By the time Martin Luther was formally excommunicated in 1521, monasticism as we would most commonly recognize it had been around for over 1200 years. In his early adult life, Luther felt called to the monastic life and joined a friary where he delved into Religious life and study. Unfortunately, he was not suited for this Religious life and amidst his own spiritual frustration and discontentment with the Roman Catholic Church, challenged the hierarchy with his 95 theses. When he was eventually excommunicated for pointing out the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, his theology and teachings became distinctly anti-Catholic. One of his major condemnations was of monasticism, and this targeted focus would shape the movement and spirituality for all Protestants to follow.
Let us take a brief moment, however, to address the major concerns that Luther had. First and foremost, he was appalled by the corruption of the Catholic clergy, specifically the selling of indulgences. When you have a religion whose authority rests in a select minority, it does not come as a surprise that his solution was to hand that authority to the majority (provided they were male), and thus his emphasis on the universal priesthood. He also had a problem with the texts used for the Bible. Though few Protestants know it, Luther tried to throw out the Book of Revelation. He also set aside the texts that we now call the Apocrypha. As far as the Bible was concerned, he believed it should be available for all, so he translated it into German himself while in hiding.
Pertaining most importantly to our discussion here, he also had a problem with the Religious Orders. Unfortunately, his reasons for condemning the Orders were not singular, there were several at least. For one, he was drawing from his own poor experience as a friar. As a practicing contemplative, I would like to point out that there are as many paths to contemplative experience as there are people. Much to his discredit, Luther should have sought a different route than the friary of which he was a part. In the end, he was projecting his own inner turmoil on the system that he was expecting to fix his problems. So his answer to that failure was to blame the system entirely for it and abolish it rather than trying to fix it. Granted, towards the end of his life, Luther regretted that severe action, but by then the damage was done and the Protestant Reformation would continue on without the wealth of that spiritual heritage.
To his credit, though, he was also protesting the elevated position of the monastics. By that point, it was not an uncommon teaching that the most direct route to heaven was through monastic living, that the sacrament of monastic vows were greater even than the sacrament of marriage. This was a derivation that Luther was certainly justified in calling out. Contemplative life is a route to God, but it does not supersede other callings in life. Truth be told, as the Celtic Christians practiced, contemplative life is not even an antithesis to married life. But most of all, monastics are not better than everyone else. We are servants to God just like everyone else. For centuries, the Church had raised monastics on a pedestal, and it took Luther to knock that pedestal back down.
A number of the Religious Orders in Luther’s day had grown corrupt just like the rest of the Church. These monasteries and Abbeys were wealthy in land and riches. Their power was immense. Many monasteries had become homes of sloth, with monks keeping fat off the work of the peasants. Should these Orders have been shaken instead of being razed to the ground? Most likely. Should they have been abolished out of hand? Not at all.
We must understand that the furor of the Protestant Reformation that took hold of Europe and later Britain and then America, was a grab for political power and wealth as much as it was reassessment of religious values. The kings, princes and nobility saw the schism of the Catholic Church as a chance to gain autonomy and absorb the wealth of the church in their lands. This may not have been Luther’s objective, but it became the driving force that would propel Protestantism onto the stage of Europe.
By the mid 1500s in England, Henry VIII would declare himself sovereign of the Church of England and divorce himself and his country from Rome because the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife. In the years that would follow until Queen Elizabeth could finally hold the thrown and provide a sense of stability, England would be bathed in blood for the sake of its own reformation. And the monasteries in England? Henry confiscated the majority when he first declared the Church of England, and his son Edward and his proctors would confiscate the remainder to fill the royal coffers.
In France all the way through the early 1800s, revolution after revolution would see countless monasteries pillaged. Thousands and thousands of unarmed monks, from Germany to Spain, from England through southern France, would be slaughtered outside their sacred homes by mobs who would then pillage and rape these monuments, some of which had stood for over a thousand years.
Why this burning hatred? For what crimes were these monastics condemned? And why had so many monastic houses fallen so far? One by one, we shall address these issues.
One of the most pervasive crimes held against the monasteries was of their wealth. These monks who had been sworn to poverty were as a whole some of the wealthiest communities in Europe. Their primary source of wealth was in the lands they held. For the most part, these lands had been gifted to them from nobility and wealthy patrons. Keep in mind, that the peak of monasticism was during Europe’s feudal age and it was this form that monasticism followed for centuries. The land they held has been acquired legitimately. The peasants that worked the fields were allowed to live off the land. Truth be told, for the majority of this period, the peasants who worked under the shadow of the monasteries were offered better conditions and allowed to keep more of their crops than others under the nobility.
There came a breaking point, however. As is the tendency for base human nature, the poor saw the wealth of the monasteries and by right of might, felt they were entitled to it. As the Protestant Reformation dawned, it is true that many of the monastic Orders were trying to draw as much from their feudal peasants as possible, trying to squeeze the last drop of income from an already impoverished class. Unfortunately, this is where most histories today end the story, leaving out a crucial point. By filling in the rest of this history, we can see that the monastics were more scapegoat and victim than actual oppressor. As much as the monasteries were trying to bleed form the peasants, the monasteries were being bled by the nobility.
As early as the 6th century and well established by the 8th century, it had become common place to have the abbot of a monastery appointed by the local nobility or national monarchy. This period, called the Regime of the Commende, was curtailed on occasion, but by the 18th century was again in full force. Originally according to the commende, vacant monasteries were given to bishops that have been forced from their episcopates. It was not long before this was abused. In only a few centuries, Abbeys and monastic houses were being bequeathed as gifts to princes, mistresses, and illegitimate children. In fact, one of the Medici children was given a number of Abbey churches as a christening gift, one of which had been the Abbey of St. Benedict himself. These appointed abbots, properly called commendatory abbots, whose appointments were even sometimes approved by the Papacy for its own political reasons, rarely ever lived in the Abbey they were put in charge of. They simply saw the monasteries as income, like a child that has inherited his father’s business and expects the trust fund to keep coming in without actually have to manage anything. Thus the monasteries were stripped of their true religious and spiritual leaders and given abbots that had no interest in actually maintaining the spiritual state of the community they had been given. The one instruction they did receive from these appointed abbots was simple: raise money. A number of monasteries were eventually sucked dry and disbanded because the nobility took all there was without concern for the flock they had been given.
Not only were the monasteries being drained monetarily, but spiritually as well. Without an actual abbot overseeing the spiritual development of these religious houses, the brothers (and sisters) that had vowed their lives to the religious life were left on their own, and of course without the necessary leader, spiritual depravity ensued and was allowed to fester unchecked. You can hardly blame the monk for his fall if he came to a monastery where spiritual growth used to be found and was left to fend for himself and thus fell. It would be like blaming an invalid for being sick after he went to a doctor’s office only to find the doctor absent and refusing to ever see him.
When the Protestant Reformation released the valve on the political pressures that had been building up between Rome and the nobility of Europe, the various principalities were finally given the excuse to finish off what they had started. Rather than continuing to try and bleed the monasteries of what they could, they instead turned the peasants against the communities and pillaged them at will. The very people that claimed the monasteries were too wealthy were plundering them to increase their own wealth.
Protestants that revile monasticism rarely ever comment on the number of monks and nuns that were slaughtered without a fight. These were religious houses that had gained wealth primarily through the legitimate gifts of benefactors. It’s curious that the French Revolution was crying for the protection of personal property, but had no problem disregarding it when it came to plundering others.
As fate would have it, the peasants who were allowed to destroy and pillage these sacred houses in retribution for the “tyranny” they had endured soon found themselves under far more oppressive lords as the nobility took control of the lands (and peasants) that the monks had originally been holding. But by then the damage had been done. The Religious Orders that had protected the poorer classes were no longer there to shield them.
Another crime that was thrown against the monks was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the populace was claiming the monks to be depraved and unworthy of their spiritual authority. On the other hand, the populace claimed that if the monks were so superior then it was actually a disservice to the community for not marrying and having children. Yes, the monks who felt called to Religious life in community, to find love of God above love of another person, were forced out of the monasteries so they could marry and have kids. They were breaking the edict to “go forth and multiply”!…never mind the fact that Jesus, his mother and many other notable figures in the New Testament were lauded at that time as being celibate.
Still, at what point did anyone have the right to ignore personal boundaries and tell these men and women how they had to live? They choose their form of religious vocation. They were not forcing it on others. Yet they were condemned and forced to live otherwise. I’m reminded of a quotation from one of the 19th century’s greatest social philosophers when he said “Selfishness is not living as you want to live, it’s making other people live as you want to live.”
Next, the populace said that the Religious Orders were not offering any service to the people. This attack was even carried into the 18th century, in spite of the great universities, founded in the monasteries, that helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. I came across an account of one monastery in France that was trying to open a school only to have the city pass an ordinance that forbid monks from teaching, and then only to have the same city governance abolish the monastery because it supposedly gave nothing back for what it took from the community. Never mind the fact that it was the monasteries that cared for and fed the homeless and poor – not the nobility and various governments that riled up the people to let them loose on the monasteries. The same nobility and governments, I might add, that did nothing to fill the void that was then created and left countless men, women and children to die of hunger and starvation across Europe.
Condemn the Religious Orders as you may, but only after you take into account that they were the caretakers of the forgotten; they were the teachers and educators; they were the proponents of social-class equality (when a member of nobility entered a monastery, he was no better than the poorest of the poor that had entered with him); and with monastics teaching the peasants how to sustain themselves through proper agriculture and irrigation, they cultivated over half of Europe.
The ferocity with which the monasteries were attacked is staggering. Again, there were thousands of monks that were murdered in their monasteries. But the vehemence goes even beyond that. Germany and England may have stolen all they could, but they at least left the buildings standing. Now we have the ruins as silent testaments to the holy people who once populated the cities. But in Spain and France, the monasteries were razed to the ground so that not even a cornerstone would be left as evidence of what had once held Europe above ruin. The Abbey of Cluny in France, for instance, was second only in size to the Vatican in Rome. It took them 20 years, but in that time the peasants completely destroyed the religious house. Imagine the history that France has lost! From the years 1830 to 1835, the French emptied and destroyed some 3,000 monasteries. 3,000 in just five years! For those that may think monasticism was some small sideline in Christianity, try to get your head around that number. 3,000 monasteries in France alone in just five years. Add to that the thousands that were destroyed in the centuries before it.
This was not simply reactionary religion. This was pure human violent greed. There was nothing noble, holy, or glorious about what took place across Europe. There is nothing to romanticize about this mob rule. It was hypocritical for these revolutionaries to cry for the freedom of religion when they would not let others practice as they so chose. Yes, some of the monasteries were corrupt. But in no way did that justify the terrible punishment that was exacted. In plundering, raping, pillaging and slaughtering the monasteries and convents, the Protestant Reformation erased the most viable source of spiritual growth and expression that had been the heart of Christianity. With that in mind, I will now delve into the history of monasticism from the beginning.