St Benedict was a fairly obscure Italian Catholic abbot who lived from about 480 to 547 AD. One of the reasons he is remembered is for the order of monasticism established in his name: the Benedictines1, who were governed by his Rule. Famous Benedictines include the historians Bede and Matthew Paris2.
The Rule of St Benedict (in Latin, the Regula Sancti Benedicti) became a standard of monasticism, as other orders such as the Cistercians also adopted it. Some orders also used versions which had been modified to various extents. Some of the people who followed the Rule were so-called 'lay' members — 'semi-members' of the community, without all of the religious responsiblities of the full members. The Order of St Benedict still exists and the Rule is followed even today in its monasteries and nunneries, and also by ordinary people in their everyday lives.
The Rule is thought to have been written in about 540 AD, when Benedict was the abbot of the Abbey of Monte Cassino3, about eighty miles south of Rome. The original Rule has been lost, but a copy exists which is thought to be faithful to the original.
The Rule of St Benedict borrows quite heavily from a document called 'The Rule of the Master'4, written several decades earlier, but much is Benedict's own work and thoughts. The Rule appears to have been composed over a period of some time and gradually expanded upon.
The Rule is divided into a prologue and 73 chapters, setting out guidance for the organisation of an efficient monastery. The idea was that monks should live together like a family. In fact, Benedictine monasteries were shaped like Roman villas to reflect this, though it was not uncommon for several members to live for a while in the outside world as hermits. Benedict adopts a paternal tone throughout the work.
Benedict's Rule has some central points. For example, the monks5 are required to give away all of their property, either to the poor or to the monastery, and live in poverty. However, the monasteries themselves were expected to have land and buildings, and Benedict also thought that they would have tenants who would deal with most of the work so that the monks could dedicate themselves to God. As it turned out, many monasteries were partially funded by gifts from rich benefactors.
Humility is also important and monks are expected to be obedient to the abbot and senior monks. However, the abbot is elected by all the monks of the monastery and is obliged by the Rule to listen to their opinions. He holds the office for life and is also required to fill a pastoral role, looking after the welfare of the monks. The abbot also appoints the other officers of the monastery, such as the gatekeeper and cellarer6. There is no stated requirement to remain celebate, but this was a separate provision for monks of all orders.
The Rule contains great detail about what prayers should be said and when. Monks have to pray seven times a day, including during night hours, though the exact times would vary slightly depending on the season. The hours for prayer are:
- Lauds — Very early in the morning, about 2.00am
- Prime — At about 6.00am
- Terce — About 9.00am
- Sext — Noon
- None — 3.00pm
- Vespers — Early evening
- Compline — Nightfall, just before going to bed.
The Rule gives no provision for leisure as such, but does state that physical work should be balanced with periods of study, though it is unclear whether this refers to religious or academic study. It also states that, every year, each monk should receive a reading list or 'codex'. They were expected to read every book on the list over the course of the year. The Rule also sets out the type of clothing monks should wear, allowing warmer clothing in colder climates and cooler clothing in warmer climates. They were to wear tunics, cowls7 and a scapular8 for work.
New monks had a probationary period of one year. If at the end of that time, they still wanted to join and had proved satisfactory, they were made full members. Once they had joined, they were expected to remain in the monastery in which they had made their vows until their deaths. The Rule meant that the lives of the monks are very structured — Benedict wrote that 'Idleness is the enemy of the soul' — but those lives do vary depending on the season.
Benedict's Rule is not the only such example of monastic guidance. Caesarius of Arles wrote two Rules, one for monks and one for nuns. Benedict did not predict that his Rule would be adopted as the guiding principle for entire orders of monks. He wrote it for a single monastery, independent of others. People today often have an image of monastic life in the middle ages as being very difficult. For orders following the Rule of St Benedict, it was, and indeed is, tolerable. It is still repetitive and harsh, and was particularly so in the middle ages, but was a more comfortable life than the medieval peasantry could expect.