Dear Abbeys

Abbeys were more than cold places of worship with tall ceilings — they became the think-tanks that helped drive France out of its Middle-Aged funk.
By Steve Smith

France is littered with medieval monasteries like Mont St-Michel. And like the abbey at Mont St-Michel, most have virtually no furnishings (they never had many), leaving the visitor with little to reconstruct what life must have been like in these cold stone buildings 1,000 years ago. A little history can help breathe life into these important yet underappreciated monuments.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries arose as refuges of peace and order in a chaotic world. While the pope got rich and famous playing power politics, monasteries worked to keep the focus on simplicity and poverty. Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries were mediators between man and God. In these peacefully remote abbeys, Europe's best minds would struggle with the interpretation of God's words. Every sentence needed to be understood and applied. Answers were debated in universities and contemplated in monasteries.

St. Benedict established the Middle Ages' most influential monastic order (Benedictine) in Montecassino, Italy, in A.D. 529. He scheduled a rigorous program of monks' duties, combining manual labor with intellectual tasks. His monastic movement spread north and took firm root in France with the abbey at Mont St. Michel established by 708. By A.D. 1100, the abbey of Cluny (Burgundy) eventually controlled over 2,000 dependent abbeys and vied with the pope for control of the Church. The Benedictine abbeys grew dot-com rich, and with wealth came excess (such as private bedrooms with baths). Monks lost sight of their purpose and became soft and corrupt. In the late 1100s, a determined and charismatic St. Bernard rallied the Cistercian order by going back to the original rule of St. Benedict. Cistercian abbeys thrived as centers of religious thought and exploration from the 13th through the 15th centuries.

Cistercian abbots ran their abbeys like little kingdoms, doling out punishment and food to the monks, and tools to peasant farmers. Abbeys were occupied by two groups: the favored monks from aristocratic families (such as St. Bernard), and a larger group of lay brothers from peasant stock who were given the heaviest labor and could only join the Sunday services. Monks' days were broken into three activities: prayer, divine reading, and labor. Monks lived in silence and poverty with few amenities (meat was forbidden, as was cable TV). In summer, they got two daily meals; in winter, just one. Monks slept together in a single room on threadbare mats covering solid-rock floors.

With their focus on work and discipline, Cistercian abbeys became leaders of the medieval industrial revolution. Among the few literate people in Europe, monks were keepers of technological knowledge — about clocks, waterwheels, accounting, foundries, gristmills, textiles, and agricultural techniques. Abbeys became economic engines that helped drive France out of its Middle-Aged funk. As France (and Europe) slowly got its act together in the late Middle Ages, cities reemerged as places to trade and thrive. Abbeys gradually lost their relevance in a brave new humanist world. Kings took over abbot selection, further degrading the abbeys' power, and Gutenberg's movable type made monks obsolete. The French Revolution closed the book on abbey life, occupying and destroying many, but fortunately the abbey of Mont St-Michel was spared.

Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves France guidebook.