Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 1 of 4)

Note: If you want to read a correction of historical misconceptions of Christianity
before reading this series, click here.

Monte Cassino today, the mother monastery of the Benedictine order

When it comes to the importance of Christianity to the history of humanity, “indispensable” is the right word to use here. Its contributions to the world are immense and span many areas — learning and education, science, healthcare, law, art, architecture, and ethics.

In this post, we will take a look at these contributions, in order to better appreciate what Christianity has given the world and indeed, how it built the West.

Let us start our discussion on this subject with the fall of Rome.

I. The Fall of Rome

In the late second century AD, the Roman Empire began to deteriorate, entering the period known today as “the Military Anarchy”.[1] Roman generals began devoting themselves to making and unmaking emperors instead of guarding the nation’s borders, civil wars ensued, and barbarian tribes poured into the gaps of the Empire’s defenses, resulting in series’ of invasions.[2] This political instability and chaos weakened the Empire and substantially disrupted intellectual and cultural life.

Cities that had been peaceful for centuries began building defensive walls. Resources that once went into buildings and public works went into continuous wars. Learning and scholarship declined considerably and fewer and fewer scholars were literate in Greek. This was a serious problem because Greek was the language in which intellectual works were written. As a result, “works that were only available in Greek, especially technical, philosophic and detailed scientific works, were read and copied far less and began to be neglected”.[3] Greco-Roman learning was increasingly preserved only in the popular Latin encyclopaedic tradition rather than studied in detail via the original Greek works.

In 476 AD, the last Roman Emperor was deposed by Odocacer, leader of the Goths — signifying the end of the Roman Empire. The former western Roman Empire stood as a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms and the next several centuries would be characterized by invasions, fragmentation and chaos — with few brief periods of stability and centralized authority.[4] Learning and scholarship which had been in decline since the late second century had reached a low ebb. As historian Will Durant notes, the basic cause of regression was “barbarism” and “war”, the “human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist”.[5] At this point, the whole intellectual tradition of the Greco-Roman world was literally in danger of being lost.[6] 

It was from this low point that the Christian Church gradually took the West under its wing and worked to re-establish the groundwork of civilization.

II. The Indispensable Monks

In the third century AD, some Christian individuals began to retreat into remote solitude to renounce worldly things and concentrate intensely on the spiritual life. These hermits typically lived alone or in small groups of two or three. They would find shelter in caves or simple huts and support themselves on what they could produce in their small fields or through tasks such as basket making. In the same period, Christian women also began to commit themselves to lives of celibacy, prayer and sacrifice, and looking after the poor and sick. These phenomena were the beginnings of the Christian monastic tradition (i.e. monks and nuns).[7] In the fourth century AD, cenobitic monasticism, or monks and nuns living together in monasteries, arose in recognition that individuals ought to live in a community. In time, these monastic communities would play a critical role in the survival, development and flourishing of Western civilization.

Christian monasteries were powerhouses of activity: carrying out agricultural, industrial and technical, learning, educational and scholarly, and charitable activities. Following the principle of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), they gave life to Europe and its people.

A. Agriculture

When it comes to agriculture, the monks developed large tracts of land, making them fertile and accessible. As noted by Carroll and Shiflett, Christian monasteries took “a leading role” in “the painstaking efforts of ‘clearing, planting and building’” that would be important to Europe’s future economic excellence.[8]

Most of the lands the monks developed were uncultivated and uninhabited, covered by forests or surrounded by marshes or swamps. The monks often worked on these lands for two reasons. One, monks chose the most secluded and inaccessible sites to reinforce the communal solitude of their life. Two, this was the type of land that lay donors could more easily give the monks.[9] When the monks cultivated these lands through manual labor, they did so embracing the difficulty and unattractiveness of their work. This was because they saw such tasks as channels of grace and opportunities for mortification of the flesh.

After cultivating the lands, the monks raised crops, bred livestock and pursued other agricultural activities. Many times their agricultural work led to innovations such as in wine, beer, cheese, animal breeding, etc.[10] In addition to these, the monks also introduced crops, industries and production methods with which the people in the regions they had settled in had not been previously familiar.[11] As Henry H. Goodell, former President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, notes:

Everywhere we see the monks instructing the population in the most profitable methods and industries, naturalizing under a vigorous sky the most useful vegetables and the most productive grains, importing continually into the countries they colonized animals of better breed, or plants new and unknown there before; here introducing the rearing of cattle and horses, there bees or fruit; in another place the brewing of beer with hops; in Sweden, the corn trade; in Burgundy, artificial pisciculture; in Ireland, salmon fisheries; in Parma, cheese making. They taught the necessity of letting the land be fallow for a time after several years of continuous cropping; they practiced rotation of crops, using clover as the last in the series; they improved the different varieties of fruits and learned the art of grafting, budding and layering; they taught by precept and example the value of drainage and irrigation. In short, in everything making for progressive agriculture we find them blazing the way ...  It was the monks of Fulda who started the celebrated vineyards of Johannesburg, the Cistercian monks that of Clos Vougeot. The Benedictines brought vines from Beaune to plant on the banks of the Allier. The monks of Mozat set out walnut trees, still so abundant in Lower Auvergne … it was the monks of the abbeys of St. Laurent and St. Martin who first brought together and conducted to Paris the waters of springs wasting themselves on the meadows of St. Gervais and Belleville; and in Lombardy it was the followers of St. Bernard who taught the peasants the art of irrigation, and made that country the most fertile and the richest in Europe.[12]

The monks shared what they knew with local communities — teaching them agricultural methods. Indeed, as historian Alexander Clarence Flick notes, “every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located”.[13]

The monks’ efforts also inspired others to return to agriculture, when its practice reached a low ebb after the fall of Rome. As people saw the monks digging ditches and plowing fields, they once more turned back to agricultural practice. As historian Woods notes:

In many cases, the monks’ good example inspired others, particularly the great respect and honor they showed toward manual labor in general and agriculture in particular.[14]

Ultimately, the efforts of the monks in this area were so substantial that historian Francois Guizot referred to them as “the agriculturists of Europe”.[15] Historian Henry Hallam likewise comments that “[w]e owe the agricultural restoration of a great part of Europe to the monks”.[16]

Medieval monks farming

B. Innovation and Technological Achievement

The innovation and technological achievement of the monks went beyond agriculture. As noted by French historians Gregoire et al:

In effect, whether it be the mining of salt, lead, iron, alum, or gypsum, or metallurgy, quarrying marble, running cutler’s shops and glassworks, or forging metal plates, also known as firebacks, there was no activity at all in which the monks did not display creativity and a fertile spirit of research. Utilizing their labor force, they instructed and trained it to perfection. Monastic know-how spread throughout Europe.[17]

The best example of how impressive the monks were in terms of technology however, would be the Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order who were especially known for their technological sophistication.

The Cistercians impressively employed waterpower in their communities, greatly improving their productivity. They used it for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning, among other activities, and this technology of theirs spread across Europe. As noted by historian Jean Gimpel:

[The Cistercians] played a role in the diffusion of new techniques, for the high level of their agricultural technology was matched by their industrial technology. Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor.[18]

These “complex sequences” says historian Landes, were “designed to make the most of the waterpower available and distribute it through a series of industrial operations”.[19] Ultimately, The Cistercians were so impressive activity-wise that historian Gimpel commented  that their monasteries “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time”.[20] The Cistercians were the first in wool production in England and the top iron producers in England and France.[21]

The monks also boasted skillful clock-makers among their ranks (time was important to the monks due to their strict prayer schedule). Gerbert of Aurillac, a monk, renowned scholar and future Pope Sylvester II, holds the honor of building the first recorded clock in 996 AD, for the German town of Magdeburg.[22] Even more sophisticated clocks were built by later monks. Richard of Wallingford for example, a 14th century abbot, designed a large astronomical clock for his monastery, the Benedictine abbey of Saint Albans. This clock was so impressive that it has been said that a clock that matched it in technological sophistication did not exist for at least two centuries.[23]

The monks also aided their fellowmen in a significant way by serving as technical advisers. Since they were adept in technical matters, the monks were approached by people for advice on these issues. As noted by historians Gregoire, Moulin and Ourself, the monks were “the skillful and unpaid technical advisers of the third world of their times —that is to say, Europe after the invasion of the barbarians”.[24]

Other innovations by the monks also testify to their ingenuity. Champagne was innovated by Benedictine monks from the abbey of Saint-Hilaire, France, in 1531. A century later, a monk by the name of Dom Perignon made important contributions to the making of champagne. The fundamental principles he established continue to govern the production of champagne today.[25] In the area of music, Guido of Arezzo, another Benedictine monk, invented modern staff notation and the learning technique “ut–re–mi–fa–sol–la”, deriving these pitches from a hymn to John the Baptist.[26] In time, this learning technique would be slightly altered to today’s “do-re-mi” (“ut” was changed to “do” and “ti” was added). Another innovation of the monks, and a critical one, was the Carolingian Miniscule — which introduced the use of lowercase letters, spaces between words and the use of question marks in writing.[27] This innovation had a great impact on readability, and was crucial in building the literacy of Western civilization. The scripts prior to the Carolingian miniscule were difficult to read and write. In addition to this, a variety of scripts also existed due to regional isolation. This made it difficult for people to decipher what what their counterparts in other regions were saying. For these reasons, the introduction of the Carolingian Miniscule was of great importance.[28] As stated by historian Philippe Wolff:

It would be no exaggeration to link this development with that of printing itself as the two decisive steps in the growth of a civilization on the written world.[29]

C. The Intellectual Life

1. Collection, Preservation and Copying of Manuscripts

A critical contribution of the monks in terms of learning is their collection, preservation and copying of ancient manuscripts. As mentioned earlier, after the fall of Rome, intellectual and cultural life was severely disrupted. Learning and scholarship reached a low ebb and warring and chaos threatened the survival of works of antiquity. During this period, the monks carried out vigorous efforts to preserve classical learning — saving as many ancient works as they could. First, they sought out books. As noted by historian Woods:

Throughout the history of monasticism we find abundant evidence of the devotion of monks to their books. Saint Benedict Biscop, for example, who established the monastery of Wearmouth in England, searched far and wide for volumes for his monastic library, embarking on five sea voyages for the purpose (and coming back each time with a sizable cargo). Lupus asked a fellow abbot for an opportunity to copy Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, and implored another friend to bring him Sallust’s accounts of the Catilinarian and Jugurthan Wars, the Verrines of Cicero, and any other volume that might be of interest. He asked to borrow Cicero’s De Rhetorica from another friend, and appealed to the pope for a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutions, and other texts. Gerbert possessed a like enthusiasm for books, offering to assist another abbot in completing incomplete copies of Cicero and the philosopher Demosthenes, and seeking copies of Cicero’s Verrines and De Republica.[30]

Of course, in addition to seeking out books, the monks preserved them — by safekeeping them in their monastery’s library. They also carried out heroic efforts in copying classical texts, ensuring their survival and spread across the former Empire. These efforts took place in a monastery’s scriptoria, a room dedicated to the copying of written texts.[31] It must be noted that copying ancient manuscripts was no easy task. Inscribed on one monastic manuscript are the words: “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor; but though three fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary”.[32]

In order to better appreciate the efforts of the monks, we can look to Alcuin of York, who oversaw a major monastic copyist effort in the Carolingian Empire in the 8th century. According to historian David Knowles, Alcuin “insisted on the necessity of good copies of all the best models in the field of textbooks”.[33] This resulted in a “great age” of copying, the effects of which would reverberate down the centuries — almost any classical text that survived until the Carolingian Renaissance has survived until today.[34]

We can also look at the major efforts carried out in the 11th century at the mother monastery of the Benedictine order, Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino enjoyed a cultural revival during this period. In addition to the outpouring of artistic and intellectual endeavor at this monastery, a number of texts were collected, preserved copied and saved from being lost to history. As historian Thomas Goldstein notes:

At one swoop a number of texts were recovered which might have otherwise been lost forever; to this one monastery in this one period we owe the preservation of the later Annals and Histories of Tacitus (Plate XIV), the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De lingua latina, Frontinus’ De aquis, and thirty-odd lines of Juvenal’s sixth satire that are not to be found in any other manuscript.[35]

Ultimately, the value of the monks’ collecting, preserving and copying efforts were inestimable. They preserved classical learning during the turbulent period after the fall of Rome. As historian Dawson notes:

It was the monks who kept the light of learning from being extinguished.[36]

2. Education and Scholarship

Catholic monasteries were also centers of education and monks themselves would set up schools within their monastery complex.  As Woods states:

Although the extent of the practice varied over the centuries, monks were teachers. Saint John Chrysostom tells us that already in his day (c. 347-407) it was customary for people in Antioch to send their sons to be educated by the monks. Saint Benedict instructed the sons of Roman nobles. Saint Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany, and in England Saint Augustine [of Canterbury] and his monks set up schools wherever they went. Saint Patrick is given credit for encouraging Irish scholarship, and the Irish monasteries would develop into important centers of learning, dispensing instruction to monks and laymen alike.[37]

Certain monasteries were also known for their specialization in particular branches of knowledge.[38] Lectures in medicine, for example, were given by the monks of Saint Benigus at Dijon. The monastery of Saint Gall had a school of painting and engraving, and lectures on the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic languages could be heard at certain German monasteries.

Monastic schools and learning played a crucial role in the early Middle Ages because they were virtually responsible for preserving literacy itself (until cathedral schools became prevalent after the Carolingian Renaissance).[39]

When it comes to the effectiveness of the monks as educators, their effectiveness stemmed from the fact that they loved learning. The monks had a strong devotion to their books. This is captured well by a saying from a monk at Muri: “Without study and without books, the life of a monk is nothing”.[40] This love for learning not only enabled monks to be capable teachers. It also allowed them to be good scholars — they produced valuable intellectual works of their own. The monks were also educators in a different sense. Since they were learned men, the monks were also individuals whose advice was sought after, even among emperors and kings.

A great example of all this is Gerbert of Aurillac. As a teacher, Gerbert taught his students logic and brought them to an appreciation of the classics such as Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Perseus, Terence, Statius and Virgil. As a scholar, he produced a number of works on mathematics. He also helped popularize Arabic numerals into the West by incorporating them into the Abacus, resulting in a more efficient instrument (his modified abacus used beads with numbers inscribed on them, rather than having each of the beads represent a single unit).[41] German king-emperor Otto III also sought out Gerbert for both education and advice on how to govern his Empire. As he wrote the monk in a letter:

Come and help me. Correct what has been ill done and advise me on the proper government of the Empire … encourage the things I have inherited from my Greek forebears. Expound the book of arithmetic which you sent me.[42]

Another notable example is Alcuin of York (who was himself, the pupil of another esteemed monk-scholar, Saint Bede the Venerable). In 781, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, met Alcuin on a trip to Italy. Impressed by his intellect, Charlemagne invited him to serve at his court, a decision that would literally change the course of history. Alcuin strongly believed in education, a view shared by Charlemagne. The importance these men gave education stemmed from religious conviction. They both saw education as essential to the cultivation of a robust Christian society.[43] As a result, they strove to strongly promote it. Charlemagne issued legislation requiring bishops and abbots to organize schools in their bishophorics (i.e. cathedral schools) and monasteries, causing centers of learning to sprout across the Carolingian Empire. These schools were based on the seven liberal arts (i.e. astronomy, music, arithmetic, geometry, logic, grammar and rhetoric).[44] Alcuin himself also oversaw a great monastic effort to spread classical learning through the copying of ancient manuscripts. Charlemagne, with Alcuin as his chief adviser for “all matters related to education” in his Empire, would usher in a critical period and turning point in the Middle Ages, the Carolingian Renaissance. During this period, cultural and intellectual activity flourished within the Carolingian Empire. The intellectual legacy of the Carolingian Renaissance would also be permanent and leave a lasting mark on the West as a whole. After the Carolingian Renaissance, the Church began to focus more and more on education and truly assume the position of educator of Europe. When it comes to academic life, Alcuin was the headmaster of the cathedral school at York. As a teacher, he primarily dedicated his energies to teaching Latin, since knowledge of the language made possible both the study of the Church fathers and the classical world of Rome. As a scholar, Alcuin produced a number of works on theology, logic, grammar and rhetoric. He also served as a close advisor to Charlemagne.[45]

3. Conclusion: The Intellectual Life

In the end, the monks played an essential role in preserving classical learning and cultivating Europe’s intellectual life. As noted by atheist history writer Tim O’Neill and historian Alexander Clarence Flick:

The institution which managed to keep this faltering [Greco-Roman] tradition from dying out altogether during these centuries of barbarian invasion and disintegration was actually the one the Enlightenment myth (wrongly) blames for causing the decline in the first place. The Christian church.[46]

[The monks] not only established the schools, and were the schoolmasters in them, but also laid the foundations for the universities. They were the thinkers and philosophers of the day and shaped political and religious thought. To them, both collectively and individually, was due the continuity of thought and civilization of the ancient world with the later Middle Ages and with the modern world.[47]

Monk in scriptorium
Illuminated manuscripts were done by monks usually on religious texts. This one (ca. 1410 AD) is found in a Book of Hours, a Christian devotional, and depicts the Annunciation of Mary

D. Charity

Christian monasteries were also known for their charitable work, which they carried out in a remarkable number of ways. 

They provided free food and lodging to travelers and the poor, following the rule of St. Benedict: “All guests who come shall be received as though they were Christ”.[48] 

Monastic communities also gave alms to the poor and sought them out. Certain monks called “almoners” were given the task of seeking the poor in the surrounding areas of the monastery and providing them with alms.[49]

Monasteries also provided relief during droughts.[50] The monks would store up waters from springs and distribute them to local communities during these times, an act appreciated by them.

The monks also provided free medical care for the sick.[51] Hospital buildings were set up within the monastery complex and run by members of the community. As noted by leading historian of medicine Guenter Risse:

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries gradually became the providers of organized medical care not available elsewhere in Europe for several centuries. Given their organization and location, these institutions were virtual oases of order, piety and stability in which healing could flourish. To provide these caregiving practices, monasteries also became sites of medical learning between the fifth and tenth centuries, the classic period of so-called monastic medicine.[52]

Commenting further on monastic medical care, historian A.C. Crombie states:

Medicine was studied at the earliest Benedictine monasteries and the long series of medical works written during the Middle Ages, and continuing without a break into the 16th century and modern times, is one of the best examples of a tradition in which empirical observations were increasingly combined with attempts at rational and theoretical explanation, with the result that definite medical and surgical problems were solved.[53]

Monasteries also provided residence for poor communities.  Monasteries were generous and easy land-lords, making land available at low rents and for leases of long duration.[54] This is why Henry VII’s decision to outlaw Catholicism, dissolve the monasteries, and distribute their lands to rock bottom prices to men of influence in his realm ended up hurting the poor in England greatly. As noted by historian Philip Hughes, the dissolution of English monasteries resulted in “ruin to scores of thousands of the poorest of the peasantry, the breakup of the small communities which were their world, and a future that was truly beggar”.[55] Historians Reynolds and Wilson also note how the new owners of the monastic lands (replacing the monks) managed them in manner that was purely business:

The new owners [of these lands], shopkeepers, bankers or needy noblemen…exploited their lands in a spirit that was solely business-like. Rents were increased, arable land converted to pasture and large areas enclosed. Thousands of unemployed farm hands were thrown on to the streets. Social distinctions became accentuated and pauperism increased in an alarming fashion.[56]

The loss felt by the poor by the dissolution of the monasteries is reflected in a petition of an English commoner to the King:

[T]he experience which we have had by those [monastic] houses that already be suppressed shows plainly unto us that a great hurt & decay is thereby come & hereafter shall come to this your realm & great impoverishing of many your poor obedient subjects, for lack of hospitality & good householding that was wont in them to be kept to the great relief of the poor people of all the [areas] adjoining the said monasteries.[57]

Ultimately, The loss of monastic charity was so felt by the English people that it resulted in a popular uprising known today as “The Pilgrimage of Grace”. Historian Claire Cross describes this uprising as “the most serious of all Tudor rebellions”.[58]

Historian Thomas Woods also notes other ways through which monasteries provided charity:

In some cases, the monks were even known to make efforts to track down poor souls who, lost or alone after dark, found themselves in need of emergency shelter. At Aubrac, for example, where a monastic hospital had been established amid the mountains of the Rouergue in the late sixteenth century, a special bell rang every night to call to any wandering traveler or to anyone overtaken by the intimidating forest darkness. The people dubbed it “the bell of the wanderers”.

In a similar vein, it was not unusual for monks living near the sea to establish contrivances for warning sailors of perilous obstacles or for nearby monasteries to make provision for shipwrecked men in need of lodging. It has been said that the city of Copenhagen owes its origin to a monastery established by its founder, Bishop Absalon, which catered to the needs of the shipwrecked. In Scotland, at Arbroath, the abbots fixed a floating bell on a notoriously treacherous rock on the Forfarshire coast. Depending on the tide, the rock could be scarcely visible, and many a sailor had been frightened at the prospect of striking it. The waves caused the bell to sound, thereby warning sailors of danger ahead. To this day, the rock is known as “Bell Rock.” Such examples constituted only a small part of the concern that monks showed for the people who lived in their environs; they also contributed to the building or repair of bridges, roads, and other such features of the medieval infrastructure.[59]

In the end, monasteries were great sources of charity. They were, “the patrimony of the poor”.[60] As historian W.E.H. Lecky commented on the charitable activities of the monks:

As time rolled on, charity assumed many forms, and every monastery became a center from which it radiated. By the monks the nobles were overawed, the poor protected, the sick tended, travelers sheltered, prisoners ransomed, the remotest spheres of suffering explored.[61]

E. Impact on Europe

In order to more fully grasp how big of an impact the monks had on Medieval Christendom, one must look at the numbers, since the monastic movement was very popular during the period. The most prominent order, the Benedictines, numbered 37,000+ communities at their peak.[62] Based on a 12th century report, we also know that the Cistercian order numbered 742 communities at that time.[63] Other medieval monastic orders include the Cluniacs, Carthusians, Premonstratensians, Beguines and Beghards.[64] Ultimately, monasteries dotted the lands of Christendom and gave life to Europe and its people.

The life, spirituality and order cultivated in monasteries would also bear great fruit for the Church. By the fourteenth century, the Benedictine order supplied the Church with 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops and 1,500 canonized saints.[65]  The monastic ideal was so looked up to, the tradition so prominent within society, that by the fourteenth century, the order had already enrolled many members of royalty including kings, queens, princes and princesses.[66] Even the various barbarian groups were attracted to the monastic life, and leaders among them such as Carloman of the Franks and Rochis of the Lombards eventually pursued it themselves.[67] As historian Woods notes:

Thus a great many of Europe’s most powerful would come to pursue the humble life and spiritual regimen of the Benedictine order.[68]

Another important aspect about monastic communities was that they possessed “extraordinary recuperative power”.[69] Its members could work quickly and dramatically to repair the destruction brought about by invasion and political collapse. As stated by historian Dawson:

Ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt and the monks killed or driven out, and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor, and the desolate sites could be repeopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up again the broken tradition, following the same rule, singing the same liturgy, reading the same books and thinking the same thoughts as their predecessors. In this way monasticism and the monastic culture came back to England and Normandy in the age of Saint Dunstan from Fleury and Ghent after more than a century of utter destruction [as a result of Viking invasions]; with the result that a century later, the Norman and English monasteries were again among the leaders of Western Culture.[70]

Looking into the history of Monte Cassino, we see an example of the endurance of the monastic tradition. As historian Woods notes:

During a period of great turmoil, the Benedictine tradition endured, and its houses remained oases of order and peace. It has been said of Monte Cassino, the motherhouse of the Benedictines, that her own history reflected that permanence. Sacked by the barbarian Lombards in 589, destroyed by the Saracens in 884, razed by an earthquake in 1349, pillaged by French troops in 1799, and wrecked by the bombs of World War II in 1944— Monte Cassino refused to disappear, as each time her monks returned to rebuild.[71]

The contributions of the monks to civilization are immense. They were indispensable to the revival of civilization after the fall of Rome. In the late 19th century, the Count and historian de Montalembert wrote a six-volume history of the monks of the West. In his work, he complained every now and then of his inability to provide anything more than a cursory overview of great figures and deeds, and could only refer his readers to the references in his footnotes.[72]

In concluding the contributions of the monks to humanity, we may turn to the study of historians Gregoire, Moulin and Oursel, The Monastic Realm. In it they note that the monks gave “the whole of Europe . . . a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, spiritual fervor, the art of living … readiness for social action — in a word … advanced civilization that emerged from the chaotic waves of surrounding barbarity. Without any doubt, Saint Benedict [the most important architect of Western monasticism] was the Father of Europe. The Benedictines, his children, were the Fathers of European civilization”.[73]

III. The Hospital Revolution

A. The Invention of Hospitals for the General Public

Another gift of Christianity to the world was the innovation of hospitals for the general public (i.e. hospitals as we know them today).[74]  Hospital-like establishments called valetudinaria existed in the ancient Roman Empire but these only catered to soldiers, and in some cases, to slaves of wealthy families. The only civilian valetudinaria that existed were those privately built by very wealthy Roman households in the countryside. These were rare and existed only for that family. This practice also seems to have ended by 80 AD. Healing shrines also existed in ancient Rome but these places did not provide healing through medical care but through religious ritual. In ancient Rome, the general population was not served by healthcare facilities. This would change once the Empire became Christian. As noted by historian of medicine Ann Hanson:

The general public was not serviced by hospital facilities until the empire had become Christian and charity for the sick and dying was considered part of the Christian’s duty.[75]

A few decades after Christianity was legalized by Constantine, the first hospital that served the general public was established by St. Basil in 369 AD. Basil was a well-educated lawyer and son of a wealthy family. After converting to Christianity, he decided to dedicate his energies and fortune to Christ. He began building a large complex on the outskirts of Caesara (located in modern day Turkey) for the poor and the sick. One of the buildings in this complex would end up becoming the first hospital for the general public. As noted by agnostic historian Tom Holland:

Other Christian leaders before him had built ptocheia or ‘poor houses’ — but none on such an ambitious scale. The Basileias, as it came to be known, was described by one awe-struck admirer as a veritable city, and incorporated, as well as shelter for the poor, what was in effect the first hospital.[76]

The efforts of St. Basil would be quickly emulated by other Christians, to the point that by the fifth century, hospitals were ubiquitous in the Christian East (the Middle East, especially Asia Minor).[77] In time, this revolution would sweep the West (Europe) as well — resulting in hospitals being ubiquitous throughout Christendom, in major cities and modest villages alike.[78] Being institutions of charity, the services provided at these hospitals were free. They were also run mostly by monks and nuns. Scholar Pieter Willem van der Horst comments on Christian hospitals in detail:

For reasons of space, I now skip a discussion of developments in second and third century Christianity and turn briefly to an important and interesting new form of Christian charity in the fourth century [(the century Christianity was legalized in the Empire)], the care for the sick and the creation of hospitals … It would seem that such a system is a Christian innovation, for it cannot be regarded as a part of the Graeco-Roman heritage in early Christianity either. To be true, in the Roman Empire we do find on a small scale health centers (valetudinaria, infirmaries) for specific groups, for instance courtiers, soldiers, or gladiators, but no hospitals with health care … As a rule, it can be said that we have no evidence from Graeco-Roman antiquity of any institutionalized care for the sick, let alone the sick who were poor. It was the family or household that was the main locus of health care in pagan antiquity. For the poor in need of health care there were very few options beyond the family. In this respect, it is important to notice that from the beginning Christian communities (including monastic communities) regarded themselves as surrogate families for everyone, including the poor and the destitute. The first hospitals in the full sense of the word came into being in the fourth century when Christian pilgrim hostelries (xenodocheia) opened their doors also for poor and ill pilgrims for free treatment. But what began as mixed institutions, for healthy and ill alike, was soon transformed into more specialized institutions for treatment of health problems (nosokomeia), with doctors and nurses, although this development took place mainly in the Eastern part of the Empire, especially in Egypt and Asia Minor, only much later in the West. Since pilgrim hostelries were usually buildings under the supervision of abbots or bishops, it was most often clergymen who helped to create, or who initiated this new form of health care. Most often hospitals were part of a monastery (complex). The reason for this is simple. “The monastic health care system, as a social system, by definition entails the actions and interactions of participants in a social organization.” … What began at a modest scale in the fourth century developed into a large world-wide network of Christian hospitals, a development of which we can still see the heritage up till the present day … [the healthcare provided at these institutions] was offered for free, which was unprecedented in the ancient world.[79]

Ultimately, Christianity was responsible for the “second medical revolution” — the innovation of hospitals for the general public, their spread across the East and West and the establishment of the study of medicine in the universities of Europe (as we shall see in part two of this series, the university developed out of the Church’s cathedral schools). As noted by scholar Albert Jonson:

The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.[80]

In addition to hospitals, Christian leper houses (“lazar houses”) also began to emerge in the 4th century.[82]  This was a heroic development since workers at these institutions had to face the fear of contracting the disease, the putrid smell of festering sores, and the sight of putrefying flesh. In addition to all these, workers at these institutions knew that there was no real cure to offer. The caretakers at lazar houses had a double purpose, to care for these outcasts and make sure that they were as comfortable as possible, and to attend to their spiritual needs.  By the 5th century, lazar houses in Europe and Asia already numbered over a thousand.[83]

Monks tending the sick

B. Saint John’s: A Model of Charity and Excellence

One other development in the history of medieval healthcare worth noting is the establishment of poor house-hostel in Jerusalem in 1080 by the Knights of Saint John (also known as the Knights Hospitaller), a Christian military organization. This institution would eventually became an impressive hospital. Before discussing what made this hospital significant in the history of healthcare, let us go through the institution’s history. 

The institution in Jerusalem founded by the Knights of Saint John was initially established to provide for the poor and render safe and secure lodging for pilgrims. After Godfrey of Bouillon donated a string of properties to the institution, its operations expanded significantly. This institution had many admirers, whose praise for it was documented in writing. Fr. John of Würzburg and a pilgrim named Theoderic for example, commented the following after witnessing what took place at this institution.

The house feeds so many individuals outside and within, and it gives so huge an amount of alms to poor people, either those who come to the door, or those who remain outside, that certainly the total expenses can in no way be counted, even by the managers and dispensers of this house.[84]

[G]oing through the palace we could in no way judge the number of people who lay there, but we saw a thousand beds. No king nor tyrant would be powerful enough to maintain daily the great number fed in this house.[85]

An important development for the institution would come when Raymond du Puy was elected as its administrator in 1120. Du Puy placed a dramatic emphasis on service to the sick and expected the staff to carry out radical service.[86] As stated in article sixteen of his code regarding the administration of the hospital — “How Our Lords the Sick Should be Received and Served”: “…when the sick man shall come…let him be received thus: let him partake of the Holy Sacrament, first having confessed his sins to the priest, and afterwards let him be carried to bed, and there as if he were a Lord”.[87] It was after du Puy became administrator that the institution became to look more and more like a hospital. Under his watch, its mission became more specifically defined as the care of the sick. The hospital was also impressive for being excellently run. As historian Woods notes:

Saint John’s was also impressive for its professionalism, organization, and strict regimen. Modest surgeries were carried out. The sick received twice-daily visits from physicians, baths and two main meals per day. The hospital workers were not permitted to eat until the patients had been fed. A female staff was on hand to perform other chores and ensured that the sick had clean clothes and bed linens.[88]

The example put forward by Saint John inspired a significant number of similar institutions to emerge across Europe. As stated by historian of medicine Guenter Risse:

Not surprisingly, the new stream of pilgrims, [following du Puy’s decree,] to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and their testimonials concerning the charity of the Hospitallers of Saint John spread rapidly throughout Europe, including England. The existence of a religious order that strongly expressed its fealty to the sick inspired the creation of a network of similar institutions, especially at ports of embarkation in Italy and southern France where pilgrims assembled.[89]

As Woods notes, the sophisticated organization of Saint John’s, coupled with its intense spirit of service to the sick, ended up serving as a model for many similar charitable institutions in Europe.[90] By the 13th century, the Hospitallers were running around twenty healthcare facilities (including leper houses).[91]

To proceed to part 2 of this series, click here.


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    I know this is a Quora post but I’m quoting it because of the author, Tim O’Neill, who is a highly acclaimed history writer. His “History for Atheists” blog has been praised by scholars such as Tim Whitmarsh, Tom Holland and James F. McGrath.
  2. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  3. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  4. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from: See also Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 9
  5. Durant, Caesar and Christ, pg. 79
  6. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  7. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 25
  8. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 65
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 30
  10. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 31-32
  11. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  12. Goodell, H. (1910). The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization. Retrieved from:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-
  13. . Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, pg. 223
  14. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  15. See John Henry Newman, Essays and Sketches, vol. 3, Charles Frederick Harrold, ed. Pg. 264-265.
  16. Hallam, Middle Ages, III, pg. 436
  17. Reginald Gregoire, Leo Moulin, and Raymond Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 271
  18. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, pg. 67
  19. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, pg. 58.
  20. Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe, pg. 57
  21. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 65
  22. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 36
  23. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 36
  24. Oursel: Reginald Gregoire, Leo Moulin, and Raymond Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 271
  25. O’Connor, Monasticism and Civilization, pgs. 35-36
  26. Barnes, M. (2011). 5 More Things No One Knows Are Ridiculously Catholic, But Should. Retrieved from:
  27. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 18
  28. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 18
  29. Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe, pg. 57
  30. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 43
  31. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 40
  32. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 39
  33. David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, 2nd ed., pg. 69
  34. Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pg. 18
  35. Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 3rd ed., pgs. 109-110
  36. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 22
  37. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 44
  38. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 41-42
  39. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 5
  40. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 43
  41. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 28
  42. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 23
  43. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 210-213
  44. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 17-18
  45. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 209-210
  46. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages, par. 12. Retrieved from:
  47. Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, pgs. 222-223
  48. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 38
  49. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 185
  50. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  51. van der Horst, “Organized Charity in the Ancient World: Pagan, Jewish, Christian in Jewish and Christian Communal Identities in the Roman World, pgs. 129-132)
  52. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pg. 95
  53. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 67
  54. Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, pg. 112
  55. Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, pg. 205
  56. Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 3rd ed, pg. 83
  57. Montalembert, The Monks of the West: From Saint Benedict to Saint Bernard, vol. 5, 227-228
  58. Cross, C. (2009). Participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Retrieved from:,Participants%20in%20the%20Pilgrimage%20of%20Grace%20(act.,in%20the%20autumn%20of%201536.
  59. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 38-39
  60. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 184
  61. Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1, pg. 89
  62. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  63. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 33
  64. A Quick Guide to Medieval Monastic Orders. Retrieved from:
  65. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  66. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  67. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  68. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  69. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pg. 66
  70. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pg. 66
  71. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  72. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 45
  73. Gregoire, Moulin and Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 277
  74. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 176
  75.  Hanson, A Companion to the Roman Empire, 492-523, esp. 505)
  76. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 142
  77. Nutton, Ancient Medicine, pgs. 306-307
  78. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 180
  79. van der Horst, “Organized Charity in the Ancient World: Pagan, Jewish, Christian in Jewish and Christian Communal Identities in the Roman World, pgs. 129-132)
  80. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 148
  81. Albert Jonson. A Short History of Medical Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2000, 13
  82. Faithful Philosophy. The Christian Origins of Modern Universities and Hospitals. Retrieved from:
  83. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 149
  84. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 178
  85. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pg. 138
  86. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 178
  87. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 178-179
  88. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 179-180
  89. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pgs. 141-142
  90. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 180
  91. Margotta, The History of Medicine, Paul Lewis, ed., pg. 149.

2 thoughts on “Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 1 of 4)”

  1. Great article with great authors and works cited! I teach Church History in high school and will definitely use this in next year’s course! Congrats, Mr. Sta. Ana!

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