Volume ten of Spice and Wolf is remarkable for how much mercantile intrigue is centered around Blondel Abbey in Winfiel, which no doubt has its antecedents in England’s Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx. Both favored wool production and became their country’s chief exporter of wool. (Yes, Winfiel is essentially England. The country is an island, wool is the chief export, and mustaches are the most popular facial hair–all characteristics of medieval England.) The action of this novel turned my mind to the importance of monasteries in the Middle Ages. That and Lawrence’s comment about his world’s Church believing tacking into the wind to be a form of witchcraft inspired this article. Hasekura loves describing the Church as superstitious and backwards. How does that compare to the real Church of the Middle Ages, and what role did monasteries have to play in the growth of European civilization?
Some of you may be familiar with my article on the Church and superstition. Some of those arguments will be repeated here. The Church actually developed scientific study as we know it today and fought superstition with education. The Franciscan Roger Bacon set forth the scientific method in the 13th century, and he forms part of a long line of clerical scientists stretching from his century through the 20th century. St. Thomas Aquinas’s mentor, St. Albert the Great, happens to be the Patron Saint of the Natural Sciences, which shows the propinquity of theology and natural philosophy. Faith and reason worked hand in hand during the Middle Ages: those most knowledgeable in theology also had the most scientific minds. Many of the oldest universities in Europe can trace their beginnings to monastic schools which added the natural sciences to their curricula.
Also, monasteries happened to become pioneers in trade and invented capitalism–a fact for which Lawrence may be grateful. (He does have many positive feelings towards the Church due to various helps he received from that institution.) The Benedictine Rule has ever been the most popular for monastic orders, and its motto is “ora et labora,” i.e. “pray and work.” The monks’ combination of frugality and hard work led to monasteries gaining wealth, which they invested in purchasing land. (The “Protestant work ethic” appeared long before 1517 in monasteries across Europe!) Monasteries began to specialize their labor, which led to them supporting cash economies so that they could work at their industry of choice–just like how Blondel Abbey focuses on wool. Eventually, monasteries had enough wealth to bring in hired labor, which caused towns and cities to flourish around them. They even became bankers and money lenders as the Church revised its position on interest charges.
Like we see in Spice and Wolf, many lay persons began to accuse monks of being too worldly because of their success in trade. This feeling produced countless reform movements during the Middle Ages and the rise of religious orders–beginning with the Dominicans–favoring the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (The Benedictine vows are of obedience, stability, and conversion, but they do remain celibate and hold property in common.) While vulnerable to charges of worldliness, one thinks that the contributions of religious orders to technology, science, learning, and trade–all important features of modern civilization–would make the Church immune to accusations of superstition. On the whole, monks and other ecclesiastics were probably far less superstitious than a good percentage of moderns.
If you want to read more on the subject, I highly recommend The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark. (Much of the information above comes from that book.) His newest work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, likely also contains the information necessary to debunk various myths Enlightenment thinkers imposed on the medieval Church. But, one can now find loads of books talking about how the Middle Ages provided the foundation for modern science.