Who turned swamps into farmland?

How Catholic innovations changed western civilization.

Strange question you might think. I assure you that this is not a thought experiment. Here we have authentic history.

Picture a dismal swamp. Picture murky streams, land submerged in spring-time floods, invasive reeds, and thick peat all devouring forests of fir and oak. Imagine rank soil and dead trees floating like rafts in black water. This depicts parts of Europe in the sixth century.

St. Benedict of Nursia gazed upon this useless terrain and knew God could turn a desert into fertile land, for with God nothing is impossible. He is the father of western monasticism, a man who established twelve communities of monks at Subiaco, Italy, and the monastery in Mont Cassino. In 529 he wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict, a rule that established structure and order in a tumultuous world. Manual labor played a key role in monastic life and was seen as a channel to mortify the flesh and give glory to God. As Benedictine monasteries grew, lay donors gave them uncultivated land. 

Monks did grunt work nobody else wanted to do. They dug ditches and plowed fields. They diked and drained swamps that once had been rife with disease and filth. They cleared forests and planted saplings to conserve forests. They improved cattle breeds, taught irrigation methods, raised horses, brewed beer, raised bees, grew fruit, made cheese, and designed salmon fisheries. Monks taught neighbors the value of hard labor. As one scholar wrote, “agriculture had sunk to a low ebb…men spurned the plow as degrading. (The monks’ example) was magical. Men once more turned back to a noble but despised industry.”

Monasteries sprouted up all through Europe, including a strict order of Benedictines known as the Cistercians. Medieval technology flourished under these men. They invented machines powered by water to crush wheat and refine flour.

Monastic innovations flourished in what historians label “the dark ages”. Yet this was an age of true enlightenment.

2 thoughts on “Who turned swamps into farmland?

  1. Good food for thought during today’s dark age. We must each search our own lives for uncultivated land and lean into it, make it beautiful, and bring forth the fruit of our labors. Each person has a part to play in making this world a better place and the Catholic Church has led the way for centuries. I would recommend reading How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization for more inspiration. Thank you Kathy for writing this article.

    • Thanks Michelle. I have that book sitting next to my computer. ..and used it for this article. Excellent reading! I will be writing more on this topic and the coming weeks.

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