There is still another phase of this monastic life. We have seen that the one universal and regular duty imposed was the necessity of being constantly employed. It was work for the sake of work. The object sought was not so much what would be produced by the labor as to keep the body and mind so constantly employed that temptations could find no access and sin would therefore be escaped. Consequently it was a matter of comparative indifference what the work was. The harder and more painful and unattractive to men in general it might be, so much the better for the monk. In this way the monks did a great amount of extremely useful work which no one else would have undertaken. Especially is this true of the clearing and reclaiming of land. A swamp was of no value. It was a source of pestilence. But it was just the place for a monastery because it made life especially hard, and so the monks carried in earth and stone, and made a foundation, and built their convent, and then set to work to dyke and drain and fill up the swamp, till they had turned it into fertile plow-land and the pestilence had ceased.
The connection of the monasteries with the great centers of population to-day is an interesting one. The requirements of the monks and the instruction they were enabled to impart soon led to the establishment in their immediate neighborhood of the first settlement of artificers and retail dealers, while the excess of their crops, their flocks and their herds gave rise to the first markets, which were as a rule held before the gate of the abbey church, or within the church-yard, among the tombs. Thus hamlets and towns were formed which became the centers of trade and general intercourse, and thus originated the market tolls and the jurisdiction of these spiritual lords. Out of these hamlets clustered around the monasteries arose in England Southampton, Peterborough, Bath, Colchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Ely and many others.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)