And what they did for England was paralleled by their work upon the continent. Need we point to any other instance than that of Vitrucius peopling the sand banks of Flanders or Belgium with religious who, by their unwearied industry, reclaimed those arid wastes and turned those burning sands into one vast garden? Need we speak of the country separating Belgium from Holland, and how it was cleared by the monks who taught its wild inhabitants agriculture as well as Christianity? In a manuscript bearing date of 1420 a monk proposed the artificial propagation of trout. It was the monks of Fulda who started the celebrated vineyaids of Johannisberg, the Cistercian monks that of Clos Vougeot. The Benedictines brought vines from Beaune to plant on the banks of the Allier. The monks of Mozat set out walnut trees, still so abundant in Lower Auvergne. They first cared for the preservation of forests as affecting climate and fertility. They stored up the waters of springs and distributed them in drought, and it was the monks of the abbeys of St. Laurent and St. Martin who first brought together and conducted to Paris the waters of springs wasting themselves on the meadows of St. Gervais and Belleville; and in Lombardy it was the followers of St. Bernard who taught the peasants the art of irrigation, and made that country the most fertile and the richest in Europe.
The great St. Benedict enjoins upon his disciples three objects for filling up their time: Agriculture, literary pursuits and copying manuscripts. So well recognized were the blessings they brought that an old German proverb among the peasants runs, “It is good to live under the crozier.” They ennobled manual labor, which, in a degenerate Roman world, had been performed exclusively by slaves, and among barbarians by women. For the monks, it is no exaggeration to say the cultivation of the soil was like an immense alms spread over a whole country. The abbots and superiors set the example, and stripping off their sacerdotal robes toiled as common laborers.
When a papal messenger came in haste to consult the Abbot Equutius on important matters of the Church, he was not to be found anywhere, but was finally discovered in the valley cutting hay. Under such guidance and such example the monks upheld and taught everywhere the dignity of labor, first, by consecrating to agriculture the energy and intelligent activity of freemen, often of high birth and clothed with the double authority of the priesthood and of hereditary nobility, and second, by associating under the Benedictine habit sons of kings, princes and nobles with the rudest labors of peasants and serfs.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)