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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Fr. John Trigilio | author
Sep 01, 2011
Filed under Engaging the Faith

Catholics invented the university

During the Dark Ages, Catholic monks preserved classical art, education and history . . .

Fr. John Trigilio

In a dark age, monks preserved classical art and education. Their monasteries became centers of faith and learning, developing into the first universities.

Once the seat of the Roman Empire moved to Constantinople in the East (330 AD), the West went into decline. Northern invaders sacked Rome, and Western society plunged into the Dark Ages. Whereas under the glories of the Roman Empire there had been a period of peace and a high standard of living, cities became places of disease, crime and filth.

In an attempt to save Western Civilization, classical Greek, Latin, poetry, literature, culture and philosophy were preserved by Catholic monks in their monasteries. Western monasticism developed quite differently from Eastern by being communal. This new way of monastic life was championed by St. Benedict. He came up with a way of life that consisted of eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work and eight hours of relaxation.

By preserving the heritage of the Greco-Roman world, everything from architecture to plays was preserved for future generations. The Renaissance owes its flourishing to these monks. Artists, sculptors and architects of the Renaissance saw this period as a rejuvenation of the classical world. In addition to preserving this wealth of history, monks also advanced their own era. They were master artisans. This was the time before the printing press, so a book had to be laboriously hand written. Manuscripts — such as the Bible, Liturgy of the Hours and missals — were elaborately decorated by them. Also, many famous paintings were created by monks like Fra Angelico.

Later, monasteries developed into universities. Many of today’s oldest universities were begun as extensions of monasteries. Monks often taught the sciences in these institutions. These early universities became centers of higher learning and intellectual debate. The medieval monks and monasteries also spawned hospitals in addition to colleges and universities. Science, art, logic, philosophy, music, history, grammar, rhetoric, math and theology (the liberal arts) were the backbone of Middle Age and even Renaissance higher education.

In Ireland, another development occurred in the area of the sacraments. Until the seventh century, Confession was a public matter with public penance. Increasing populations of Catholics and a more private nature of Confession led to the Irish monks’ development of the private Confession. This is the most common form of Confession to this day. The Irish monks also promoted culture, literature and the Christian faith in the pagan, Celtic lands. As on the Continent, Irish monasteries became centers for learning and religion.

Reprinted with permission from “The Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions” by Rev. John Trigilio Jr. and Rev. Kenneth D. Brighenti (Sourcebooks, 2007). Purchase from Amazon.


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