The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Three, Can You (a Medieval Monk) Own Stuff?

Once again, I am discussing another short chapter in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Like the last chapter (and various other ones) this one is only a paragraph long. Chapter Thirty-Three is titled “Whether Monks ought to have anything of their Own” (pg. 49). The short answer to this is No. The long answer to this is Still No But Sometimes Maybe.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.60r
The Beginning of Chapter Thirty-Three in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.60r | Source: The British Library

 

The text begins with “the vice of private ownership is above all to be cut off from the Monastery by the roots” (pg. 49). Saint Benedict definitely had something here. When you own your own things, it is very easy to become greedy and want more and more. Or if you don’t become greedy, you might hesitate to share what you do have. To avoid monks spiraling into absolute corruption, the simplest solution is to have everything belong to the community. (I will note that this sentiment is still extremely relevant in 2020. However, it is much easier to share when your community is twelve or more other monks and not a country of other people.)

Everything was to “be common to all” (pg.49). Or in other words, all things were to be shared by the brethren. A monk was not “to keep anything as their own” (pg. 49). They weren’t even allowed to own little things that might not seem very valuable, such as a “writing-tablet or [a] pen” (pg. 49)! While this does seem a bit extreme, Saint Benedict justifies these regulations by reminding his monkish reader that “they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power” (pg. 49). If a monk isn’t even allowed to have his own will, why would he be allowed to have his own pen?

If a monk doesn’t even have his own will, who in the monastery does? The answer is the abbot. One of the abbot’s many duties was to permit his monks to own items if he so chose. Saint Benedict says, “let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot” (pg. 49). However, an abbot was not to deprive his monks of things they needed to survive:

“But all that is necessary they [the monks] may hope to receive from the father of the Monastery…” (pg. 49)

However, expecting a person to share absolutely everything can be a bit impractical at times. I imagine that monks were allowed to keep their own habits even if the clothes technically belonged to the monastery. (After all, someone very short and thin won’t fit into the same clothes as someone very tall and fat.) Like in previous chapters, Saint Benedict throws in a loophole. Monks can have some things as long as the Abbot has given it to them “or at least permitted them to have” (pg. 49) it.

What happens if a monk doesn’t follow the rules and sneaks something into the monastery for himself? Well, if any monk is “found to indulge in this most baneful vice” (pg. 50) there must be consequences. At first, the monk should be given “one or two admonitions” (pg. 50). But if he does “not amend” Saint Benedict says the monk must “be subjected to correction” (pg. 50).

 

 

Main Source:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. 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.

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

For some reason, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict wasn’t loading today. However, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the usual PDF that I reference. You can access that screenshot here. (You have to scroll down to see the text.) I used this to cross-check my translation.