If you were a big reader as a child, I’m sure you may have heard the phrase “no reading at the table!” during meal times. If you grew up in a monastery you may have also heard that phrase (or seen it through sign language), but not for the reasons you might think!
Instead of allowing monks to bring their own books to the table, Saint Benedict instructs that a weekly reader be chosen. This weekly reader is chosen on Sunday and reads to his fellow monks throughout the week. (Hence the name.) This makes a lot of sense. During the time Saint Benedict is writing The Rule, all books were made by hand. And when you’ve spent months (or even years) transcribing and illuminating a book, I imagine watching some clumsy monk spill wine on your hard work would incite anger.
At the end of the day, it’s best to have someone read for everyone. It should also be noted that depending on the size of the library and the monastic community, there may not be enough books for everyone to read all at once. In fact, a monastery’s library might not actually be a library at all, but a book cupboard!
Like the weekly servers, the readers started out their duty with a prayer “after Mass and Communion” (pg. 53) on Sunday. This prayer was “said thrice in the Oratory” (pg. 53). The reader also received a blessing before beginning his job. Also similar to the servers, the reader was allowed to “take a little bread and wine before he [begins] to read” (pg. 54). Once dinner/supper was over, the reader took “his meal with the weekly cooks and other servers” (pg. 54). Saint Benedict was definitely concerned about his monks fasting for “so long” (pg. 54).
Saint Benedict goes on to explain that mealtimes are not opportunities for monks to chat with each other about their day. In fact, monks aren’t allowed to talk to each other at all:
“The greatest silence must be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard there, nor any voice except that of him who readeth.” (pg. 53)
Monks are supposed to nourish both their bodies and their minds while they eat. How can one fully listen to the Word of God when they are gossiping with each other about how Brother So-And-So drew something lewd in his manuscript? The answer is that they can’t.
To prevent any idle chatter, Saint Benedict instructs his monks to “minister to each other” regarding “whatever is necessary for food or drink” (pg. 53). Not only should anyone ask for things, they should not need to. It’s a monk’s duty to make sure their fellow brethren have what they need. In Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict (link to that below) it is much more specific in what a monk is supposed to do. Instead of using the word “minister”, they use the phrase “pass each other such things.” I imagine that monks simply spend the entire time passing each other dishes of food and pitchers of drink.
But what happens when a monk wants something that’s not within easy reach? Or if he needs to use the restroom? Or there’s something else he needs to do/wants? Well, luckily for him, he’s not just stuck there. If “anything be wanted, let it be asked for by a sign rather than by the voice” (pg. 53-54). Monasteries had entire systems of sign language that they used. These sign languages were quite complicated and over time they were used more and more. Often to the point where it would have been easier to just let the monks talk! (Tomorrow’s post will go into this in detail.)
Even though monks were allowed to talk to each other through sign language, there was one topic that was very much off-limits during dinner/supper: questions “about the reading or…anything else” (pg. 54). The reason asking questions was forbidden was that it might “give occasion for talking” (pg. 54). Anyone who has interacted with a young child knows that one question can spiral into a very long conversation. This is the same for adults too!
At the end of the day, Saint Benedict says that the only people allowed to talk while everyone ate were the readers and “the Superior should [he] wish to say a few words for the edification of the brethren” (pg. 54). That being said, in Julie Kerr’s book Life in the Medieval Cloister she points out that sometimes monks were allowed to talk with each other if an important guest was eating with them that day. This is just one example (out of many) of The Rule of Saint Benedict being more of a guideline to real-life monastic communities than a strict law.
- 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.)
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.
Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)
Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.