Role of Christian Monasticism in Western Civilization










Role of Christian Monasticism in Western Civilization


During the age of Charlemagne, Christianity and the church experienced a tremendous revival in the West (Butt, 2002, p. 194). At the same time, arts, music, literature, and education were revived. Although the death of Charlemagne and the partition of his empire resulted in deterioration of many political and social institutions, the church, arts, and education lived on into the 11th century when they experienced full recovery. Even with the attempts to destroy education during the 10th century including the burning of books and destruction of libraries, they did not result in extinction of literature and education, as was the case in the 7th century. This essay explores the role of Christian monasticism in the development of arts and education between the ages of Charlemagne and peter Abelard.

Christian Monasticism and Arts

Christian monasteries played a central role in the recovery of education and arts in the post-Charlemagne period. The monasteries maintained the organization and structure adopted during the age of Charlemagne (Medieval wall, 2010, para 3). Most of the architectural designs used during the age of Charlemagne lived throughout the High Middle Ages. The monasteries contributed to arts recovery by restoring monumental architecture. Several outstanding church structures were built in the design of basilicas including St. Emmeram’s Abbey, Imperial Abbey and St. Denis Abbey. Perhaps the largest of these monumental basilicas was the Palatin Chapel completed in 805. It was Charlemagne’s spiritual Court and remained in use until early the 15th century.

Apart from the monumental buildings, monasteries played an important role in the preservation of sculptures and paintings. Sculpture was not fully developed during this period. Sculptures of human figures were made using gold and ivory. Some of these sculptures were preserved in monasteries as alters such as the Vuolvinio in St. Ambrogio Basilica in Milan. Monasteries also participated in producing and preserving miniature painting. However, the main themes represented in the paintings were not necessarily sacral (Medieval wall, 2010, para 4).

Monasteries and education

Education between the Charlemagne and Abelard ages was designed to serve both the spiritual and royal purposes. Religious studies dominated the education sector because it was designed to benefit both the clergy and the lay people. Education in the monastery mainly consisted of liberal arts studies, bible reading and interpretation, preaching and evangelism, principles of Christian living and other aspects of Christian religious practices involving performance of liturgy and music (Jaeger, 1994, p. 21). The liberal arts were particularly concerned with the study of the bible.

Monastic schools and other educational institutions had deteriorated remarkably by the time Charlemagne took over power. However, during the age of Charlemagne, there was a great improvement in the quality of education not only in monastic schools but also in parish and cathedral schools. Such improvements included increase in facilities and standards of education (Graves, 2004, p. 30). During this period, the study of letters in monastic schools expanded greatly as such knowledge was deemed crucial in the interpretation of scriptures. In compliance with the Monarch’s orders, the church made it a requirement for all church leadership candidates to demonstrate interest in education and learning, hence promoting development of positive attitude towards education.

The result of renewed interest in education was the development of a complete elementary curriculum in all schools and advances towards higher education in some schools (Graves, 2004, p. 30). Some of the subjects offered in cathedral and monastic schools included arithmetic, reading, writing, singing, and scripture studies. In addition to these, some monasteries taught grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Although these subjects had been studied in earlier schools, they formed the basis for the great intellectual progress especially during the 9th century. Parish priests were the main educationists in village elementary schools. Free education was introduced for those who wanted to become priests and monks and elementary education was made accessible to all.

Another remarkable development in education under the influence of Christian monasticism was the development of the Carolingian minuscule thanks to the monks of the Catholic Church (Woods, 2004, p. 18). This script that enabled people of Western Europe to share knowledge since it was easier to understand compared with earlier scripts. As a result, it contributed greatly to the development of Western literacy and civilization. The monasteries kept the spirit of learning strong during the harsh period that followed Charlemagne’s death. During this time, the monasteries were the centers for the copying of the best texts under the influence of Alcuin.


Christian monasticism played a crucial role in the development of western civilization between the 9th and 11th centuries. The main contributions of Christian monasteries were improvement of quality of education, expansion of schools, revival of painting, sculpture and monument architecture, development of Carolingian minuscule and the copying of important literary works. While Emperor Charlemagne initiated most of the revival work, the church was responsible for the survival of education and art during the tumultuous period that began after Charlemagne’s death.















Butt, J. J. (2002). Daily life in the age of Charlemagne. Westport, CO: Greenwood Press.

Graves, F. P. (2004). A history of education during the Middle Ages and the transition to modern times. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub.

Jaeger, C. S. (1994). The envy of angels: Cathedral schools and social ideals in medieval Europe, 950-1200. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mideaval Wall, 2010. Charlemagne: Carolingian renaissance-third part. Retrieved January 12, 2012 from 

Woods, T. E. (2004). How the Catholic Church built Western civilization. Washington, DC: Regnery publishing.