The Benedict Option: Why history matters and 6th-century monasticism

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Today, allow me first briefly to explain why the history matters in a book like this, and then to start to look at three more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’. Note also that I’m shamelessly self-linking to old ‘saint of the week‘ posts today.

Why history matters here

There is a sense in which books that seek to apply the spiritual lessons of the Rule of St Benedict today need not worry about the fifth- and sixth-century Italian context of the Rule. What matter are the timeless lessons of Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, as applicable today as they were at Montecassino in 540, at Wearmouth and Jarrow in 731, at Cluny in 900, at Citeaux in 1140, etc. I don’t recall if Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict gives a historical introduction or not; but that fine book doesn’t need one for the lessons of the Rule to affect your life.

For The Benedict Option to have full force, however, there needs to be some understanding of how today’s society, culture, politics, look like that of the 500s. The point of this book is that we are in a similar crisis of civilisation, and so we can apply the lessons of St Benedict to our current situation to help our religious and cultural institutions survive and maybe even thrive in a new, post-Christian world.

If the parallel fails, the book doesn’t necessarily fail. But its import and power weaken.

So I’m not just nitpicky because I am a pendantic academic (mind you, I am a pedantic academic) but because history is crucial to the matter of this book.


The early Middle Ages (once upon a time, ‘Dark’) owe a lot to the monasteries. This is true. Dreher states it thus:

In these miserable conditions, the church was often the strongest — and perhaps the only — government people had. Within the broad embrace of the church, monasticism provided much-needed help and hope to the peasantry, and thanks to Benedict, a renewed focus on spiritual life led many men and women to leave the world and devote themselves wholly to God within the walls of monasteries under the Rule. These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things. Over the next few centuries, they prepared the devastated societies of post-Roman Europe for the rebirth of civilization. (15)

This is not strictly true.

Yes, as the paragraph before this states, western Europe became much more greatly impoverished at this time, in terms of cultural production and long-distance trade. Bryan Ward-Perkins, in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, has some famous images of early Anglo-Saxon pottery and late Roman pottery from Britain, as well as size comparisons of cattle. Mediterranean pottery disappears from the British archaeological record. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that they sometimes have trouble telling whether settlements in Wales are Stone Age or Post-Roman. So, yes, the economic decline led to cultural decline in many parts of western Europe after the loss of Roman imperium.

We must, however, see Benedict in the world of Italy in 540 first, before sending him out to Gaul, Spain, Britain, Germania. Italy in 540 was five years into the decades-long war between Justinian’s eastern Romans and the local Gothic regime. Campania, where Benedict lived, had probably suffered a great deal as a result of war strategies of both Goths and east Romans. Perhaps people were drawn to Benedict’s monastery on Montecassino as a refuge from war and poverty. Likely enough.

But in Italy beyond Rome, the political problem was not that the church was the strongest or only government, but that there were two governments who were very strong, but neither quite strong enough, both vying for control.

Anyway, the biggest problem I have with paragraphs like this is that they conflate a few centuries of monastic history into a single, Benedictine moment. Frankly, Benedict was not a big deal during the Byzantine-Gothic war, and in the places that best fit the ‘fall of civilisation’ model of post-Roman history, even if monks are highly significant for the survival and endurance and spread of Christianity and culture, they are not Benedictines yet, not at this crucial cultural moment that is imagined to parallel ours.

That is to say, if we are concerned about how monasticism helped preserve western civilisation, it is not immediately to Benedict that we should look. Dreher knows that Benedict’s Rule was one of many (I think), noting that it ‘is a more relaxed form of a very strict earlier one from the Christian East.’ (15) I don’t know which Rule Dreher has in mind; Benedict is, more properly, a shortening and remix of the Latin Rule of the Master, itself from Italy a bit before Benedict, with some wisdom taken from John Cassian. Perhaps he has Cassian in mind, but I don’t know.

In the 500s and 600s, then, if we are concerned with the preservation of Christian spirituality and the transmission of western culture, Montecassino is still only a small part of the story. We need to note the many independent/inter-related movements within the history of monasticism, sprouting such texts as the Rule of the Master, the rules of St Caesarius of Arles (470-542), the Rule of St Columbanus (543-615) in northern Italy, and others.

We need also to look at the movement of monastic mission in Ireland and Britain, classically epitomised by St Columba (521-597; saint of the week here), Apostle to Scotland and founder of the monastery on Iona, as well as St Aidan (d. 651; saint of the week here) a monastic evangelist who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. Alongside (and at times in competition with) them is St Augustine of Canterbury (mission, 597-604; saint of the week here) who probably did not use the Rule of St Benedict, despite having been sent by St Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604; saint of the week here), one of St Benedict’s biggest fans.

In fact, the preservation of texts and culture, while Montecassino plays a role, is, off the top of my head, more in evidence in the Irish monasteries, in Columbanus’ monasteries such as Luxueil and Bobbio, and in Cassiodorus’ villa-turned-monastery at Vivarium than in the original Benedictine moment. Benedictine monachism is only concerned with the preservation of texts inasmuch as they are related to the interpretation of Scripture and the spiritual life. Cassiodorus (485-585), on the other hand, wrote his Institutions of Secular and Divine Learning as a full educational programme for his monks.

That is to say, that if monasteries are broadly what Dreher describes them as being, the phrase ‘thanks to Benedict’ is false. The monastic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries is not yet Benedictine. Benedict does not found an order. The ascendancy of Benedict’s Rule will come much later as a result of its ascendancy in Britain, and then the missional efforts of British mission-monks like Sts Boniface (saint of the week here) and Willibrord (saint of the week here) in Germanic lands in the eighth century. Thus, Charlemagne (d. 814) will favour it over all other monastic rules and solidify its place in Christian spiritual life.

But in 540, or even in 600, this is not what Benedict’s Rule is doing or even trying to do.

7 thoughts on “The Benedict Option: Why history matters and 6th-century monasticism

  1. Your point on the importance of early, Pre-Benedictine monasticism is well taken. I have noticed that some of the recent proponents of adapting The Rule of St. Benedict to the 21st Century fail to note either the limited scope of he Rule during Benedict’s life, or seem fuzzy on what monastic traditions were flourishing before Benedict. I suspect Dreher was referring to the Eastern forms of monasticism coming from St. Anthony and Hilarion (and others) through John Cassian. Dreher is silent on the type of hermetic/monastic tradition practice by St. Martin of Tours, which was from a different source (St. Martin had been a Roman Medico). As you point out, the influence of Columba and Columbanus spreading the Celtic monastic traditions in Europe is more important in the development of later monastic orders than Dreher seems to indicate, but you can’t understand the import of Chapter 1 of The Rule unless you know of these things.

    As near as I can make out, the Benedictine Order didn’t really ascend in the West until it came in competition with the Celi De revival of Celtic monasticism in the Northumberland-Perth region of Great Britain around the time of St. Margaret of Scotland (but I am still researching that, so correct me as necessary). After that Benedictine houses start popping up all over Great Britain [and swiping (translating) Celtic saints’ relics, e.g., St. Winifred to Shrewsbury].

    In all this it is well to keep in mind that Last of St. Benedict’s Rules: Chapter 73, This Rule Only a Beginning of Perfection.

    • The continental ascendancy of Benedict pre-dates Queen Margaret by quite a bit, actually. In England, Anglo-Saxon monasticism came to value Benedict much more highly than other forms, especially under the reform attempts of Dunstan in the ninth century. Bede was a Benedictine as well. On the continent, the Anglo-Saxons brought Benedict’s Rule in the 700s, and its ascendancy was solidified by Charlemagne’s attempts to regularise everything, and thus particularly through the work of the ‘Second’ Benedict, Benedict of Aniane, in the 810s. The greatest monastic centre of the tenth and eleventh centuries was Cluny with its dependencies, and they all followed the Rule of St Benedict.

      I think what we have in Northumberland and Scotland is a waning of certain monastic centres in the age of the Vikings. Consider that the Lindisfarne community’s successor at Durham in the tenth and eleventh centuries was a community of married clerics, for example, or that Melrose and Wearmouth-Jarrow were abandoned before 1000. But I would certainly agree that any Scottish ascendancy of Benedictines — whether Cistercians as at Melrose or Tironensians as at Arbroath — is the result of the Anglo-Saxon influence of Queen St Margaret, taken up by King David I. After all, she sought to regularise the Scottish liturgy along normative continental-English lines, for example. As with other Reform movements, liturgy and monasticism go hand-in-hand, no doubt.

      What I’ve read is too scanty, though. It’s partly my own limited reading, but also partly the sparse evidence, but it seems that Northumberland broadly conceived has a cultural decline in the ninth through eleventh centuries, due first to the Viking invasions, then to Anglo-Scottish wars, then to a shift of gravity to York, then to William the Bastard’s harrying of the North. This is off the top of my head; I’m thinking mostly of what I’ve read in Symeon of Durham.

  2. Thanks for the information on the Continental Benedictines flourishing prior to the Norman invasion of England. When it comes to Great Britain, however, I question the generally accepted history. How far beyond Anglia the Vatican influence reached is still an open question, in my opinion. (As you note, a lot of this uncertainty is the result of the lack of non-Vatican sources.) “The Conversion of Northumbria” is, of course, classic of Old English, and very moving. But it is seen through a Vatican lens. My working hypothesis (for the present) is that the Celi De movement was a reaction to much Vatican doctrine being promulgated out of East Anglia and Kent. The activities of those ethnic groups viking (“viking” is a verb among the invaders) certainly had a lot of impact among the Anglo-Saxons, but not so much on the Britains, outside of the Northern Ireland area. But even among the Anglo-Saxons, the spiritual influence on the people was less than the Vatican histories would have you believe. By the time of the Danelaw there were few pagans left among the invaders. Alfred and his offspring had driven the Danes out of much of Saxon and Mercian lands before the time of Queen St, Margaret, but even this is deceptive, as many of the Norse/Dane settlers just converted to Christianity for expedient reasons (and argument used in “The Conversion of Northumbria”). The basis for such Dane conversion to Christianity is really based on Norse mores, as is indicated the “The Dream of the Rood.” The “decline” of the church in Northumbria you mention was mainly from a Vatican perspective, but is another topic.

    Back to Benedictine Rule. Queen St. Margaret was able to bring East Anglian Christianity to Scotland with much more success than prior missionaries. But it must be remembered, she was a fugitive from the Norman Conquest. She worked with the Celi De monastic communities (one hesitates to call them monasteries) and won much of the area in the Scottish lowlands, Perthshire, and the former Pictish lands to the east to more Roman traditions, but not all of them. Monastic Communities had hereditary “abbots,” right up to the Reformation in the Gaelic areas never accepting Vatican supremacy. But by and large, the Rule of St. Benedict became the most popular thriving order in Anglaland (England), which had only really advanced as Durham and Chester by the Norman Conquest, after the Normans pushed up to the Scots.

    Back to Dreher. The Rule or Benedict has a certain simplicity about it and common sense not found in harsher rules, e.g., disruptive brothers can just go and you don’t have to physically mortify your flesh. But it is not the only rule to consider for the 21st Century. The Celtic monastic tradition(s) have something to offer in simplicity of inter-personal relationships, e.g., the concept of the Anam Cara and personal penance, which could cement a 21st Century monastic life.

    But what other monastic rules have relevance to the 21st Century? I would welcome your superior knowledge on this question.

    • The great shame is that something like only 8 pre-Conquest Northumbrian manuscripts survive. I imagine we would have a better idea of what was going on from the Wear to the Forth if we just had more stuff. Re Viking matters, it is postulated that local Northumbrian unrest, not Scandinavian raiders, was what drove Cuthbert’s community into exile until settling at Durham in 995.

      I agree that RB is not the only one to consider for the 21st century. Some have been promoting Augustine’s because it is one of the shortest and most flexible, but I am unsure if it would have the same impact in today’s rootless world as it did when taken on by the canonries and the Dominicans in the High Middle Ages, due precisely to how short it is.

      The thing that makes most of them — even RB — difficult to adapt is how detailed their instructions are for prayer, and if we expect lay people with jobs to adapt a monastic rule for real life, something like Columbanus’ simply is not sustainable. Having said that, I do have a friend who has adapted Columbanus’ Rule for Monks for his own community. I’ll have to think on this. RB is definitely to gain the most traction, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the only one.

      One think I want to re-read is Francis’ rules because sometimes I think what we need are not cloisters proper but canonries such as the Augustinians or friaries like the Franciscans. Life with a rule that is explicitly focussed on using prayer and discipline as the fuel for evangelism and ministry with the poor.

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