glyph 361: history, economics . land as a produced economic good ... foundation of the wealth of Europe ... book, A History of Christianity, by Paul Johnson ... agriculture ... religion, monasteries, management ... Christianity, monks, monastic orders . Columbanus, Benedict, Benedictines ... corporations ... meritocracies ... trust institutions . letters of credit, wealth transfer, tools of commerce ... self-government, autocracy ... spirit of service ... social capital, social networks


Agricultural Land as a Produced Economic Good

the work of monasteries in the Dark Ages —Paul Johnson

In A History of Christianity, Part III, historian Paul Johnson writes:

Thus a great and increasing part of the arable land of Europe passed into the hands of highly disciplined men committed to a doctrine of hard work. They were literate. They knew how to keep accounts. Above all, perhaps, they worked to a daily timetable and an accurate annual calendar — something quite alien to the farmers and landowners they replaced. Thus their cultivation of the land was organized, systematic, persistent. And, as owners, they escaped the accidents of deaths, minorities, administration by hapless widows, enforced sales, or transfer of ownership by crime, treason and folly. They brought continuity of exploitation. They produced surpluses and invested them in the form of drainage, clearances, livestock and seed. In the Vosges, for instance, where Columbanus founded a monastery at Annegray, his monks began the process of forest clearance. But Celtic monasticism was rather a cultural than an agricultural instrument. The transformation took place when the Benedictine of Benedictine-type rule was grafted on to earlier forms. Thus the foundation at Fontenelle on the banks of the lower Seine, near Rouen, originally an offshoot of the Celtic Columbanus movement, became a major agricultural colony after adopting a regular discipline in the mid-seventh century. In less than three generations it had converted an area of brushwood and swamp into prime arable land, and had become very wealthy. In west, north-west and central Europe, the clearance of forest and the draining of swamp were the prime economic facts of the entire Dark Ages. In a sense they determined the whole future history of Europe: they were the foundation of its world primacy. The operation was so huge, and took place over such a long period — nearly a millennium — that no one element in society can claim exclusive credit: it was a collective effort. But it was the monasteries which led the movement and for long sustained it.

Find this about 23 pages from the beginning of part III.

After the above was posted, the following exchange took place:

Lexington Green wrote: The Monks get inadequate credit. St. Benedict is very rightly the patron saint of the West. The monasteries were the first "corporations", and as Johnson rightly points out, they were orderly, literate and had continuity of management from generation. He does not mention that they were meritocratic in their selection of leadership, and in fact usually did so by some process of voting.

We see them through the lens of anti-Catholic Protestant England. Moreover, the Enlightenment era writers, especially David Hume and Edward Gibbon, were hostile to Catholicism AND lacked the knowledge of actual medieval conditions which really only came along in the mid- to late-19th C, a process Maitland had a major role in. Between bigotry and ignorance, we got a very skewed popular picture. The early 19th C writer William Cobbett, a Protestant, but reasonable toward the Catholic Church, in his A History of the Protestant Reformation In England and Ireland gives a very reasonable depiction of the monasteries in English history. Not surprisingly, an institution that had popular support for a thousand years was not the rapacious and corrupt thing that its enemies made it out to be, at least not in most places most of the time, though the various orders had their ups and downs. Cobbett rightly notes that the ancestors of the English people of his day were not fools, and they supported those monasteries that they saw doing good work, and many of them did just that, for many centuries.


JB wrote: Also, they were the first institution on the Continent that minimized the pernicious effects of familialism. This created trust institutions that could serve as the basis of a wider economy -- thus letters of credit from one house of an order to another became the first means of reliably and safely transferring wealth across Europe.


Lexington Green wrote: They were massive generators of social capital, in many ways. As you note, they created vast extra-familial networks. Locally, they produced all kinds of public goods as spin-offs -- schools, hospitals, hospitality to travellers, draining swamps, maintaining roads and bridges, etc. And throughout the continent they created a network that facilitated long range travel and trade, as you correctly note. Moreover, they created an example of equality, meritocracy, self-government, autonomy from political control, and a spirit of service.

Really, it occurs to me, all of the three things Arnold Kling says you have to have, a work ethic, a learning ethic and a public service ethic, all were found in exemplary fashion in the monasteries over the centuries.

For more of the above writers, Lexington and JB, the blog, "Albion's Seedlings" is recommended. — last post here is earlier than 2008, after which work migrated to other sites, but it's worth exploring still.

March 2017: Mike Lotus (Lexington Green on recommends this talk: "Benedict's Teaching for Dark Ages, His and Ours", by Russell Hittinger, University of Tulsa — the page, of the Lumen Christi Institute, offers links to video and audio versions of the talk.
December 12, 2006; edited/updated March 26, 2017

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