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My understanding is that traditionally most monasteries were extensions of the Roman villa system, owning land and the labor of the attached peasants -- the same economic basis as the aristocracy. Cluny was an exception. According to Wikipedia:

The gift of a villa, or of a series of them, owned by a powerful patron was at the basis of all the great monasteries and abbeys founded in Western Europe until the time of Charlemagne, when the land-gifts, significantly, tended to be of forest instead. ... the Abbey of Cluny ... was founded on a gift of the duke of Aquitaine's chase, or hunting forest.

How did the hunting forest provide revenue? How much hunting are we talking about, and how valuable was it relative to the traditional gift of farmland?

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You can let pigs run around and forage in a forest, then harvest the pigs later. –  Oldcat Aug 8 at 17:16

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Many of the first large-scale, agricultural monasteries were in Ireland and Scotland. The life of Collum Cille, known to English speakers as "St. Columba", is one of the first records of monastic life. It was Irish clerics, not Romans, who developed the monastic system which was based on ascetic hard work and scientific husbandry.

It is true that many old Roman estates did get turned over to monks, but this was only well after the system had been developed and proven in Ireland. At the time, Roman methods were relatively inefficient, especially with regards to husbandry technique, such as sheep rearing, cattle rearing and bee keeping. The science of the monks, their hard work, and their scrupulous honesty, made estates run by Irish clerics immensely profitable. Because of this, the old Romans and barbarians like the Franks and Visigoths, literally fell over themselves trying to persuade the monks to come and take over their lands and make them productive and fruitful.

The reason why Frankish monasteries were often started on forested land is because it was less valuable than the agricultural land, so it was much easier to give it away to foreigners. When the monks received such lands they would gradually clear them--expensive and back-breaking work--turning them into fertile farmland. The local landlords and chiefs, who just wanted fast money, had no stomach for such hard work, so they left it for the monks.

As you rightly suspect, hunting grounds do not produce much income, but given time and hard work the monks turned those lands to the many of the productive fields you can find in France today. If you look at the village of Cluny today, where the abbey is, you can see the whole town is surrounded by agricultural fields.

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St Columba lived in the 6th century. Christian monasticism began in Egypt already in the 3rd century and spread to the Near East and to Southern Europe long before the introduction of Christianity in Scotland and Ireland. –  fdb Aug 8 at 18:49
    
@fdb Monasticism and profitable agricultural monasteries are two different things. The Roman monks and Eastern monks lived like hermits. They did not run big agricultural plantations. –  Tyler Durden Aug 8 at 18:52
    
My objection was to your first paragraph: "The first monasteries were in Ireland and Scotland...." –  fdb Aug 8 at 22:14
    
@fdb That is true. I guess there were Egyptian and other hermitages that dated before the Irish. I have updated my answer. –  Tyler Durden Aug 8 at 22:29

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