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The Keepers of Knowledge

How knowledge and learning survived in the middle ages


They began as "men alone," solitary ascetics in wattle huts in the desert, living off berries and nuts, contemplating the nature of God, and praying for their own salvation. It wasn't long before others joined them, living nearby for comfort and safety, if not for conviviality. Individuals of wisdom and experience like Saint Anthony taught the way to spiritual harmony to the monks who sat at their feet. Rules were then established by holy men like Saint Pachomius and Saint Benedict to govern what had become, in spite of their first intentions, a community.

Monasteries, abbeys, priories--all were built to house men or women (or, in the case of double monasteries, both) who sought spiritual peace. For the sake of their souls people came there to live a life of strict religious observance, self-sacrifice, and work that would help their fellow human beings. Towns and sometimes even cities grew up around them, and the brothers or sisters would serve the secular community in a variety of ways -- growing grain, making wine, raising sheep -- usually remaining separate and apart. Monks and nuns played many roles, but perhaps the most significant and far-reaching role was that of the keepers of knowledge.

It was very early in its collective history that the monastery of Western Europe became the repository for manuscripts. Part of the Rule of Saint Benedict charged its followers to read holy writings every day. While knights underwent special education that prepared them for the battlefield and the court, and artisans learned their craft from their masters, the contemplative life of a monk provided the perfect setting in which to learn to read and write, and to acquire and copy manuscripts whenever the opportunity arose. A reverence for books and for the knowledge they contained was not surprising in monastics, who turned their creative energies not only into writing books of their own but into making the manuscripts they created beautiful works of art.

Books may have been acquired, but they were not necessarily hoarded. Monasteries could make money charging by the page to copy out manuscripts for sale. A book of hours would be made expressly for the layman; one penny per page would be considered a fair price. It was not unknown for a monastery to simply sell part of its library for operating funds. Yet books were prized among the most precious of treasures. Whenever a monastic community would come under attack -- usually from raiders like the Danes or Magyars but sometimes from their very own secular rulers -- the monks would, if they had time, take what treasures they could carry into hiding in the forest or other remote area until the danger had passed. Always, manuscripts would be among such treasures.

Although theology and spirituality dominated a monastic's life, by no means were all of the books collected in the library religious. Histories and biographies, epic poetry, science and mathematics -- all of them were collected, and studied, in the monastery. One might be more likely to find a bible, hymnals and graduals, a lectionary or a missal; but a secular history was also important to the seeker of knowledge. And thus was the monastery not only a repository of knowledge, but a distributor of it, as well.

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