In the sixth century, St. Benedict (480–543/4) wrote monastic rules which would be applied not only in the monasteries he founded in Italy, but in most of the monasteries established throughout Europe. Even today, fifteen hundred years later, his Rule is the most common set of instructions used by monks and monasteries. His directives for moderation and reasonableness reduced the excessive asceticism found in some of the early hermits.
The growth of communal living among the monasteries following the Benedictine Rule was immense. As the years passed, those entering the monasteries were younger than the first monks and this necessitated they be given an education. The ability to read and understand Scriptures was paramount, of course, for Origen had written: “Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
However, the abbots of these monasteries recognized the value of studying medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and Greek philosophy as well. Care of fellow monks and the general population required that someone read about and practice the science of herbal medicine and surgical procedures. Astronomy allowed the monks to know when the calendar required religious practices to take place. Philosophy and logic permitted the student to argue and understand the reasoning behind much of the orthodox, heretical, and schismatic movements as well as the thinking of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.
In effect, many of the monasteries from the sixth century to the Middle Ages became the forerunners of universities. Not only were the monks taught religious and secular subjects, but many of the scholarly types from the secular world came to these monasteries to learn as well. The education formerly found only in such schools as the Catechetical School of Alexandria had spread throughout the Eastern and Western Christian communities.
Medical wings for ill monks became hospital wings for the local population and then separate hospitals for the larger community. Expertise in medical practice became almost the exclusive property of the monastic community. How quickly we forget who and how care came to be given to the general population from a selfish generation.
For a more complete picture of such benevolence, read my book Rock of the Apostles: A Brief History of Catholic Tradition by going to goo.gl/w9h5H2.