To support now these throngs of people that assumed the cowl, it was necessary for the monks to devote themselves to agriculture and horticulture, and this they did in a most successful manner. “It is impossible to forget,” says the great historian of the monks, “it is impossible to forget the use they made of so many vast districts (holding as they did one-fifth of all the land in England), uncultivated and uninhabited; covered with forests or surrounded by marshes. For such, it must not be forgotten, was the true nature of the vast estates given to the monks, and which had thus the double advantage of offering to communities the most inaccessible retreats that could be found, and of imposing the least possible sacrifice upon the munificence of the giver.”
How man of woman born could live in such unwholesome and unproductive spots and thrive seems absolutely miraculous, but these patient toilers of the Church surmounted all the difficulties which stared them in the face of beginning the cultivation of a new country. The forests were cleared, the marshes made wholesome or dried up, the soil was irrigated or drained, according to the requirements of each locality, while bridges, roads, dykes, havens and light-houses were erected wherever their possessions or influence extended. The half at least of broad Northumberland, covering an area of about two thousand square miles, was lost in sandy plains and barren heaths; the half at least of East Anglia and a considerable part of Mercia were covered with marshes, difficult of access.
Yet in both these regions the monks substituted for these uninhabitable deserts fat pasturage and abundant harvests. The latter district, the present name of which (the Fens) alone recalls the marshy and unwholesome nature of the soil, became the principal theatre of the triumphs of agricultural industry, performed by the monks, these conquerors of nature, these monks who made of themselves plowmen, breeders and keepers of stock, and who were the true fathers of English agriculture, which, thanks to their traditions and example, has become the first agriculture in the world.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)