Around 696, Duke Theodore of Bavaria gave the young bishop Rupert of Worms a grant of land in what is now Austria. A small Benedictine monastery called St. Peter's already existed in the midst of what was left of a Roman town. Rupert made the monastery into a launching pad to evangelize the eastern Alps. He also founded the convent of Nonnberg, the oldest continuously existing female convent in German-speaking lands.

In about 100 years, Salzburg went from being a ruin of a Roman town to being the center of missionary activity and learning in its region, with a monk-bishop supervising many monasteries and churches. What happened in Salzburg also happened elsewhere. Just as they built new buildings from old Roman materials, these medieval missionaries adapted or replaced elements of the pagan culture they found, constructing a new Christian culture in its place.

Again and again, monks built a monastery in an isolated spot, observed pastoral and educational needs in the local population, and responded by establishing schools and taking on pastoral tasks. Monasticism was a lay movement of people seeking an uncompromised Christian life, but by the 12th century half the Benedictine monks were also ordained priests. Benedict's Rule had never envisioned monks engaging in pastoral or missionary activity. But even in Benedict's own life, the contemplative and the pastoral roles went hand in hand.

In the year 600, Christianity was almost entirely an urban religion, centered on the still surviving, if often decaying, cities of the Roman Empire. By the time Charlemagne died in 814, Christians had moved into vast rural areas of the old empire, and a broad swathe of central and northern Europe—from Hungary through Poland to Scandinavia—had ...

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