Once the seat of the Roman Empire moved to Constantinople in the East, the West went into decline. All sorts of invaders from the north, such as the Visigoths, Vandals, and the Huns, invaded Rome and sacked it. 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 monks in their monasteries. Western monasticism developed quite differently from Eastern by being communal. This new way of monastic life was championed by Saint 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.
Monasteries became centers of learning and education. 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 period saw their 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 by someone. Manuscripts, such as the Bible, Liturgy of the Hours, and Missals, were elaborately decorated by them. Also, many famous paintings were created by monks, such as 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 as well as 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, monasteries became centers for learning and religion.