Saint Benedict and Western Monasticism

Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–ca. 547 CE) was one of the most significant figures in the growth and development of Western monasticism. In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory I wrote the most thorough early account of Benedict’s life. According to Gregory, Benedict was born to an aristocratic family and moved into the countryside, taking with him a servant. While he probably never intended to launch a movement that would transform the Christian West, he founded more than a dozen monastic communities (including Monte Cassino, around 529 CE) and composed his Rule, a written codification of his vision for the way in which a monastic community should function. The Rule of Benedict outlined the need for organization and discipline in the monastery and supplied information both on the administrative requirements of the monastery and the spiritual life of its inhabitants, including the dictate that monks engage in daily manual labor as well as corporate worship (that is, religious observances involving the entire community) eight times every day.

Even before the emergence of Benedict and his Rule, monasticism had been a part of Christianity for centuries. The earliest monks—such as Saint Anthony (ca. 251–ca. 356 CE)—lived as hermits, gradually accumulating a number of followers who sought to emulate their lifestyles of solitary prayer and manual labor. This ideal of solitary contemplation and labor, however, was difficult for many monks, and they began to group together under the authority of a spiritual father, or abbot. These monks (called cenobites) lived in communities with a set of guidelines for the organization of life within the monastery. Other monks roamed throughout the land, staying temporarily with different monasteries. Benedict’s Rule provided additional organization, structure, and uniformity for monasteries in western Europe.

Benedictine monks served as missionaries, carrying Roman Christianity to the farthest reaches of Britain and Europe. In Anglo-Saxon Britain, the populace had largely fallen away from Christianity, which had emerged during the Roman occupation of the island. Through the work of Augustine, a Benedictine monk who lived in the mid- to late sixth century and who founded (according to tradition) the first Benedictine monastery outside Italy, the wide-scale conversion of Britain to Christianity began in the sixth and seventh centuries. From this foundation of Benedictine monasticism in Britain would arise another missionary, Boniface (ca. 675–754). Boniface’s eighth-century attempts to convert the Saxon and Frisian peoples would, in time, widen the reach of Christianity in Europe and strengthen the ties between the Catholic Church and the Carolingian rulers (who supported Boniface’s efforts for strategic as well as spiritual reasons). In 744 CE, Sturm (ca. 705–779), a follower of Boniface, founded a Benedictine monastery at Fulda in Germany. The Fulda monastery would be an archetype of the role Benedictine institutions played in the development of medieval Europe. Fulda gained grants of land, becoming an economic and political power. It served as a center of education for the surrounding community and a site of pilgrimage for many European Christians. Fulda and Benedictine monasteries throughout Europe kept extensive records and chronicles of political and social events in the surrounding areas, providing a crucial glimpse into medieval times.

In the centuries that followed the rise of Western monasticism, the institutions became increasingly intertwined with existing political and economic structures of medieval Europe. Known as feudalism and manorialism, these systems tied monasteries and their abbots or abbesses (the male or female heads of a monastery) to local aristocrats and political figures. Monasteries gained enormous wealth by collecting rents from peasants and amassed political influence throughout Europe. Secular political leaders, conversely, also acquired power within the church, with some kings founding their own monasteries. This situation led to a question: To whom did an abbot owe allegiance? Was it the pope or the king? Eventually, this question produced reforms within European monasticism, centered on an effort to keep monasteries firmly under the control of the church hierarchy rather than the political hierarchy of Europe.