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.