Modern illustration of a standing monk reading aloud to a group of monks seated in a monastic setting.

Medieval monasteries were centers of religious, educational, and community life in medieval Europe.

Life in Monasteries and Convents

During the Middle Ages, some men and women withdrew from worldly life to become monks and nuns. Behind the walls of monasteries and convents, they devoted their lives to spiritual goals.

The Benedictine Rule

About 530, a monk named Benedict organized the monastery of Monte Cassino in central Italy. He created rules to regulate monastic life. In time, the Benedictine Rule was used by monasteries and convents across Europe.

Under the Benedictine Rule, monks and nuns took three vows. The first was obedience to the abbot or abbess who headed the monastery or convent. The second was poverty, or giving up worldly goods, and the third was chastity, or purity. Each day was divided into periods for worship, work, and study.

Benedict believed in the spiritual value of manual labor and required monks to work in the fields or at other physical tasks. Like peasants all over Europe at the time, monks and nuns cleared and drained land. They also experimented with crops. By helping to develop new farming methods, they contributed to the gradual improvement in the farm economy, which supported medieval life.

A Life of Service

In a world without hospitals, public schools, or social programs, monasteries and convents often provided basic social services. Monks and nuns looked after the poor and sick and set up schools for children. Travelers, especially Christian pilgrims traveling to holy shrines, could find food and a night's lodging at many monasteries and convents.

Some monks and nuns worked in the outside world as missionaries. During the Middle Ages, men and women risked their lives to spread Christian teachings across Europe. Patrick was a monk who set up the Church in Ireland. Augustine was a missionary to the Angles and Saxons in England. Later, the Church honored some of its missionaries by declaring them saints.

Centers of Learning

Monasteries and convents performed a vital cultural function by preserving the writings of the ancient world. Their libraries contained Greek and Roman works, which monks and nuns copied as a form of labor. Most monks and nuns had little education, but some were well educated. They wrote and taught Latin or Greek, the languages of the ancient world. In England, the Venerable Bede wrote the most important history of England in the early Middle Ages.

Convents Offer Opportunities for Women

During the Middle Ages, many women entered convents. For some capable and inquiring women, convents offered an escape from the restrictions of medieval society.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments