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Egyptian caves where early monks and nuns lived

Egyptian caves where early monks and nuns lived

Who was Benedict?

In the 500s AD, Benedict was the founder of a new Christian movement toward monasticism: living as monks or nuns.

What are Christian monks?
History of Christianity
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A Buddhist idea: the monastery

Already in the 300s, especially in Egypt, men and women had been going off by themselves into the desert, away from people, to live a life of prayer, devoted entirely to God. This followed earlier movements in India and China where Buddhist monks also retired from the world into caves cut into cliffs. People called these men and women monks (and the women gradually came to be called nuns).

Buddhist monks
And Buddhist nuns
History of Buddhism

Rule of St. Benedict: parchment with Latin writing on it.

Rule of St. Benedict. This is the oldest copy we have. It’s from England in the early 700s AD. Now in the Bodleian library.

Controlling monks and nuns

But as there got to be more and more of these monks, all over Europe and Asia, and not just in the desert but even in towns and cities, it got harder and harder to figure out whether somebody was really devoting herself to God.

More about Christian nuns

What if she was really some kind of scam artist? Or just a group of women who wanted to live on their own, in an apartment, without dads or husbands telling them what to do? In China, in the 400s AD the Wei emperor Dai Wudi closed many Buddhist monasteries and took their money.

Benedict makes a lot of rules

A monk drinking wine (from the British Library)

A monk drinking wine (from the British Library)

Benedict wanted to prevent this sort of thing from happening to Christian monks by showing that they could regulate themselves. He organized a community of monks in Italy, and wrote up a set of rules for them to live by. Gradually people agreed, all over the Christian world, that you should only trust monks who lived by the rules of these communities. All monks should have somebody who was in charge of them and could vouch for their character.

Monasteries as money-makers

As the Buddhist monasteries had already figured out, these rules could also force the monks and nuns to work hard farming or manufacturing things all day. Like Buddhist monasteries, Christian monasteries sold wine, or medicines, or honey, or manuscript books. They ran schools. Convents ran nursing homes and orphanages. They sold linen and wool, embroidered cloths, knitted stockings, and lace.

Wine and wine-making
History of knitting
Medieval medicine

Monasteries became big centers of production, where the workers were bound by religion and by law. You could send children there. They could not leave, and did not have to be paid. And because nuns were not allowed to marry or have boyfriends, they didn’t have children of their own to care for, so they were really good workers.

Gregory the Great
Main Christianity page
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