medieval monks

Sacred Scribes: The Medieval Monks

In the medieval world, when kingdoms were in a constant struggle for power and the majority of the population was illiterate, there existed a group of spiritual intellectuals – the medieval monks. Often overlooked, these sacred scribes played a fundamental role in the fabric of medieval society and culture. This article aims to shed light on the austere lives, the influential figures, and the scholarly contribution of these sacred scribes. We will explore the monastic orders and their lifestyles, the libraries they managed, and the knowledge they preserved. We will further delve into the profound educational roles they fulfilled, the exquisite art of manuscript illumination they mastered, and their lasting impact on modern society.

Monastic Traditions and Rituals

Monastic traditions and rituals varied among different orders, but all centered around spiritual development and communal living. The Divine Office, a set of prayers at specific times throughout the day and night, was a fundamental ritual. This included services such as Matins (midnight or very early morning), Lauds (at dawn), Prime (first hour of daylight), Terce (third hour), Sext (noon), None (ninth hour), Vespers (at sunset), and Compline (before retiring).

Other traditions included confession, meditation, and reading from the Holy Scriptures. Many orders also practiced periods of silence to encourage contemplation and focus. These rituals structured the monk’s day and underscored their commitment to a life of prayer and service.

The Role of Medieval Monks in Education 

During the Middle Ages, education was not a commodity widely available to the general public. It was primarily the clergy, including the medieval monks, who were literate and had access to education. Monasteries became centers of learning, where monks would not only educate each other but also the children of the nobility.

Monks were pivotal in the process of teaching reading and writing. Latin was the prevalent language of instruction, and it was through this language that monks taught the classics of antiquity. They were the main source of education during the period and laid the foundations for the development of universities in the future. In a world that was frequently plagued with war and political unrest, monasteries served as the beacon of knowledge and intellectual growth.

Apart from literacy, monks also taught a variety of other subjects including theology, philosophy, music, and arithmetic, thereby shaping the academic curriculum of the time. They established scriptoriums, where young novices were taught the art of copying texts and manuscripts. This rigorous educational structure allowed for the dissemination of knowledge and ensured the preservation of classical texts.

Moreover, the monastic tradition of education played a significant role in social mobility. Monastic schools often provided education for the less privileged. This enabled individuals of lower social standing to climb the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and sometimes even make their way into royal courts as advisors.

The Life of a Medieval Monk

 The life of a medieval monk was one of devotion, discipline, and service. Embarking on a lifelong commitment to God, these individuals would renounce worldly pleasures and devote their lives to prayer, work, study, and communal living. They played a central role in the spiritual and intellectual life of the Middle Ages, helping to shape the religious, educational, and cultural landscape of the period.

Monastic Orders 

The monastic life was divided into numerous orders, each with its own rule, lifestyle, and purpose. Among the most significant were the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans. The Benedictine monks, named after Saint Benedict of Nursia, adhered to the rule of ‘Ora et Labora’, meaning ‘Prayer and Work’. They devoted their days to communal prayer, manual labor, and intellectual work within the confines of a monastery.

The Franciscans and Dominicans, emerging later during the Middle Ages, were mendicant orders. They lived by begging and focused on preaching and ministering to the poor in urban areas, unlike the Benedictines who were largely cloistered.

The Daily Routine of a Medieval Monk

The daily routine of a medieval monk was highly structured, revolving around the Divine Office, manual labor, and intellectual work. The day would begin and end with prayer, with additional prayer services scattered throughout. The monks would also spend a significant portion of the day working – this could involve tasks within the monastery, such as cleaning and cooking, or outside tasks, like farming or tending the monastery’s lands. A portion of the day was also dedicated to reading and study, usually in the quiet solitude of the monastery library.

Monastic Work and Study 

Work was an integral part of monastic life. Manual labor was seen as a form of prayer, a way to prevent idleness and to sustain the monastery. This could include farming, brewing beer, producing honey, or maintaining the monastery buildings.

Study, on the other hand, represented the intellectual aspect of monastic life. Monks spent several hours a day reading and copying manuscripts, studying religious texts, and writing scholarly works. The Scriptorium was the monastic writing room where these sacred scribes painstakingly copied and preserved classical and religious texts, ensuring the survival of knowledge through the Dark Ages.

The Role of Medieval Monks in Medicine

Monasteries during the Middle Ages were often places of healing, with many monks trained in the rudiments of medical care. They grew medicinal herbs in their gardens, created remedies, and provided care to their fellow monks as well as the wider community. Some monasteries even served as hospitals. The monks’ work in medicine helped to preserve the medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and they contributed to its development through their own studies and writings.

Influential Medieval Monks 

The Middle Ages witnessed several monks who significantly influenced both the Church and society. Two of the most notable among these were Saint Benedict of Nursia and Thomas Aquinas.

Saint Benedict of Nursia 

Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order, is one of the most influential figures in monastic history. Born in Nursia, Italy, around 480 AD, he is best known for his ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’, which served as the foundational guide for monastic living across Europe. His rule emphasized balance, moderation, and the combination of prayer and work, shaping the essence of Western monasticism. Benedictine monasteries became centers of learning, agriculture, and hospitality, contributing significantly to the spread of Christianity and civilization throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

Thomas Aquinas 

Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar, is celebrated as one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the medieval period. Born in Italy in 1225, Aquinas is best known for integrating Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine. His most notable work, the ‘Summa Theologica’, is a fundamental text in the history of philosophy and remains a cornerstone of theological study today. His writings have had an enduring impact, shaping Catholic thought and influencing various intellectual traditions within Western thought.

The Art of Illumination: Monastic Manuscripts 

Within the monastic setting, one of the most breathtaking arts practiced by medieval monks was that of illumination. Manuscript illumination involved the application of bright colors and precious metals to decorate handwritten books, often with intricate designs and embellishments. These manuscripts, typically religious texts like the Bible, prayer books, or psalters, were transformed into exquisite works of art.

The monks would begin by preparing the parchment, followed by the careful transcription of texts. Afterwards, they would illustrate and embellish the pages with vivid colors obtained from plants, minerals, and even rare substances like gold and lapis lazuli. These illuminations not only added aesthetic beauty but also often provided commentary or further context to the text. Some of the most renowned illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, were produced by medieval monks, showcasing their incredible mastery over this art form.

The Impact of Monasticism on Modern Society 

The legacy of medieval monks extends far beyond the Middle Ages, influencing various aspects of modern society. First, the monastic commitment to education and manuscript preservation laid the groundwork for the modern Western educational system, leading to the establishment of universities. Secondly, the monastic tradition of hospitality led to the development of modern hospitals, with many monasteries serving as places of care for the sick.

Moreover, the monks’ focus on agricultural work influenced farming practices, with many techniques and systems, such as fish farming and the use of water mills, being credited to these monastic communities. In fact, the well-ordered nature of monastic life also influenced the development of modern organizational and administrative systems.

The Influence of Monasticism on Modern Education

The monastic educational model, with its focus on literacy, discipline, and moral instruction, greatly influenced the formation of the modern educational system. The curriculum used in monastic schools, including subjects like Latin, theology, philosophy, and music, formed the basis for university studies. Moreover, the monastic tradition of preserving and studying ancient texts laid the foundations for humanities and classical studies. The establishment of the first universities in the 11th and 12th centuries in places like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford can be traced back to the intellectual tradition nurtured in the monastic schools.

Monastic Libraries and the Preservation of Knowledge 

Monastic libraries played an essential role in preserving and transmitting knowledge throughout the Middle Ages. These libraries housed a vast array of texts ranging from religious scriptures, theological works, and philosophical treatises, to histories, biographies, and classical literature. The monks painstakingly copied these texts by hand, a laborious process that often took years to complete.

Monks were not only scribes but also scholars. They would study, interpret, and comment on the texts they copied, often adding their own glosses in the margins. Through this process, they preserved not only the knowledge contained within these texts but also their own intellectual contributions.

The Architecture and Design of Monasteries

The architecture and design of monasteries were rooted in the principles of simplicity, functionality, and harmony. Monasteries were usually self-sufficient complexes, containing everything the monks needed for their spiritual and physical wellbeing. Common components included a church for worship, cloisters for meditation, a scriptorium for copying manuscripts, a refectory for communal dining, dormitories for sleeping, and often, a library for study. The design was intended to facilitate the monks’ lifestyle of work, prayer, and contemplation, creating a tranquil environment conducive to their spiritual pursuits.

The Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles were prominent in monastery construction during the Middle Ages. These buildings, with their grand arches, intricate stonework, and beautiful stained glass, were often built over many decades, or even centuries. They stand today as enduring symbols of the monks’ dedication to their faith and their artistic and architectural contributions to society.


The monastic tradition, embodied by the medieval monks, has had a profound and enduring impact on Western society and culture. These sacred scribes, with their commitment to spiritual discipline, intellectual work, and manual labor, were pivotal in preserving and transmitting knowledge throughout the turbulent times of the Middle Ages. Their influence extends from the realm of education, arts, and agriculture to the development of modern societal structures. Thus, the story of the medieval monks serves as a testament to the power of devotion, discipline, and scholarship, and their role as the torchbearers of civilization during the Middle Ages is a heritage that continues to resonate in our world today.