The impact of monasticism on Scotland was profound and long lasting. The arrival of the monks brought a whole new conception of society to its pagan tribes – ideas of a Christian community, education and the responsibilities of leadership and government that still under-pin Scottish society today. Along with Scotland’s warrior kings, they shaped the very idea of the Scottish nation.
The Coming of the Word
Where imperial, pagan Rome had failed, Christian Rome triumphed. From the late fourth century Christianity slowly suffused across the frontier of the Roman Empire in the wake of soldiers, traders and unknown evangelisers. It was a slow process across Scotland, but the individual impact of conversion must have been quite dramatic – challenging people’s most deep-rooted beliefs about the order of the world.
The Beginnings of Monasticism
Being a Monk was to be part of a new movement, Monasticism, literally ‘dwelling alone’. The monk was expected to seek seclusion from worldly life to study and contemplate the word of God. What started in the deserts of North Africa in the fourth century rapidly spread across the western world, but in attempting to escape the world, the Monks couldn’t help but change it dramatically.
Through their commitment to spirituality they established new ideas on virtuous living, becoming renowned as holy men with quasi-magical powers. But it was the monastic commitment to learning that was especially useful to Dark Age rulers. Monastic libraries were huge reservoirs of knowledge. Through the medium of the written word monks held the power of transmitting and storing information.
Royal patronage was a crucial component of Christianity’s success. Scotland’s early saints were usually bishops or abbots who founded a monastery with the local king’s blessing. From these monasteries they consolidated Christian belief within their local communities and passed it onto others through missionaries.