Who were the Benedictines?
Professor Janet Burton
Who were the Benedictines?
The Benedictine monks took their name from St Benedict, a hermit, monk, and abbot, who was born in Italy around the year 480 and died in the mid sixth century. Benedict it was who composed what he called his ‘little rule for beginners’, a rule that was in time to become the blueprint for monastic life in the medieval world. The ‘Rule of St Benedict’ is a concise treatise, which covers all that the author deemed necessary for the regulation of life within a monastic community as well as its good government. Thus, in addition to the articulation of the spiritual goals of the monk, and the means by which he should strive for them, Benedict carefully planned the occupations of the monks around the core of their existence, the Opus dei, that is, the communal worship which took place at regular intervals of the day (and night). Around this backbone of the monastic day were structured periods of manual work and lectio divina (sacred reading, or contemplation); careful provision was also made for the regulation of food and drink, clothing and bedding, and the conduct of monks outside the monastery. Every aspect of monastic life was covered and the community ruled by the abbot, who combined the roles of father (abba), pastor, and disciplinarian. Benedict’s monastery was a community in itself and - except in unusual circumstances - capable of ruling its own affairs without outside intervention. Nevertheless it would be misleading to think of the community being totally isolated from the outside world; on the contrary, it interacted with the world beyond its gates in many ways: through the reception of guests, and through its role as landowner, for instance. In later centuries Benedictine abbots became persons of political and social importance, lords of the manor, and patrons of art and architecture.
Benedict wrote his rule for the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino, and probably for other local monasteries as well. In the two centuries that followed his death the ‘Rule’ became known more widely, but it did not achieve pre-eminence in the monastic world until the beginning of the ninth century. Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), son of the great Charlemagne, along with his ecclesiastical adviser, Benedict of Aniane, strove to enforce the Rule of St Benedict as the basis of monastic observance in all the monasteries of the Empire, intending that monastic uniformity should mirror the political unity of his territories. Another change came with the elevation of the significance of prayer. Under Benedict’s ‘Rule’ prayer was praise and worship of the Almighty; it was also personal. By the ninth century there had developed the notion of a social and political function of prayer. Monks no longer prayed for themselves alone. In the Empire they prayed for the emperor and his rule, just as in England in the tenth century (a time of monastic reform) they prayed for the king and queen of the newly emerged kingdom of England. And all over the monastic world they prayed for the souls of their patrons and benefactors, whose names might be inscribed in the liber vitae or ‘book of life’, which commemorated the dead. Masses were added on to the regular offices and one consequence of this was the downgrading - sometimes loss - of manual labour from the daily routine.
In the course of the tenth century major abbeys such as Cluny in Burgundy added their own customs (largely liturgical) to the basic framework of the ‘Rule’. Cluny, and other leading monasteries, attracted attention from both monks and potential founders of monasteries, the former wishing to enter the monastic life at these prestigious houses, the latter desiring the spiritual benefits that derived from association with them. Existing houses might adopt Cluniac liturgical customs and associate themselves with Cluny without losing their independence. Founders also established new houses which, from the beginning, followed Cluniac ways. They generally enjoyed the status of priory rather than abbey. What emerged were a number of monastic congregations or federations, the greatest of which was Cluny.
Benedictine abbeys - independent, autonomous houses - were to be found throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Many were associated with towns. Towns either grew up around them (as at Bury St Edmunds in England), or they were deliberately placed in urban centres. Sometimes, as at Shrewsbury on the border of England and Wales, they were located near the castle of the founder. Where the term ‘priory’ is used rather than ‘abbey’ this generally denotes that the house was a dependency of another. The Benedictine houses of south Wales were priories. They were founded from, and remained dependencies of, larger abbeys in England, Normandy or France. They were a by-product of conquest, as the incomers of the 1070s, 1080s and beyond, both shared the fruits of invasion with their own monasteries ‘back home’ and sought to bring to Wales a form of monastic observance with which they were familiar.
Monastic sites related to this articleAbergavenny, Monmouthshire(Priory)
Ewenny, Vale of Glamorgan(Priory)
Llanbadarn Fawr, Ceredigion(Priory)
St Clears, Carmarthenshire(Priory)