The Benedictine Rule as the forming of society - Part 2

St. Benedict wrote his rule and bestowed it initially upon “the educated Roman”, yet as the order spread and many souls flocked to the monastery gates, the noviciate became full of those who had not the same standard of education.(1) The Roman tradition of receiving an education in the liberal arts was no longer de rigour, yet this was taken as a norm in the writing of the rule. Consequently, no explicit command is found, “that such elementary training be provided to the professed members of the community”.(2) However, the first third of the rule pertains to the recitation of the psalms and thus it was essential for the monastic life, especially with regard to the mastery and repetition of the RB and the psalms, that an education be provided. The monks are also commanded to divide their time and to concern themselves with holy reading when they are not performing manual labour.(3) The education offered at the monasteries “embraced not only grammar, but also the remaining arts of the trivium… and the quadrivium”.(4) With such a wealth of subjects being taught in the monastery walls, the monasteries naturally became known for their schools and masters. The arts practiced by the monks were gradually extended to the people and thus the monastery schools developed. Due to the emphasis on the official Ecclesiastical language of latin, the Benedictine monasteries rose above all others in the linguistic area. In fact, historians note that “no other social community, clerical or lay, maintained a multilingual compact over such a period”.(5)  The studious aspect of the monastery was not a development due to a need for occupation of idle monks. Rather it was an essential aspect of the RB which taught that “a proper understanding of language was not only of practical utility but also of profound spiritual importance in the performance of the opus Dei”.(6) In order to assist this culture of learning, the Benedictines became scriveners and book binders. This had its origins in the rule, as St. Benedict “expected each monastery to maintain a book collection”.(7) Through the centuries this system grew from the copying of individual books to being a “properly organised approach to book production [first] in place by c1100”.(8) The Benedictines served as an indispensable community in the area of book copying and production, developing the written word from the codex form to books. 

The RB is very explicit in its instruction regarding the office, including the hymns and music to be used. St. Benedict outlines an innovation, namely that the singing of hymns should be commonplace in the recitation of the office, something that was by no means a custom beforehand.(RB: 11-14,17) The Benedictines took this musical command to heart, as the monasteries became centres of great musical innovation and composition; “cantors, and other brethren, were encouraged to compose new settings for psalms, verses, responses and hymns”.(9) Nor was their prowess confined to Gregorian Chant, but it extended to such innovation that it was actually the Benedictine monks who were the true pioneers and promoters of the new polyphonic form.(10) This led to the expansion of liturgical music from the unison of chant to the richness and variety of voices found in polyphony, which, in later centuries, was necessarily accompanied by the organ and gave rise to great liturgical composers.

The era of great monastic growth coincides with that period denoted by secular historians as the ‘dark ages’. To a certain minor extent this designation is true, since the cultural order which been extant in the world under the Roman empire, was no longer. The range and number of invasions from various barbarian tribes in Europe certainly grew. Yet it was a period of great Catholic evangelisation, spearheaded primarily by the monasteries. In the silence and contemplation found behind the cloister walls, the seeds of the glorious high Middle Ages were laid, courtesy of the Benedictine monks. Pope Pius XII describes the gift of the Benedictine community and the RB in his encyclical Fulgens Radiatur

“During a dark and turbulent age, when agriculture, honourable crafts, the study of the fine arts profane and divine were little esteemed and shamefully neglected by nearly all, there arose in Benedictine monasteries an almost countless multitude of farmers, craftsmen and learned people who did their utmost to conserve the memorials of ancient learning and brought back nations both old and new - often at war with each other - to peace, harmony and earnest work. From renascent barbarism, from destruction and ruin they happily led them back to benign influence human and Christian, to patient labor, to the light of truth, to a civilization renewed in wisdom and charity.”(11) 

The Benedictines were those who held firm to the Gospel and to the seeds of culture when all around them was in upheaval: “In the formative centuries of medieval Christendom it was principally Benedictine scholars that set the pattern not only for the exposition and transmission of Christian doctrine but also for the use of language, the practice of reading..and writing”.(12)

It is no surprise therefore, that communities rapidly sprang up around the monasteries, for where such spiritual and temporal goodness existed, people would be sure to draw near to such a life-spring. The monks, in acting out the RB, so greatly transformed their surroundings that it is due to them that Europe owes its early development. In the villages which established themselves next to the monasteries, “the populace…surrendered labour and livelihood to their monastery, and in the boroughs of the later Middle Ages, also their hope of economic and political independence, but also they looked to it for material succour, and for spiritual and perhaps cultural inspiration”.(13)  As the RB spread and gained its influence, the order was gradually bestowed grants of land and property and it was this property that “bound them forever to the emerging infrastructure”.(14) Even this social connection was based in the rule, for St. Benedict outlines first, the relations between the abbot and superiors and his monks (RB: 2,5,21); next the relation between the monks themselves (RB:22,30-55). The entirety of the RB is about forming the monastic community, for St. Benedict was keenly aware of the dangers involved in the solitary life. He thus organised the monastery accordingly: “At the head of this common life is the abbot who must rule the monastery as the representative of Christ, commanding nothing but what is conformable to the Divine precepts”.(15) The whole community is led by the abbot in the spiritual school, “in which is taught and practised the most sublime of all arts, how to serve God perfectly”.(16) With this ethos the Benedictines moved into society and built it based upon these principles. The zeal and attractive spirituality of the monks had such an effect that, “not only did they transform their immediate environs but also they carried an imprint of their mode of life, authority and business to outlying settlements”.(17) The process is very easy to understand - a monastery, full of men all striving to attain heaven, can only serve to be a beacon of light in the world. As the monks gradually subdued the land around them as part of their daily labours, families began to congregate around them, partaking in both the life of labour and the spiritual life offered in the church. The community outside the monastery grows, yet still the monastery, especially the church, remained the focus point of the emerging village. This is the origin of the community of people around the monastery, termed the ‘Precinct community’. The size of this community grew along with the size of the monastery. In order to assist these people, “the greater abbeys and priories of the high and later middle Ages provided workshops, offices, stable, kitchen, chambers and even self-contained cottages to meet their needs and those of their families”.(18) The precinct community and the monastery had strongly bound relations, with the monastery attracting and providing for them, yet itself being aided and sustained by the laity at its walls. In this manner the monastery is truly the basis of the mini-culture that emerges around it, and, since villages expand into towns, the European society owes its lofty culture to the humble monastery and the RB

The monasteries were not merely centres of spiritual and intellectual prowess however, they also became centres of “valuable and vigorous economic enterprises…by the twelfth century the largest of them…contributed as much to the regional economy, and in a number of cases on a national scale, as any city entrepôt”.(19) This development of economic stability, founded especially on agriculture, served to further entrench the monastery as the stable core of society and also to enable it to be the source of temporal aid for those who needed it. As the religious community grew more prosperous, certain roles and tasks previously performed by the members of the community were carried out by “a resident population of retainers, domestic servants, husbandmen, tradesmen and labourers”.(20)  The Benedictine monasteries became akin to other temporal lords, holding governance over the villagers to a certain degree. This strange situation for a monastery did nevertheless lead to certain benefits for the regions and the nations. In the more volatile and unstable areas of Europe during the twelfth century the monasteries served as “invaluable deputies for a succession of oppressed and under-mighty princes”.(21) In addition, the Benedictines continued their vocation of spiritual and temporal care for the people by being able to “secure regional communities during periods of economic and social disturbance”.(22)

In keeping with the spirit of the RB, instructing the brethren to see Christ in each other and especially in any guest, the monasteries became famous for their practical application of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In his seventy-two instruments of good works, St. Benedict commands the follower of the RB to love, “one’s neighbour as oneself…to relieve the poor. To visit the sick…To help in affliction” and “not to forsake charity”.(23) St. Benedict was truly building the RB from the words of the Gospel. Consequentially, it was not uncommon for the special rooms and buildings set aside for the guests to be “given a higher priority than the conventual buildings”.(24) Viewing the housing of guests as a religious duty and privilege ensured that, even as late as the sixteenth century, “there was scarcely any secular cathedral, church or college and only a handful of noble households that could rival either the commons…or the domestic comforts offered to [the monastery] residents”.(25) For those who did not reside at the monastery, the monks provided succour to the poor at the monastery gates. The RB explicitly states that the cellarer should have “especial care of the sick, of the children, of guests and of the poor”(26) and that the old tunics should be “put by in the wardrobe for the poor”(27). In addition, the Benedictines had a special patronage and care for the sick who came to the monastery door seeking aid. Not only did the monks provide care to those who were in need, but (when means permitted) “between 1050 and 1250 a number of abbeys initiated the foundation of secular hospitals, beyond the percent but within their jurisdiction”.(28) The Benedictines thus took the RB very seriously, as their divine vocation which was to be fulfilled every day.

The development of Western Christendom cannot be separated from St. Benedict and his holy rule. The Regula Benedicti has its origin in the sanctity of its author and is conveyed to the world by the Benedictine monks. In acting out the rule, the Benedictines furthered education, liturgy, development of sacred music, health care, centres of hospitality, farming and homesteading, to name but a few of their contributions to society. Above all, the monasteries were great centres of prayer and spirituality, which gave life to all other concerns. To quote Pope Pius XII, the RB “has proved and still proves a powerful means to encourage many to virtue and lead them to sanctity; in the Benedictine law the highest prudence and simplicity are united; Christian humility is joined to virile virtue; mildness tempers severity; and a healthy freedom ennobles due submission”.(29) The Benedictine rule is the true foundation stone on which Christian civilisation has been spread.

1Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 83

2 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 203

Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 48, p62.

4 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 107

5 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 126.

6 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 204.

7 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 238.

 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 240.

9 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 104.

10 Ibid. 104.

11 Pope Pius XII, Fulgens Radiatur, xii_enc_21031947_fulgens-radiatur.html, 12 March 1947,18.

12Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 189.

13 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 131. 

14 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 130. 

15 Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, 79.

16 Lechrich, Life of St. Benedict, 78.

17 Clark, The Benedictines, 136.

18 Clark, The Benedictines, 163
19 Clark, The Benedictines, 139.
20 Clark, The Benedictines, 107.
21 Clark, The Benedictines, 161.
22 Clark, The Benedictines, 161-2.
23 Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 4: 2,14,16,18,26. P20-21. 

24 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 168.

25 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 167. 

26 Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 31. P48
27 Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 55. P69
28 Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, 184.

29 Pope Pius XII, Fulgens Radiatur,14.


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