The death of Theodoric the Great in 526—give or take a few years on either side—is an important point of temporal anchorage in the Middle Ages. Consider for instance that Boethius, one of the very late Roman philosophers, he of The Consolation of Philosophy, died in 524 or 525, put to death by Theodoric on suspicion of conspiring with the East Roman Emperor. A few years later begin Emperor Justinian’s wars, triggered by Theodoric’s death, to retake the Western Empire. But closer to that date were laid the foundations of Western Monasticism.
In history, of course, there are very few really clean beginnings. By the time Benedict of Nursia was born (around 480), monasticism had spread north and east from its early beginnings in Egypt (the Desert Fathers). In Egypt already two forms of it evolved, called eremitic and cenobitic. The first of these derives from “hermit,” essentially a loner; the second derives from the Greek words koinos meaning “common” and bios meaning life, thus “communal,” thus monks living as a community. Benedict himself, living in Rome, left the city at 18 or 19 to seek solitude. He settled some 43 miles east of Rome in Subiaco. At first he pursued the eremitic form of monastic life, living alone on a mountain. But by the time Boethius was put to death in Pavia way to the north, Benedict was already founding monasteries (up to 12, by most accounts, in that region)—but these were small, about 13 monks each. He was testing the appropriate way in which the communal monastic life might be lived—and encountered many problems. His great gift to Christianity was the Rule of Benedict (Regula Benedicti). When he began writing it is unclear but it probably began when he moved to Monte Cassino around about 526 and founded his famous abbey there in 529. He also died at Monte Cassino in 547—but before the Lombards (Justinian’s successors having failed to hold Italy) sacked the monastery in 581; it continued in ruins until reestablished by the Benedictines in 718. The map shows Benedict’s area of activity.
My aim in making this posting was to show what I’d called the other side of the Medieval coin in the last post in this series. Political life is one; cultural life is the other. Monasticism provides us a way to see—and even to map—a radical change in the human environment over against the way things were during the reign of Rome. Monasticism here is a brand new and home-grown phenomenon—and not something imported from Buddhism. I’ll conclude with a map that shows the spread of Christianity:
Image credits: Map of Benedict’s activity: Google Maps; Map of monasteries: Indiana University (link); Map of Development of Christianity: University of Florida (link).