Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Benedict and Western Monasticism

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.

Saint Benedict’s life was fraught with struggles and much more colorful than a few words in summary can indicate. He was one of a pair of twins; his sister, these days Saint Scholastica, clearly had the same leanings and temperament—but from an earlier age. Later she joined him at Monte Cassino and, near there, in Plombariola, she founded the first Benedictine Convent.  Both his and her life are punctuated by numerous miracles; these powers arose in him quite soon after beginning his solitary life as a hermit, which, for me, makes good sense. He had achieved an advanced spiritual state while living, still in Subiaco, on a mountain, in solitude, with just one visitor, a monk, who regularly brought him food. His later success, first in Subiaco, later at Monte Cassino, was no doubt illuminated by his personal charisma. As always in such matters, Scholastica’s name and life are much less known than her brother’s, but my guess is that her powers arose much earlier. Here might be a good time to note that monasticism—and not just of the Christian variety—always has and still does everywhere have its female lineage. The drawing power of the divine reaches both sexes with equal force…

The map on the left shows the spread of the seed Benedict laid into the anguished soil of the old Western Roman world. That soil had certainly, by his time, been very well ploughed by incessant war, slaughter, and depopulation. This is an altogether incomplete map. It shows only Clunaic and Cistercian monasteries. To these may be added Benedictines, Camaldolese, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and others. The period represented on this map begins in 909 when the Abbey at Cluny was built, the first establishment of a reformed Benedictine order (Back to the Rules, you might say). The Cistercians, in turn, founded in 1098, were another return to literal obedience of the Benedictine rules. Like all things that succeed enormously, so also monasticism, was subject to abuse and to excess; hence those movements of reform. And yes. Monasticism in the Middle Ages was both a religious and an economic efflorescence—the economic part owing to prayer combined with labor (ora et labora, the Benedictine motto) applied to agriculture. To give at least a concentrated view of institutional developments in the Middle Ages (the blue color of the chart—the orange predates and the green follows the period) I provide a partial chronology of monasticism.

It is, of course, easy to conclude that such a movement was the exclusive creation of inspired, dedicated, and very able male and female religious figures. That would be to see only a part of it. Elements of the Medieval ruling classes, a very large number of pious members of it, made large monastic establishments possible by granting to the religious leaders large tracts of land separated from the owners’ own holdings. Their names are sometimes mentioned in a kind of parenthetical way; and some of them, certainly later, were gaining renown for making such gifts. It is also well to note that Western Europe had seen significant depopulation. Many of these lands were not of the rich sort; but that ora et labora later deforested and planted them and filled them with sheep and cattle…

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:


Note that most of this map is colored; the areas left white were undeveloped or remained still pagan, except the lower right corner which eventually turned Muslim. The whole process of coloration began down there on the lower right shore of the Mediterranean, in Israel, and then spread north, east, and west. I reproduce the legend in enlarged format so that the labels attached to each color, which represent successive spreads of Christianity, may be more easily read. It may be worth noting here that if each church built in these periods were marked with a black dot, the map would virtually turn black. My focus, monasticism, is, thus, is a handy way to show, at lesser density, what happened beneath the clash of arms and the constant displacement of people. Those populations tried to make their own life tolerable, and reached to the sky for it, even if all you could actually do, and that only when armies weren’t marching, was to work and pray. Compared to those times, our life, here, today, is easy, very easy…
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Image credits: Map of Benedict’s activity: Google Maps; Map of monasteries: Indiana University (link); Map of Development of Christianity: University of Florida (link).

Posts in this series: first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.

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