Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Monastic Orders

In the wake of the creative onslaught that assaulted my brain after reading The Beast of Averoigne by CAS, I have been brushing up on Western monasticism in order to be able to piece together an appropriate ecclesial structure for a campaign set in a fantasy version of southern France. In order to do this, one actually has to start in the east.

Christianity has from the very beginning had a monastic character. Though he was certainly not the first monk, St. Anthony is considered the grandfather of Christian monasticism. He was a hermit of the Egyptian desert in the late 3rd century and early 4th. His life was record by St. Athansius the Great. This was translated into several languages and became an extremely popular book. It inspired an entire generation (and continues to inspire, I might add).

With the advent of Christianity not only being tolerated by the Roman Empire, but being the preferred religion of emperors, the first great era of martyrdom came to a close. Facing a world where there was no possibility of following in the footsteps of the great Christian heroes into martyrdom and inspired by the Life of St. Anthony, an entire generation went into the desert.

There, two basic styles of monasticism developed: cenobitic (communal) and eremitic (hermit-like). St. Basil the Great is seen in Orthodoxy as a founding monastic legislator, whose rules are still used by Orthodox monks today. St. Benedict, using St. Basil's rules as a model, wrote his own Rule which became the model for Western monasticism.

During the period of approx. A.D. 1100-1350 there were at least three orders within France that could be used as inspiration for a fantasy setting:

  • Benedictines: (mentioned in The Beast of Averoigne), also known as black monks (because of their black/dark robes) who are followers of the Rule of St. Benedict. It is a cenobitic order.
  • Cistercians: also known as white monks (because of their undyed robes). They also follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which they attempt to follow in exactness. They emphasize field-work and are famous for their agriculture (they introduced a lot of agricultural technology to Europe) and as horse breeders. The only income they accepted was from this field-work (no gifts, no tithes, etc.). It is a cenobitic order. The Knights Templar were Cistercians.
  • Carthusians: also known as charterhouse monks. This is the most austere of the orders. They shaved their heads, wore horse hair shirts and took a vow of silence. They lived as hermits, gathered together only for services and ate together only on Sundays. It is an eremitic order. In more modern times, they made famous a green liquor known as chartreuse, from which the pale green color gets its name.

For the purposes of using these three orders to inspire monastic orders for a fantasy world, I am going to adopt the names black monks, white monks and green monks. These primarily refer to the color of the robes that they wear.

One of the basic credos of the Rule of Benedict is the simple phrase Pray and Work. White monks emphasize work, being excellent farmers and horse breeders. They live in communities in rural and wilderness environments. Green monks emphasize prayer. They are famous for their elixirs (derived from the same plants that they use to dye their robes) and live primarily as hermits in the wilderness. Black monks seek to find a balance between work and prayer. They tend to live in communities in or near urban centers.

Besides their robes, the three orders can also be distinguished by their form of tonsure. White monks wear the classic "bald spot" tonsure we all associate with medieval monastics. Green monks shave their heads. Black monks do not cut their hair or beards at all. Therefore, they are also sometimes known as Nazirites (see Numbers 6:5). [This latter style has two sources of inspiration. Orthodox monks normally do not cut their hair nor shave and the Merovingian Kings of France were known as the "long-haired kings" because not only did they wear their hair long, but if their hair were cut, they would be unworthy of ruling.]

In addition to monks, each order would have two sub-orders: Canons and Swords. Canons are those ordained priests who have taken monastic vows. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox practice of allowing marriage prior to ordination was still in use in Western Christendom at this time, though frowned upon. I like the idea that cleric characters don't necessarily have to start out as ordained clergy, but would have to be ordained in order to receive 3rd level spells or higher — thus marriage is a possibility for those inclined. Swords are the military arm of the order. These would be the Knights Templar or the Hospitallers of this fantasy world.

To summarize:

Black Monks

Cenobitic order whose abbeys are primarily in or near urban centers. They seek to find a balance between prayer and work. Known for their black/dark robes and their uncut hair and beards. Also known as Nazirites.

Black Canons

Ordained priests who have taken a monastic vow with the Black Monks.

Black Swords

The military arm of the order. They have served extensively in the East, explaining the heavy eastern influence on the order.

White Monks

Cenobitic order who emphasize field-work. They are especially gifted farmers and horse breeders. Known for their undyed robes and their "bald spot" tonsures. Their abbeys are primarily in rural or wilderness areas.

White Canons

Ordained priests who have taken a monastic vow with the White Monks.

White Swords

The military arm of the order. While they also have served in the east, they have had more influence in the West. There are rumors of corruption, hidden treasures and even sorcery among its members.

Green Monks

Eremitic order who primarily live in the wilderness. Emphasizing prayer, they are known for their green robes, which are dyed with the same plants that they use to make their green elixirs. They shave their heads and take various vows of silence.

Green Canons

Ordained priests who have taken a monastic vow with the Green Monks.

Green Swords

The military arm of the order. The smallest of the three military orders, these soldiers are famous for their unarmed fighting techniques.


James Maliszewski said...

This is very nice.

John Matthew Stater said...

Very impressive - love it.

Theodric the Obscure said...

I like what you're doing here.
Will the black monks follow the Nazirite laws in toto?
What about nuns?
And most importantly, do the white monks brew ales in their abbeys?

Alexey said...

I like this a lot. I have a Carthusian-based order in my campaign, whose kindly hermits live in silence and possess great psionic powers. The PCs helped clear out an old temple so that the hermits could found a new charter house. All based on a Carthusian charter house I visited in rural Italy.

I must say I really enjoy how you use our history to develop new material for your campaign. It always feels very integrated and organic.

FrDave said...

Thanks for all the kind words, guys.

Will the blank monks follow the Nazarite laws in toto?
No. The others (no wine, no fruit of the vine, no touching dead bodies) actually go against Christian practice. If one abstained from wine and the fruit of the vine, then one could not take communion — something commanded by Christ Himself. Death no longer has any sting, and the body is an integral part of the human person, so touching dead bodies and taking care of them through proper burial is a necessary part of the Christian mission.

However, the Rule of St. Benedict does limit the intake of wine (one pint per day) and requires a vegetarian diet except for those who are ill.

do the white monks brew ales in their abbeys?
Yes. Not surprisingly, its called White Ale...

I must say I really enjoy how you use our history to develop new material for your campaign. It always feels very integrated and organic.
This is good to hear, because that is the feel I am going for. One of the aspects of The Beast of Averoigne that I liked the best was its groundedness. It is this exact feeling that I was going for with this post.

John said...

FrDave - I forgot to mention this when I saw you hop on the Averoigne kick. A magazine called Worlds of Cthulhu had published a series of articles on using Averoigne (mainly for Cthulhu Dark Ages). My sense is they went quite a bit deeper than the cursory treatment in X2, but I don't have them yet - they're on my shopping list for Gencon, if they can be found.

FrDave said...

Thanks for the heads up. I just did a quick search and it does seem that they are a bit hard to find and those that are available are a bit on the expensive side...let me know if you snag them and what you think of them.