« Benedict Biscop Benedict of Nursia and the Benedictine Order Benedictines »

Benedict of Nursia and the Benedictine Order


  I. The Life of Benedict.

The Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great (§ 1).

Early Life (§ 2).

Monte Cassino (§ 3).

 II. The Rule of Benedict.

General Characteristics (§ 1).

Moderation (§ 2).

Organization and Direction of the Monastic Life (§ 3).

III. The Earlier History of the Benedictine Order.

Period of Growth to the Time of Charlemagne (§ 1).

Period of Decline (§ 2).

IV. The History of the Order since the Ninth Century.

821–1200. Ecumenical Activity. New Congregations (§ 1).

1200–1563. Decay and Attempts at Reform (§ 2).

1563–1800. Tridentine Reform. New Congregations (§ 3).

The Nineteenth Century (§ 4).

I. The Life of Benedict.

1. The Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great.

The only early authority on the life of Benedict, since the Vita Placidi has been admitted to be untrustworthy ever since Mabillon, and the worthlessness of the Vita sancti Maori has been recently demonstrated by Malnory, is practically the single biography written by Gregory the Great. But the expectations aroused by a life written only fifty years after Benedict's death by so distinguished an author are disappointed when he is found, in the spirit of his time, exalting the greatness of his hero by the number and importance of his miracles. This tendency has gone so far that Grützmacher is inclined to see nothing actually historical in all this mass of legendary details except the names of the places where Benedict lived and worked, and the names of his disciples. But this is going somewhat too far; Gregory expressly names four abbots, themselves among these disciples and one of them (Honoratus) still living at Subiaco, as witnesses to the truth of his story; and the tradition must have been still full and clear among the monks who had migrated from Monte Cassino to the Lateran when he wrote.

2. Early Life.

According, then, to what is left of Gregory's account after removal of the legendary halo around the saint's head, Benedict came of a considerable family in the "province of Nursia," in the Umbrian Apennines, and was born toward the end of the fifth century. He received at Rome the education of his day, which, however, did not mean much acquaintance with the Roman classical authors, and seems to have included no Greek. Shocked by the immorality around him, he left both the school and his father's house for a life of solitary mortification. His first permanent abode was a cave by the Anio, not far from Subiaco, where a monk, Romanus, provided him with the rough monastic garb and with scanty nourishment. Here Benedict spent three years of stubborn conflict with his lower nature, until the spreading of his fame by shepherds brought his solitude to an end. The monks of a neighboring monastery (perhaps at Vicovaro), whose head had just died, begged him to come and rule them. He accepted with reluctance, probably foreseeing what actually happened when he attempted strictly to enforce their rule. When their insubordination went as far as an attempt to poison him, he discovered the plot and gently rebuked them, then retired to his beloved cave. Here, as new disciples came around him, he established twelve small communities, each with twelve inmates and a "father" at their head.

3. Monte Cassino.

Gregory does not say how long Benedict remained in the neighborhood of Subiaco as director of these pious groups; but the tradition of Monte Cassino ascribes his migration thither to the opposition of a jealous cleric named Florentius, and places it in 529. The new place was about halfway between Rome and Naples, the Castrum Casinum of the Romans, who had had a military colony there. On the summit of the mountain (now Monte San Germano), which had been dedicated to the worship of Apollo by a population still largely pagan, Benedict built two chapels, under the invocation of St. John Baptist and St. Martin, and then laid the foundations of the monastery which was to have such a long and renowned history. Though Gregory does not say so definitely, the traditional view may be accepted that he soon drew up his rule, the mature outcome of his experience in guiding and governing aspirants to the monastic life of perfection. The disturbances of the time, the ware between the Goths and the Byzantine empire from 534, probably helped to increase the numbers of those who sought a peaceful shelter at Monte Cassino; and a daughter house was established at Terracina. In the summer of 542; Totila, king of the Goths, on his way through Campania, desired to see the famous abbot. Gregory relates that, to test his prophetic powers, the king sent one of his officers in royal array to Benedict, who perceived the deception instantly, and, when the young king knelt before him, told him that he should enter Rome, cross the seas, and reign nine years—which came to pass. Gregory mentions Benedict's sister, Scholastica, in connection with the last meeting between the two in a house near the monastery; she had been dedicated to the service of God from her earliest youth. The date of Benedict's death can not be determined from any of the authorities. His body was buried near Scholastica's in the chapel of St. John Baptist, and, according to Paulus Diaconus, was translated about a century later to the monastery of Fleury on the Loire.

II. The Rule of Benedict:

1. General Characteristics.

Especially since the celebration of the fourteen-hundredth anniversary of Benedict's birth in 1880, his rule has been made the subject of thoroughgoing studies, and it is everywhere recognized as a code which corresponded admirably to its purpose of regulating the common life of the western monks. In the concluding passage of the prologue, probably added later by Benedict, occur the words "Constituenda est ergo a nobis dominici schola servitii." Under the later empire, the word shola was commonly employed to designate the body of guards in the imperial palace under the magister officii; thence the name passed to the garrisons of provincial 47towns, and was used sometimes for other bodies or associations existing in them. As these military organizations would have a definite code of regulations, so it was natural for Benedict (called "magister" in the first line of the prologue) to lay down a rule that should serve for all who were enlisted in the spiritual army ("servitium dominicum")—priests or laymen, rich or poor. It separated the monks more absolutely from the world than Basil or Cassian had done. Besides the requirements of poverty, silence, and chastity, others appear for the first time; that of "stability" or a permanent residence in one monastery as opposed to the wandering life of the earlier monks, and a specially designated habit. The aim of this life is complete surrender to the will of God, accomplished through entire obedience to the abbot and the rule. The abbot thus appears as an absolute ruler, responsible to God alone. It is true that in weighty matters he is to seek the counsel of the brethren, but the ultimate decision rests with him. Benedict seems to have hesitated in placing a præpositus or prior next to him as assistant and, if need were, representative.

2. Moderation.

In laying down the system of daily prayer, Benedict departed somewhat from the earlier practise by instituting the office of compline as the seventh of the canonical hours. The longest and fullest of all the offices was the nocturna vigilia (matins), recited at two o'clock. The day hours were much shorter—lauds at daybreak, not long after matins; prime; terce, with which at least on Sundays and festivals the Eucharist was connected; sext; none; vespers; and compline. One of the principles on which the system of devotion was laid out was the weekly recitation of the entire Psalter. When this is compared with the requirement by Columban of the recitation of the whole 150 Psalms in the night office of Saturday and Sunday, a second principle is perceived which governed Benedict not merely in the arrangement of the devotional exercises but in all his rule—a wise moderation and gentleness. It appears especially in the regulations for meals, of which he allows two daily, except at times of fasting; it comes out in the rules for labor, which show consideration for the weaker brethren, and also in the system of punishment. Small offenses, as unpunctuality at meals or office, are to be punished without harshness; more serious ones call for two private warnings and one in public, after which the offender is cut off from the society of the brethren at meals and prayers. If he is still obstinate, corporal punishment is the next step, and finally, if the prayers of the brethren have no effect, he is to be expelled from the monastery. Penitents may be twice taken back, but on a third lapse there is no further possibility of restoration.

3. Organization and Direction of the Monastic Life.

The fact that, in his provision for the clothing of the monks, Benedict took account of the conditions of more than one province has been made a ground for disputing the authenticity of the rule; but the climatic difference between the hill-country of his first settlement and the Campanian plain on the banks of the Liris is sufficiently notable to find some reflection in the rule. Benedict had lived as an anchorite and as a cenobite, in convents of varying size and in different parts of Italy, at the head of a single small house and of a whole group of houses. When, therefore, with this manifold experience of what suited the monastic life of his time, he drew up a rule for every part of it, in such a definite legislative shape as none of his predecessors—Basil, Cassian, Pachomius, Jerome, Augustine—had given their prescriptions, we may well believe that he was acting to a certain extent with the consciousness that he was giving to Italian monasticism a new form, stronger and more consistent than had been known before. This is the special importance of Benedict's work, both for the Church and for the world at large. About the time when the Roman See, vindicating and even increasing its independence of Arian kings and Byzantine emperors, was preparing to erect its universal empire on the ruins of the old, the monk appeared who knew how to apply the old Roman talents of legislation and organization to the growing but as yet incoherent monasticism. Thus he became the founder of the great Benedictine Order which for centuries concentrated in itself the extraordinary spiritual force of the technically "religious" life, and contributed in so marked a degree to the extension of the Western Church. The striking influence of the order would, however, be inexplicable if it had not early become the guardian of learning and literature. The rule required the brothers, in addition to their manual labor, to devote one or two hours daily to reading; it provided for a convent library from which the monks were to take certain books for study at appointed times; each brother was to have his tablet and stylus; Benedict himself undertook the education of the children of prominent Romans; and in at least one passage of the rule those who can not read are spoken of as an inferior class. All these things speak of learned and literary interests as belonging to the original foundation. Cassiodorus even goes further than Benedict, in whose lifetime probably he founded the double convent of Squillace, providing expressly for the study of classical literature—though it is impossible to determine how far this influenced the Benedictine Order after the infusion with it of Cassiodorus's monasteries.

III. The Earlier History of the Benedictine Order:

1. Period of Growth to the Time of Charlemagne.

The history of the early extension of Benedict's society is only scantily told. According to the traditions of Monte Cassino, the third abbot, Simplicius, achieved great success in this work. Under the fifth, Bonitus, the mother house was destroyed in 589 by the Lombards, the monks fleeing to Rome (the universal refuge of those days), carrying with them the copy of the rule written by Benedict's own hand. There was probably already a monastery there which followed this rule—that of St. Andrew, founded by the future Pope Gregory the Great in 575; but Gregory's attachment to the order was presumably increased by the coming of the fugitives, who settled 48in a place given them at the Lateran by Pope Pelagius. The mission of Augustine to the Anglo-Saxons from the monastery of St. Andrew in 598 (see Anglo-Saxons, Conversion of the) opened a new field to the order. The Latin rules of the Spanish bishops Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and Fructuosus of Bragara show distinct traces of an acquaintance with that of Benedict. But more important was its introduction into the Frankish kingdom in the first half of the seventh century, since the attempt was there made to submit to it the entire monastic body. However it was introduced, it soon become predominant, and took the place of the rules of Columban and Cæsarius. At a Burgundian synod of 670 it was designated, with the canons, as the only standard for monasteries; and similarly in the synods held under the auspices of Carloman and Boniface in 742 and 743 it is called the norm for convents both of monks and of nuns. The language of the capitularies of 811, implying that only obscure traces of the prior existence of other rules remained, shows how completely it had occupied the field by the time of Charlemagne.

2. Period of Decline.

In spite, however, of this supremacy, and of the glory reflected on the order by such men as Aldhelm and Bede, Alcuin and Paulus Diaconus, an acute observer could already perceive traces of decay. In some places the abbots abused the power given them by the rule; in others laxity had begun to creep in. There was thus room for the reforming activity of Benedict of Aniane, who attempted not only to restore the pristine strictness, but to supplement the rule by special ordinances for the purpose of securing uniformity in the daily life of the Frankish monasteries. His success, powerfully seconded as he was by the emperor Louis the Pious, was not lasting. The ninth century saw a considerable number of new foundations, especially in Saxony, and the literary activity promoted by Charlemagne continued; but there were many complaints not only of the giving of monasteries to laymen but of decay in morality and strict monastic discipline. In addition to these things, grievous havoc was wrought in many different quarters by the irruptions of the barbarians—in England by the Danes, in northern Germany and France by the Normans, in the south of Germany and the north of Italy by the Huns, and on the Mediterranean coast by the Saracens.

(Otto Seebass.)

IV. The History of the Order Since the Ninth Century:

1. 821–1200. Ecumenical Activity. New Congregations.

The palmy days of the order, from Benedict of Aniane to Innocent III (821–1200) may be designated as the time of ecumenical activity. The family of monks which proceeded from Monte Cassino controlled with its influence the civilization of the entire Christian West. The Basilian monasteries of South Italy and Sicily, as well as the monks and hermits of the Celtic Church in the British isles, were able only for a time to maintain the independence of their institutions. Patronized and at the same time monopolized by Rome, the Benedictine monastic character made itself the standard of monasticism throughout Latin Christendom. True, from the ninth century on there were marked departures from the founder's ideal, in consequence of which, even after the reform by Benedict of Aniane, a number of similar efforts at reform became necessary; but the call to return to the original vigor of the rule ever proved its purifying power, and the total influence of the order was rather enhanced than decreased by the growing number of these reform congregations. The most important of them after the tenth century was the reform of Cluny (from 910), with which were gradually blended more or less the smaller reforms of a like tendency originating almost simultaneously in Flanders under Gerard of Brogne (d. 959), in Lorraine under John of Gorze (d. 974), in England under Dunstan of Glastonbury (d. 988), from the monastery of St. Benignus at Dijon (c. 990) under William of Volpiano (d. 1031) and in southern Italy by Alferius of Cava (d. 1050) (See Cluny, Abbey and Congregation of; John of Gorze; Gerard, Saint, 1; Dunstan). More independent of the Benedictine institutions, though proceeding from the order, were some reforming movements of the eleventh century. Among these were the famous congregation of Hirschau, c. 1060, which was distinguished by the rigor of its discipline; that of Vallombrosa (see Gualberto, Giovanni), 1038, which, like Hirschau, developed with especial care the institution of lay brothers (fratres conversi), thus setting an, important example for later orders (see Monasticism); those of Camaldoli, 1000; Grammont, 1076; Fontévraud, c. 1100; (see Camaldolites; Grammont, Order of; Fontévraud, Order of); and finally that of Cîteaux,1098. The last of these reforms, the ripest and noblest fruit of the older Benedictine ideal, grew so rapidly, and, especially under the influence of St. Bernard, showed such power in the field of missionary and civilizing effort that it was obliged to leave the Benedictine family and form, not a new congregation but a new order, in spite of its adherence to the fundamental form of monastic discipline as delineated in the Regula Benedicti (see Cistercians). By this separation of the youngest daughter from the mother, the latter ceased to be regarded as the only normal type for western monasticism. The ecumenical period of Benedictine history ends with the last decades of the twelfth century. It must thenceforth be traced as the history of one order among several in the life of western civilization.

2. 1200–1563. Decay and Attempts at Reform.

The period from Innocent III to the Council of Trent (1200–1563) is a time of increasing inner decay and of futile efforts at reform. The first attempt to restore discipline in the monasteries of the order, which had become very worldly, was made in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council under Innocent III. It ordered that every three years a general chapter should be held, and that the visitations prescribed by this chapter should be made by Cistercian abbots. Under this regulation the archbishops of Canterbury and York introduced the triennial 49visitations into the Benedictine monasteries of England, and enforced them in repeated provincial councils. For the monasteries of the Continent, special importance attached to the edict of Benedict XII, himself a Cistercian, who, after introducing a stricter discipline into his own order (1335), issued in the following year an edict concerning the Benedictines. This constitution, known as Summa Magistri or Constitutio Benedictina, decrees that in each monastery a general chapter is to be held annually. For each of the thirty-six provinces into which the order is divided by it, triennial provincial chapters are prescribed. But in spite of this measure, which had a temporarily beneficial effect, spirituality constantly declined. The reforms introduced afterward by the Council of Constance (1415), by a provincial chapter of the Mainz province of the order held at Petershausen (1417), by the congregation of Bursfelde organized for the North-German territories of the order, as well as by many Spanish congregations (e.g., the Observance of Valladolid under Ferdinand the Catholic, 1493), brought about merely a temporary improvement in the conditions.

3. 1563–1800. Tridentine Reform. New Congregations.

The Tridentine reforming period (1563–1800) was introduced by the decree De regularibus et monialibus passed in the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent (Dec. 3, 1563), which opposes the mischievous excess of exemptions, puts the female members of the order without exception and the male members for the most part under the supervision of the bishops, and insists upon strict observance of the older regulations concerning the holding of general chapters, visitations, etc. Several new Benedictine congregations sprang up under the influence of the Tridentine decrees; in South Germany one for Swabia (1564), one at Strasburg (1601), one at Salzburg (1641), one for Bavaria (1684); in Flanders the congregation of St. Vedast near Arras, founded about 1590; in Lorraine that of St. Vanne and St. Hydulph, which Abbot Didier de la Cour founded in 1600 and Pope Clement VIII confirmed in 1604. An outgrowth of the latter was the congregation of St. Maur, founded in 1618 under the direction of the same Abbot Didier, which spread all over France, attaining the number of 180 monasteries, and raised the work of the order in the direction of learning to a prosperity which it never had before (see St. Maur, Congregation of). But after about 1780, first the forcible secularization under Joseph II, and then the storm of the Revolution in France and the neighboring countries to the south brought about the ruin of the order.

4. The Nineteenth Century.

The epoch of restoration, which coincides with the nineteenth century, has been able to save only about 500 houses (with about 4,300 monks), out of the 37,000 houses (abbeys or priories) which the order numbered before the catastrophes of the eighteenth century. Yet in some of the congregations there is at present a healthy and vigorous life as far as the morals and discipline are concerned and also as to achievements in theological learning and Christian art (painting, sculpture, etc.). In the latter respect the South German congregation of Beuron is especially distinguished. The two other South-German congregations (the Bavarian and the Swabian) and those of northern France and Belgium (especially in the monasteries of Solesmes and Maredsous) have recently produced some able scholars and theologians. The Benedictines of the mother house of the order at Monte Cassino and the American congregations connected with it have also rendered considerable services in the same lines.

O. Zöckler†.

Bibliography: The somewhat voluminous early literature on Benedict in the shape of poems and lives may be found in part in MGH, Poet. Lat. med. ævi, i, 36–42, Berlin, 1881 (the Carmina of Paul the Deacon); MGH, Script., vol. xv, part 1, pp. 480–482, 574, Hanover, 1887 (Ex adventu corporis S. Benedicti in agrum Floriacensem); four works on the Miracles are published in MGH, Script., vol. xv, part 1, pp. 474–500, part 2 (1888), 863, 866, ix (1851), 374–376. The Vitæ by Gregory and other writers as well as the poems and relations of miracles may be found in ASM, sæc. i, pp. 28, 29–35, and sæc. ii, pp. 80, 353–358, 369–394; in ASB, Mar., iii, 276, 288–297, 302–357; and in MPL, lxxx, xcv, cxxiv, cxxvi, cxxxiii, cxxxiv, clx. Consult: P. K. Brandes, Leben des heiligen Benedikt, Einsiedeln, 1858; P. Lechner, Leben des heiligen Benedict, Regensburg, 1859; C. de Montalembert, Les Moines d’Occident, ii, 3–92 (on St. Benedict), 7 vols., Paris, 1860–77, Eng, transl., 7 vols., London, 1861–79, new ed., with introduction by Dom Gasquet on the Rule, 6 vols., 1896; P. Hügli, Der heilige Benedikt, in Studies und Mittheilungen aus dem Benedict-Orden, year VI, Vol. i (1885), 141–162; J. H. Newman, Mission of St. Benedict, in Historical Sketches, vol. ii, London, 1885; F. C. Doyle, Teaching of St. Benedict, London, 1887; G. Grütsmacher, Die Bedeutung Benedikts . . . und seiner Regel, Berlin, 1892; L. Tosti, St. Benedict; Historical Discourse on his Life, transl. from the Ital., London, 1898 cf. St. Benedict and Grottaferra, Essays on Tosti's Life of St. Benedict, ib. 1895.

On the order: Bibliographie des Bénédictins de France, Solesmes, 1889; the fundamental work is J. Mabillon, Annales ordinis S. Benedicti, 6 vols., Paris, 1703–39; Montalembert, ut sup.; Sir Jas. Stephens, The French Benedictines, in Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, London, 1867; S. Branner, Ein Benediktinerbuch, Würzburg, 1880; Scriptores ordinis S, Benedicti in imperio Austriaco-Hungarico, Vienna, 1881; B. Weldon, Chronicle of English Benedictine Monks, London, 1882 (covers the period from Mary to James II); H. C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy, Philadelphia, 1884, and cf. his History of the Inquisition, new ed., New York, 1906; J. H. Newman, Benedictine Schools, in Historical Sketches, ut sup.; F. Æ. Ranbek, Saints of the Order of St. Benedict, London, 1890; E. L. Taunton, English Black Monks of St. Benedict, 2 vols., ib. 1897; Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen, i, 92–283. Of the Rule among old editions the best is by L. Holstenius, Codex regularum monasticarum, i, 111–135, Augsburg, 1759; another is by E. Martène in his Commentarius in regulam S. Benedicti, Paris, 1690. The best edition is by E. Woelfflin, Benedicti regula monachorum, Leipsic, 1895; serviceable are E. Schmidt, Die Regel des heiligen Benedicts, Regensburg, 1891, and P. K. Brandes, Leben und Regel des . . . Benedikt, Vols. ii, iii, Einsiedeln, 1858–63. The Latin and Anglo-Saxon Intelinear Translation was edited by H. Logeman, London, 1888. The Rule was published in Eng transl., London, 1886, ib. 1896, in Thatcher and McNeal, Source Book, pp. 432–485, in Henderson, Documents, pp. 274–313; and by D. O. H. Blair, London, 1906. A bibliography of commentaries is in KL, ii, 324–325.

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