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.

Monasticism

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.