How the monasteries preserved and advanced education and culture in the middle ages:
When Charlemagne took the reins, Europe was teetering under regional warfare, poverty, illiteracy, clerical corruption, lax spiritual standards, and lingering pagan practices. There were no major cities. Local life was agrarian and feudal. Education had become nonexistent. Thus, one of his chief aims was to bring order and reform to both society and the church. Charlemagne read his Bible regularly and regarded himself as the protector of the church. Monasteries played a vital role in his vision for a Christian civilization. He urged the monks not only to have a strong spiritual commitment but also an active cultural life...
In his 789 General Admonition outlining reforms for the church, Charlemagne lamented the many poorly written letters he had received from monasteries: “We therefore started to fear that as they were not that accomplished in writing, they were perhaps even less accomplished in understanding the Sacred Scriptures, and we know very well that the incorrect use of words is dangerous, errors of meaning being the most dangerous of all.”
God forbid that the church’s doctrine or practice should falter on a grammatical error! Yet that was precisely the problem. People were praying incorrectly, and how people are taught to pray affects what they believe. Though sermons were in the local languages, the Bible and the liturgy were in Latin, and few monks or clergy knew Latin well enough to understand them. In order to “recall the kingdom which God had given him to the worship of God,” Charlemagne was convinced that books were the key. The resulting explosion of literary activity, education, and cultural revival is often called the “Carolingian Renaissance.”
Monks were at the heart of this explosion. They heeded Charlemagne’s warning that “correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct,” and mastered Latin in order to study Scripture and other early documents of the church. Monasteries became publishing houses, producing original manuscripts (such as the monk Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne) as well as tens of thousands of copies of biblical and classical texts. The monk-copyists developed a clear style of handwriting known as Carolingian minuscule—readily recognizable as the ancestor of basic letter shapes today.
Monastic libraries often held several hundred titles (the largest, at Fulda, had almost 1,000), including Bibles, church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome, saints’ lives, and major classical writers such as Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus. The monks’ tireless efforts proved essential for the preservation of ancient literature. In most cases, the oldest surviving copies of such works we possess today were made by Benedictine monks in the early Middle Ages.
If there were books to read, there had to be schools to teach reading. Monastic schools were the most successful of the era, imparting the liberal arts to boys and girls destined for church careers or convent life.