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Friday, November 06, 2015

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“Medieval Lives” by Alan Ereira, Terry Jones and the 'other side' of the Monkish orders

The fat friar is not just a myth.

by Ferdinand III




The 'other side' of the Monkish orders. Monks were indispensable to saving and extending civilization. Everything from the preservation of classical authors, unbelievable art and literature, including the first histories of many nations, on to brewing, artesian wells and water milling, can be traced to the energy and often-times sheer genius of monks and their religious orders. As Jones and Ereira write of the amazingly productive Cisterian order, who in some 30 years went from 1 Abbey to 350 scattered across Europe:

Cistercians were natural businessmen. At Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire they turned wool production into a major money-spinner, breeding a super-sheep that produced the highest-quality wool in Europe. By the end of the century they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. Meanwhile, at neighbouring Rievaulx the monks moved into heavy industry, developing mining and iron-smelting technology that put them way ahead of their time..”

The Monks were indeed businessmen, as well as warriors for the faith, both in spirit and in arms. But over time there came to the fore, the secularization of the Monkish orders. In summary, they were bought off by the well-to-do, the Kingly, the elite. The image of the fat-beer drinking priest, is perhaps exaggerated but likely based on the truth, that Monks ate and drank extremely well – some 7000 calories a day it is calculated in some cases, which is twice what you need.

William the Conqueror did not initiate the process of the state using monasteries for its own ends, but he helped it along, by giving 1/4 of the land in England to the Church, mostly in the forms of abbeys in which monks would pray for the salvation of Norman warriors, including himself. The idea was that in a violent age, the souls of fighting men needed saving.

It became the custom for rich people and fighting men like the Norman soldiers, whose ways of life put their souls in such great jeopardy, to pay monks to do the praying they were too busy to do for themselves. This had one profound effect: prayer became a commodity. It gained a commercial value and this was eventually to prove the undoing of the whole system...”

Ereira and Jones are right. Once you price a prayer, the entire system can be bought. And it was. Monasteries became fabulously wealthy, many with running hot and cold water, and waste removal – luxuries not seen since Rome-all due to secular patronage. Bishops became more like Kings of the flesh, than Kings in Christ. The usual assortment of debasement and corruption naturally followed the money. I remember reading that Wilifred the great 7th century Bishop had a gold throne and his coronation included 12 monks lifting him up on the gold throne, to signify perhaps, that he was as mighty as Christ, or at least as any secular King.  These men were politicians, not priests. 

The most powerful bishops and archbishops were career politicians, with little or no theological training. For them the Church was a political and economic power base...”

Various revolts including the poorly named 'Peasants revolt' of 1381, stemmed from Church and monastic corruption. Wyclif, the Oxford doctor, who initiated the 1381 irruption, mightily declaimed against this corruption of the faith. From 1200-1500, monks and abbeys, including rich Bishops and fat priests, were targets of mobs, attacks, violence and loathing. Many of the monks and Church elite, were secular men, faintly familiar with Christianity, and certainly more interested in worldly power, than spiritual grace.

The image of the fat priest, devouring mutton, whilst somewhat oblique, is based it appears on reality. Once the monastic orders put their spiritual offerings up for sale, the end result was inevitable. 


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