The Houses of Poverty (Dennis Aubrey)


“And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” Luke 24:50 (King James Bible)

Helen Devries recently asked a question about the secular responsibilities of the abbots. For those who don’t know her work, Helen’s blog is a marvelous example of the power of the internet. When government and political petits fonctionnaires demonstrate their enormous and debilitating incompetence, Helen is there to skewer them with wit and venom. Her description (as a foreigner) of American airports is devastating; “Unless we want to fly to Miami and I am blowed if, even for Marmite, I will enter the hell that is an American airport with its bullying staff and thieving baggage handlers … not to speak of paranoid immigration officers and customs officials intent on confiscating the ingredients of my picnic.” So when she asks a question, you can be sure that I hop to and answer promptly. Or even write a post!

Nave, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In keeping with Helen’s theme, this is a post about the failures of man. As a man who obsessively studies past civilization, I am well aware of the failures of man, but the shining ideals of the species interests me more. One of those shining eras was the explosive growth of medieval monasticism in the 11th century.

In working on this Via Lucis project, the sense of medieval spirituality hovers over our every step. It is fleeting and faint sometimes, powerfully present at others. But one thing is clear. The world of Europe in the year 1000 was a world in poor condition. The effects of the Carolingian revival had been destroyed by two centuries of invasion, plundering, anarchy, poverty, and a complete collapse of infrastructure.

Nave elevation, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And then something happened. There was a new religious resurgence and throughout Christendom, monastic communities emerged and their ethic of labor and toil resulted in a gigantic change. The monastic orders rebuilt the infrastructure of Europe – bridges and roads, fields were cleared and tilled. They sponsored trade fairs and through the Peace of God even attempted to stop the rampant feudal warfare that despoiled the countryside. Soon villages, towns, and even cities began to cluster around these monastic centers and prosperity became general.

North side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There was no other political or social organization in Europe that was capable of doing what these humble monks accomplished, none had the reach or the means to change the face of Europe in so short a time and in such sweeping fashion. The example of the monks was like a beacon to the poverty-stricken masses who saw in that religious faith something that could actually change their own lives. And the promise of salvation in the afterlife was predicted by the improvement in their temporal life.

And the monks repaired one other thing – the Church itself. The Christian church had been fractured early on between eastern and western orthodoxies and numerous sects, cults, and heresies. Arianism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Apollinarism, Nestorianism, and dozens more were proposed and condemned for hundreds of years. But the monastic movement in western Europe obliterated these schisms and created – for that short interval – a unified Roman church. During the eleventh and early twelfth centuries I can find a record of only three splinter sects. And only one – the Cathars – eventually posed a major challenge to the Church.

South side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

So what was the monastic ideal that accomplished such great things? What was the Rule of Saint Benedict. The spirit of Benedict’s Rule is summed up in the motto pax, ora et labora (“peace; pray and work”) conferring dignity on poverty, obedience, humility, and manual labor in the service of the brotherhood and its charities.

In two centuries, the faithful built 5,000 Romanesque churches in France that survive today. We have no idea how many have disappeared in the conflagrations of the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution, and the World Wars of the 20th Century. An additional 1500 survive in Spain. This is an enormous legacy of the most important kind. These churches are a reflection of the spiritual beliefs of an entire civilization – not, like so many other civilizations, of an oligarchical minority who enslaved their subjects, but of a free people.

Side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

But as I said earlier, this is a post about the failures of man. These houses of poverty became temples of riches. The abbeys received gifts of property, and these needed to be administered. Eventually, this property and wealth meant that arrogance supplanted humility. Abbots had to administer not only the rule of the monastery, but the secular requirements of their properties. These were the “secular duties” to which Helen referred, and they became more important and put the monastic communities in direct conflict with the civil authorities. In Vézelay, a century of discord between the abbots and the Count of Nevers culminated with the murder of the abbot.

Capital, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

Capital, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

The temporary unity of Christianity was replaced by the fracturing of the structure and the religion turned upon itself. By the time of the French revolution, most of the great monasteries were no longer functioning as the humble, charitable institutions that were envisioned by their founders. They were ruled by rapacious commendatory abbots who plundered their wealth to provide for their own private gain. The people of France showed their opinion of these orders during the Revolution by destroying the monasteries with a fury reserved for the most hated of oppressors.

Capital, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Capital, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

It is as hard to understand this journey of medieval monasticism as it is to understand American society today. Can we imagine that the founders of these United States could imagine a country more intrusive, oligarchical, and hypocritical that the US today, or less responsive to the needs of its people? But this is the pattern of all society, I imagine. Wealth and power concentrates into the hands of fewer and fewer people until there is on recourse other than a violent perturbation. We can perceive the differences between Republicans and Democrats with no greater acuity than could the citizens of France distinguish between Franciscans or Benedictines in 1789. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in this.

If not, at least we can count on Helen to notice.

Monk, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault  (Indre)  Photo by PJ McKey[

Monk, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontgombault, Fontgombault (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

Post scriptum: I always liked the idea of Bethany as written in Luke. The disciples walked humbly to Bethany and received a blessing. It was as if it were something that I might do myself. Later, I learned that Bethany stood for a house of the poor, an almshouse. After this, it became associated in my mind with medieval monasticism. If you ever want to see what life was like in those monasteries, it would be worth a trip to Fontgambault. The Benedictine community at the Abbaye Notre Dame still practices the Rule of their founder and one senses both the peace and the purpose in the abbey.

Location: 46.676560° 0.979226°

22 responses to “The Houses of Poverty (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thanks for writing this post. I’m very interested in the Abbey of Fontgombault now that you’ve taught me something about it. It would be worth my while going there. So interesting, all this.

    • Kalli, despite it all, I am always an optimist. I will be writing shortly on the unlikely source of that optimism and how completely one can believe in the best of the world despite all evidence to the contrary.

  2. There are so many wonderful posts on this site that it’s hard to say one is “the best,” but for me, who received his high school education in a Benedictine abbey and who taught a college course on medieval cathedrals, this is “the best.” I’ve never seen a more accurate or more succinct statement of the role of monasticism in medieval Europe. Thanks again, Dennis.

  3. This post pairs wonderfully with “Worldly Grandeur and Presumption.” You continue to impress, in lending us insight to the past you humbly illuminate the present. With both photographs and language Via Lucis is truly a guide to seeing.

    • Thanks, Jesse. Have been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about the monastic movement in these times. How many movements in all of human history have been devoted to an ethic of service to others? I can’t think of many. That alone makes this special.

  4. I feel sincerely humble that a chance comment has elicited this post giving such an insight into not only a past world, but into our own.
    Let us trust that a spark from that past will illumine our own world in these troubled times.

    • Helen, no reason to be humble. I always enjoy reading your comments here and your posts and am reminded that we should listen to each other. I hope that more people find your posts and read them with as much relish as I do.

  5. Dennis – Another rich and gorgeously-written post. Thank you for your generosity!
    If you find yourself with some free time, you might enjoy Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence (1957) – a meditation on his travels and experiences among some of Europe’s oldest monasteries. [http://www.amazon.com/dp/1590172442/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=paara-20&camp=213381&creative=390973&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=1590172442&adid=0YN030S8J5NSS1CDWCNG]
    JP

    • Another book to read! Didn’t you tell me about Fermor walking across Europe to Constantinople? Is this the same book? Or the same guy? Anyway, glad you liked the post and I’ll order “A Time to Keep Silence.” Thanks, JP.

      • Thanks, Den. Yes, same guy, different book. PLF is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some find him a bit, er, wordy. I, however, revel in this writing, so I hope you appreciate it.

      • JP, as a guy who got over the wordiness of Patrick O’Brian novels and then devoured the entire Aubrey-Maturin series at a sitting, I think it will be possible to wade through PLF’s work. Looking forward to it.

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