Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

Dionysius Exiguus — too much overlooked

Dionysius Exiguus, or ‘Denys the Short’ (Wee Dennis, perhaps?) was a ‘Scythian’ (ie. from the Northeastern edge of the Roman Empire) monk who lived at Rome in the early sixth century. I have a feeling this is precisely why he has fallen into obscurity, for — other than Boethius & Benedict — the Latin Fathers between the two papal Greats (Leo, d. 461, & Gregory, ascended sedes Apostolica 590) are often overlooked. One may read Sidonius Apollonaris out of an interest in Late Latin prose style, but who reads Cassiodorus these days?

Anyway, this wee man is far too often overlooked. The only two books I found about him in the University of Edinburgh Library are both about the fact that he is the person who set out to establish the date of Christ’s birth — and his version stuck, even though he got it wrong (thus BC & AD trace back to him). These two works are both fairly recent, Anno Domini by Georges Declercq and The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era by Alden A. Mosshammer.

Dionysius, though, is an important person to focus our attention upon not only because of Anno Domini starting with him, but also because of the important place he stands and the era of which he is indicative.

Dionysius was prominent chiefly for two activities — translating and editing (maybe this is why I think we should look at him more closely!). He translated various works into Latin, such as the Life of St. Pachomius, Proterius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Leo, the letter of Proclus of Constantinople to the Armenians concerning the orthodox faith, and some works of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the creation of the world.

Sadly, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, ‘Translation has often been marginalized as a second-order activity, lacking in originality’ (‘Translation’). People have an obsession with first things, with the primus inventor, with ‘the original’, with ‘creativity’ and ‘new contributions to knowledge’ that things such as translation or Roman art or the entirety of the Middle Ages, due to their ‘derivative’ nature are scorned and ignored.

Yet translation is an important task. It can tell you as much about the translator as a text composed by the author him/herself. Is this writer skilled at the primary language? Is there facility in the rendering into the target language? What things are changed? What effects do these changes have? Why might they have been made? Are all changes ‘errors’? Can a translation ‘improve’ upon the original?

Furthermore, the Early Medieval enterprise of translation is an important reality in a world where Latin and Greek readers are becoming more and more estranged, unable to read each other’s bodies of literature. Therefore, it becomes imperative that important texts be made available in Latin for the Latin-reading public. Part of the shift from a ‘Classical’ to a ‘Medieval’ world was the shift from a bilingual Roman Empire to a very real, at times insurmountable, division between the Greek East and the Latin West.

Observing which works were translated by Dionysius and his contemporaries. and for whom and what the distribution of these translations was can show us a lot about the late Patristic Age as it forged a brave, new Medieval world.

Dionysius Exiguus is also notable for his contribution to canon law. Here, again, he is not the first to engage in the task under discussion, but he is important and indicative of the age in his own right. He compiled a bipartite collection of documents related to canon law (a ‘canonical collection’), the first part covering the canons of various synods East and West up to Chalcedon, the second collecting papal letters from 284-498.

This, the Collectio Dionysiana, is not unique. Of the canonical collections that contain letters of Leo the Great, fifteen of them are from the sixth century; of the fifteen, seven are from the first half, including the Dionysiana. Although I am aware only of canonical collections with Leonine material, no such collections seem to exist prior to the turn of the sixth century. The early 500s, then, are an important age for the transmission of canon law.

Collections such as the Collectio Dionysiana are very important in this period, because the papal Register was an invention of Gregory the Great. Thus, pre-Gregorian papal letters have a somewhat patchy and scattered history (quite literally). Taking these disparate materials and putting a number of them into a single volume for easy access was a vitally important task at the the beginning of the 500s. Thus could popes and other persons with a need to consult the mind of past Bishops of Rome on issues of faith and practice have an easier time of it.

Furthermore, the choice of letters, whether through necessity (‘These are all I have’) or editorial practice (‘These are all I shall use’) helps shape future opinion on these subjects. No longer will popes have to simply cite Sancti Patres; they can actually name who said what — Noster Pater Sanctus Leo, Papa Romae.

This collection, in particular, has an important place in the development of canon law. Other canonical collections made use of the Dionysiana, such as Collectio Vaticana (6th century), Cresconius’ Concordia canonum (mid-6th with a wide array of manuscripts surviving), Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (8th, many mss), and Collectio Dionysiana adaucta (9th). Canon jurists and papal advisers and popes were reading the Collectio Dionysiana for centuries as they compiled new, larger canonical collections. This particular arrangement and gathering of papal documents would have shaped their own view of papal authority and the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The manuscripts of collections that trace themselves back to Dionysius are mostly no later than the twelfth century, although there is one from the sixteenth. In the twelfth century, Gratian made his famous Decretum, that brought together various excerpts from canons and papal letters arranged systematically on certain questions, so the copying of material such as the Dionysiana would have understandably gone down. Nevertheless, that is five hundred years of consistent copying and use, even in the face of the famous and influential Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

Finally, this anthologising of Dionysius’ is, like his translations, indicative of his age. The Later Roman Empire was a world saturated by far too much reading material, and anthologies were in vogue. I doubt this was because people didn’t like reading long extracts or entire works; rather, it’s because there was so much available to put into the anthologies. It is an age where a person can gain a lot without having to read all 144 books of Livy, or over 100 papal letters just to answer one question.

Dionysius is part of the culture that gives birth to the Middle Ages. He is indicative of the wider realm in many ways, and important for the development of western European culture in the years following the ‘Fall’ of Rome. For these reasons, he is too much overlooked.