The Europeans, no 6: Benedict of Nursia
St Benedict is reputed to have built 12 monasteries in Subiaco, near Rome, and wrote the rule of the Benedictine order. photograph: getty images/deagostini
St Benedict’s creation of the Benedictine order led to his recognition as the ‘father of western monasticism’
Little is known with absolute certainty about the life of St Benedict of Nursia (a town in Umbria today known as Norcia), but it is difficult to overstate the importance to the history of European culture of the phenomenon he is held to have shaped in its most durable form – monasticism.
Benedict is thought to have been born about 480, the son of a Roman noble.
Like St Francis of Assisi many hundreds of years later, it is said that he turned away as a young man from the dissolute habits of his companions – in Benedict’s case to embrace a life of poverty, prayer and contemplation, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of like-minded men.
He is thought to have built 12 monasteries in the region of Subiaco, near Rome, before establishing the great foundation of Monte Cassino in about 529.
It is there that he wrote the rule of the Benedictine order and that he died, possibly in 547.
Benedict was not the first monk: the practice of holy men going “into the wilderness” has biblical precedent. It is true also that there were other national monastic traditions (the influential Irish one exemplified by Columba, Aidan and Columbanus for example).
Nevertheless the importance of the rules Benedict prescribed for the conduct of communal life – whereby the monks lived as a family ruled by an abbot – has led to him being generally recognised as “the father of western monasticism”.
The rise of monasticism
While its primary aim was to bring the monks closer to God, monasticism also fulfilled other functions. In a dangerous world it provided a refuge, a place for quietness and contemplation away from the distractions of the city. It was an oasis of literacy in a largely illiterate world, a place of learning where books were studied and copied, a place of music, a place where agriculture and viticulture could be practised and improved, where herbs were cultivated and their various medicinal uses formulated.
It could also be a place of innovation. The first books to be printed in Italy were manufactured by two German craftsmen at St Benedict’s first foundation of Subiaco.
The success and longevity of the Benedictine rule probably derive from its good sense and moderation. If the monks were a family then the abbot was the father, and a father – in the sixth century at least – expected to be obeyed. He was, however, elected by his community.
In general, Benedictine rules are not particularly harsh: monks were to be properly fed and had a daily wine allowance – indeed, the famous Dom Pérignon was cellared at Hautvillers Abbey in Champagne. Prayer should not last too long. We could assume the admonition not to laugh was not always observed.
Benedict may have learned moderation from his first experiences as a superior when his community tried to poison him (only a supposed miracle saved him).
The monastery was an institution that not only served the interests of civilisation in many practical ways; it also offered one form of answer to a human need that has been felt throughout many eras – the desire to leave the competitiveness of “normal life”, to quit the court or the city, to find quietness or dedicate oneself to intellectual or spiritual pursuits, whose attractions, Blaise Pascal was to write, are “invisible to kings, to the rich, to captains, to all those great ones of the flesh”.
Pope Paul VI made St Benedict patron of Europe in 1964. Pope John Paul II, aware that Europe was more than western Europe, made him move over in 1980 to share the honour with St Cyril and St Methodius, apostles to the Slavs.
What to read
Marilyn Dunn’s Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (Wiley-Blackwell) offers a comprehensive account of monasticism from its Egyptian origins to its medieval development in western and central Europe.