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Suppression of monasteries

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The suppression of monasteries refers to various events at different times and places when monastic foundations were abolished and their possessions were appropriated by the state.



The monasteries, being landowners who never died and whose property was therefore never divided among inheritors (as happened to the land of neighboring secular land owners), tended to accumulate and keep considerable lands and properties - which aroused resentment and made them vulnerable to governments confiscating their properties at times of religious or political upheaval, whether to fund the state or to conduct land reform.

Monasteries are most likely to undergo such a fate when coming under a Protestant or secularist regime. However, Catholic monarchs and governments are also known to have taken such steps at some times and places. Similar confiscations also happened in Buddhist countries.

There are also known cases of specific monastic orders being suppressed by the Catholic Church itself, such as the suppression of the Jesuati by Pope Clement IX in 1668 or the (temporary) suppression of the Jesuits in 1759 (though the Order was eventually restored, many of the properties confiscated from the Jesuits were not given back). Additionally, there were cases of specific monasteries at various times and places being disbanded as a result of power struggles within the Catholic Church. For example, the Cârța Monastery in Transylvania was disbanded in 1494 by the apostolic legate Ursus of Ursinis.


After Mexico gained independence from Spain, in the 1830s there was a move to secularize the monastic Spanish missions in California, then part of Mexico. As with other such cases, the missions were considered to have gained too much land and power, and had been very dominant in the society of Spanish-ruled California.


In 845 the Chinese Emperor Wuzong of Tang suppressed thousands of Buddhist monasteries and confiscated their considerable properties. The Emperor's combined economic and religious motives for this act have many similarities to those of Western rulers taking a similar step towards Catholic or Orthodox Monasteries.


Like Buddhist and Christian monasteries elsewhere, the Mongolian monasteries have since the 16th Century acquired riches and secular dependents, gradually increasing their wealth and power. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Outer Mongolia had 583 monasteries and temple complexes, which controlled an estimated 20 percent of the country's wealth. Following the Mongolian Revolution of 1921, authorities of the new Mongolian People's Republic entered into a prolonged struggle with the Buddhist Church in general and the monasteries in particular. In 1938 — amid accusations that the church and monasteries were trying to cooperate with the Japanese, who were promoting a pan-Mongol puppet state — this culminated with the remaining monasteries being dissolved, their property seized, and their monks secularized, interned or executed. Those monastic buildings that had not been destroyed were taken over to serve as local government offices or schools. Only the Gandan Monastery, with a community of 100 monks, was kept open in Ulaanbaatar as the country's sole monastery - more for international display than functionality. Following the Mongolian Revolution of 1990 some monasteries were re-opened.


The Edict on Idle Institutions was one of more than 10,000 ordinances issued by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor pertaining to religious issues. Promulgated in 1780, it outlawed contemplative monastic orders. The act permitted only monastic orders that dealt with teaching, nursing and other practical work within the Holy Roman Empire. The number of monks (whom the Emperor called "shaven-headed creatures whom the common people worship on bended knees") dropped from 65,000 to 27,000. The Holy Roman Empire also expropriated the monasteries and took their money to pay ordinary priests more. The edict fits in with Joseph's ecclesiastical reforms, in which he sought to control the church in Austria and the Empire and saw it as an arm of the state.

Belgium (Austrian Netherlands)

Emperor Joseph II's Edict on Idle Institutions was applied also in the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium), reducing the number of monasteries there. A decade later, in the course of the French Revolution in 1794, French armies overrun the same territory, and on October 1, 1795 it was annexed to the Republic (including territories that were never under Habsburg rule, like the Bishopric of Liège). Thereupon, the French Revolution's militant anticlerical policies, already implemented in France itself, were applied to this new territory - which included the dissolution of convents and monasteries as well as confiscation of ecclesiastical properties and the separation of Church and State.


In Denmark, King Frederick I of Denmark made his grab in 1528, confiscating 15 of the houses of the wealthiest monasteries and convents. Further laws under his successor over the course of the 1530s banned the friars, and forced monks and nuns to transfer title to their houses to the Crown, which passed them out to supportive nobles, who were soon found enjoying the fruits of former monastic lands. Danish monastic life was to vanish in a way identical to that of Sweden.


The Dissolution of the Monasteries was the administrative and legal process between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their income, disposed of their assets and provided for their former members. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority; and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539). Although some monastic foundations dated back to Anglo-Saxon England, the overwhelming majority of the 825 religious communities dissolved by Henry VIII owed their existence to the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries; in consequence of which religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about a third of all parish benefices, and disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income. The dissolution still represents the largest legally enforced transfer of property in English history since the Norman Conquest.


In an attempt to address the financial crisis, the Assembly declared, on 2 November 1789, that the property of the Church was “at the disposal of the nation.” They used this property to back a new currency, the assignats. The nation had now thus also taken on the responsibility of the Church, which included paying the clergy, caring for the poor, the sick and the orphaned. In December, the Assembly began to sell the lands to the highest bidder to raise revenue, effectively decreasing the value of the assignats by 25 percent in two years. In autumn of 1789, legislation abolished monastic vows and on 13 February 1790 all religious orders were dissolved. Monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life and a small percentage did eventually marry.

Germany and Austria

In 1521, Martin Luther published 'De votis monasticis' ('On the monastic vows'), a treatise which declared that the monastic life had no scriptural basis, was pointless and also actively immoral in that it was not compatible with the true spirit of Christianity. Luther also declared that monastic vows were meaningless and that no one should feel bound by them. Luther, a one-time Augustinian friar, found some comfort when these views had a dramatic effect: a special meeting of the German province of his order held the same year accepted them and voted that henceforth every member of the regular clergy should be free to renounce their vows, resign their offices and get married. At Luther's home monastery in Wittenberg all the friars, save one, did so.

After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Protestant princes confiscated the estates of the monastic orders in their lands.

Under the influence of Josephinism was undertaken the laicisation of several monastic foundations in Catholic parts of Germany, Austria and Hungary.


Following 1572, with the success of the Dutch Revolt and consolidation of the Dutch Republic, the Calvinist Church became the sole officially recognized Church in the Republic's entire territory. All properties of the Catholic Church were confiscated and all monasteries dissolved (with the sole exception of Maastrict and its immediate environs where a special exception was made in 1632). The former monastic premises were put to a variety of public and private uses. For example, the Great Abbey of Middelburg became the meeting hall of the States of Zealand and the St Agnes Convent in Rotterdam became the Prinsenhof, headquarters of the Admiralty of Rotterdam. Elsewhere, former monasteries were often made available as housing and workshops to the numerous Protestant refugees (estimated at between 100,000 -150,000) who escaped or were expelled from the South Netherlands, which were overrun by the Spanish army and where the Catholic Church was triumphant. In particular, former monasteries were used as workshops for Protestant weavers displaced from such towns as Bruges and Ghent who re-established themselves in various cities of the Dutch Republic.


After the Portuguese Civil War, a 28 May 1834 decree from Joaquim António de Aguiar nationalisated the land of over 500 monasteries.


The law on the secularization of monastery estates in Romania was proposed in December 1863 by Domnitor Alexandru Ioan Cuza and approved by the Parliament of Romania. By its terms, the Romanian state confiscated the large estates owned by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romania.


In 1917 the Bolsheviks confiscated, without compensation, the estates of the churches and the monasteries.


Between 1835 and 1837, a serie of decrees from Juan Álvarez Mendizábal was published, which confiscated, without compensation, monastic land estates.


News of the Reformation did not take long to spread among Protestant-minded (and acquisitive) rulers across Europe, and some, particularly in Scandinavia, moved very quickly.

In Sweden in 1527 King Gustavus Vasa secured an edict of the Diet allowing him to confiscate any monastic lands he deemed necessary to increase royal revenues; and to force the return of donated properties to the descendants of those who had donated them. In one fell swoop, Gustav gained large estates and a company of diehard supporters.

The Swedish monasteries and convents were simultaneously deprived of their livelihoods, with the result that some collapsed immediately, while others lingered on for a few decades before persecution and further confiscations finally caused them all to disappear by 1580.


In Switzerland, too, monasteries came under threat. In 1523 the government of the city-state of Zurich pressured nuns to leave their monasteries and marry, and followed up the next year by dissolving all monasteries in its territory, under the pretext of using their revenues to fund education and help the poor. The city of Basel followed suit in 1529 and Geneva adopted the same policy in 1530. An attempt was also made in 1530 to dissolve the famous Abbey of St. Gall, which was a state of the Holy Roman Empire in its own right, but this failed, and St. Gall has survived.

Further suppression

There were other examples of suppression in Catholic and formerly Catholic countries, including:

  • The Laicisation of church land by the French monarchy
  • The confiscation of monastic property in Napoleonic and post unification Italy
  • The German Mediatisation in the Napoleonic period
  • Suppression of the Society of Jesus in various countries in the late 18th Century
  • References

    Suppression of monasteries Wikipedia

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