The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Two, Medieval Monastic Bedtime Stories

While Chapter Forty-Two of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “That no one may Speak after Compline” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) the majority of the chapter focuses on what books a monastic community should (and should not) read before everyone goes to bed.

 

Harley MS 5431 f.69v beginning of chap42 rule of st. benedict
The Beginning of Chapter Forty-Two in a Medieval Manuscript | Harley MS 5431 f.69v | Source: The British Library

 

However, before Saint Benedict starts off his reading list, the first line of the text stresses that “monks should love silence at all times…especially during the hours of the night” (Saint Benedict pg. 57). Silence was also discussed back in Chapter Six, but it seems like Saint Benedict is reminding his monkish readers of this “traditional monastic value” (Kardong pg. 345). (Similar to the way Saint Benedict constantly reminds his audience about obedience and humility. You know, just in case the monks forgot.) In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong notes that the language Saint Benedict uses implies that he knows the brethren won’t be quiet all the time. This idea is further proven at the end of the chapter with this quote:

“[In regards to talking] unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.”

(Saint Benedict, pg. 58)

I would also like to note that there is a difference in translation between my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict and Kardong’s. The Latin word Saint Benedict uses when referring to a monk’s love of silence is studere. Studere is the present infinitive of the word studeo. Studeo has a few meanings, but one meaning is ‘to strive after.‘ Kardong’s translation is much more direct (“Monks ought to strive for silence at all times”) while my copy of The Rule, translated by D. Oswald Hunter Blair, is a bit more poetic in its phrasing (“monks should love silence at all times”). 

After this reminder, Saint Benedict begins discussing what the after supper routine should be. No matter if it’s a fast day “or otherwise” (Saint Benedict pg. 57) all the brethren are to gather together and listen to “four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). And yes, every monk is supposed to gather together to do this, “even those who may have been occupied in some work” (Saint Benedict pg. 58). The after supper reading is a group activity and it’s important monastic communities treat it as such.

If it’s not a fast day, then Saint Benedict recommends reading ‘”Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57). He explicitly bans the “Heptateuch” or “the Books of Kings” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) from being read. It can “be read at other times” (Saint Benedict, pg. 57) but not before bedtime. According to the footnote in D. Oswald Hunter Blair’s translation, these biblical texts were considered “too exciting to the imagination” (pg. 57) to listen to before going to sleep. In his commentary, Terrence G. Kardong explains that these parts of the bible are filled with “erotic episodes” and “violence” (pg. 347). Neither of which are great things to listen about just before bed. After all, the night time reading is supposed to enrich the monks’ spirits, not excite them. 

If it is a fast day then Conferences are also to be the text of choice. However, during fast days the reading will happen at a different time. Instead of being after supper, it will occur “a short time after Vespers” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). This allows the brethren to take a short break between the services and to prevent exhaustion (Kardong, pg. 348).

After all these instructions, Saint Benedict finally discusses what the chapter is supposed to be about: Compline. And it’s only discussed within a few sentences. Because everyone is already conveniently together Compline is said after the reading. Once the service is finished, “let none be allowed to speak to anyone” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). If anyone does speak he is to be “subjected to severe punishment” (Saint Benedict, pg. 58). Unless, of course, the exceptions mentioned at the start of this post occurred.

 

 

Main Sources:

  • 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.)

  • Terrence G. Kardong, OSB. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Liturgical Press, 1996. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46804.

(You can access it for free on Project MUSE during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.