The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty One and Twenty Two, Electing Deans and Sleeping in a Medieval Monastery

For my previous analyses on The Rule of Saint Benedict, I have gone over each chapter individually. Today I am switching things up. I’ve decided to combine chapters twenty-one and twenty-two into one post for two reasons. They are thematically similar and are each only one paragraph long. Theoretically, I could have done what I did for my last post and go in-depth with historical examples, but I want to keep today’s analyses brief.   This series is meant to (mostly) focus on Saint Benedict’s text itself. That being said, I am interested in sharing more historical anecdotes on this blog. (But not today.)

Chapter Twenty-One is titled “Of the Deans of the Monastery” (pg. 41). Saint Benedict describes how a monastery should choose superiors in their community. However, not all monasteries should have deans other than an abbot. It is only when “the community [is] large” (pg. 41) should deans be elected.

This chapter doesn’t specify what is considered a large community. However, according to a footnote for chapter seventeen in my copy of the text, a small community (or a Congregatio minor in Latin) “is usually interpreted to mean one consisting of less than twelve members” (pg. 38). Wikipedia offers a different interpretation, saying that there should be a dean for every ten monks. Whether a small community has ten or twelve members, Saint Benedict was wise when he decided that a small community doesn’t need a lot of superiors. After all, too many cooks spoil the broth.

So who gets to be a dean? Saint Benedict recommends “certain brethren of good repute and holy life, [be] appointed Deans” (pg. 41). To run any sort of organization smoothly, especially one dedicated to worshipping God, you want someone who is of good moral character. While you could have someone corrupt in charge that will cause unnecessary conflict (eventually). Saint Benedict also recommends that the superiors “carefully direct their deaneries in all things according to the commandments of God and of the…Abbot” (pg. 41-42).

An abbot must be careful when it comes to selecting superiors. Not just anyone can be a dean. The monk chosen must be a man that “the Abbot may safely trust to share his burdens” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict says that these monks should “not be chosen according to order” (pg. 42). Or in other terms, don’t choose a monk to be a dean just because he’s been there the longest or has been a monk for a while. A monastery’s deans must be selected due to “the merit of their lives and for their wisdom and learning” (pg. 42).

What happens if the dean ends up being bad at his job or is “found worthy of blame” (pg. 42)? What if the power goes to his head and he is “puffed up with pride” (pg. 42)? Well, Saint Benedict doesn’t want the dean to be let go immediately. He should be given a few chances to get back on track. But if he’s still acting poorly “after being thrice corrected” and he “refuse[s] to amend” then “let him be deposed” (pg. 42). Basically, it’s time to fire the dean and choose “one who is worthy [to] put in his place” (pg. 42).

Chapter Twenty-Two is titled “How the Monks are to Sleep” (pg. 42). Thematically, this is another section dedicated to the many practicalities of running a monastery. Saint Benedict has quite a few guidelines concerning a monastery’s dormitory. The chapter starts off with “Let them sleep each in a separate bed” (pg. 42). I like details like this as it implies in monasteries (or in other living spaces) people shared beds. Even if monks were to get separate beds, they still had to “all sleep in one place” (pg. 42). However, if there were too many monks and the dormitory was too small, they were permitted to be broken up into groups of “tens or twenties” and sleep “with the seniors who have charge of them” (pg. 42). Saint Benedict adds in the latter part of the chapter that the “younger brethren” should sleep “among those of the seniors” (pg. 42). According to the footnote in my copy of The Rule, a having common dorm “was strictly observed for many centuries” (pg. 42).

But separate beds and a common dorm aren’t the only things monks need/should do at bedtime. Saint Benedict recommends that “a candle burn constantly…until morning” (pg. 42). I assume this is the medieval equivalent of a night light so you can see when it’s time to rise for offices or in case someone needs to get up to use the privy. The text also says that a monk should not sleep “with knives at their sides, lest perchance they wound themselves” (pg. 42). This certainly implies that monks did sleep with their knives. I would speculate that there may have been a few incidents resulting in this rule to be written down.

In addition to not sleeping with sharp objects, monks were told to “sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords” (pg. 42). This was so that the monks could “be always ready” and “rise without delay” (pg. 42). After all, being forced to find your clothes and put them on would “forestall” your fellow monks when it was time to go “to the Work of God” (pg. 42). Sleeping clothed also prevents any sinful immodesty.

Finally, Saint Benedict tells his monks that when it is time to wake up and go to services they should “gently encourage one another, because of the excuses of the drowsy” (pg. 42). Or in other words, you shouldn’t let your fellow monk use the ‘five more minutes’ request when it is time to worship the Lord.

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.