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.

Eating Meat: How Medieval Monks Found Loopholes Concerning Their Diets

Despite The Rule of Saint Benedict’s strict guidelines on a monastic diet, over time people started tweaking the rules. Or if they weren’t outright changing them, then they were finding loopholes. Similar to other religious rules, laxity developed over time. Of course, there were some monks, nuns, and religious orders who were strict about what a person can and cannot do, but much like people today, a good majority were deliberately creating ways to get around the rules.

 

Add MS 42130 f.206v two fellows roasting meat

Two People Roasting Meat | Add MS 42130 f.206v | Source: The British Library

 

The Rule specifically says only the sick and infirm are allowed to consume the meat of four-legged animals. (And I will note that birds only have two legs, so I assume poultry was fair game.) So instead of eating in the refectory with everyone else, they would eat the meat in a separate room. As mentioned in my last post, the Carthusian order banned even the sick from meat-eating. This was due to concerns about monks faking illnesses just to get some bacon (or beef, lamb, mutton, etc.). If an entire order forbade meat because they were worried about monks pretending to be sick, that implies it was an ongoing problem in other orders.

Also in my last post, I mentioned how a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk wrote a treatise defending these practices. However, I didn’t mention his claim that Carthusians recovered quicker than Benedictines. According to him, if monks weren’t outright faking illnesses then they would delay their recovery time just so they could keep getting treats. Whether or not this is actually true is certainly up for debate. Again, it implies that this was an ongoing issue. And even if it wasn’t, it means people were worried enough to write this all down!

Despite their reputation, there is a case where a Carthusian ate meat while sick. Hugh of Lincoln was documented to have done this. However, he didn’t do it because his doctor insisted. Hugh had to be talked into it by the archbishop of Canterbury and other important, respected men before he agreed. That being said, when Hugh finally tried some pig’s feet (because that’s what the Holy Fathers recommended), he could barely swallow it thanks to his years of abstinence. Hugh was given some small birds to try instead and had similar problems. The main point here is that even some Carthusians were willing to adjust their diets if it came to that.

The Rule of Saint Benedict is clear regarding what a monk’s diet should be, but eating meat when monks weren’t sick slowly became a common practice. (That’s one reason why the Carthusians were so strict about it!) In 1336, Pope Benedict XII’s papal sanction allowed Benedictines to eat meat four days of the week as long as it wasn’t fasting season and they weren’t doing it in the refectory. Monks were to eat meat in the misericord. Additionally, at least half the community had to have their meals in the refectory so no one took advantage of the new rules. Allowing such laxity implies that the pope knew he was fighting a losing battle. Similar Saint Benedict and wine, sometimes it’s best to try to limit things instead of outright banning them.

They also had a tendency to bend The Rule. One way monks did this regarded what part of the animal you were eating. So a monk could eat the offal and entrails, but not actual muscle tissue. Benedictine and Cluniac monks decided that twice-cooked meat didn’t count as actual meat either. So you could eat stuff like meatballs or rissoles in the refectory but not a steak. Apparently, during the late twelfth century the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury decided that soup made from meat was fine too.

But that wasn’t the only mental gymnastics the religious were doing. Saint Thomas Aquinas decided that chickens were originally aquatic, thus they were fish. And because chickens were fish, they were okay to consume on fast days. There’s also a story that rabbit embryos weren’t meat either, but this just seems to be a myth.

If monks weren’t bending the rules, then they were ignoring them altogether. Walter Map claimed that while Cistercian monasteries sold bacon, they didn’t sell or throw out the rest of the pig. He cheekily wrote, “What becomes of them [the rest of the pig], God knows.” That being said, there is documentation of Cistercian monks being officially reprimanded for eating meat in the 1220s, so Walter Map wasn’t just speculating. And as mentioned in the last post, Peter the Venerable had much to say about how often monks ignored the rules and how they did so with luxury game.

All in all, monks (at least in larger monasteries) had a pretty rich diet. It was better than the majority of the medieval population, so it’s no wonder imagery of the fat, gluttonous monk became such a common theme in medieval satire!

 

 

Sources:

  • Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170.

(This book can be found here on Google Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

  • Snowden, David. Flans and Wine: A Benedictine Recipe Book from Evesham Abbey. Lulu.com, 2015.

(This book can be purchased here.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Theatrical Production of Medieval Monastic Sign Language

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Saint Benedict recommended monks use sign language so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other during mealtimes. In theory, this would allow monks to focus on listening to the reading and prevent other verbal distractions. In practice, signing could be just as distracting, if not more so.

 

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An Anglo-Saxon Feast | Cotton MS Tiberius C VI f.5v | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog & The British Library

 

It should also be noted that monastic sign languages aren’t actual languages, per se. Sign languages used by deaf communities have grammar among other characteristics. Monastic sign languages are pretty much only a lexicon/vocabulary of words. There are exceptions, one of these being the finger alphabet created by Bede. His alphabet can be used to sign entire words. 

Even though Saint Benedict recommended signing, he did not actually say what the signs should be. As a result, different Orders used different signs for things. Eventually, the monks at Cluny Abbey came up with a comprehensive system. This non-verbal vocabulary was introduced to Britain probably in the 10th century. That being said, there were still differences between Orders as well as between different monasteries!

One reason for this is the separate needs for each monastery. This is reflected in the sign language manuals for Cluniac monks and the Monasteriales Indicia, a manual for Canterbury monks. While French monks had signs for rich foods (like spiced drinks and even crepes!) the Anglo-Saxon monks did not. Instead, the Monasteriales Indicia has a lexicon for a pretty sparse diet, mostly consisting of fruits and vegetables. (A complete copy of the Monasteriales Indicia can be found in the “Monastic Sign Language” article below.) Needless to say, if you’re a monk who never gets crepes (or doesn’t even know what a crepe is), you aren’t going to need a word for it.

However, the lack of some words isn’t the only difference between sign languages. Sometimes different monasteries would have completely different signs for the same thing. I’ve found two separate examples.

Asking to use the restroom:

“The sign of the latrine is to set your right hand flat over your stomach and use the sign for asking leave of your elder, if you want to go thither.”

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

And

“…he first made the sign for the reredorter by grabbing his habit with his forefinger and thumb and shaking it lightly against his groin; he then signalled [sic] to his superior that he wished to go there…”

Kerr, pg. 85

The sign for milk:

“…the Cluniacs signed…by imitating a suckling baby — the little finger was placed on the lips…”

Kerr, pg. 51

And

“…the German monks of Hirsau mimicked the milking of a cow by tugging the little finger of their left hand.”

Kerr, pg. 51

Seeing signs for particular things gives us an insight into how the monastic world was structured. For example, there was a sign for a priest who wasn’t a monk as well as a sign for unmarried priests. This implies that some priests were married when the manual was created. (Catholic priests could, in fact, get married up until the 11th century and the drama surrounding that is a post for another day!)

While some signs were relatively simple, others could be extremely complex. Here are a few of the simpler signs:

To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.

If you would like a sacramentary, then move your hand and make a motion as if you were blessing.

If you would have an alb, then move your garment back and forth slightly with your hands.

If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.

The sign of the bakehouse is to move your two hands locked together as if you were rolling out dough.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

Here are a few of the more complex signs:

If you would indicate something concerning the church, make a motion with your two hands, as if to ring a bell, then set your forefinger to your mouth and afterwards raise it up.

When you would have a superumeral, then stroke with your two forefingers, from the top of your head, underneath your cheeks and down your arms.

If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.

When you would like a seat-cover, pluck your own clothes with two fingers, then spread out your hands and move them back and forth, as if to arrange a seat.

If you need a needle, fold the hem of your left sleeve in your right hand over your left forefinger and make a motion over it with three fingers as if sewing.

From fisheaters.com‘s translation of Monasteriales Indicia.

As you can see, signing can get pretty complicated and pretty theatrical pretty fast!

Even though monks were supposed to sign only when they absolutely needed to, this wasn’t the case in reality. People are chatty and monks are no exception! Monks excessively signing was commented on by Gerald of Wales after he visited Canterbury’s Christ Church around 1180. He describes the monks using their fingers, hands, and arms when signing as well as whistling to each other. Due to these so-called performances, he felt as though he was at a play instead of eating dinner. Apparently, the monks were signing so much and so wildly Gerald thought that it would be less distracting if they just talked to each other!

It seems like at the end of the day, Saint Benedict ended up causing the thing he was trying to prevent. (At least in Canterbury!)

 

 

Sources:

  • Cambrensis, Giraldus. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis. Translated by H. E. Butler, Jonathan Cape, 1937.

(This book can be found on archive.com. Here is a link to the page I read.)

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Five, A Monk’s Weekly Kitchen Duty

Whether it is a school, nursing home, hospital, or monastery, if people are there for extended periods of time, it’s important to have a fully staffed kitchen. Chapter Thirty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict, instructs monks on who should work in the kitchen, how long they should do so, what their duties are, and other minor details concerning the job.

 

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Working in the Kitchen | Source: Pinterest.com

 

The text begins by saying “let the brethren wait on one another in turn, so that none be excused from the work of the kitchen” (pg. 50). In theory, every monk is required to do the laborious tasks of making meals for the entire monastery. I say in theory because Saint Benedict puts in an exception for monks “prevented by sickness” (pg. 50). So if a monk is sick he does not have to work in the kitchen that week. This is quite practical as a sick person should not be touching the food others are going to eat. (It’s a shame restaurants in the United States don’t follow this rule!)

Because every monk is supposed to do kitchen work, Saint Benedict advises “assistance be given to the weak” (pg. 50). Like in Chapter Thirty-Four, the monkish reader is reminded to help the brethren who need it so “they may not do their work with sadness” (pg. 50). Accommodations must be made so no one gets hurt.

That being said, Saint Benedict does make two more exceptions regarding those who can skip kitchen duty. The first person is the cellarer. But he can only “be excused from work in the kitchen” if “the community be large” (pg. 51). (A large community is twelve or more monks.) The second exception is monks who are “occupied in more urgent business” (pg. 51). I assume this means monks who are off on important business or other such tasks that cannot be avoided.

The text then specifies that “the rest serve each other in turn with all charity” (pg. 51). If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict is calling out the whiners again!

Making food isn’t the weekly servers’ only duty. On Saturday, a monk’s last day in the kitchen, he is to clean “all things” (pg. 51). This includes washing the towels the monks use to “dry their hands and feet” as well as “the feet of all” (pg. 51). Luckily for the weekly server, he doesn’t have to wash everyone’s feet by himself. The monk “who is coming in” helps him. Once a monk’s kitchen duty is finished, he returns “the vessels of his office, clean and whole” (pg. 51) to the Cellarer. Once he is sure everything is there, the Cellarer gives the supplies to the next weekly server.

Like the catering company I used to work for, Saint Benedict knows the importance of feeding servers before the big dinner:

“Let the weekly servers take each a cup of drink and a piece of bread over and above the appointed portion, one hour before the time for reflection, that so they may serve their brethren, when the hour cometh, without murmuring or great labor.” (pg. 51)

After all, if you let your servers go hungry before they handle all that food, they may be tempted to take a bit for themselves!

Finally, after Lauds on Sunday (a little after dawn), “the incoming and the outgoing servers [are to] fall on their knees before all…and ask their prayers” (pg. 51). The monk who already served that week says a prayer thanking God for His help three times before being blessed. Once that is over, the incoming server will say a different prayer, asking for God’s help. He will also say it three times before he too is blessed.

 

 

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.

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.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Three, How to Make a Good Decision in a Monastery

I think we all have a story where a superior made a decision without consulting everyone else in the organization, whether the organization is school, work, or politics. Sometimes these decisions work out well for everyone. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they spin everything into chaos because the superior has no idea how things practically work on the ground level. Unfortunately, superiors making ill-advised choices isn’t a modern phenomenon. This was also a problem during Saint Benedict’s time and it was a concern of his. It was so much of a concern that he wrote an entire chapter of The Rule dedicated to how abbots should make decisions! (Granted, it is a short chapter but it is a chapter none-the-less!)

 

BL Royal MS 10 e iv f222r

BL Royal MS 10 E IV f222r | Source: The British Library

 

So how should important decisions be made in a monastic setting? Like most matters, it depends. If the matter isn’t super important the abbot should “take counsel with the Seniors only” (pg. 20). But if it’s really important the abbot must “call together the whole community” (pg. 19) so he can hear everyone’s opinion. This includes the younger members of the monastery. Saint Benedict reminds his reader that “it is often to the younger that the LORD revealeth what is best” (pg. 19). I’m not sure how young is young for Saint Benedict, but anyone who has been around children knows that kids lack a filter. Thus they can be extremely honest. Sometimes painfully so.

When giving his counsel, a monk must be humble. He is to “give their advice with all subjection and humility” (pg. 19). After all, this is a monastery and not a debate team. A monk shouldn’t “stubbornly…defend their own opinion” (pg. 19).

After everyone has spoken, it’s time for the abbot to reflect on what he’s heard “and then do what he shall judge most expedient” (pg. 19). This way the abbot will know how his decision will affect everyone in the community. What works for some monks might make another monk’s life much more difficult than it has to be. It’s extremely important for the abbot to make an educated decision. Otherwise, the monastery can be thrown into chaos.

So what happens if the abbot does make a choice some monks don’t like? Well, Saint Benedict basically tells his reader to suck it up. Monks are to “submit to whatever [the abbot] shall judge to be best” (pg. 19). This means not arguing with the abbot, doing what you want anyway, or “presume insolently to contend with his Abbot, either within or without the monastery” (pg. 19). If a monk does these things then Saint Benedict encourages that he be punished “to the discipline appointed by the Rule” (pg. 19). At the end of the day, the abbot has to face God with “an account of all his judgments” (pg. 19). Hopefully, the abbot is making his choices based on that and not earthly matters.

Even with all these steps needed to make a choice, there is one thing Saint Benedict is firm on: no matter the decision, an abbot must ‘”Do all things with counsel, and thou shalt not afterwards repent it” (pg. 20).

 

Main Source:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Two, How to be a Good Abbot

The second chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict covers “What Kind of Man the Abbot ought to be” (pg. 16). The abbot is in charge of the monastery and all the people who live in it. As The Rule is both a guide on how to be a good holy monk as well as how to actually run a monastery effectively, finding an abbot who knows what he is doing is extremely important. After all, without a competent leader, a community can and often will fall into chaos. (And this applies not only to monasteries but any other community of people as well!) Saint Benedict was an abbot himself, so while his opinion on what makes a good abbot might be a bit biased, he does know what he’s talking about. He is considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism for a reason!

 

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A carving of Saint Benedict of Nursia | Source: Wikipedia

 

Saint Benedict’s guide on being an abbot is partially practical instructions and partially fearmongering. The chapter starts off with Saint Benedict reminding the reader that the abbot should always remember his place. He is supposed to “hold the place of Christ in the monastery” so he should “correspond to his name of superior by his deeds” (pg. 16). This means that the abbot should never “teach, or ordain, or command anything contrary to the law of the LORD” (pg. 16). The abbot is his flock’s primary example on how to act so he should behave accordingly. If he doesn’t, he will face the consequences in the afterlife. There God will judge him based on “his own teaching and…the obedience of his disciples” (pg. 16).

But what happens if an abbot tries his best, is holy and good, and his monks still misbehave? Well, all is not lost. God will certainly take the abbot’s effort into consideration. As long as the abbot “bestowed all pastoral diligence” and “employed all his care” into fixing his “corrupt” monks then he will be “absolved” (pg. 16). His monks, however, will not be. They will receive “the punishment of death” (pg. 17). Instead of getting into Heaven like their abbot will, they will not. This is a great example of the practicalness of The Rule. Saint Benedict acknowledges that even if an abbot is holy and good that does not mean his monks will follow his example. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

What if your monks aren’t necessarily bad, but just sort of stubborn? What can you do to prevent your monks from receiving eternal damnation? What can you do to encourage them to be good? Well, Saint Benedict recommends “a two-fold teaching” (pg. 17). He should tell “the intelligent among his disciples” and show “the hard-hearted and the simple-minded” how to act properly. In short, an abbot’s actions speak louder than his words. If he doesn’t practice what he preaches then he is a hypocrite. And no one is going to listen to a hypocrite, especially God. This hypocrisy also runs the risk of sowing discord among his monks.

 

abbot-addressing-monk-from-bl-royal-10-e-iv-f-249-c79e3f

Abbot addressing monk | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 249 | Source: Picryl.com

 

Hypocrisy isn’t the only way tensions may arise as a direct result of an abbot’s behavior. Saint Benedict stresses that it is extremely important to treat everyone in the monastery equally. An abbot shouldn’t “let…one be loved more than another” (pg. 17). Not even if a monk is “of noble birth” while another monk was “formerly a slave” (pg. 17). Everyone needs to be valued at the same amount. After all, “we are all one in Christ” (pg. 17). That being said, there is a minor exception to this particular rule: The only time the abbot can show some favoritism is if the monk is “found to excel in good works or in obedience” (pg. 17).

How should an abbot act if a monk isn’t excelling in good works or in obedience? Well, it depends on the circumstance. If a monk with a “good disposition and understanding” does something wrong an abbot “for the first or second time, correct only with words” (pg. 18). But if the monk is “froward and hard of heart, and proud, or disobedient” the abbot must be much harsher in his punishment. Saint Benedict recommends “chastis[ing] with bodily stripes at the very first offense” (pg. 18). Saint Benedict argues that ‘”The fool is not corrected with words” (pg. 18), so why bother talking to them about what they did wrong?

To prevent his monks from misbehaving in the first place, an abbot needs to show “the rigor of a master” as well as “the loving affection of a father” (pg. 18). He should “rebuke the undisciplined and restless” and “exhort the obedient, mild, and patient to advance in virtue” (pg. 18). To put it simply, an abbot needs to reward good behavior and punish bad ones. That also means that he shouldn’t turn a blind eye when monks do act up. Instead of ignoring misdeeds, “as soon as they appear, let him strive with all his might to root them out” (pg. 18).

 

Royal 10 E.IV, f.224v

Abbot blessing monks | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 224v | Source: Picryl.com

 

When running his monastery and disciplining the monks an abbot “ought always to remember what he is” (pg. 18). He is in charge of his flock, thus he must “[adapt] himself to many dispositions” (pg. 18). What works with one monk punishment wise might not work with another one:

“Let him so accommodate and suit himself to the character and intelligence of each, winning some by kindness, others by reproof, others by persuasion, that he may not only suffer no loss in the flock committed to him, but may even rejoice in their virtuous increase.” (pg. 18)

Saint Benedict ends this chapter by going into further detail with what he said in the beginning. An abbot shouldn’t concentrate too much on “fleeting, earthly, and perishable things” (pg. 18). He is in charge of and responsible for his monks’ souls, thus he should act like it. By saving these souls, “he will be himself cured of his own defects” (pg. 19).

 

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 find the book I’m reading here.)

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter One, Why Cenobites Are the Best Type of Monks and Why the Others Are Terrible (According to Saint Benedict)

Today I will continue my analysis of The Rule of Saint Benedict. In this post, I want to focus on Chapter One of The Rule. Each of the chapters in The Rule is titled according to what it is about. This chapter is appropriately titled “Of the Several Kinds of Monks and their way of Life” (pg. 15). Needless to say, Saint Benedict spends this chapter describing the types of monks that exist during the time he’s writing. However, not all of these categories are equal in the saint’s eyes!

Who are the different kinds of monks? Saint Benedict categorizes them in the ways they operate, not their orders. The types of monks Saint Benedict describes are the Cenobites, the Anchorites/Hermits, the Sarabites, and the Girovagi. Each group worships God in their own way.

 

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Monk leading hermit | BL Royal 10 E IV, f. 118v | Source: Picryl.com

 

Saint Benedict defines the Cenobites as “those in monasteries, who live under a rule or an Abbot” (pg. 15). This is the most description the Cenobites get in chapter one. Well, until the end when Saint Benedict makes his favoritism really known. He ends the chapter by calling the Cenobites “the strongest kind of monks” (pg. 16). A footnote in my copy of The Rule clarifies that the Latin words Saint Benedict uses are fortissimum genus. While fortissimum does mean “strongest” in Latin, he’s not exactly calling Cenobites the strongest monks. Instead, there is an implication that “cenobitical life consists in the perpetual and absolute submission to the will of another which that life entails” (pg. 16). This is certainly appropriate as Saint Benedict wants the Cenobites to follow and not stray from The Rule. In fact, The Rule was written specifically for Cenobites!

The Anchorites/Hermits are the second kind of monk. As the word hermit suggests, these monks go out into the wild to pray and worship on their own. However, not just anyone is allowed to be an Anchorite or a Hermit. Saint Benedict says that you cannot be “in the first fervor of religious life” (pg. 15) if you want to be one. It is only after a “long probation in the monastery” (pg. 15) will you be allowed to go out on your own. After all, going out by yourself “to fight against the devil” is not a great idea as you will be “without the support of others” (pg. 15). Even Christ was tempted by the devil when he was alone. If you are to be a hermit it’s vital for you to be able “to fight by the strength of their own arm” (pg. 15). Thus, if you are new to the monastic life you won’t have the tools you need to fight temptation. And the only way to gain these tools is “by the help and experience of many” (pg. 15).

The Sarabites are the third type of monk. Saint Benedict is not exactly fond of them. He describes them as the “most baneful kind of monk” (pg. 15). Sarabites have no abbot to rule them, nor do they have a community to support them. Instead, they go out “in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd” (pg. 15). Because they aren’t part of a larger community, Saint Benedict claims that they are “shut up, not in the LORD’s sheepfolds, but in their own” (pg. 15). He also describes them as follows:

“Whatever they think fit or choose to do, they call that holy; and what they like not, that they consider unlawful” (pg. 15).

Saint Benedict lacks some self-awareness here as he’s basically doing the same thing with The Rule. Anyone who doesn’t follow it is unlawful and disobedient.

But if you think Saint Benedict hates Sarabites, he really hates Girovagi. Girovagi spend their lives “wandering” (pg. 15) and don’t stay in the same place for very long. They have “no stability” and they have “given up to their own pleasures and to the snares of gluttony” (pg. 15). Saint Benedict describes them as being “worse in all things than the Sarabites” (pg. 15). He hates them so much that he won’t go into further detail about them, saying that “it is better to say nothing than to speak” (pg. 15).

 

Main Source:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)

The Rule of St. Benedict: The Preface and Why You (the Monk Reading this Text) Should Actually Follow The Rule

I want to take a little bit of a break from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For the next few weeks, I want to concentrate on The Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is a fascinating primary source, documenting not only how monks (Benedictine monks at least) were supposed to live, but also documenting common problems within monasteries. Saint Benedict was obviously concerned with the way his monks were conducting themselves (why would he write a book about it otherwise?) and The Rule lets readers see his concerns. The text lets us travel back in time to a different culture and observe that culture’s worries about proper behavior. Or at the very least, it allows us to see a powerful man’s worries about proper behavior.

 

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St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order | Source: Wikipedia

 

When reading The Rule, it’s important to keep in mind not every monk followed every rule all the time. I think popular culture has two ways of seeing monks: as perfect, holy men or as lecherous drunkards. The lecherous drunk monk was certainly a popular stereotype in the Middle Ages! There are many stories (both historical and fictional) about monks misbehaving. (Chaucer’s monk in The Canterbury Tales is a good example.) However, life isn’t black and white. Saint Benedict is aware that good monks may stray and bad monks have the ability to better themselves. This is the reason he wrote The Rule. (At least, this is the reason he explicitly tells his reader.)

The Rule is an extremely short text, but not counting the preface, it has seventy-three chapters.  Each chapter covers a different topic. All of these topics cover just about every aspect of monastic life. Today I want to talk about the preface in particular.

I believe Saint Benedict is aware that suddenly springing a bunch of new rules on people who haven’t had to follow them before is a bad idea because he spends the preface telling his reader (presumably a monk) why he should follow these new rules. Throughout the preface, Saint Benedict uses textual evidence in the form of biblical quotes. The preface is written similarly to a persuasive essay one learns how to write in high school. That’s not to say that it’s badly written. I simply find it fascinating that even fifteen hundred years later the formula for writing persuasive essays has not changed.

Our first paragraph is a literal introductory paragraph. Saint Benedict literally introduces himself to his monkish reader, referring to himself as “thy Master” and “thy loving Father” (pg. xi). By using these terms, Saint Benedict is reminding the reader that he is both in charge but he also wants to be kind. Saint Benedict acknowledges that his intended audience hasn’t been behaving properly, but the monk isn’t doomed (yet). There is still time for him to change and “thou mayest return by the labor of obedience to Him from whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience” (pg. xi). Saint Benedict gently reminds his reader that God isn’t “an angry father” who will “disinherit His children” (pg. xi). As long as the monks behave themselves, they can and will be saved from “everlasting punishment” (pg. xi). Essentially the first paragraph includes quite a bit of fear-mongering.

 

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Part of an 8th-century copy of The Rule of St. Benedict | MS. Hatton 48 fol. 6v-7r | Source: Wikipedia

 

Despite this fear-mongering, Saint Benedict does offer his monkish reader a chance to save himself in the second paragraph. Here, Saint Benedict talks about how people can be saved by reading and following the bible:

“Let us then at length arise, since the Scripture stirreth us up, saying ‘It is time now for us to rise from sleep'” (pg. xi).

By talking about the “deifying light” (pg. xi) of the bible, Saint Benedict is indirectly making a reference to his own work. The Rule was intended to make the reader aware of how they should behave. Thus, they are coming out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of knowledge. Even though Saint Benedict does not directly say that The Rule is like the bible (blasphemy!), the implication is clear. Saint Benedict wants his monks to ‘”harden not [their] hearts”‘(pg. xi) but listen to what he has to say.

In the third paragraph of the preface, Saint Benedict continues his argument on why the monks should follow The Rule. Here the saint quotes God again, saying that “God saith to thee: ‘…Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it”‘ (pg. xii). It’s only after the monks follow God’s instructions of being good will God’s ‘”eyes…be upon you, and [God’s] ears will be open to your prayers”‘ (pg. xii). Saint Benedict goes on to argue that nothing “can be sweeter to us” than God “inviting” (pg. xii) his followers. Because The Rule is Saint Benedict showing his monks how to behave properly, he is once again implying that his work is the word of God.

The fourth paragraph is very similar to the previous ones in the sense that God wants his followers to be good. However, Saint Benedict does lightly return to fear-mongering. He reminds his monks that the only way to reach Heaven is by doing “good deeds” (pg. xii). That being said, it is important for the reader to remember not to get “puffed up with their own good works” (pg. xii). Basically, Saint Benedict doesn’t want his followers to become self-righteous because they are doing good.

After all, you should be good for the sake of being good (and to get into Heaven). You shouldn’t be good just so you can brag about it. (A good modern-day example of this are the people who film themselves giving things to homeless people or those who post about it on social media.) To prevent his readers from getting too big for their britches, Saint Benedict tells them that “good which is in them cometh not from themselves but from the LORD” (pg. xii). While I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, (I think people can be good on their own) I understand why Saint Benedict would tell people this.  People who are good just for the clout (for lack of a better term) aren’t really being good at all. Also, original sin.

 

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My own copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

The fifth paragraph can be summed up with this quote:

“And the LORD in fulfillment of these His words is waiting daily for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. Therefore are the days of our life lengthened for the amendment of our evil ways” (pg. xiii).

The sixth paragraph continues to remind the readers that they must be obedient to God.   They must ask God “to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us” (pg. xiii). This is another reference to original sin. Despite Saint Benedict’s belief that humans cannot be good on their own and that his monks have been very disobedient, “there is still yet time” (pg. xiii) for them to change their ways. As long as you “are still in the flesh”  you can still save your soul from “the pains of hell” (pg. xiii). This can be done by being good and obedient to God. 

In the seventh and final paragraph, Saint Benedict ends the preface like he began it: being self-aware that a bunch of new rules isn’t going to go over well at first. He tells his monkish reader that he hopes “to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous” and to follow The Rule “according to the dictates of sound reason” (pg. xiii). But he also reminds them that changing ingrained behaviors “cannot but be strait and difficult” (pg. xiii), especially at first. His readers should not “fly in dismay from the way of salvation” (pg. xiii). Instead, the readers should “share in the sufferings of Christ” (pg. xiii). After all, the best way to get into Heaven is by acting as Christ did. 

 

Main Source:

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

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. A link to that is here.)