Middle Ages Monasteries & Their Political Patrons

Monasticism in the Middle Ages in Europe underwent a roller coaster ride of change, due to heavy aristocratic influence. Without the charitable support of their many political and aristocratic patrons, monasteries would not have been able to become as well developed and abundant in the Middle Ages. The monastic decline that took place throughout the Middle Ages that affected many aspects of monasteries of the time can be greatly attributed to the local political and aristocratic figures, who often misused their influence. Many monasteries in the Middle Ages came face to face with violence whether they were trapped in the middle of a fight that had nothing to do with them, or subjected to injustices at the hands of political outsiders. The nobility's generally well-intentioned support and patronage of monasteries provided the means for monasticism to flourish in the Middle Age though they were the ones who planted the seeds of materialism, rivalry and violence in these previously hallowed institutions.

Without the generous assistance of their many political and aristocratic patrons, monasteries would not have been able to grow as they did, both physically and spiritually. Over a period of many centuries, monks went from poverty to splendor as well as from having to work all day to merely praying and serving G-d. Often, it was noble benefactors that inspired and enabled these changes. For example, in 817 CE, all Benedictine abbots from the Carolingian Empire met at Aachen to modify the Benedictine Rule, and came away having decreed that monks would no longer work in the fields, and in the future would only teach children preparing to become monks . It is thought that the latter prohibition occurred as a result of Charlemagne's legislation mandating public education as a responsibility of secular clergypeople, (priests, ministers, etc.) In fact, this change was the first monastic reform that occurred since the death of Gregory the Great over two hundred years before. Due to their simple, unobtrusive way of life, monasteries were dependent on their patrons for legal and monetary support.

Charlemagne's unselfish and well-intentioned endeavors towards developing monastic life and unifying all monasteries as well as his support financially was the root of the spark of family unity present in Benedictine monasteries centuries after his death. Charlemagne's objective was to revive the Christian empire and embrace religious life , and appointed his many monk associates to positions where they had the ability to execute great change, as his minister Angilbert did as abbot of St. Riquier. He both improved and enlarged the monastery, as well as developing and enriching the library. Charlemagne also tried to change monasticism as a whole, and unify all monasteries with one central monastery (the Inde) that would be used for giving "refresher courses" in Benedictine monasticism. He also inspired great learning centers in the Tours and St. Gall monasteries, and encouraged his son Louis the Pious to continue with monastic reform after his death. While Charlemagne was never fully able to unite all monasteries in his empire due to his untimely death, through his extensive work during his lifetime and his son's continuance of his many policies he was able to ignite a long burning flame of family unity that burned long after his own life had ended.

Most monasteries that were entirely independent from the local rulers failed to grow and spawned hostility from said rulers, while many truly successful monasteries accomplished such success by being interdependent with the local authorities. Often, the king was the start of the spread of monasticism in a converted kingdom. The king would become a monk or abbot of the local monastery, and many of his citizens would follow suit out of respect. This process worked to make Byzantium more religious than the Christians in the west because the emperor and monks felt mutually interdependent and monasticism was therefore able to grow. In contrast, the Investiture Struggle shows the hostility that can develop when monasteries insisted on segregating themselves from the influence of their leaders. As well, the death of Thomas Becket beautifully illustrated the potential repercussions of such segregation. Throughout the Middle Ages, the most successful and long-lived monasteries were the ones at peace with their monarch, not at odds with him.

However, many political and aristocratic figures greatly contributed to the monastic decline that took place gradually in many ways in the Middle Ages. Many aristocrats and monarchs built lavishly decorated tombs in monasteries, contradicting the belief that monks were to live simple lives. Las Hueglas was one such monastery, as Alfonso VIII of Castile built it and decorated it in the gothic style of the time so that it would be his tomb. This luxuriousness was not conducive to the simple lifestyle of its Cisternian monastic inhabitants. Similarly, Philip Le Hardi, duke of Burgundy, built a magnificent mausoleum for the dukes of the Valois dynasty and established Carthusian monks as its inhabitants because of their strict observance. Ultimately, the fad of building large, beautiful tombs in monasteries had negative consequences on the level of religious observance in the affected monasteries.

A great deal of monastic decline occurred throughout the Middle Ages as a result of the abuse by kings and nobles whose use of monasteries and their resources did not always reflect the best interests of that monastery. The 14th century practice of giving "commendam" was one of the many causes. Popes would give an office of the monastery to a person not the rightful, proper successor for the role in order to protect the monastery until the real person could assume their post, and to improve the political and monetary situation of the monastery. Similar practices occurred in the 8th century when patrons and founders of monasteries (usually royalty) appointed friends or relatives to positions of power as favors. Both caused severe harm when the laypeople in positions of power abused their posts, mismanaged money, cut corners, depleted the monastery's resources and left the monastery in bad shape.

Wars during the Middle Ages often left monasteries destroyed, and resulted in many monks being executed, exiled or becoming fugitives to save their own lives. During the times of the Crusades, fights erupted between rival groups of monastic warrior knights, the Templars and Hospitaliers, and ended violently due to the involvement of the British monarch of the time. The groups fought for nearly two centuries, until King Philip the Fair of England accused the Templars of heresy and immorality and tortured 68 of them into confessing these sins. Similarly, King Andrew II expelled the Teutonic Knights (a sect that was both monks and political rulers) from England because of a conflict. Many such situations occurred where entire groups of monks were exiled or tortured because of their beliefs.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries were greatly affected by violence, as they often got caught in the crossfire of wars they were unrelated to or were persecuted by outsiders. At the time of the breakup of the Carolingian Empire, political anarchy was declared, and monasteries were attacked, looted and destroyed by ruthless invaders. Certainly monks were unable to live simple monastic lives as they had to run and hide to save their lives. This was not uncommon. Mongol invasions in Russia in the 13th century was the cause of much destruction of monasteries. The Montecassino monastery was destroyed three times during the Middle Ages. (It was also later rebuilt). Due to the quantity of wars and battles throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries were constantly at risk of invasion by foreign leaders.

Without the assistance their philanthropic benefactors afforded, monasteries would not have been able to become as widespread and well-developed in the Middle Age, but those same patrons often caused as much bad as good, due to their meddling and feuding that was the source of the first appearances of materialism, rivalry and violence in these previously pure and unspoiled institutions. Monastic expansion and development can be widely attributed to the lavish support by their many political and aristocratic benefactors provided in the Middle Ages. Local political and aristocratic figures, who often misused their influence, were often a great hindrance and cause of monastic decline in the Middle Ages. Middle Age monasteries were often subjected to the violence that is characteristic of that time, finding themselves at the mercy of political outsiders who did not necessarily care about the monastery itself. It is rather evident from all points of view that royalty, nobility and politicians had a vast but varied effect on monasticism in the Middle Ages that encompassed both positive and negative actions, whether selfish or not.

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