The term ‘monk’ comes from the Latin ‘monachus’ and means ‘someone who lives alone’. The monk was a man who sought to live apart from the world, in order to pursue an ideal of holiness.
Christian monasticism developed first in Egypt and was initially based on the model of the ‘solitary hermit’ that leaves society totally to pursue spirituality. However, the early monks soon discovered that they could not live in solitude. Their feats of sanctity attracted a large number of followers, and as the monastic ideal expanded, the model of ‘cenobite monasticism’ based on community life was imposed.
The Middle Ages is the time of the splendor of the monastic life in the West, due to the expansion of the Benedictine monks. The founder of the Benedictine Order was Benedict of Nursia (480-547). At 49, he founded the monastery of Montecassino, where he died at age 67. Benedict wrote the Benedictine rule, whose circulation throughout Europe earned him the title of “father of Western monasticism.” During the hectic times of the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monks helped to promote the culture of the people: how to work the land, to perfect agricultural systems, to teach trades, etc.
The monks followed closely the indications gathered in the Holy Scriptures, which were translated into Latin from their originals in Greek and Hebrew. The monasteries became schools where they taught to read and write. In addition, other arts such as music and painting were cultivated.
During the Middle Ages, the monks practiced medicine, building hospitals next to the monastic building. The so-called ‘monastic medicine’ was purely charitable. Nevertheless, it was never well seen by the Church: Pope Innocent II prohibited the exercise of the medicine to the ecclesiastics in the Council of Clermont (1131), and ratified it in Lateran (1139). The Council of Vienna of 1312 specified that the care of the body “is a lay attribute”, reserving to the religious “the attention of the souls”.