September 22, 2009

Monkish Hospitality: the evolution of Economic Specialisation

This review of a recent study of Medieval Monastic Hospitality raises some very interesting questions. We do not often think, in the wider world, of monasteries as what some were, particularly by the twelfth century: large houses of men who held large lands. What is important about this is that of course it all had to be managed. The first thing that strikes me as an amateur in medieval history is that by the twelfth century, the review and hence the study probably suggest that monasteries evolved a more specialised structure in the period. Monks specialised in hospitality for guests- abbots moved out of the general refectory, out of the general monastery into their own quarters. The structure of the society is both specialising and complicating.

In this sense, we see and I do not know whether the author intended or would endorse this view but I think something interesting might have happened here. Traditionally we see the Church opposing the development of a market. However if we agree with Adam Smith that part of the story of economic development is the story of increased specialisation- the transition that turns twenty people making nails in a community into a factory where every man and woman makes the bit of the nail that they are best equipped by skill and experience to make. If we believe that, then in my view, what Julia Kerr's work shows is that monasteries are part of this longer story towards specialisation and the complication of structure and hierarchy that are the hallmarks of a modern economy.


James Higham said...

Monasteries were the hospitals, the seats of learning, the place people could go who were down and out.

By the way, did you ever read any Cadfael?