10/22/12 - misfit monks

In today's selection -- medieval monks. Our typical image of monks is of pious men diligently transcribing text on vellum -- which indeed was part of their ascetic duty. But underneath that image lies the truth that monks were often the dregs of medieval society. Here we find Poggio Bracciolini, a former papal court official whose interests led him to search the monasteries of Europe in search of ancient Roman manuscripts in the early 1400s, and whose opinion of monks was less than favorable:

"Poggio did not like monks. He knew several impressive ones, men of great moral seriousness and learning. But on the whole he found them superstitious, ignorant, and hopelessly lazy. Monasteries, he thought, were the dumping grounds for those deemed unfit for life in the world. Noblemen fobbed off the sons they judged to be weaklings, misfits, or good-for-nothings; merchants sent their dim-witted or paralytic children there; peasants got rid of extra mouths they could not feed. The hardiest of the inmates could at least do some productive labor in the monastery gardens and the adjacent fields, as monks in earlier, more austere times had done, but for the most part, Poggio thought, they were a pack of idlers.

"Behind the thick walls of the cloisters, the parasites would mumble their prayers and live off the income generated by those who farmed the monastery's extensive landholdings. The Church was a landlord, wealthier than the greatest nobles in the realm, and it possessed the worldly power to enforce its rents and all its other rights and privileges. ...

"With his friends in the curia Poggio shared jokes about the venality, stupidity, and sexual appetite of monks. And their claims to piety left him unimpressed: 'I cannot find that they do anything but sing like grasshoppers,' he wrote, 'and I can­not help thinking they are too liberally paid for the mere exer­cise of their lungs.' Even the hard work of monastic spiritual discipline seemed paltry to him, when set against the real hard work he observed in the fields: 'They extol their labors as a kind of Herculean task, because they rise in the night to chant the praises of God. This is no doubt an extraordinary proof of merit, that they sit up to exercise themselves in psalmody. What would they say if they rose to go to the plough, like farm­ers, exposed to the wind and rain, with bare feet, and with their bodies thinly clad?' Their whole enterprise seemed to him an exercise in hypocrisy. ...

"The Benedictine Rule had called for manual labor, as well as prayer and reading, and it was always assumed that this labor could include writing. The early founders of monastic orders did not regard copying manuscripts as an exalted activity; on the contrary, as they were highly aware, most of the copying in the ancient world had been done by educated slaves. The task was therefore inherently humiliating as well as tedious, a perfect combination for the ascetic project of disciplining the spirit."


Stephen Greenblatt


The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Stephen Greenblatt


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