Benedict and the Desert Tradition of the Middle Ages

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.

Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.

But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?

I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.

For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.

Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.

Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.

The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.