There were certain abbeys, especially in England, that took the greatest care not to clear the country of all trees. It is related of Alexander, the first abbot of Kirkstall, that, forseeing the necessities of the future, he forbade the cutting down of the vast forest he had acquired by divine protection, and preferred to purchase elsewhere the timber he required in erecting his large buildings. The monks of Pipwel in Northampton did not cease to plant trees in their forests and were said to watch over them as a mother over an only child. For their own private necessities they made use of dead, dry wood and reeds.

As a rule, the monks took great care in the cultivation of their land to conform to the laws of climate, soil and locality. In the north they devoted themselves especially to the raising of cattle, and in these countries the greatest privileges that could be given them were woods and the right to allow the swine to wander in them. In other countries they occupied themselves in the cultivation of fruit trees, the improvement of which was their work. It was the celebrated nursery of Chartreuse of Paris that up to the epoch of the Revolution furnished fruit trees to almost the whole of France, and the remembrance of their labors still lives in the name of certain delicious fruits, such as the doyenne and bon chretien pears. The finest orchards and vineyards belonged to the monasteries. All the chronicles speak of the cultivation of Mt. Menzing in the canton of Zug, which produced abundantly wheat and fruits and particularly nuts. The friendly relations existing between the monasteries, the interchange of visits between the monks of the different monasteries, were of great advantage, for foreign plants and fruits were exchanged and cultivated.

The monks were the first to devise tools for gardening. They had calendars in which were set down all that experience had taught them respecting the breeding of cattle, the sowing of land, the harvesting of crops and every kind of plantation. William of Malmesbury boasts of the fertility of the valley of Gloucester in wheat, in fruits and in vineyards.

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


In the twelfth century impenetrable forests still covered the valley of the Jura. A monastery of the order of Premontre cut down the first trees in their forests and attracted there the first colonists. A monastery of the order of Citeaux had but a short time previously restricted within its banks the river Saone, which covered with its overflow the foot of Rodmont. It cleared the soil of the virgin forest where now is situated the little city of Rougemont with its two thousand inhabitants. At great expense and by almost superhuman effort dykes were opposed to the waves of the ocean, and they snatched from the element a soil which the work of man changed afterward into fertile fields. Marshes became arable land and the home of man. The monks loved to acquire these marshes in order to render them amenable to cultivation, and frequently even their monasteries rose out of the bosom of the waters. When it was impossible to drain them or when economy demanded it, they brought straw and laid it down in bundles and upon these bundles earth was placed. They dug out ponds into which they collected the superfluous waters by tiles used to drain the land.

In this way the monastic orders extended the cultivation of the soil from the south of Europe even to the most distant north. They facilitated communication between different points and were the organizers of different kinds of industry. Sweden owes to them the perfection of its race of horses and the beginning of commerce in wheat. On the island of Tuteron, where was formerly located a monastery of the order of Citeaux, plants still grow spontaneously which in the neighborhood one is compelled to cultivate with care. The Abbot William brought the first salad from France into Denmark. If in the eleventh century England could boast of an agriculture more advanced than many other countries, if it presented less forest and heath and more cultivated lands and fat pasturage, it owes it to the zeal of the monks who had found there in early times a hospitable welcome. It was the monks who in Flanders cleared the forests, drained the marshes, rendered fertile the sandy lands, snatched from the sea its most ancient possessions and changed a desert into a blooming garden.

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

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)

In the earlier days the monks had always taken the lead in farming, and if improvements were introduced it was sure to be the monks who were the pioneers. How useful the monasteries had been and what an important factor they were is perhaps best seen from the effect their dissolution had upon the laboring classes.

Henry VIII suppressed six hundred and forty-four monasteries, ninety colleges, two thousand three hundred and seventy-four free chapels and one hundred and ten hospitals. These held one-fifth of all the land in the kingdom and one-third the national wealth. At the same time nearly one hundred thousand male persons were thrown out of employment. The land taken up by the king was bestowed upon his nobles and favorites, and these, desirous of securing immediate and larger profits, enclosed immense areas and turned to the breeding and pasturing of sheep. It was the substitution of pasture for tillage, of sheep for corn, of commercialism for a simple, self-sufficing industry, of individual gain for the old agrarian partnership in which the lords or abbots, the parsons, yeomen, farmers, copy-holders and laborers were associated for the supply of the wants of the villagers. A perfect frenzy for raising sheep took possession of the agricultural community. No pains were spared to increase the extent of pasturage. Small tenants were evicted, laborers’ cottages were pulled down, the lord’s demesnes turned into pasturage, and wastes and commons which had before been open to all were now enclosed for the same purpose. Every one was now convinced that “the foot of the sheep would turn sand into gold,” and hastened to substitute grazing for tillage.

But while there was this sudden and wholesale transference of the arable land to pasturage, as sudden and violent a change in the character of labor was required. The dog and the shepherd took the place of the plowmen and their teams, and thus diminished the demand for labor at the very moment when the supply was increased. Very serious results followed. The poorer tenants were ruined and an immense number of persons were thrown out of employment, to become beggars and thieves. It was, says Gibbins in the “Industrial History of England,” the beginning of English pauperism.

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)

Everywhere [during the early Middle Ages] we see the monks instructing the population in the most profitable methods and industries, naturalizing under a vigorous sky the most useful vegetables and the most productive grains, importing continually into the countries they colonized animals of better breed, or plants new and unknown there before; here introducing the rearing of cattle and horses, there bees or fruit; in another place the brewing of beer with hops; in Sweden, the corn trade; in Burgundy, artificial pisciculture; in Ireland, salmon fisheries; about Parma, cheese making. They taught the necessity of letting the land be fallow for a time after several years of continuous cropping; they practised rotation of crops, using clover as the last in the series; they improved the different varieties of fruits and learned the art of grafting, budding and layering; they taught by precept and example the value of drainage and irrigation. In short, in everything making for progressive agriculture we find them blazing the way, and when the monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIII a death-blow was struck for a time at scientific agriculture and horticulture.

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

There had been an organized system of poor-relief in every parish at least since the eleventh century…St Riquier, for example, served more than five hundred meals each day; Corbie distributed fifty loaves; while Cluny kept an annual reserve of five hundred sides of salt pork for the use of the poor. […]

Thus, by the conjoint efforts of the hierarchy, the new [religious] Orders, and private generosity, there came into being a host of charitable institutions…[T]heir character was always markedly religious; the staff consisted of men or women dedicated to God and styled ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters,’ who, even if they belonged to no recognized congregation, followed a Rule inspired in most cases by that of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and were almost always governed by a cleric, priest or monk. The majority of hospitals were vast buildings – that of Milan was renowned for its beauty – where the sick, the infirm, and the aged alike were received and cared for. […]

Abandoned children, according to ecclesiastical law, were to be laid at the door of a sanctuary or religious house as a precaution against their being killed. They had their own hospital, run by the Order of the Holy Ghost, or were sheltered by Hospitallers of Jerusalem who had left their normal duties in Palestine so as to carry on this holy work in Europe. Some of these children’s hospices were enormous, and the inmates were looked after until they reached adult age, when work was found for the boys and a dowry provided for those girls who did not wish to take the veil.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350)