The earliest known monks, sometimes called hermits, lived, meditated and worshipped alone. Late in the fourth century, monks--though still remaining apart from general humanity by choice--began dwelling together in religious communities called monasteries. Their lives centred around divining and following the will of God. The monastic tradition flourished across Europe, perhaps reaching its height during the Middle Ages.
Power Structure of the Monastery
The monks elected their own monastery leaders or abbots. Once elected abbot, this man was given complete control over the lives of all monks residing in his monastery. All monks referred to this elected abbot as "Holy Father." Democracy may have put the abbot in his office, but once in office, he ruled the monastery like a monarch. Within the power structure of the church, the abbot answered to his local bishop. The monks believed that ultimately all were undeniably accountable to God.
Prayer was of utmost importance in the daily life of medieval monks. Common prayers were said together. These communal prayers often took place before meals, at Mass, before retiring for the night and upon rising in the morning. Each order of monks had different rules for their prayer rituals. Monks were expected to pray throughout the day and evening on their own, as well.
Dominican and Franciscan Friars
Dominican and Franciscan monks came to be known as friars. These men did not avoid the external world, but rather ventured out into it. They were educators and missionaries, not bound to the confines of a monastery.
In about 540, St. Benedict of Nursia wrote a series of ideals that became known as the Benedictine Rule. This rule, which encompasses 73 chapters, asks monks to practice vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and stability. The monks who followed St. Benedict eventually became known as members of the Benedictine Order. The rule lives on after 1,500 years, and today there are about 8,000 Benedictine monks.
Monks performed various work functions within the monastery. Until serfs began to do their agricultural work, some monks worked the fields and gardens tending to the monastery's farm. Others created handmade wares to sell in nearby communities to generate a meagre income. Housekeeping and cooking were other tasks the monks performed on a daily basis. In addition, many worked in the scriptorium, painstakingly copying books by hand--resulting in the first libraries in Western Europe.