There are a great many monasteries along the Camino, all with their individual histories. The Christian tradition of these institutions goes back to around AD 300 when Anthony of Egypt was the first known hermit to formulate monastic practices with regulated prayer and work sessions and the habit he wore had become the model for the typical monk’s garb. A little later Basil the Great of Caesarea Galilee, now Israel, established the first monastic instructions in the early 4th century. These inspired Saint Benedict of Nursia (Italy) in the 6th century to compile his own rules. They are divided into two major sections: the first deals with spiritual subjects and the second with administrative matters dictating how a monastery should be run efficiently, by whom the monastery should be managed, how to be obedient and humble and what to do when a member of the community did not comply. The ‘Rules of St. Benedict’ are, after 1400 years, still the most widely used guidelines for monasteries today.
In AD 529 he also established the first major Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, a hilltop where at that time pagans were still worshipping their deities. Over time, the movement of St Benedict unified the many ‘European’ tribes under the banner of Christianity and in this way western society as we know it today consolidated. Charity, caring for the sick and poor, fostering agricultural pursuits and other positive aspects of life were the rules for Benedictine monks.
Over time they progressively occupied themselves with more clerical functions – transcribing the Bible, recording historic events and compiling treaties and other documents for kings, nobles and those involved in governance and commerce. Literacy amongst the population was rare in those days and monasteries throughout Europe developed into centres of the written word. This made clergy indispensable and for centuries the Catholic Church protected its status quo and the income this generated. Monasteries amassed great riches and substantial property holdings for services rendered. Tithes from peasants, endowments and donations from nobles and from pilgrims passing by, also filled their coffers.
Clerical activities made monks’ lives far more pleasant, less physical and strenuous – and visions of well-fed monks, holding mugs of ale, probably stem from these times. This agreeable lifestyle might also have been the reason why so many laymen joined their order and probably, in this way, prevented subscription into military armies as wars and skirmishes were most common in those days.
When monastic life became too relaxed, monks from the monastery of Molesme in southern France established a new order in 1098. The ‘Order of Cistercian of the Strict Observance’ returned monks once again to manual work and self-sufficiency and reverted obedience to the original Benedictine principles. Their order spread rapidly and over time the Cistercians became the experts of agriculture and irrigation practices in Europe. Pilgrims on the Camino nowadays frequently find refuge in monasteries and those with a penchant for history are able to absorb the deep-rooted vibes of the ancient and sacred buildings and traditions of monastic orders.