IT is certainly to the solitary Monks that we owe the preservation of the precious remains of ancient literature. We must consider their silent mansions as having afforded the only retreats to science and literature in ages when an universal ignorance threatened to banish from Europe every species of learning. The origin of these fraternities, shall be the subject of this article.
“As to the original of MONKS in this island, (observes Bishop Tanner, in his Notitia Monastica) it hath been thought by some to have been as early as the first plantation of Christianity therein; for Sir George Mackenzie tells us, ‘It is probable that some of the druids having been converted from the Pagan religion (whereof they were the priests) became our first Monks, being thereunto much inclined by the severity of their former discipline.’”
However ingenious this conjecture may be, Tanner is of opinion, with others, particularly Dr. Inet in his church history, that “The persecutions, which attended the first ages of the gospel, forced some Christians to retire from the world and live in deserts and places most private and unfrequented. The example of some extraordinary persons gave so much reputation to retirement, that the practice was continued when the reason ceased which first began it; and after the empire became christian, instances of this kind became numerous. Those whose security had obliged them to live separately and apart, were united into societies.”
Tanner observes, that “the monastic life is generally allowed to have been begun in the east, and not to have been brought even to Rome itself till about A.D. 340. Some time after St. Martin of Tours carried it first into France; and St. Patrick being his nephew, and having been with him in his journey to Rome, probably learned it of him, and was the first author of it in England, as well as Ireland.”
Let us now have recourse to the erudite authors of the Literary history of France; who will supply us with many amusing particulars concerning its establishment in their country.
They observe, that the Monasteries have almost always been so many schools for piety and for literature. Some of these communities were seen among the Gauls, a little after the middle of the fourth century. They inform us, that Saint Martin, bishop of Tours, was the first who established a monastery, in the year 360, near Poitiers; and they add (liberal as they are, they were compelled to relate some pious fictions) during his ascetic retreat, God illustrated it, by a miracle, which was nothing less than restoring to life a dead body; and which was performed in consequence of a successful prayer of St. Martin. But, laying such narratives aside, it is certain that from this monastery many scholars issued. It is not incurious to observe, that this monastery, which I think yet exists, was latterly made use of as a country residence for the Jesuits of Poitiers, where they retired for an occasional relaxation from the labour of instructing youth.
Saint Martin was certainly fond of solitude, even when he was elevated to the episcopal chair, He erected another monastery near the town, and shortly eighty Monks assembled. Their austerity was uncommon, as well as to what related to their food as their dress; though many of these recluses descended from noble families, and had formerly been accustomed to a very different life. But what was hard to nature (observe our pious writers) the attractions of grace rendered pleasant and even desirable. This monastery was at once a nursery of bishops and a school for literature. There was not a church (writes S. Sulpicius) which would not have for its head, one of those who had been trained up in this holy place. The labours of these recluses consisted in copying books; on which the young only were employed, the old having no other occupation than prayer!
As soon as this monastery was formed, it became a fertile hive from whence issued many a holy swarm, who spread themselves about. St. Martin sent from his own hive, several drones to stock the new monasteries. The environs of Tours were crouded with them. Before the year 385, another monastery was there erected. The monastic institution, at least amongst the Gauls, was originally a profession devoted to the cultivation of letters. The labour of transcribing books, which then formed one of the chief occupations of the Monks, always continued with them, till the discovery of the admirable art of printing. It is thus that all impartial historians dispense only bare justice to the ancient Monks, by acknowledging that it is to their cares and to their labours that we owe the valuable remains of antiquity, as well sacred as profane.
On this subject there is an excellent observation made by the commentator on the Bibliotheques Françoises of De la CROIX de la Maine, and Du Verdier. I translate the passage:
“The sublime productions of the greatest geniuses of Athens and Rome found a secure asylum in the retreats of religion. The church, which had adopted the Greek and Latin languages, always employed them, and without this circumstance an universal ignorance would probably have prevailed. Men were wanted, who, secluded from the world, would dedicate themselves to retirement, by choice; to study, by taste; to labour, by duty. Animated by the same genius, and by the same zeal; living in common under the same regulations, and who were willing to employ the leisure of their solitude to the laborious occupation of endless transcription. It is fortunate for letters that this body subsisted; no individuals, whose minds would have been occupied by domestic affairs, and dissipated by public matters, could have given themselves up to such long and painful labours; and this is one of the chief advantages which we derive from these industrious and learned solitaries, who, from the depth of their retreat, enlightened the world, which they had quitted.”
Our great poet’s observation, in the Art of Criticism, that
“—The MONKS finished, what the Goths begun,”is very exceptionable; and must be qualified by the discernment of the reader.