It can be said that modern Europe is due to the work of the monks and all Western monasticism was born from the Rule ‘Ora et Labora’ of San Benedetto who, precisely for this reason, was named as the patron saint of Europe.
The word monk comes from the Greek ‘mnos’ which means ‘alone, only’ and so those people were called who, from the 3rd century after Christ, abandoned cities, especially in the Middle East and Egypt. Those who took refuge in solitude in the deserts or in pleasant places were called ‘hermit’, from the Greek word ‘eremos’ which means desert or ‘anacoreta’ that is ‘one who retires’.
From this first form of personal spiritual study, some began to live in groups and were called ‘cenobiti’, that is, people who share a life together. But Western monasticism can be said to have originated with St. Benedict and his Rule, at the Abbey of Montecassino (Guide of Cassino), which he founded in 529.
Saint Benedict was born in Norcia to merchants in a historical moment in which the Barbarians, also called ‘northern migrants’, and the descendants of the Roman Empire, were seeking forms of coexistence. At that time much Roman knowledge of technology, of cultivation in the fields and of course of architecture and art had already been lost.
In Norcia, Germanic and Italian farmers found themselves neighbours and often had to take refuge inside a fortified villa to escape assaults. And here St. Benedict began to experiment with new models of cohabitation that inspired him in the writing of the ‘Ora et Labora’ Rule and in the foundation of the monastic order.
The success of his Rule was perhaps that of combining spiritualism and pragmatism, of creating points of reference for the population that were also points of spreading of culture not only artistic, but also agricultural and manual. Every day they prayed for 4 hours, read for 2-4 hours and worked for 5-8 hours.
The role of the monks was both to recover the memory of classical culture with an immense work of copying texts, which allowed us to learn about Greek and Latin authors, with a support for the reconstruction of a social fabric of communities and villages based on agriculture.
Thanks to the work of the monks, in fact, they began to change the physiognomy of the landscapes, no longer being abandoned lands and marshes but cultivated fields and irrigation channels. Thanks to the work of the Benedictines, Germany has been transformed into a fruitful land and the water was controlled both in Paris and in Milan.
They introduced livestock and horse breeding, brewing, beekeeping and fruit growing. They brought grain trading to Sweden, cheese making to Parma and salmon farming to Ireland.
But the monks were also responsible for the cultivation of the vine and the selection of grapes for wines, which were also used during mass, while the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon is responsible for the birth of champagne in the Saint Pierre abbey in Hautvillers on the river Marne .
With the Benedictines craft activities flourished and some monasteries become real workshops where they worked metals and created tools. Hydraulic energy was exploited for everything from the transformation of agricultural products to the processing of metals, from the creation and processing of glass to that of leather.
A Benedictine monastery was an efficient economic community around which new entities were formed, businesses were born in a way that we can call ‘modern’ and a new western culture flourished, a synthesis of all that had happened in the past