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)

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)

Perhaps in no better way can I more graphically bring before you the immense work of the monks than by giving you a picture of the fen district of Southampton before Thorney Abbey was founded, and then reading you the description of this abbey by the great Bishop of Tyre, William of Malmesbury. Southampton is a peninsula making down between the mouths of the Itchen and the Test or Anton into the tide-swept channel that separates it from the Isle of Wight. It was nothing but a vast morass. The fens in the seventh century were probably like the forests at the mouth of the Mississippi or the swamp shores of the Carolinas. It was a labyrinth of black, wandering streams; broad lagoons, morasses submerged every spring- tide; vast beds of reed and sedge and fern; vast copses of willow, alder and gray poplar, rooted in the floating peat, which was swallowing up slowly, all-devouring, yet all-preserving, the forests of fir and oak, ash and poplar, hazel and yew, which had once grown in that low, rank soil. Trees torn down by flood and storm floated and lodged in rafts, damming the waters back upon the land. Streams bewildered in the forests changed their channels, mingling silt and sand with the black soil of the peat. Nature left to herself ran into wild riot and chaos more and more, till the whole fen became one dismal swamp.

Four or five centuries later William of Malmesbury visits the place and leaves us this charming picture of the change: “It is a counterfeit of Paradise, where the gentleness and purity of heaven appear already to be reflected. In the midst of the fens rise groves of trees which seem to touch the stars with their tall and slender tops; the charmed eye wanders over a sea of verdant herbage, the foot which treads the wide meadows meets with no obstacle in its path. Not an inch of land as far as the eye can reach lies uncultivated. Here the soil is hidden by fruit trees; there by vines stretched upon the ground or trailed on trellises. Nature and art rival each other, the one supplying all that the other forgets to produce. O deep and pleasant solitude! Thou hast been given by God to the monks, so that their mortal life may daily bring them nearer to heaven.”

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)

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)

With the fall of the Roman empire and the influx of the great waves of barbaric tribes that swept over Europe, the cleared lands and cultivated fields reverted to forest and moor, cities and towns lay in ruins, and the citizen was reduced to the condition of the beggar and the slave. France Germany, Spain, Italy and England had all fallen a prey to the never-ending swarms that poured across the barrier rivers of the Rhine and Danube.

But out of the midst of this universal chaos and desolation now burst forth an army of Christian soldiers. Some, taking upon themselves vows of solitude and self-renunciation, penetrated the wilderness to live as ascetics, – a life of prayer and holy calm, withdrawn from the turmoil and wretchedness of the world; others, seeking out the most inaccessible and unfrequented spots erected their buildings, and gathering about them their disciples, entered upon the true monastic life; while yet others again as missionaries, advanced boldly into the enemy’s dominions, to conquer back for the Church the territory it had lost, and to gather into its folds these new peoples and new tribes whose invasion had destroyed the Roman world.

And it was their glory that in a few short centuries they succeeded. Solitaries who shrunk from all contact with humanity were becoming the unconscious instruments for the civilization and conversion of savages and heathen. They penetrated valleys choked with rocks, brambles and brushwood, the overgrowth of generations interlaced into a barrier not to be penetrated by anything weaker than their untiring energy. They are the sternest of ascetics and most isolated of hermits. But their rest is broken by penitents who come to ask their blessing and who implore permission to live under their authority. The solitary cell of the hermit becomes the nucleus of a society,—the society a centre of many congregations radiating from it. The little plot of herbs becomes a garden; the garden stretches out into fields of waving grain; the hills are clothed with vines, the valleys bowered in fruit trees. Opening their doors to all, receiving under their shelter and protection the oppressed, the weak, the criminal, the slave, the sin-sick soul weary of this life and despairing of another, the mourner and the comfortless, it frequently happened that the inmates of these cloisters, those attached to one community and under one jurisdiction, numbered thousands.

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)

Such, then, was the daily existence of some typical medieval women. If medieval civilization is to be judged by it, it must be admitted that it comes well out of the test. It is true that the prevalent dogma of the subjection of women, becoming embedded in the common law and in the marriage laws, left to future generations a legacy which was an unconscionable time in dying. It is true that woman was not legally ‘a free and lawful person’, that she had no lot or share then, or indeed until the twentieth century, in what may be called public as distinct from private rights and duties, and that the higher grades of education were closed to her.

On the other hand, she had a full share in the private rights and duties arising out of the possession of land and played a considerable part in industry, in spite of the handicap of low wages and sometimes of masculine exclusiveness. The education of the average laywoman compared very favourably with that of her husband, and some ladies of rank were leaders of culture, like the royal patronesses of the troubadours, and occasionally blue-stockings, like Christine de Pisan. Although there was small place in the society of the upper classes for the independent unmarried woman, she found an honourable occupation for her activities in monasticism. In every class of the community the life of the married woman gave her a great deal of scope, since, as has already been indicated, the home of this period was a very wide sphere; social and economic conditions demanded that a wife should always be ready to perform her husband’s duties as well as her own, and that a large range of activities should be carried on inside the home under her direction.

Finally, while the Middle Ages inherited the doctrine of the subjection of women, in some degree at least, from the past, in evolved for itself and handed down to the modern world a conception of chivalry which has had its share in the inspiration of poets, the softening of manners, and the advance of civilization. Taking the rough with the smooth and balancing theory against practice, the medieval woman played an active and dignified part in the society of her age.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

The country housewife, too, was expected to look after the bodies of her household in sickness as well as in health, and it was necessary for her to have a certain skill in physic and surgery. Life was far less professionalized in the Middle Ages; a doctor was not to be found round every corner, and though the great lady in her town house or the wealthy bourgeoise might find a physician from Oxford or Paris or Salerno within reach, some one had to be ready to deal with emergencies on the lonely manors. […]

If, however, a woman set up practice as a physician outside the limits of her home and pretended to something more than the skill of an amateur or a witch, there forthwith arose an outcry which seems to foreshadow the opposition of the medical profession to the entrance of women in the nineteenth century. The case of the doctors was a respectable one; the women had no medical degrees and therefore no knowledge or training. Nevertheless there were women here and there who acquired considerable fame as physicians. The most interesting of them is the well-born lady Jacoba Felicie, who in 1322, being then about thirty years of age, was prosecuted by the Medical Faculty at Paris on a charge of contravening the statute which forbade any one to practise medicine in the city and suburbs without the Faculty’s degree and the Chancellor’s licence…Her skill seems to have been undoubted, one witness stating that ‘he had heard it said by several that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than the greatest master doctor or surgeon in Paris’.

Nevertheless she was inhibited; but as she had already disregarded a previous inhibition and a heavy fine, she probably continued as before to practice her healing profession.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

No more striking witness to the confidence reposed by husbands in the business capacity of their wives is to be found than the wills and letters of the later Middle Ages. It is impossible to read through any great collection of medieval wills, such as the Testamenta Eboracensia, published by the Surtees Society, without observing the number of cases in which a wife is made the executrix of her husband’s will, sometimes alone and sometimes as principal in conjunction with other persons. More than once a touch of feeling enlivens the legal phraseology, as when John Sothill of Dewsbury bids his executors, ‘I pray you, pray Thomas my son in my name and for ye lufe of God, yat he never strife with his moder, as he will have my blissyng, for he sall fynd his curtos to del withall’.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

Throughout the Middle Ages, too, the social and physical conditions of life, the constant wars, and above all the slow communications, inevitably threw a great deal of responsibility upon wives as the representatives of their absent husbands. It has been asserted in all ages that the sphere of woman is the home, but it has not always been acknowledged that that sphere may vary greatly in circumference, and that in some periods and circumstances it has given a much wider scope to women than in others. In the Middle Ages it was, for a variety of reasons, a very wide sphere, partly because of this constantly recurring necessity for the wife to take the husband’s place. While her lord was away on military expeditions, on pilgrimages, at court, or on business, it was she who became the natural guardian of the fief or manager of the manor, and Europe was full of competent ladies, not spending all their time in hawking and flirting, spinning and playing chess, but running estates, fighting lawsuits, and even standing sieges for their absent lords. When the nobility of Europe went forth upon a crusade it was their wives who managed their affairs at home, superintended the farming, interviewed the tenants, and saved up money for the next assault.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

Medieval records are, indeed, full of these independent women. A glance at any manorial ‘extent’ will show women villeins and cotters living upon their little holdings and rendering the same services for them as men; some of these are widows, but many of them are obviously unmarried. The unmarried daughters of villeins could always find work to do upon their father’s acres, and could hire out their strong arms for a wage to weed and hoe and help with the harvest. Women performed almost every kind of agricultural labour, with the exception of the heavy business of ploughing. They often acted as thatcher’s assistants, and on many manors they did the greater part of the sheep-shearing, while the care of the dairy and of the small poultry was always in their hands. Similarly, in the towns women carried on a great variety of trades. Of the five hundred crafts scheduled in Etienne Boileau’s Livres des Metiers in medieval Paris, at least five were their monopoly, and in a large number of others women were employed as well as men. Two industries in particular were mainly in their hands, because they could with ease be carried on as by-industries in the home. The ale, drunk by every one who could not afford wine, in those days when only the most poverty-stricken fell back on water, was almost invariably prepared by women, and every student of English manorial court rolls will remember the regular appearance at the leet of most of the village alewives, to be fined for breaking the Assize of Ale. Similarly, in all the great clothworking districts, Florence, the Netherlands, England, women are to be found carrying out the preliminary processes of the manufacture. Spinning was, indeed, the regular occupation of all women and the ‘spinster’s’ habitual means of support; God, as the Wife of Bath observes, has given three weapons to women, deceit, weeping, and spinning! Other food-producing and textile industries were also largely practiced by them, and domestic service provided a career for many.

It must, of course, be remembered that married as well as single women practiced all these occupations, but it is clear that they offered a solution to the problem of the ‘superfluous’ women of the lower classes.

Nevertheless, this equality of men and women in the labour market was a limited one. Many craft regulations exclude female labour, some because the work was considered too heavy, but most for the reason, with which we are familiar, that the competition of women undercut the men. Then, as now, women’s wages were lower than those of men, even for the same work, and the author of a treatise on Husbandry was enunciating a general principle when, after describing the duties of the daye or dairywoman, he added: ‘If this is a manor where there is no dairy, it is always good to have a woman there at a much less cost than a man’.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)