Phoebe,  Western Europe

Oh Brother – Phoebe’s Guide to Monks (Part One)

13873226_318495808492508_6984295028216945570_n Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes all this talk of monks and friars and abbeys and canons can sometimes get a little confusing, and that’s BEFORE people start firing… so I have put together a little something to outline the basic differences between them in order to help you distinguish your Blackfriars from your Greyfriars.

There have been bodies of monks since around the third to fourth century, originally founded within the Eastern Orthodox Church by Saint Pachomius under the inspiration of Saint Anthony the Great in Egypt. To begin with these monks spread through Palestine, Judea, Syria and North Africa. St Basil of Caesarea solidified their orders with his code of Ascetic Rule, which is still used today within their Church. Ascetica is the discipline of – in the natural form – allowing only what the body needs for moderate existence. Food, sleep and so on, without conveying such hardships as to allow the body to suffer. There are orders that have taken this a step further to what is commonly known as unnatural asceticism in which the sufferer allows, even forces his body to undergo severe treatment in order to maintain belief, either for oneself or as a means of self-punishment for the sins of others. Such self-punishment includes starvation, sleeping on beds of nails and self-flagellation. These and other forms of self-torture are well-documented throughout several faiths and are not restricted to Christians.

There are generally a few main monastic orders you are likely to hear of, probably more than you realise. Three have become over time easy to pinpoint by their chosen robes, each of a different colour, giving them the names Blackfriars, Greyfriars and Whitefriars. That’s not to say they always stick to this mantra, but as a rule it’s a fairly accurate one. In this series I will talk about the various orders and a little about their founding and the impact they had on the world.

The Order of Saint Benedict was founded in around 529 AD by Benedict of Nursia, and was a Catholic order formed after Benedict at the age of fourteen became disgusted at the lax morality in Rome and removed himself to a cave in Subiaco to live the life of an ascetic hermit. Whilst there he attracted a good deal of attention, with disciples impressed with his efforts, starting to gather. He left his cave and after a great deal of struggle, moved on from Subiaco to Monte Cassino in 529 where he wrote a new set of rules, it is thought based on the Rule of St Basil, with allusions to the rules laid down by St Augustine and the work of Saint John Cassian. The work is felt to be an inspirational document laying down the basis of early democracy in the way the monastic election process is carried out, as well as being one of the earliest surviving examples of a constitution.

The Order of Saint Benedict are generally identifiable by their black habits, giving them the name “Blackfriars”. The Order in modern times has developed to a point whereby certain areas of their lifestyle and co-existence with their locale are relaxed, generally in times of prosperity, and modified when times are harder. Following the sack of Monte Cassino by the Lombards in 596, they moved to Rome and set up further religious houses. As their word spread they founded later monasteries across Europe. In England, the most well known of these Abbeys includes Westminster and Leicester Abbey.

By the 10th Century, the simple lifestyle intended by Benedict had devolved due to political and social privations in many areas. The causes were attributed to a combination of frequent Viking raids, and the increasing involvement of local feudal landlords whose contribution of land for the religious houses had erupted into a continual round of claiming tithes and goods from the Orders, often leaving them destitute, and an insistence on using them to establish their own patrons as Abbotts. Their increased inclusion in outside communities and secular matters steered them away from the Rule by which they had been founded and led them to step away from the doctrine of manual labour at the core of their establishment. Many of the more well off abbeys and monasteries had become paper monks, devoting themselves to teaching, and displays of pomp. The simple robes were replaced with richer clothing, and serfs were hired to perform menial tasks. The classic vegetarian diet was overlooked and the basic worship of the Hours were rescheduled so as not to interrupt sleep.

In 910 the future William I, Duke of Aquitaine purchased a piece of land in Cluny and founded a new Abbey. His reforms included a return to the stricter doctrine order written by Benedict. These reforms became known as the Clunaic reforms and began a return to prayer, silence and solitude. But the reforms ended with the religious observance. Materially as the reforms spread and new abbeys and monasteries were built, pilgrimage was encouraged, Abbeys became highly decorated with stained glass windows, rich examples of gold Altar dressings and other accoutrements.

By 1075, with Abbeys in France on the increase, a monk, Robert de Molesme from Cluny Abbey gained permission from the Pope to found a new abbey. He built at Molesme in Burgundy but achieved only moderate success in his desire to return to the original Rule of Benedict. After 23 years, in 1098 he led a band of twenty-one of his brothers to Citeaux near Dijon where they purchased a patch of swampy ground and founded the new Cistercian Order. All pomp and ceremony was abandoned, and with it the rich lifestyle that monastic orders had evolved into. The simple edicts of plain clothing and a meagre diet were recaptured and there was a return to the doctrine of the nobility of manual labour. After a year of hard work establishing this new Abbey, followers included Alberic, a former Colan Forest Hermit, and English Anglo-Saxon nobleman Stephen Harding who had fled to France following the Norman conquest and the ruination of his family. The former home of the order at Molesme however was declining and Pope Urban II ordered Robert to return there. The remaining brothers elected Alberic as their new Abbot, who continued the reforms Robert had instigated, and upon his death in 1108, he was succeeded by Stephen.


The Cistercian order was devoted to work, prayer, love and self-denial. Stephen was a gifted man, and wrote a Charter of Charity. Abandoning the rich clothing and to distinguish themselves from their previous Benedictine order, they adopted rough woollen habits in white, giving them the nickname ”whitefriars”. They bought farmland, which the lay brothers – local or vagrant illiterate peasants for the most part, worked as part of their attachment to the order, a model of their benevolence. These lay brothers were not forced to accept the doctrines of the Order however were expected to obey the abbot and exercise chastity. They were housed in one wing of the Abbey. On occasion land was granted or gifted to the Abbey; the monks were reluctant to accept previously cultivated land, due to their edict to provide for themselves. However, on the occasions where they did accept previously farmed land, the serfs that had worked it, were moved elsewhere by the monks.

The Order spread rapidly through France, gaining the following of a young Burgundian noble, Bernard who joined the Abbey with a group of 35 of his closest friends and family. In 1115 Hugh of Champagne gave the Abbey a large tract of land forty miles from Troyes, including a forest notoriously associated with bandits and thieves as a hide-out; Bernard took a group of twelve and began work to clear the area, founding the Abbey of Clairvaux.

As word spread of Bernard, his name becoming well known, the Order grew with several more houses across France. In 1128 With the aid of William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, the Order spread into England with the founding of Waverley Abbey in Surrey. From this initial English Order, others were born across Britain including Neath, Rievaulx, Beaulieu, Melrose, Tintern, Fountains and Revesby. In 1140 Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, befriended Bernard and took the Order to Ireland, founding Bective, Mellifont and Boyle amongst others. By 1145, Bernard had gained the following of Henry of France, brother of King Louis VII who entered the Order at Clairvaux, and another of his monks, who had risen to be Abbot of Saints Vincenzo and Anastasio outside of Rome, rose to the Papal Chair as Pope Eugene III. Following the fall of Edessa, Eugene issued a Papal Bull to Louis VII, Quantum Praedecessores, thus making Louis the first European Monarch to embark on Crusade.

From the original 38 Cistercian Abbeys, the first 37 have long been dissolved, however the first established in Bavaria, close to Austria, Rein Abbey, remains today. Deeded by Leopold the Strong, and gifted with a number of monks from the Abbey at Ebrach, in 1129 it is the oldest Cistercian Abbey in the world. By 1152, there were 333 Cistercian monasteries in Europe; 54 of which were in England. This number had been greatly reinforced by the merger and inclusion of the Savigniac Houses, giving the Cistercian order further abbeys at Jervaulx and Furness amongst others. At this point, expansion in England was halted. In 1153, just a month apart, Pope Eugene and his former mentor, Saint Bernard both passed away.

In the next article I will discuss some of the contributions these first orders made to the world, in areas you may or may not have realized. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this first part.