Benedictus Nursinus, c. 480–c. 550 CE
Benedict of Nursia was an Italian abbot active in the hinterland of Rome at Subiaco and Monte Cassino in the early 6th century. He is best known as the author of a normative guide for monastic life, The Rule of Benedict (Regula Benedicti; hereafter RB), the only surviving work that bears his name. The earliest account of Benedict’s life and independent reference to the RB appeared in the second book of the Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers by Gregory the Great (pope 590–604 ce). Composed at Rome in 593–594 ce, the Dialogues were a popular compendium of hagiographical portraits of 6th-century Italian saints cast as a conversation between the pope and one of his disciples. Gregory’s endorsement of Benedict’s sanctity was instrumental in promoting the RB in the early Middle Ages. As a result, the authority of the RB as a guide to monastic life was unassailable from the time of the Carolingians to the end of the 12th century, so much so that historians have traditionally referred to this period (c. 800–1200 ce) as “the Benedictine centuries.” Despite the vicissitudes faced by Benedictine monks in the early modern period, from the dissolution of the monasteries in England (1536–1541) by Henry VIII to the destruction of abbeys during and after the French Revolution (1789–1790), the RB has held firm as the most important guide for cloistered life, and it remains the most widely used rule for monks in the modern era. In recent years, however, some scholars have called into question the authenticity of the earliest testimonies for Benedict’s life, including Gregory’s Dialogues, and have thereby challenged a centuries-old tradition about the “father of monasticism” and the rule that carries his name.
The RB is a concise work written in Late Classical Latin. It comprises a prologue, seventy-two short chapters, and an epilogue, which combine theoretical reflections on the goals of the monastic life with practical insights about the day-to-day workings of a modest cloistered community, based on the first-hand experience of its author. The RB presumes an audience composed of like-minded laymen who had renounced their familial obligations, their social status, and their personal property to live in prayerful simplicity with the goal of meriting their own salvation before God. According to the RB, monks achieved this goal by cultivating the virtues of obedience, humility, and silence while also engaging in manual labor, busying themselves with sacred reading, and rendering praise to God in liturgical ceremonies distributed throughout the day and night. During these ceremonies, the monks gathered as a community to recite psalms and hear readings from the scriptures and patristic authorities. They pursued all aspects of this way of life under the guidance of their abbot, who acted as the spiritual advisor, teacher, and chief administrator of the entire community. While the RB drew its inspiration from the collective wisdom of the desert fathers, mediated through the writings of Basil and John Cassian, and borrowed freely from contemporary handbooks written for other monastic communities, most notably the near-contemporary Rule of the Master (hereafter RM), it stood out from other rules of the time owing to its author’s sense of moderation, his consideration of contingencies like climate, and his compassionate approach toward human weakness.
Medieval readers never questioned the authorship of the RB. They attributed this work to Abbot Benedict of Nursia, whose sanctity Gregory the Great had celebrated in his Dialogues. In the 20th century, however, some scholars called into question received traditions about the RB and its author. This discussion began with the relationship between the RB and the RM, which share the same prologue and several early chapters on the spiritual program of the abbey. Monastic historians had always presumed that the RM was an eccentric amplification of the RB, but in 1940 Augustin Genestout argued just the opposite: that the author of the RB had read the RM and judiciously pruned its contents for use in his own rule. In recent decades, other scholars have challenged traditional presumptions about the RB and the earliest witnesses to the life of Benedict of Nursia. Francis Clark has argued at great length that Gregory’s Dialogues were the work of a 7th-century forger and therefore do not provide evidence of the pope’s esteem for Benedict and his rule for monks.1 In addition, Adalbert de Vogüé has shown that the attribution to Gregory of the Commentary on 1 Kings that bears his name, which includes a very early citation from the RB, is not secure; in all likelihood, it was composed by Peter of Cava-Venosa, a 12th-century abbot who braided his own commentary with some of Gregory’s lost writings.2 If we abandon Gregory’s Dialogues and Commentary on 1 Kings as the earliest independent testimony of the RB and the historical Benedict, then the first attestation of the RB only appeared in 7th-century Francia, where some cloistered communities, both male and female, adopted a rule bearing this name, either on its own or more commonly in combination with other monastic legislation such as the Rule of Columbanus and Caesarius of Arles’s Rule for Virgins.
Despite the contentions surrounding its early history, it is clear that the RB became very popular in the Carolingian period, owing both to Gregory’s enthusiastic endorsement and to imperial sponsorship by Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious. At the Aachen Assemblies of 816/817, Louis’s monastic advisor Abbot Benedict of Aniane promoted the adoption of one rule and one custom (una regula, una consuetudo) in all Frankish abbeys: the one rule was the RB; the one custom was Benedict of Aniane’s own supplementary regulations to the RB. While this legislation was not entirely successful, owing to resistance from monasteries reluctant to give up their local customs, from this point onwards the RB overshadowed all other ancient rules as the most authoritative guide to cloistered life. Its authority was not challenged until the emergence of the new monastic orders of the 12th and 13th centuries, but even so, it has persisted as the most important guide for monastic life into the 21st century.
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(1.) Francis Clark originally presented this thesis in The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (2 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1987) and reiterated it in The “Gregorian” Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
(2.) Adalbert de Vogüé, “L’auteur du Commentaire des Rois attribué à Saint Grégoire: un moine de Cava?” Revue bénédictine 106 (1996): 319–331.