Monks and monasteries in the Middle Ages

Monks and monasteries in the Middle Ages

Monasticism is a major feature of medieval and modern Christianity. The Middle Ages constitute the apogee of this movement. The Gregorian reform, this major movement of Christianity and Catholicism, cannot be fully explained without mentioning the major role of certain abbeys. The number 381 of Dossiers d'Archéologie proposes to return to this subject by adopting an essentially archaeological point of view.


Philippe Racinet's first article “The long and curious history of monasticism” introduces this issue and the various subjects covered. The question of monastic rule is central: originally, monastic experiences were very diverse without any real unity or rule, as Anne-Marie Helvétius shows. Attempts at guardianship and unification are visible from the 5th century: the Council of Chalcedon in 451 puts the monasteries under the control of a bishop and reduces their ideal of freedom. We go from a transmission of the teachings by a spiritual guide to a written rule therefore fixed. Around 600, the Benedictine rule appeared and spread. In 816-817, Louis the Pious united councils and thus tried to impose the second Benedictine rule. This desire to regulate is also explained by the political power of the monasteries. “Regular” monasticism becomes almost exclusively Benedictine. However, this will not prevent journeys outside the usual frameworks, like Étienne de Muret: from an eremitic ideal, his movement becomes sedentary and becomes more and more cenobite before forming the Order of Grandmont. The great aristocratic families favored the development of monasteries from the High Middle Ages. Women were no strangers to this development, as the contribution of Etienne Louis on the female monastery of Hamage shows. The economic role and power of regular orders was noticeable very early on. Although the monasteries of the High Middle Ages are still poorly known, their geographical location testifies to a certain connection with the economic fabric illustrated by the contribution of Sébastien Bully on the diocese of Besançon.

We often have the image of successive orders replacing the old like the Cluniacs, Cistercians or mendicant orders. However, Philippe Racinet shows that there were no recruitment problems in the 13th century for the Cluniacs. Ancient abbeys like that of Marmoutier, treated in this issue by Thomas Creissen and Elisabeth Lorans, go through centuries and reforms and continue to be enlarged or modified until the 15th century. Philippe Racinet offers a contribution on the rise of the Cluniac order. The latter is closely linked to a particular geopolitical context (the will of the aristocratic and secular and ecclesiastical powers and the first crusades). The rule is diffused through the new foundations but also the adoption of old monasteries wishing to reform. The success of the rule is explained by the prestige of the abbey. However, we cannot speak of a congregatio cluniacensis in the 12th century: the Clunisian feeling does not appear until the end of the 15th century. Benoit Chauvin offers a detailed contribution on Cistercian architecture. Alban Gautier discusses the monastic diet. Although codified by a rule, adaptations are visible depending on the geography (close to the coast or not). The excavations revealed a consumption by the monks of pork and poultry meat, notable aristocratic dishes, but also of fish and molluscs, taking advantage of the nearby environment. Daniel Prigent offers a contribution on the construction of the Abbey of Fontevraud. Damien Carraz discusses the little-known case of military commanderies. The latter were smaller, more numerous in the territory and closely linked to economic networks. They consisted of a house with a sacred place occupied by ten brothers and a familia. These places are very quickly closed. The whole organized around a courtyard looks more like fortified houses. The Commander's room, which has been documented on numerous occasions, reflects the aristocratic lifestyle of the leader. The presence of towers is also the expression of seigneurial power. Alain Rauwel concludes this dossier by insisting on the inclusion of monks in the world, on the elitist character of this group but also on the evolutions that the monastic orders experienced after the thirteenth century. The modern age transforms a number of institutions into a major cultural and scholarly center. The monastic ideal of equality and break with the world continues to this day and fascinates many people well beyond the current weight of the vestiges of this religious movement.

In addition to the news, the review offers an original article on the links between archeology and contemporary art in connection with the exhibition "Recomposed past" at the Archaeological Museum of Oise to see until November 30, 2017. Tintinophiles will discover the work in course on the mummy of Rascar Capac which already reveals a lot of information. Rascar Capac would have died at the end of the 14th century contrary to previous estimates by researchers. The exhibition Un Gaulois dans mon satchel at the MuséoParc d'Alésia is also approached by Ludivine Péchoux and deals with the school education of National Antiquities. Finally, Rome is hosting at the Vatican Museums an exhibition on the relics of Saint Césaire which is an opportunity to return to the art of late Antiquity and to show the link between "Gallula Roma" (Arles) and " Urbs ”capital (Rome).

Richly illustrated and of high quality, this new issue of Dossiers d'Archéologie meets all the usual quality criteria. Sometimes technical but always accessible, the rich and varied articles provide a diverse and nuanced panorama of monastic movements: architecture, monastic rules, economic role or cultural aspects are discussed and enrich the reflection. In the end, this dossier will satisfy all those interested in monastic orders from an archaeological angle.

Monks and monasteries in the Middle Ages. Archeology files, May-June 2017.


Video: A Day in the Life of a Medieval Cistercian Monk