1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Benedictines
BENEDICTINES, or Black Monks, monks living according to the Rule of St Benedict (q.v.) of Nursia. Subiaco in the Abruzzi was the cradle of the Benedictines, and in that neighbourhood St Benedict established twelve monasteries. Afterwards giving up the direction of these, he migrated to Monte Cassino and there established the monastery which became the centre whence his Rule and institute spread. From Monte Cassino he founded a monastery at Terracina. These fourteen are the only monasteries of which we have any knowledge as being founded before St Benedict’s death; for the mission of St Placidus to Sicily must certainly be regarded as mere romance, nor does there seem to be any solid reason for viewing more favourably the mission of St Maurus to Gaul. There is some ground for believing that it was the third abbot of Monte Cassino who began to spread a knowledge of the Rule beyond the circle of St Benedict’s own foundations. About 580-590 Monte Cassino was sacked by the Lombards, and the community came to Rome and was established in a monastery attached to the Lateran Basilica, in the centre of the ecclesiastical world. It is now commonly recognized by scholars that when Gregory the Great became a monk and turned his palace on the Caelian Hill into a monastery, the monastic life there carried out was fundamentally based on the Benedictine Rule (see F. H. Dudden, Gregory the Great, i. 108). From this monastery went forth St Augustine and his companions on their mission to England in 596, carrying their monachism with them; thus England was the first country out of Italy in which Benedictine life was firmly planted. In the course of the 7th century Benedictine life was gradually introduced in Gaul, and in the 8th it was carried into the Germanic lands from England. It is doubtful whether in Spain there were Benedictine monasteries, properly so called, until a later period. In many parts the Benedictine Rule met the much stricter Irish Rule of Columbanus, introduced by the Irish missionaries on the continent, and after brief periods, first of conflict and then of fusion, it gradually absorbed and supplanted it; thus during the 8th century it became, out of Ireland and other purely Celtic lands, the only rule and form of monastic life throughout western Europe,—so completely that Charlemagne once asked if there ever had been any other monastic rule.
What may be called the inner side of Benedictine life and history is treated in the article Monasticism; here it is possible to deal only with the broad facts of the external history. The chief external works achieved for western Europe by the Benedictines during the early middle ages may be summed up under the following heads.
1. The Conversion of the Teutonic Races.—The tendency of modern historical scholarship justifies the maintenance of the tradition that St Augustine and his forty companions were the first great Benedictine apostles and missioners. Through their efforts Christianity was firmly planted in various parts of England; and after the conversion of the country it was English Benedictines—Wilfrid, Willibrord, Swithbert, Willehad—who evangelized Friesland and Holland; and another, Winfrid or Boniface, who, with his fellow-monks Willibald and others, evangelized the greater part of central Germany and founded and organized the German church. It was Anschar, a monk of Corbie, who first preached to the Scandinavians, and other Benedictines were apostles to Poles, Prussians and other Slavonic peoples. The conversion of the Teutonic races may properly be called the work of the Benedictines.
2. The Civilization of north-western Europe.—As the result of their missionary enterprises the Benedictines penetrated into all these lands and established monasteries, so that by the 10th or 11th century Benedictine houses existed in great numbers throughout the whole of Latin Christendom except Ireland. These monasteries became centres of civilizing influences by the method of presenting object-lessons in organized work, in agriculture, in farming, in the arts and trades, and also in well-ordered life. The unconscious method by which such great results were brought about has been well described by J. S. Brewer (Preface to Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, Rolls Series, iv.) and F. A. Gasquet.
3. Education.—Boys were educated in Benedictine houses from the beginning, but at first they were destined to be monks. The monasteries, however, played a great part in the educational side of the Carolingian revival; and certainly from that date schools for boys destined to live and work in the world were commonly attached to Benedictine monasteries. From that day to this education has been among the recognized and principal works of Benedictines.
4. Letters and Learning.—This side of Benedictine life is most typically represented by the Venerable Bede, the gentle and learned scholar of the early middle ages. In those times the monasteries were the only places of security and rest in western Europe, the only places where letters could in any measure be cultivated. It was in the monasteries that the writings of Latin antiquity, both classical and ecclesiastical, were transcribed and preserved.
In a gigantic system embracing hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks, and spread over all the countries of western Europe, without any organic bond between the different houses, and exposed to all the vicissitudes of the wars and conquests of those wild times, to say that the monks often fell short of the ideal of their state, and sometimes short of the Christian, and even the moral standard, is but to say that monks are men. Failures there have been many, and scandals not a few in Benedictine history; but it may be said with truth that there does not appear to have been ever a period of widespread or universal corruption, however much at times and in places primitive love may have waxed cold. And when such declensions occurred, they soon called forth efforts at reform and revival; indeed these constantly recurring reform-movements are one of the most striking features of Benedictine history, and the great proof of the vitality of the institute throughout the ages.
The first of these movements arose during the Carolingian revival (c. 800), and is associated with the name of Benedict of Aniane. Under the auspices of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious he initiated a scheme for federating into one great order, with himself as abbot general, all the monasteries of Charles’s empire, and for enforcing throughout a rigid uniformity in observance. For this purpose a synod of abbots was assembled at Aix-la-Chapelle in 817, and a series of 80 Capitula passed, regulating the life of the monasteries. The scheme as a whole was short-lived and did not survive its originator; but the Capitula were commonly recognized as supplying a useful and much-needed supplement to St Benedict’s Rule on points not sufficiently provided for therein. Accordingly these Capitula exercised a wide influence among Benedictines even outside the empire. And Benedict of Aniane’s ideas of organization found embodiment a century later in the order of Cluny (910), which for a time overshadowed the great body of mere Benedictines (see Cluny). Here it will suffice to say that the most distinctive features of the Cluny system were (1) a notable increase and prolongation of the church services, which came to take up the greater part of the working day; (2) a strongly centralized government, whereby the houses of the order in their hundreds were strictly subject to the abbot of Cluny.
Though forming a distinct and separate organism Cluny claimed to be, and was recognized as, a body of Benedictine houses; but from that time onwards arose a number of independent bodies, or “orders,” which took the Benedictine Rule as the basis of their life. The more important of these were: in the 11th and 12th centuries, the orders of Camaldulians, Vallombrosians, Fontevrault and the Cistercians, and in the 13th and 14th the Silvestrines, Celestines and Olivetans (see separate articles). The general tendency of these Benedictine offshoots was in the direction of greater austerity of life than was practised by the Black Monks or contemplated by St Benedict’s Rule—some of them were semi-eremitical; the most important by far were the Cistercians, whose ground-idea was to reproduce exactly the life of St Benedict’s own monastery. These various orders were also organized and governed according to the system of centralized authority devised by St Pachomius (see Monasticism) and brought into vogue by Cluny in the West. What has here to be traced is the history of the great body of Benedictine monasteries that held aloof from these separatist movements.
For the first four or five centuries of Benedictine history there was no organic bond between any of the monasteries; each house formed an independent autonomous family, managing its own affairs and subject to no external authority or control except that of the bishop of the diocese. But the influence of Cluny, even on monasteries that did not enter into its organism, was enormous; many adopted Cluny customs and practices and moulded their life and spirit after the model it set; and many such monasteries became in turn centres of revival and reform in many lands, so that during the 10th and 11th centuries arose free unions of monasteries based on a common observance derived from a central abbey. Fleury and Hirsau are well-known examples. Basing themselves on St Gregory’s counsel to St Augustine, Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald adopted from the observance of foreign monasteries, and notably Fleury and Ghent, what was suitable for the restoration of English monachism, and so produced the Concordia Regularis, interesting as the first serious attempt to bring about uniformity of observance among the monasteries of an entire nation. In the course of the 12th century sporadic and limited unions of Black Monk monasteries arose in different parts. But notwithstanding all these movements, the majority of the great Black Monk abbeys continued to the end of the 12th century in their primeval isolation. But in the year 1215, at the fourth Lateran council, were made regulations destined profoundly to modify Benedictine polity and history. It was decreed that the Benedictine houses of each ecclesiastical province should henceforth be federated for the purposes of mutual help and the maintenance of discipline, and that for these ends the abbots should every third year meet in a provincial chapter (or synod), in order to pass laws binding on all and to appoint visitors who, in addition to the bishops, should canonically visit the monasteries and report on their condition in spirituals and temporals to the ensuing chapter. The English monks took the lead in carrying out this legislation, and in 1218 the first chapter of the province of Canterbury was held at Oxford, and up to the dissolution under Henry VIII. the triennial chapters took place with wonderful regularity. Fitful attempts were made elsewhere to carry out the decrees, and in 1336 Benedict XII. by the bull Benedictina tried to give further development to the system and to secure its general observance. The organization of the Benedictine houses into provinces or chapters under this legislation interfered in the least possible degree with the Benedictine tradition of mutual independence of the houses; the provinces were loose federations of autonomous houses, the legislative power of the chapter and the canonical visitations being the only forms of external interference. The English Benedictines never advanced farther along the path of centralization; up to their destruction this polity remained in operation among them, and proved itself by its results to be well adapted to the conditions of the Benedictine Rule and life.
In other lands things did not on the whole go so well, and many causes at work during the later middle ages tended to bring about relaxation in the Benedictine houses; above all the vicious system of commendatory abbots, rife everywhere except in England. And so in the period of the reforming councils of Constance and Basel the state of the religious orders was seriously taken in hand, and in response to the public demand for reforming the Church, “in head and members,” reform movements were set on foot, as among others, so among the Benedictines of various parts of Europe. These movements issued in the congregational system which is the present polity among Benedictines. In the German lands, where the most typical congregation was the Bursfeld Union (1446), which finally embraced over 100 monasteries throughout Germany, the system was kept on the lines of the Lateran decree and the bull Benedictina, and received only some further developments in the direction of greater organization; but in Italy the congregation of S. Justina at Padua (1421), afterwards called the Cassinese, departed altogether from the old lines, setting up a highly centralized government, after the model of the Italian republics, whereby the autonomy of the monasteries was destroyed, and they were subjected to the authority of a central governing board. With various modifications or restrictions this latter system was imported into all the Latin lands, into Spain and Portugal, and thence into Brazil, and into Lorraine and France, where the celebrated congregation of St Maur (see Maurists) was formed early in the 17th century. During this century the Benedictine houses in many parts of Catholic Europe united themselves into congregations, usually characterized by an austerity that was due to the Tridentine reform movement.
In England the Benedictines had, from every point of view, flourished exceedingly. At the time of the Dissolution there were nearly 300 Black Benedictine houses, great and small, men and women, including most of the chief religious houses of the land (for lists see tables and maps in Gasquet’s English Monastic Life, and Catholic Dictionary, art. “Benedictines”). It is now hardly necessary to say that the grave charges brought against the monks are no longer credited by serious historians (Gasquet, Henry VIII. and the Monasteries; J. Gairdner, Prefaces to the relevant volumes of Calendars of State Papers of Henry VIII.). In Mary’s reign some of the surviving monks were brought together, and Westminster Abbey was restored. Of the monks professed there during this momentary revival, one, Sigebert Buckley, lived on into the reign of James I.; and being the only survivor of the Benedictines of England, he in 1607 invested with the English habit and affiliated to Westminster Abbey and to the English congregation two English priests, already Benedictines in the Italian congregation. By this act the old English Benedictine line was perpetuated; and in 1619 a number of English monks professed in Spain were aggregated by pontifical act to these representatives of the old English Benedictines, and thus was constituted the present English Benedictine congregation. Three or four monasteries of the revived English Benedictines were established on the continent at the beginning of the 17th century, and remained there till driven back to England by the French Revolution. The Reformation and the religious wars spread havoc among the Benedictines in many parts of northern Europe; and as a consequence, in part of the rule of Joseph II. of Austria, in part of the French Revolution, nearly every Benedictine monastery in Europe was suppressed—it is said that in the early years of the 19th century scarcely thirty in all survived. But the latter half of the century witnessed a series of remarkable revivals, and first in Bavaria, under the influence of Louis I. The French congregation (which does not enjoy continuity with the Maurists) was inaugurated by Dom Guéranger in 1833, and the German congregation of Beuron in 1863. Two vigorous congregations have arisen in the United States. These are all new creations since 1830. In Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil only a few monasteries survive the various revolutions, and in a crippled state; but signs are not wanting of renewed life: St Benedict’s own monasteries of Subiaco and Monte Cassino are relatively flourishing. In Austria, Hungary and Switzerland there are some thirty great abbeys, most of which have had a continued existence since the middle ages. The English congregation is composed of three large abbeys (Downside, Ampleforth and Woolhampton), a cathedral priory (Hereford) and a nunnery (Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester); there are besides in England three or four abbeys belonging to foreign congregations, and several nunneries subject to the bishops. Each congregation has its president, who is merely a president, with limited powers, and not a general superior like the Provincials of other orders; so that the primitive Benedictine principle of each monastery being self-contained and autonomous is preserved. Similarly each congregation is independent and self-governing, there being no superior-general or central authority, as in other orders. Leo XIII. established an international Benedictine College in Rome for theological studies, and conferred on its abbot the title of “Abbot Primate,” with precedence among Black Monk abbots. He is only primus inter pares, and exercises no kind of superiority over the other abbots or congregations. Thus the Benedictine polity may be described as a number of autonomous federations of autonomous monasteries. The individual monks, too, belong not to the order or the congregation, but each to the monastery in which he became a monk. The chief external work of the Benedictines at the present day is secondary education; there are 114 secondary schools or gymnasia attached to the abbeys, wherein the monks teach over 12,000 boys; and many of the nunneries have girls’ schools. In certain countries (among them England) where there is a dearth of secular priests, Benedictines undertake parochial work.
The statistics of the order (1905) show that of Black Benedictines there are over 4000 choir-monks and nearly 2000 lay brothers—figures that have more than doubled since 1880. If the Cistercians and lesser offshoots of the order be added, the sum total of choir-monks and lay brothers exceeds 11,000.
In conclusion a word must be said on the Benedictine nuns. From the beginning the number of women living the Benedictine life has not fallen far short of that of the men. St Gregory describes St Benedict’s sister Scholastica as a nun (sanctimonialis), and she is looked upon as the foundress of Benedictine nuns. As the institute spread to other lands nunneries arose on all sides, and nowhere were the Benedictine nuns more numerous or more remarkable than in England, from Saxon times to the Reformation. A strong type of womanhood is revealed in the correspondence of St Boniface with various Saxon Benedictine nuns, some in England and some who accompanied him to the continent and there established great convents. In the early times the Benedictine nuns were not strictly enclosed, and could, when occasion called for it, freely go out of their convent walls to perform any special work: on the other hand, they did not resemble the modern active congregations of women, whose ordinary work lies outside the convent. It has to be said that in the course of the middle ages, especially the later middle ages, grave disorders arose in many convents; and this doubtless led, in the reform movements initiated by the councils of Constance and Basel, and later of Trent, to the introduction of strict enclosure in Benedictine convents, which now is the almost universal practice. At the present day there are of Black Benedictine nuns 262 convents with 7000 nuns, the large majority being directly subject to the diocesan bishops; if the Cistercians and others be included, there are 387 convents with nearly 11,000 nuns. In England there are a dozen Benedictine nunneries.