It’s difficult to overstate how crucial Western monasticism was to preserving European civilization. As the last vestiges of the Roman Empire withered away in the fifth century, monastic communities emerged as islands of enlightenment among a dark sea of barbarism and anarchy that held sway over Europe for centuries. Here is how one scholar puts it:
[T]here was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of copying ancient manuscripts. … It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.
But the role of the monks in saving civilization was even broader than this, according to the scholar:
Besides praying and working out their salvation and preaching the gospel, what else did monks pursue in those monasteries? The practical arts, agriculture being a significant one. They literally saved agriculture in Europe. They taught the folks how to cultivate the land, especially in Germany where they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country. Manual labor was intrinsic part of their rule which proclaimed “ora et labora” (pray and work). In England they owned one fifth of all its cultivable land. The monks would introduce crops, industries and production methods with which the people were not familiar: the rearing and breeding of cattle, horses, the brewing of beer, the raising of bees and fruits. The corn trade in Sweden was established by the monks, in Parma it was cheese making, in Ireland salmon fisheries, and in many places vineyards.
St. Benedict of Nursia, whose feast day was earlier this month, is universally recognized as the founder of Western monasticism, with his famous Rule of St. Benedict serving as the blueprint for what was at its height 37,000 Benedictine monasteries. So it’s not for nothing that St. Benedict is one of the patron saints of Europe. (And it’s easy to see why Pope Benedict XVI, facing the onslaught of a new dark ages upon Europe, took his name.)