Benedictine monks are meant to be literate. Eventually, it will come to pass in the Middle Ages that such a creature as the ‘choir monk’ will exist — someone who can sing the offices in Latin but does not know Latin. But originally, in the Latin-speaking world of Late Antique Italy, it was expected that they would memorise the Psalter and offices both orally and from books, in a language that they understood. Indeed, in the language that they spoke every day.
Throughout the Rule of St Benedict, there is a lot of reading and listening to people read. When Benedict discusses the different offices within the monastery, we learn about the ‘weekly reader’ who reads at meal times (chapter 38). The rest of the monks sit in silence while the reader reads; they use sign language at the table when they need someone to do something. No moment for edification is lost for the Benedictine.
After supper, there is time to read collationes or the Lives of the Fathers — the latter probably being the Desert Fathers (chapter 42). This is not the time for reading Old Testament history, because it might excite some of younger brothers’ imaginations, and then they’ll have trouble sleeping. In the twelfth century, the books for reading at collatio at Durham Cathedral Priory were:
- Lives of the Fathers
- Diadema Monachorum (Crown of Monks by Smaragdus of St-Mihiel)
- Paradise of Ephrem with Lives of the Egyptians (that is, Desert Fathers)
- Speculum (I do not know which one)
- Dialogues (presumably Gregory the Great’s, which are Italian saints’ lives)
- Excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule
- Isidore of Seville, De Summo Bono
- Prosper On the Contemplative Life
- The Book of Odo (of Cluny, I suspect; he wrote a work called ‘Collationes’)
- John Cassian
- Decem Collationes — awkwardly, this is a title of a work of Cassian’s
In chapter 48, we read about the daily round in the Benedictine monastery. The day is divided between times of work and times of reading, besides the set hours to pray the office.
Reading is called lectio divina at the start of this chapter; Carolinne White translates that phrase as ‘biblical study’. What exact process of reading, and whether it refers specifically to Scripture, is less clear than many would make you think. Pierre Riché, in Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries, interprets lectio divina generally to mean the study of Scripture for the end of devotion and religion, as opposed to a more scholarly or academic pursuit. What techniques or meditation on Scripture are involved is less clear at this stage. Sometimes, though, it does seem that lectio divina includes scriptural commentaries as well as Scripture itself.
In the early Middle Ages, the tendency was more towards commentaries like Bede’s that are a bit more practical and down-to-earth, or Gregory the Great’s that are more geared for monastic life than the sort of commentaries that seek to unpack thorny problems of interpretation like you’ll find amongst scholastics or that are more literary like Cassiodorus.
Every monk is given his own special book to read during Lent. In a largely oral world, the monastery becomes one of the refuges of culture — but that culture in the Early Middle Ages is almost entirely religious. These monks are not consciously ‘saving’ western culture from drowning in a sea of ‘barbarism’. They preserve great works of literature as well as rhetoricians and grammarians to better enable them to read and study the Scriptures and the Fathers as they approach God. Western culture is, at this stage, a by-product of Christian devotion. (See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)
So, since it is Lent in a week, let’s think about orienting our reading towards God. And our eating. And our working. Everything we do should be done to the glory of God.