned about politics in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He offers a wide-ranging history encompassing kings, clerics, and popes, intertwined in a polemical argument for the greatness of the English and their place in the wider world of medieval Europe. Even Bede’s title speaks to the nuances I have mentioned in this series, as he conceives of religious affiliation (“Ecclesiastical”) and political identity (“English People”) entwined together into a coherent view of history.

Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 22, fol 3v
Hrabanus Maurus’ prefatory poem to Queen Judith of Bavaria, in Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 22, fol 3v.

Another notable case is the Frankish monk Hrabanus Maurus (c.780-856), who wrote commentaries on the biblical books of Judith, Esther, and Maccabees for the Carolingian Queen Judith of Bavaria (795/7-843). In a prefatory poem, Hrabanus calls on God’s favor for the queen, with the prayer, “Dona beata da Deus illi arce coronam” (“Give blessed gifts to her, God, the crown on high”). Implicit in this hymn is his hope that, as Queen Judith is blessed, so Hrabanus and his monastic community would be also. Thus, Hrabanus ingratiated himself into the court culture of the Carolingian nobles, with all of the political associations (for good and ill) that came with that.

The nature of living as a monk changed in the central Middle Ages, when new sets of mendicant orders were established, like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites—further complicating what we might say about how monastics engaged with the world. Whereas most monks had previously remained dedicated mainly to a single monastery (or to solitary asceticism), in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries monks began to leave monasteries to participate in preaching and evangelizing to the people. They continued to practice poverty, chastity, and obedience to God, but rather than living in common with other monks, they lived as itinerants dependent on the good will of others, especially in urban areas. Thus, in contrast to the earlier model of monasticism based on cloistered retreat, mendicants viewed their role as needing to be actively engaged in social justice, as they sought to aid the homeless, sick, and other marginalized citizens of society.

Perhaps the most famous monastic author to modern people is Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the Dominican friar who synthesized much of Christian philosophy into a systematized scheme in his Summa Theologiae. For part of this systematic theology, Aquinas presented what has become known as the theory of just war, concerned with determining if waging war is allowed for the greater good. For example, in Part II.2, Question 40, Article 1, Aquinas lays out his views:

Respondeo dicendum quod ad hoc quod aliquod bellum sit iustum, tria requiruntur. Primo quidem, auctoritas principis, cuius mandato bellum est gerendum. […]
Secundo, requiritur causa iusta, ut scilicet illi qui impugnantur propter aliquam culpam impugnationem mereantur. […]
Tertio, requiritur ut sit intentio bellantium recta, qua scilicet intenditur vel ut bonum promoveatur, vel ut malum vitetur. […]

(I answer that, in order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. […]
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. […]
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. […])[1]

Throughout his defense of these tenets, he relies on the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who first set forth various models for justifying war from a Christian perspective. Aquinas also turns to the Bible, finding support for violence when it is necessary for defense.

Battle of Crécy (1346) between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War.

Of course, Aquinas’ system in his Summa rests on a complex system of questions and answers necessary to determine rational, logical justification for waging war for the good of society. He is clear that some acts of war are to be avoided and condemned altogether: such as “inordinata exercitia et periculosa, ex quibus occisiones et depraedationes proveniunt” (“those which are inordinate and perilous, and end in slaying or plundering”). Even Aquinas notes, leading up to his arguments, that there are also biblical justifications for pacifism and avoiding violence (citing Matthew 26:52 and 5:39, as well as Romans 12:19). And, even more, there have been detractors to his type of justification, during Aquinas’ lifetime and up to the present.

From these examples, medieval monasticism poses distinct reasons for believing that seclusion is not a clear-cut way to escape politics after all. These cases perhaps reveal that we are always political in some way, even in drawing away from engaging directly (which is, after all, a political act); politics have the power to deeply affect, inside and outside of cloistered religious life. The point for medieval monks, then, was not to disengage from politics, not to escape, but to do so from a different perspective—whether that was through intellectual discourse, propaganda for patrons, social justice toward equality, or a combination of all of these aims.

[1] Corpus Thomisticum: Sancti Thomae de Aquino, Summa Theologiae,; translation from New Advent,


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