Christian monks – Medieval Europe – What is a monk?

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A monk getting tonsured: Christian monks

Christian monks: A monk shaving another  monk

What is a monk?

Sometimes when a little boy seemed especially smart, his parents would take him to a monastery and leave him there to be taken care of by the monks and educated, and when he grew up he would become a monk. One example is Thomas Aquinas.

More about Thomas Aquinas
Medieval religions
More medieval Europe articles

Monks (pronounced MUNKS) were men who devoted their lives to the service of God and of the Catholic church (there are still monks today actually).

Buddhist monks and Christian monks

The first monks were not Christians but Buddhists, starting about 500 BC. Probably the first Christian monks, in Egypt in the 300s AD, got the idea from Buddhist monks in India; there were plenty of traders traveling between India and Egypt during the Roman Empire.

Buddhist monks
and Buddhist nuns
The Silk Road and trade

To show that they were monks, Christian men had the back of their heads shaved bald. They called this being “tonsured” (TON-soord).

More about tonsure


About some modern Christian monks in the north of Scotland

What did monks do all day?

Christian monks lived together in a monastery (MAHN-ah-sterr-ee) under the rule of an abbot (AA-but). They prayed five times a day, and went to Mass every day. Sometimes the monks sang in choirs. In between some of the monks copied manuscripts in the monastery’s library, or taught other little boys to read and write, or did the laundry for the monastery. Other monks worked in the fields like most other people, planting grain for the monastery and harvesting it, and taking care of the monastery’s pigs and sheep and cattle.

What is Christian mass?
More about medieval books

Monk harvesting grain

Christian monk harvesting grain

In some monasteries, the monks made wine to drink and to sell in town. Monks never married and were not supposed to have children, and they did not own any property of their own.

Why did men become monks?

Sometimes men joined monasteries when they were older. Maybe they felt drawn to a religious life, like Gregory the Great. But also this was a way to be a scientist, like Roger Bacon. And it was like going to assisted living: maybe they were so poor or sick that they wanted someone to take care of them. (For another reason, check out the story of Heloise and Abelard).

Who was Roger Bacon?
What about Heloise and Abelard?

A monk drinking wine (from the British Library)

A Christian monk drinking wine (from the British Library)

Even kings became monks

Even kings and emperors, like Michael V, sometimes became monks. A stronger rival who made himself king might force the ex-king to become a monk to get him out of the way. Families sometimes also sent their boys to be monks if they had too many children. They didn’t want to have to split their farm among too many children for the inheritance. Girls couldn’t become monks, but they could become Christian nuns.

More about Christian nuns

So what is a monk? Did you find out what you wanted to know about Christian monks? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: visit a monastery if there’s one near you
More about Christian nuns
More about the Franciscans

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Christian monks:

  

Tonsure
Buddhist monks
Franciscan monks
Christian Nuns
Bishops
Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale(the narrator is a monk)
Quatr.us home

By |2018-11-13T13:57:07+00:00August 4th, 2017|Medieval, Religion|4 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Christian monks – Medieval Europe – What is a monk?. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 4, 2017. Web. November 20, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

4 Comments

  1. Aurora November 13, 2018 at 10:31 am - Reply

    I needed this for an essay for school, and I got all the information that I needed.

    • Karen Carr November 13, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      I’m glad we could help, Aurora!

  2. Harry McNicholas December 21, 2017 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    The first Christian monks occurred in Egypt which had been visited by Buddhist monks for several years. prior to the visit of the Buddhist monks there was no such tradition in Christianity nor in Judaism. The closest Buddhist sangha to Egypt was in Eastern Persia. How much influence these monks might have had on the start of Christianity is pure speculation.

    • Karen Carr December 21, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      Yes, it’s speculation, in the sense that we have no direct evidence (yet) that Christian monks got the idea from earlier Buddhist monks. That’s why the article says “Probably”.

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