Benedict of Nursia, St.


Benedict of Nursia, St.
(c. 480-c. 547)
   Founder of Western monasticism, whose Rule (code of behavior, spiritual life, and monastic organization) was the most influential rule in the early Middle Ages. Little is known of his life, except what is found in the pages of Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which were written nearly a half-century after Benedict's death. Gregory's life was a model of hagiography and remained an important source for later monastic writers. Benedict's personality, however, can best be discerned from his Rule, which reveals the intelligence and humanity of the saint, who made allowances in his code for human weakness. His monastic foundation at Monte Cassino, roughly eighty miles south of Rome, was an influential house until its destruction by the Lombards in 589 (the community was reestablished in 720), but Benedict's influence continued, as his Rule became the basic rule for most monks in the post-Roman world. Indeed, during the reign of the Carolingian dynasty and under their direction, the Benedictine Rule became the primary rule for monks.
   Born, according to tradition, in 480 in Nursia, about seventy miles north of Rome, Benedict, according to Gregory the Great, was "blessed also with God's grace [and] in boyhood he showed mature understanding, for he kept his heart detached from every pleasure with a strength of character far beyond his years" (Geary 1989, 215). Gregory also tells us that Benedict's family sent him to Rome for a liberal education, which suggests that Benedict was from a fairly prosperous family. In Rome, however, Benedict saw that the other students had fallen into vice, and fearing that he might do the same and offend God, he turned his back on worldly learning. He also renounced his family and wealth and took up the religious life in a cave in Subiaco, about thirty-five miles outside Rome, in circa 500. He was assisted during his stay at Subiaco by a monk from a nearby monastery named Romanus, who brought Benedict some food on occasion. Moreover, Benedict began to attract the attention of others and gathered numerous disciples. And he was elected abbot by the monks of a nearby abbey. Although called unanimously by the monks, he soon left the community because the monks found his rule too strenuous and tried to poison him. According to Gregory, Benedict was saved by a miracle when the pitcher with the poisoned wine shattered after Benedict made the sign of the cross over it.
   After the attempted poisoning, Benedict left the community and took up the path that led to the establishment of his famous rule and community at Monte Cassino. He returned to Subiaco with several companions to establish a new community. He was again the target of poisoning, this time by a jealous local priest, and he also attracted a great number of followers. After the second attempt on his life, Benedict founded his famous monastery on a mountain some 1,500 feet high. He had great success at this monastery, which he built on top of an old pagan shrine, attracting many monks and preaching to the people in the surrounding region. According to Gregory the Great, Benedict performed more than a few miracles while at the monastery, including saving one the monks of Monte Cassino from drowning. He also sent a group of monks to found another monastery, and he met once a year with his sister Scholastica, who was a nun in a nearby community. After establishing his house and laying the foundation for Western monasticism, Benedict died, according to tradition on March 21, 547.
   Benedict's greatest accomplishment was the composition of the Rule of Benedict, a code guiding the life of the monks and the organization and government of the monastery. The Rule evolved over time and was probably composed in its final from, a prologue and seventy-three chapters, in the later 530s. Although the Rule was once thought to have been an independent creation by Benedict, it is now recognized that he borrowed heavily from the Rule of the Master, the anonymously written monastic rule composed around 500. But comparison of the two demonstrates Benedict's practical wisdom, humanity, and organizational ability. The Rule of the Master is a long and often rambling blueprint for monastic life, but Benedict's Rule is much briefer and more focused. Benedict's Rule opens with a discussion promoting the ascetic life and outlining the virtues a monk should cultivate, particularly obedience and humility. The next section outlines the daily routine of divine service, prayer, and readings of Scripture. There are chapters on the election of the abbot and other officers of the community in the next section of the Rule. Benedict also regulated hours of sleep, manual labor, and reading for the monks in his community, and provided guidelines for meals and for monastic discipline.
   
   St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-543), the founder of Western monasticism, ca. 510 (Hulton Archive)
   The daily routine for the monks was clearly outlined by Benedict and was all focused on service to God. But the Rule is important not only for its religious devotionalism but also for its flexibility and humanity. Indeed, it is these last two characteristics that help explain the success of the Rule. Benedict not only included guidelines for the recruitment and training of monks, but also provided guidelines for the duties of the abbot. Benedict's abbot was to be a father figure, who could be stern and demanding when the situation required, but who was also to be consoling and encouraging as circumstances dictated. Benedict intended that the abbot respond to the needs of the monks as well as rule over them. He also recognized that not all monks were on the same level and established different guidelines for different monks. For example, he allowed different measures of wine and food for those who were sick or elderly, as compared to those who were in better physical or spiritual condition.
   The wisdom and humanity of the Rule of Benedict account for its ultimate triumph in Western monasticism, but in the first two centuries of its existence it competed with other monastic rules or was used in combination with them. Indeed, there are few references to Benedict and his Rule in the sixth century beyond the important account by Gregory the Great. Benedict surely had influence in the sixth century, however, because Gregory composed part of his life of Benedict with the aid of four monks who knew the saint, and it is possible that St. Columban knew Benedict's Rule. But in general in the seventh and eighth centuries, Benedict shared influence with Columban and other monastic lawgivers such as Caesarius of Arles. It was commonplace to combine elements from the Benedictine, Celtic, and other monastic traditions in the so-called regula mixta (mixed rule) in the monasteries of barbarian Europe.
   It is possible that Benedictine monasticism was exported to England by the mission Gregory sent under the direction of St. Augustine of Canterbury, but this is widely disputed by scholars today. But even if Augustine did not bring the Rule, it did arrive by the mid-seventh century; there is evidence for its introduction to Northumbria in 660, and both Benedict Biscop, founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and the Venerable Bede, the great Anglo-Saxon scholar, were greatly influenced by the Rule of Benedict. The Anglo-Saxon missionaries of the eighth century, especially St. Boniface, brought the Rule with them on their evangelical missions to the continent. The reform activities of these missionaries greatly influenced the Frankish church and the leaders of Frankish society, especially the great rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious.
   Under Charlemagne, the Benedictine Rule was increasingly important in the empire he established, and it was recognized by the great ruler as the best rule for the monastic life. His esteem for the Rule was so great that he sent an abbot from the realm to Monte Cassino in 787 to obtain an authentic copy. Although important to Charlemagne, the Rule of Benedict was established throughout the realm as the official monastic rule only by his son Louis the Pious. With the help of his close friend and advisor, Benedict of Aniane, Louis imposed the Rule on all monasteries of the empire by the decrees of two councils held in Aachen in 816 and 817. Over the next several centuries, the Rule of Benedict was the official standard of all monasteries, and it was the foundation for major monastic reforms at Cluny in the tenth century and at Cîteaux in the twelfth.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Fry, Timothy, ed. and trans. RB 1980: The Rule of Benedict in Latin and English with Notes. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981.
 ♦ Gregory the Great. Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (Book Two of the Dialogues). Trans. Odo J. Zimmerman and Benedict Avery. Collegeville, MN: St. John's Abbey Press, 1949.
 ♦ Farmer, David Hugh, ed. Benedict's Disciples. Leominster, UK: Fowler Wright, 1980.
 ♦ Geary, Patrick J., ed. Readings in Medieval History. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1989.
 ♦ Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. New York: McGraw Hill, 1969.
 ♦ Lawrence, Clifford H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1989.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ --- . Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.
 ♦ Sullivan, Richard. "What Was Carolingian Monasticism? The Plan of St. Gall and the History of Monasticism." In After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History, ed. Alexander Callander Murray Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, pp. 251-287.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, John M. The Frankish Church. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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