Men who renounced a worldly life in order to enter a monastery were many in medieval times. They are few and far between now, but the three most celebrated orders these religiously inclined young men joined, or attempted to join were the Benedictines, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Each of these ‘sects’ was founded by a man who was not necessarily a saint in his youth, but whose foundations have lasted under those names for centuries.
St. Benedict was Italian, born round about 480 AD, and a hermit from his early teens. Followers appeared rapidly, attracted by the boy’s piety. By nineteen, he had organised these followers into twelve small monastic communities, entirely self-supporting, and dedicated to prayer in a period of raging violence in Europe following the demise of Roman authority.
Benedict established the world-famous monasteries at Subiaco and Monte Cassino circa 540 and established his rules there – Regula Monachorum – austere yes, but rendered more moderate than the movies would like to make out, with their scenes of flagellations and worse. It was a very hard life, yes, but the reader should not believe everything they read or see. The Benedictines formed the basis for the rest of Western monasticism.
The Order reached a peak of prestige and influence in the 11th century, with the Abbey at Cluny in Burgundy at its centre. The basic idea behind Benedictine monasticism was to encourage a way of life separated from the unholy world, within which monks could grow old dedicating their life to prayer and study. Much of the history available in books originated in monasteries, where monks could contemplate what was happening comparatively dispassionately, and note it down in volumes and ledgers which have survived well down through the centuries. St. Benedict died roughly in the middle of the sixth century AD, at around seventy years of age.
The great monastery at Monte Cassino was flattened during World War II by the Allies. The Germans had occupied the hill and the Americans thought the best way to dislodge them was to bomb both the hill and the ancient monastery. The Germans fought back, many good men died, and the Benedictines supposedly perished too.
The other very famous connection with the monks held almost priceless by Society is the liquer made by the monks which carries the name of the order. Benedictine is one of the finest alcoholic drinks available, and its international sale goes towards maintaining the monasteries and keeping the monks (and their creed) alive.
St. Dominic, who founded the Dominican order of friars (who were not stationary and were encouraged to travel, very often at the risk of their lives), lived from 1170 to 1221. He came from a noble Spanish family, but unlike St. Francis did not live an uproarious life in his youth. He became a priest and canon and attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the year in which he founded the Dominicans, or ‘Black Friars’ as they were called, mainly by enemies. The concept of a ‘black friar’ comes from the wearing of a long white tunic and a black mantle. Filmgoers can see for themselves what Hollywood thinks of the Dominicans in films like The Name of the Rose, in which a ‘Black Friar’ behaves nastily on behalf of the Inquisition, and ends up horribly dead in a crushed coach: the other film is Alatriste, in which another ‘Black Friar’ (actually acted by a woman) involved bloodily in seventeenth century Spanish politics scares the pants of us. We do not see the demise of this ‘Black Friar’.
In the 13th century many young men joined the Dominicans, some from wrong motives; the Order was involved with the Inquisition or Holy Office, and was used by a few popes for the encouragement of the Crusades.
St. Francis (of Assisi) has been the inspiration for many books, plays and especially films. He was born Giovanni di Bernadone in 1181, one of the tearaway sons of a rich cloth merchant. Contemporary portraits show a good-looking youth much given to sporting with the ladies and calling down disrespect on his wealthy family. His father threatened to disinherit him, but he did so at the wrong time, because young Francis had already been attracted by the idea of rebuilding a broken-down, unused church at San Damiano of Assisi. He renounced all wordly goods, including his inheritance, and founded the Franciscans in 1209 when he was less than thirty. He and plenty of followers reconstructed the church at Damiano, and a legend began.
The final and absolute rule in Franciscan monasteries was complete poverty, and it still is, though the monasteries founded by our three subjects were always self-contained, herding sheep and cattle, and growing their own food.
St. Francis is probably best known (through the writing of the monks) for an almost supernatural closeness with animal and bird life. There is a fairly spectacular film of his transformation from hoydenish boy to saint made by Zeffirelli.