St Benedict of Nursia

Additional MS 16979, f. 21v
St Benedict hands his Rule to St Maurus (British Library, Additional MS 16979, f. 21v)

Biography

St Benedict of Nursia wrote a series of instructions for his monastery at Monte Cassino, outlining instructions for a life of work and prayer in the monastic community. This was known as the ‘Benedictine Rule’, and became the norm for monastic living throughout medieval Europe. It is still used as the basis for monastic life in many orders today.  As a result, St Benedict is considered the father of Western monasticism. 

Early life

Much of what is known about Benedict’s early life is derived from an account provided in Pope Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. Benedict was born into a noble Roman family in Nursia, a small town near Spoleto. He grew up in Rome, and was in the middle of his studies when he decided to leave Rome and settle in Enfide, in the Simbruini mountains about 40 miles from Rome. According to Gregory, Benedict began to perform miracles, causing him to attract followers. This unwanted attention prompted him to retreat further into the mountains where he encountered a monk called Romanus. Their discussion prompted Benedict to spend three years living as a hermit. 

The Benedictine Rule  

During this time, Benedict is thought to have performed many more miracles and acquired notoriety in the surrounding area. Men began to travel to him and live under his guidance. He built twelve monasteries for his followers, to be governed by twelve abbots who would be overseen by Benedict himself. In 530, he founded the great Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, situated on a hilltop between Rome and Naples.

There, Benedict developed the practical and spiritual guidelines for monastic life, which is now known as the Benedictine Rule. The Rule is written in seventy-three short chapters, split into two parts: the spiritual, focusing on how to live a Christian life on earth; and the administrative, detailing how to run a monastic community effectively and equitably. Gradually the Benedictine Rule was adopted in religious houses throughout Christendom, particularly during and following the reign of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) who helped to promote it. The Rule has defined the dominant form of monasticism in Western Europe up to the present day.  

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