It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Look at two of the monasteries. First, Saint Gall in Switzerland, founded in the seventh century, and the home of a long line of learned and virtuous men. It was self contained and self sufficient, with barns and stables, a threshing floor, a grist mill, and orchard. There was a row of workshops for woodworkers, saddlers, cobblers, knife grinders, tanners, woolworkers, bookbinders, goldsmiths, sculptors, and makers of altar ornaments. A hostel served wayfarers, an infirmary with a resident physician cared for the sick.
At Saint Gall learning was prized and encouraged; both sacred and profane texts were beautifully copied. Even Greek was studied and Greek texts produced. Two schools were operated- an inner school for novices and oblates, monks in the making, and an outer school for youths who were to remain in the world. The discipline in the schools was strict, but holidays were celebrated with games, races, shot-putting, and at the end a common bath and wine feast by torchlight. It sounds idyllic- a happy intellectual community, lacking only women and golf.
Saint Gall attracted the earnest, scholarly types, the types that naturally seek out the universities today. They were pious enough, but not given to piety’s exaggerations. Cluny was quite different. This was a reform monastery, founded in 910, in protest against the relaxations and abuses within the Benedictine rule. Here the Opus Dei, the service of God by prayer and praise, was almost continuous. It was presumed that in recompense for Cluny’s unending chants and austerities God might pardon the sinful world.
The community was fed on bread, vegetables, fish and a little cheese. ( And this in the midst of fat, gourmandising Burgundy!) In the scriptorium the monks copied only sacred texts; if they had need to consult a heathen book, they indicated the fact by scratching their ears “as dogs are wont to do, for it is not unjust to liken a heathen to such an animal.” The Cluny reform was widespread; eventually it was accepted by 1,450 houses. Clearly it answered a need for deeper piety, for self-sacrifice, for immolation to an ideal. But its inmates are not to be counted among our ancestors- a eugenic misfortune.
(see link at end)…If you were wanting to die a martyr by starvation, the Early Middle Ages were not the time to do it! As a consequence of the excellent weather and greater agricultural knowledge, the West did extremely well. Iron tools were in wide use in the Byzantine empire, feudalism in other parts of the world inthttp://listverse.com/2008/06/09/top-10-reasons-the-dark-ages-were-not-dark/