In a word, then, the monks were the scientific farmers of the day. They had access to all the knowledge of the ancients, and the constant intercourse with their brethren in other countries kept them acquainted with methods of agriculture and products other than their own, and when their great religious houses were suppressed, agriculture, of which they had been the pioneers, came for a time to a standstill.
Summing up then the influence of the monks, we can outline it thus: The rule of St. Benedict presented agriculture as an occupation useful and worthy of a truly religious person whose life was to be spent between manual labor and spiritual contemplation. He taught that the brothers ought not to feel themselves humiliated if poverty compelled them to gather with their own hands the products of the soil. First, then, they themselves cultivated the ground, and this has been continued even until our own time in certain orders. When a new monastery was founded there was ordinarily betowed upon it land not yet broken or land which, having been devastated by the incursions of the enemy, had become useless to its owner. Sometimes it was covered with forests or with water, or it was a sterile valley surrounded by lofty mountains, or a country in which there was no arable land and it was necessary for the monastery to purchase earth in the neighborhood and bring it in. The monks cleared with their own hands the forests and erected peaceful habitations for man in the spots where formerly had lurked the wolf and the bear. They turned aside devastating torrents, they restrained by means of dykes rivers accustomed to overflow their banks, and soon the deserts where before was heard only the cry of the owl and the hiss of the serpent were changed into smiling fields and fat pasturage.
The love of solitude, the desire of placing by every means possible a check to human passion, inspired them to seek out sites the most unhealthy and to render them by cultivation not only sanitary but even profitable. Modern writers recognize that Italy, devastated by the repeated incursions of barbarians, owed its restoration, its tranquillity and the preservation of the last remains of art to the monasteries. Wherever we see them rise we see agriculture reappear,—the people relieved from their burdens, and kindly relations established between the master and the slave.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)