If there were bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, the phrase Cruce, libro, et atro may well have been a popular one. In many ways, it was the motto of monasticism.
Monasticism is an institution with a long history in the church. There were early monks in the 200s known as the Egyptian fathers or the desert fathers. In these early years of church history, monastic communities began to pop up. By the time of the sixth century, these communities needed a bit of a structure. To that end, Benedict came along provided some direction through his Rule, which became the organizational basis of the Benedictine order.
From 500 to 1000, the church experienced rapid growth and expansion, and here’s where our Latin phrase comes in. Cruce means “cross”; libro means “book”; and atro means “plow.” “Cross” has to do with the message of the gospel, though how closely the proclamation of the monks hewed to the true gospel certainly varied. And as the centuries rolled on and the church drifted from the teachings of Scripture, that divergence from the gospel grew even further, sadly. But their intention was to proclaim Christ.
Libro refers to a significant activity of these monks: their scribal duties. Interestingly, the room in monasteries that housed the books was called the vivarium in Latin, which translates to “living room” in English. The average American living room houses an easy chair and a big-screen TV, but the “living room” in a medieval monastery was the library. It was the nerve center of the monastery.
“Plow” is a reference to the monks’ farming activity. These medieval monks actually contributed significantly to the history of farming. They first developed the idea of terrace farming in Europe, developed significant irrigation techniques, and developed new ways to get water to places that needed it. They even developed the idea of crop rotation to replenish crucial nutrients in the soil. The monasteries often controlled great lands and vineyards, farms, and orchards. These farms were a lifeline for many people in the Middle Ages. If there was a famine in a particular town, the townspeople knew they could go to the monastery nearby and be fed, because the monastery often would have food.
Over the centuries, some of the monasteries were not true to their calling and drifted far afield from a biblical ethic or a biblical program for their existence. But we also have to recognize that, in many ways, these monastic institutions were a significant social institution in the Middle Ages. They were a center and a place of refuge for many through the centuries. And so, the bumper sticker motto of these monks—Cruce, libro, et atro—provides testimony to these medieval monks and their contributions to church history.