views updated May 08 2018


The Order of St. Benedict signifies not a centralized religious institute but the confederated congregations of monks, nuns, and sisters following the Rule of St. Benedict (see benedictine rule). Each monastery is an autonomous community, bound by strong or weak links to other monasteries of the same congregation but no juridical ties to the rest of the confederation.

St. Benedict of Nursia, in his 6th-century rule, legislated for a cenobitic monastery, which should constitute a community under its abbot, elected for life by the monks. The vow of stability bound the monk to the monastery of his profession; that of conversatio morum obliged him to follow a monastic way of life according to the Rule of Benedict; and obedience bound him to follow the directives of the rule under his abbot. The daily life consisted of the public celebration of the liturgy of the hours, serious reading (lectio divina ), and manual labor. Everything, including ascetical practices, was subject to the abbot's discretion. The spiritual program, grounded on obedience, silence, and humility, and flexible enough to take account of diverse strengths and weaknesses among the brethren, was intended to promote a faithful following of the gospel. Benedict is known to have founded only Subiaco, Monte Cassino, and Terracina, but his reputation may have induced other Italian monasteries to adopt his rule. Whether or not Cassiodorus introduced it at Vivarium, his program of intellectual work quickly grafted itself onto Benedictinism throughout Europe.

The Lombard invasion of 568 virtually destroyed monasticism in Italy. Monte Cassino was taken about 577, but the community escaped to Rome, thereby enabling the future Pope Gregory the Great, recently become a monk, to make acquaintance with the Benedictine rule, which he then adopted for the monasteries under his direction. Through his Dialogues Gregory promoted Benedict's reputation in the West and the adoption of his rule. The wisdom and moderation of the rule itself, as well as the missionary zeal of the monks and papal patronage, were the chief factors contributing to the preeminence so quickly acquired by the Rule of Benedict in Latin Christendom. By 800 it had supplanted most other monastic observances. By the same date most monks were priests and many of them had become bishops. Intellectual work came more and more into favor, while manual labor was left to the uneducated. The very numerous monasteries were centers for the civilizing of the neighborhoods as well as houses of worship; hence they were rich sources of the Western Christian civilization that was coming to birth.

Earliest Expansion (596814). In 596 Gregory sent some 40 monks to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Their superior, Augustine, became the first archbishop of Canterbury. Despite numerous setbacks, the work progressed, and sees and monasteries were founded. Saint Paulinus was among the second group of monks sent by Gregory to help Augustine. In 625 he became a bishop and moved to the north of England where he eventually undertook the evangelization of the people. There was tension between the monks following the Rule of Benedict and those following Irish customaries, especially those who came from Iona. By 663 the tension was resolved in favor of the Roman Benedictine tradition. By 685 the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had embraced Christianity. Flourishing schools became the source of a brilliant culture, which reached its zenith in the life and writings of Bede. En route to Britain, Augustine's mission of 596 had made the Rule of Benedict known in the Frankish kingdom, where the predominant monastic influence was that of the Irish monk Columban. His harsh observance diminished in prestige after his death in 615, and from 629 it was supplemented and eventually supplanted by the Rule of Benedict. The transfer of Benedict's relics from the desolate site of Monte Cassino to Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (c. 672) gave the latter monastery an unrivaled renown among the increasingly numerous Frankish monasteries.

Anglo-Saxon Benedictinism was marked by a strong attraction toward missionary activity. The evangelization of Frisia, undertaken by Wilfrid, Bishop of York, in 678, was resumed in 690 by Willibrord, who in 696 established the See of Utrecht as his base. His plans for Denmark were premature, but in southern Frisia he was

highly successful. Beyond the Rhine, Benedictinism was first planted at Reichenau, founded by a Frankish monk, Pirmin, in 724. At least eight other houses quickly developed in Alamannia, all under his jurisdiction. Farther north, Kaiserswerth, established by the Anglo-Saxon Swithbert, became a center of the apostolate in its region. Central Germany was the field of another Anglo-Saxon, Boniface, whose missionary methods became a model for subsequent evangelization. He assisted Willibrord in southern Frisia from 719 to 722, when he was ordained bishop by Pope Gregory II and commissioned to evangelize Hesse and Thuringia. While being careful to keep in close contact with Rome, he developed a number of monasteries, the most important being Fulda (744). He organized the Church in the newly converted lands, reinvigorated and reorganized the Bavarian Church, persuaded the Bavarian monasteries to adopt the Rule of Benedict, and inaugurated the urgently needed reform of the Frankish Church. In 753 he proceeded to the still pagan area of northern Frisia, where he was martyred in 754.

The gradual conversion of the Lombards permitted the revival of Benedictinism in Lombard Italy. The first agents of the restoration were Franks and Lombards, who founded Farfa in 705 and St. Vincent-on-the-Volturno about 710. Petronax of Brescia gathered about himself some hermits living at Monte Cassino; from 729 they were instructed in the Rule of Benedict by the Anglo-Saxon Willibald (later bishop of Eichstätt). South of the Pyrenees the rule was followed only in the March of Spain, erected by Charlemagne in 795.

Reform and Centralization (8141125). The Carolingian period witnessed serious abuses because kings and magnates, with no concern for the true spirit of monastic life, had delivered many monasteries into the hands of lay abbots who were often crude soldiers. Benedict of Aniane instituted a reform. In his own foundation at Aniane (c. 780) he insisted on the literal observance of the rule. His ideas, more severe than the letter of the rule, spread to other houses in Aquitaine, thanks to the support of Louis the Pious. When in 814 Louis succeeded Charlemagne as emperor, he installed Benedict of Inden as superior general of all monasteries of the empire. At Aachen in 817 the Frankish abbots adopted a uniform discipline, and inspectors were appointed to enforce it. In an effort to protect each monastery from abusive lay abbots, the property of each house was divided into the abbatia and the mensa conventualis; the abbot had no control over the latter. In addition, the reform gave to public worship a predominance not envisaged by the rule; thereafter the liturgy became more elaborate and more solemn, while manual labor declined in importance among the monks, especially those who were ordained.

The absolute uniformity insisted on by Benedict of Aniane was foreign to the spirit of the rule and too dependent on imperial patronage. Only the Italian abbeys maintained the more rigorous tradition. Nevertheless, the first half of the 9th century was characterized by regularity of discipline in the Frankish houses and by serious scholarship, nourished in numerous schools. The fruit of such intellectual work was manifested in the writings of Smaragdus, Paschasius Radbertus, Ratramnus, Lupus of Ferrières, Rabanus Maurus, and Walafrid Strabo. Missionary zeal was exemplified in the life of Ansgar, monk of Corbie, who in 826 undertook the evangelization of Denmark and Sweden. His successor, Rembert, continued his work until his death brought the enterprise to a close.

The dismemberment of the empire in 843 and the succeeding fratricidal wars, in which kings distributed monastic property to their allies as guarantees of fidelity, the forcible assimilation of monasteries to benefices, and the attacks of Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars all but engulfed Benedictinism in total ruin. The monks who survived were constrained to beg their livelihood, and discipline collapsed. When they were once again able to recover their houses, they had to place themselves under the protection of the local magnate, who arrogated to himself the abbatial election or even the abbacy itself. Thus, for sheer survival, monasteries took their place in nascent feudalism. Abbots became vassals of the territorial prince, from whom they held in fief the monastic lands and often a more extensive domain. They were also lords, exercising public authority over their fiefs. Functions not proper to ecclesiastics were performed within each fief by the abbot's advocate, a layman who was commissioned to protect the monastery's property, but who often became its pillager, especially when a king, duke, or count assumed the office. Such a situation in no way promoted the monastic life, and by 900 it was extremely difficult to discover a house where the rule was observed even reasonably well.

The violent 10th century, however, witnessed a strong revival of Benedictine life almost simultaneously in Burgundy and Lotharingia. The recovery, not dependent upon royal favor or enforced by any general legislation, was more lasting than the reform of the preceding century. It began by relieving monasteries from every external influence, thus freeing them to live the rule. The earliest and most influential reform center was Cluny, founded in 910 by William of Aquitaine, who placed it exclusively under papal authority. Three long-lived and extremely capable abbots directed Cluny's destiny during 154 years with remarkable consistency of policy: Majolus (954994), Odilo (9941048), and Hugh (10491109). They organized the new foundations and the reformed houses into an "order," which in the 12th century included some 1,450 monasteries; most of them were ruled by priors, and all were subject to the abbot of Cluny. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the abbot of Cluny was one of the most important and influential personages in the Church, ruling monasteries in France, Germany, Italy, England, and elsewhere. For two centuries Cluny's profound fervor was maintained. Stern centralization was foreign to the Benedictine idea, but in the 10th and 11th centuries it seemed to be the only solution to the problem of monastic independence and freedom. More pernicious was the gradually increasing overemphasis on an ever more elaborate liturgy, which left neither time nor energy for work, study, or even personal prayer, and eventually prompted a fatal lowering of admission standards. Eventually empty formalism took over, but Cluny had, meanwhile, reinvigorated monasticism and freed it from external control.

Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, reformed by Cluny in 930, retained its autonomy and became a secondary reform center for France, Lotharingia, and England. Entirely independent of the Cluniac influence were Brogne in Lower Lotharingia, founded about 919 by Gerard of Brogne, and Gorze in Upper Lotharingia, restored in 933. The Brogne observance extended into Flanders, Normandy, and the German Empire; that of Gorze covered Lotharingia. These movements did not long survive their authors, but they were reactivated later by Richard of Saint-Vanne (d. 1046) and Poppo of Stavelot. The Cluniac observance penetrated very early into Italy. In 936 Odo of Cluny was made superior of all abbeys in the Papal State; he and his successors reformed old houses and established new ones. In the 9th century the Danes had totally ruined the once numerous Anglo-Saxon monasteries. From 943 monasticism was restored in England by Dunstan, Ethelwold, and Oswald of York, the chief influences coming from Fleury and Brogne. The Rule of Benedict entered the slowly expanding Spanish principalities from 895, and Sancho III of Navarre introduced the Cluniac observance in 1022. Most Spanish abbeys were in some degree dependent on a distinguished French or Italian monastery.

The Benedictine recovery in the 10th century was accompanied by a fresh zeal for evangelization, whereby the rule, too, was spread. The work of Ansgar in Denmark and Sweden was resumed in 934 by Unni, monk of Corvey. Anglo-Saxon monks were soon active throughout Scandinavia. In the 11th century Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland had Benedictine abbeys. In 933 the first monastery was opened in Bohemia at Brevnov, built by Adalbert of Prague; the 11th century witnessed numerous foundations. The conversion of Poland, begun about 967, was largely the work of Benedictines from Fulda; Adalbert of Prague also gave Poland its first monastery, Meseritz (c. 996). The apostles of the Wends were monks from German houses. Adalbert of Prague in 997 and Bruno of Querfurt in 1009 were martyred while seeking to evangelize the Prussians. Hungary owes its faith in large measure to Benedictines; the first missionary was Wolfgang of Regensberg. The first monastery, Pannonhalma, was founded in 996. Dalmatia's attachment to the Latin Church was the work of Benedictines, first sent there from Monte Cassino in 986. In the 12th century the Rule of Benedict was implemented also in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The monastic reform of the 10th century deeply stirred the conscience of Europe and contributed in important ways to the general reform of Christian society after 1049. The popes fostered the monastic revival by granting numerous houses exemption from episcopal control. In turn, monasticism cooperated actively in the reform by supplying both ideas and leaders, notably Popes Stephen IX, Gregory VII, Victor III, Urban II, Paschal II, and Gelasius II. Cluny's vast monastic family as well as other reform groups incessantly reminded clergy and laity of the claims of the moral law and in most cases actively implemented the papal program. Among the most influential centers were Saint-Victor in Marseilles, Saint-Benigne de Dijon, Tiron, Chaise-Dieu, Bec, and Sauve-Majeur, in France; Saint-Vanne (Verdun-sur-Meuse), in Lotharingia; Sankt Blasien, Reichenau, Einsiedeln, Sankt Emmeram, Fulda, and Hirsau, in Germany; and Monte Cassino, Farfa, Fruttuaria, and La Cava, in Italy.

The foremost German center was Hirsau. About 150 monasteries, new and old, followed its observance in a union that left them their autonomy. The institute of lay brothers, sketched by John Gualbert at Vallombrosa, was organized in the 11th century by William of Hirsau, who prescribed a special mode of life for religious assigned to menial tasks and to the management of distant estates. The Norman Conquest of 1066 meant the internal strengthening of Benedictine monasticism in England and its flowering there. French abbeys, including Cluny, founded priories in England. Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, introduced the Rule of Benedict in Scotland. The first Benedictine houses in Ireland were established in the 12th century.

It is not known precisely when the monks and nuns living under the Rule of Benedict began to call themselves "Benedictines," a name that tended to align them with the centralized orders such as the Cistercians and Franciscans. Before the 13th century Benedictines, apart from those in the Cluniac system and other special reforming movements, had no form of centralized government controlling the monasteries and imposing uniformity on them. Each monastery was free to respond to the demands made upon it by its social, economic, and religious environment. Nevertheless this pluralism was kept from degenerating into mere heterogeneity by the common inspiration of the rule, which not only established in essential matters an objective way of life but also provided criteria by which adaptation to the environment could be assessed. Above all it was the common spirituality inspired by the rule that united the various monasteries. But the existence of many varying interpretations meant that most of the communities lacked a stable structure or depended too much on the personality of the abbot. Excess of organization and overemphasis on a particular element in the life eventually stifled the spirit; nevertheless, from the 9th to the 12th century the Benedictine family virtually monopolized religious life in the West. This predominance ended around 1125. Though the houses continued to be powerful and wealthy, they were more respectable than vigorous. The history of Benedictine monasticism for the next three centuries was one of decadence, sterility, and false starts.

The 11th century, which witnessed Cluny's splendor, witnessed also a strong reaction against Cluny's onesidedness through return to the letter of the rule, manual labor, corporate poverty, and even the eremitical and penitential ideal of primitive monasticism. Thus several shoots from the main line grew into new institutes. The Camaldolese, the Vallombrosans, and the monks of Grandmont, in the 11th century, provided for the eremitical life in a greater or lesser degree. Similarly, there developed in the 13th century the Celestines and Sylvestrines, and in the 14th century, the Olivetans (see benedictines, olivetan; benedictines, sylvestrine). The Cistercians (1098) retained the cenobitic life and aimed to restore the rule's wise balance and more or less complete withdrawal from the secular world.

Decadence (11251408). The feudal system had undermined not only the rule but the vows themselves, since not only the abbacy but the several claustral offices became fiefs, belonging to their holders. Before long the individual monk had his own pecuniary benefice, and monasteries came to be regarded as suitable places for locating persons undesirable elsewhere. Some monasteries reserved admission to nobles, who continued their former way of life. Hence the Benedictine houses were avoided by persons seriously in search of holiness. Few abbeys escaped this moral decay, and the failure to gain recruits had disastrous effects on the liturgy, intellectual life, and external influence.

Although the monasteries had traditionally been havens of stability and security as well as sources of leadership for missionary activity, in the case of Benedictine nuns chastity and the freedom for service took second place to the value of enclosure as women often entered monasteries for a variety of nonreligious reasons. Benedictine nunneries became refuges for widows, undowried and therefore unmarriageable daughters, captives who had been abused by soldiers, women seeking sanctuary when they refused to marry, and even children. As the number of nunneries multiplied, they competed for economic support via dowries, legacies, and other benefactions. Like their male counterparts, women's communities were an integral part of a complex system of landholding and other obligations that was the hallmark of feudalism. Consequently they were often involved in disputes over inheritances and the alienation of family property. Their vulnerability to secular influences easily led to abuses such as the diversion of revenues by a lord to support family members or to meet military obligations, or the imposition of secular abbesses. In the 12th century, women determinedly emulated new male communities such as the Cistercians and Premonstratensians, adopting their rule, following their style of life, and even adopting their name. Most of these male orders, however, wanted little or nothing to do with providing sacramental services and pastoral care to communities of women. The responsibility for the cura mulierum continued to be a cause of strife for male monasteries until the Reformation.

The dangers that come from the isolation of monasteries have always been real. When there is no authority structure to ensure correction and support among individual monasteries, decadence tends to be widespread. In the 13th century those seeking reform had recourse to a Cistercian institution, the general chapter. Popes Innocent III, Honorius III, and Gregory IX took vigorous steps to correct abuses but not always with consideration for the essential autonomy of Benedictinism; hence their efforts were not always successful. Innocent III prescribed general chapters, restored free abbatial elections, and insisted on simplicity of life and control of finances. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 established triennial provincial chapters, which were to elect visitators to supervise the execution of legislated reforms. The first Benedictines to implement the Lateran decrees were the English monks; the present English Congregation ranks as the oldest Benedictine congregation. Honorius III (121627) required annual chapters, and Gregory IX (122741) extended the powers of visitators. Other councils, papal legates, and local bishops also sought to raise the moral tone of the monasteries.

In 1336 Benedict XII undertook a further monastic reform by gathering all the monasteries into 32 provinces, prescribing a triennial chapter and visitation in each, and demanding the raising of the intellectual level of the communities. In 1338 he ordered an inquiry by special agents into the condition of every monastery. This legislation remained in force for two centuries, but there was no effective organ of enforcement. Princes, fearing the loss of their claims, hindered the holding of chapters, popes mitigated the regulations, and the system of papal reservations too often meant the naming of unfit abbots. The notorious commenda, whereby the abbacy of a monastery was given to a secular ecclesiastic as his benefice, grew rapidly. The commendatory abbot reserved for himself the lion's share of the income, frequently leaving the monks an insufficient portion. In France the community continued to control the mensa conventualis, but elsewhere the commendatory abbot took what he wanted; to increase his income he often hindered recruitment. Only England and Germany escaped this evil. The Hundred Years' War (13371453), the Black Death (1348), and the Western Schism (13781417) brought about the depopulation and demoralization of monastic houses. Not all monasteries, however, fell into complete decline; a good abbot was often able to preserve discipline or restore fervor, and many monasteries were exemplary. But, in general, too many monks forgot their ideals and became worldly.

Reform Congregations (14081815). The 15th century saw the development of a new institution, the congregation, which more efficaciously guaranteed a disciplined life according to the rule. Luigi Barbo (d. 1443) became the abbot of Santa Giustina at Padua in 1408 and instituted regular discipline in that decadent house. Recruits were so numerous that he was able to found new monasteries and reform existing ones, all of which were united in a congregation in 1419. To avoid the commenda, the office of local superior was made temporary, and all authority was concentrated in the annual general chapter. All monks made their profession for the congregation, and the chapter could move them about. All the monasteries of Italy and Sicily eventually joined the congregation, which, with the accession of Monte Cassino in 1504, became known as the Cassinese Congregation. A high level of intellectual and moral life was maintained so the monks were able to exert a salutary influence on the neighborhood. The reform movement was adopted in the monasteries of Catalonia, Poland, and Dalmatia; it also inspired the congregation of Chezal-Benoît, Sainte-Vanne, Saint-Maur, and Valladolid.

The Council of Constance (141418) influenced the spread throughout south Germany of the reforms introduced at Kastl and at Melk, but weak organization made these unions too dependent on individual abbots. More enduring, because better organized, was the Congregation of Bursfeld, approved in 1446 by the Council of Basel. Under Abbot John Dederoth, Bursfeld Abbey adopted an observance that spread so rapidly in northern Germany that in the 16th century the congregation numbered 200 houses. In 1514 the Hungarian abbeys united in a congregation, with the statutes of Monte Cassino and Melk. The Congregation of Valladolid (1489), with temporary abbots, embraced the monasteries of Castile and some in Catalonia, and eventually spread to Mexico and Peru. The Congregation of Portugal (1566) united all the houses of the kingdom and those of Brazil. In France the reform efforts of the abbot of Cluny were obstructed by the political disorders, the commenda, and the resistance of many monks. In 1481 renewed efforts were more successful. At the same time the houses of the Tiron observance accepted reform, as did Chezal-Benoît, which founded its own congregation. In England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Holland, and much of Germany monasticism was swept away. In Switzerland, France, and Belgium it endured a cruel ordeal. Of some 3,000 Benedictine monasteries, about 800 ceased to exist.

The Council of Trent (154563) legislated for the restoration and maintenance of discipline, defined the conditions of admission and profession, the choosing of superiors, and the administration of property, and ordered all monasteries to unite in congregations, with triennial general chapters and visitations. Thereby the congregational system became ecclesiastical law, enforced by the Holy See, and exempt from episcopal authority. The exempt Congregation of Flanders and that of the Presentation (1629) were organized in the Belgian Netherlands. In France, the earliest was that called the Exempt (1580). The Congregations of Brittany (1604), Saint-Denis (1607), and Allobroges (1622) were short lived. In 1604 Didier de la Cour (d. 1623) founded the Congregation of Saint-Vanne de Verdun. At its head was a president, annually appointed by the general chapter, which exercised sovereign authority. It was outstanding for the spiritual and intellectual formation of its members, and included houses in Lorraine and Franche-Comté. In 1621 the Congregation of Saint-Maur was constituted of those French monasteries that had adopted the Saint-Vanne reform. It absorbed the Breton Congregation in 1628, that of Chezal-Benoît in 1636, and eventually all French monasteries except the Cluniac. Grégoire Tarisse (d. 1648) reorganized the congregation in 1645, giving it an effective government. The Maurists were celebrated for scholarship, and at the same time they were exemplary monks. Cardinal Armand Richelieu in 1629 decided to unite the Cluniac Congregation to Saint-Maur, but the Holy See disapproved. Many of the Cluniacs had been won over to a strict observance and in 1646 became a distinct congregation.

English Benedictines lived in various monasteries on the Continent or in residences at Douai and Dieulouart in France, and elsewhere. Some English monks joined the Valladolid and Cassinese Congregations, but in 1619 Paul V united all of them in the English Congregation.

In 1592 Clement VIII reformed the Spanish Congregation of Claustrales, founded in 1336. In Germany about a dozen poorly organized and isolated congregations were eventually formed, the most important being the Swiss (1602), the Alsatian (1624), the Austrian (1630), and the Bavarian (1684).

By 1700 the Benedictine family was, in general, in a healthy state, thanks to the new congregations. The 18th century, however, witnessed a new decline and virtual extinction under the attacks of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and wholesale secularization. Of 410 French Benedictine houses, 122 were suppressed by 1768. The revolution completed the task by 1792 and extended it to Belgium (1796), Switzerland (1798), the left bank of the Rhine (1802), and Central Italy (1810). Monasteries under Hapsburg rule had been subjected to interference since 1754 and Joseph II suppressed many of them. Bavaria, Württemberg, and Prussia141 monasteriesdisappeared. By 1815 only about 30 monasteries were still in existence. Those of Portugal and Spain were swept away in 1834 and 1835.

Recovery and Expansion (1815 to the Present). Despite the Prussian Kulturkampf, the suppressions in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Switzerland, and the Brazilian prohibition of receiving novices, the 19th century was an age of vigorous renewal and worldwide expansion. Hungary led the way in 1802 by reopening monasteries for the sake of education; Austria quickly followed suit, and in Spain and Italy monks were able to recover some of their houses. English monks, refugees from revolutionary France, were welcomed in England, where Ampleforth (1802) and Downside (1814) were established (see benedictines, english). English and Spanish monks transplanted Benedictinism to Australia, where New Norcia was founded in 1846.

In France Benedictine monasticism was restored at Solesmes by Prosper Guéranger in 1833, and the French Congregation came into existence four years later. Ludwig I of Bavaria reopened Metten in 1830, and then other houses, and the Bavarian Congregation was approved in 1858. From Metten the rule was brought to the United States in 1846 by Boniface Wimmer, founder of the American Cassinese Congregation. The Swiss-American Congregation (1881) originated with Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana and Conception Abbey in Missouri. Placidus and Maurus Wolter established themselves at Beuron, Germany, in 1863; the Beuronese Congregation (1868) modeled itself on that of Solesmes except in regard to its more active life. In 1872 Beuron founded Maredsous in Belgium; in 1920 four Belgian abbeys were separated from Beuron to constitute the Belgian Congregation, now known as the Annunciation Congregation. The Brazilian Congregation, erected in 1827 and nearly obliterated by hostile laws in 1853, revived with the help of Maredsous. In 1904 the Congregation of Sankt Ottilien was founded for work in the foreign missions. The reform of Subiaco, Italy, in 1851 was to give birth in 1872 to the Congregation of the Primitive Observance, now known as the Subiaco Congregation and divided into nine provinces. Two Austrian Congregations, both established in 1889, were united in 1930. In 1945 six Slavonic houses were organized to form the Congregation of Saint Adalbert.

In 1888 Leo XIII revived in Rome the Collegio Sant' Anselmo, originally founded in 1687 by the Cassinese Congregation, as an international college for monks of all congregations. In 1893 he created the office of abbot primate to head the confederated Benedictine congregations. In 1952 Pius XII approved the Lex Propria governing the confederation. Substantial changes were made in the government of the confederation and the Collegio Sant' Anselmo at the Congress of Abbots in 1967. Although many Benedictines originally resisted the establishment of the office of abbot primate, experience has shown that his moral authority has been a source of encouragement to the individual congregations and monasteries, and the office itself has been an effective agency through which the values of monasticism have been represented before the Holy See. Since the abbot primate's authority is moral rather than disciplinary, his office in no way interferes with the individual communities and their relations with the Holy See.

In 2000 there were 21 congregations of monks in the Benedictine Confederation. That includes the Olivetans who joined in 1960, the Vallumbrosians who joined in 1966, the Camaldolese who joined in 1966, and the Sylvestines who joined in 1976. Benedictine nuns and sisters were late in forming congregations or federations. In 2000 there were 61 congregations or federations of nuns and sisters, most of which were founded in the 20th century.

In addition to their pursuit of monastic life through prayer, manual labor, and lectio divina, most Benedictines today are engaged in educational, parochial, scholarly, or missionary work. The oblate institution, whereby both clerical and lay persons are affiliated to a particular monastery, is very popular.

Bibliography: p. schmitz, Histoire de l'Ordre de SaintBenoît, 7 v. (Maredsous 194256). s. hilpisch, Benedictinism through Changing Centuries, tr. l. j. doyle (Collegeville, Minn. 1958). h. van zeller, The Benedictine Idea (Springfield, III. 1960). b. c. butler, Benedictine Monachism (2d ed. 1924; repr. New York 1961); Catalogus Monasteriorum O.S.B. Monachorum, editio XIX (Rome 2000); Catalogus Monasteriorum O.S.B. Sororum et Monialium, editio I (Rome 2000).

[a. g. biggs/

r. k. seasoltz]


views updated May 23 2018


BENEDICTINES . The Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.) is not a centralized religious order like the Franciscans, Dominicans, or Jesuits but rather a confederation of congregations of monks and nuns who follow the rule of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480547). Each monastery is an autonomous community bound to other monasteries of the same congregation by loose juridic ties and associated with the rest of the confederation through common commitment to the rule. Benedict himself is known to have founded monasteries at Subiaco, Monte Cassino, and elsewhere in central Italy. Because of its wisdom and moderation his rule was also adopted in many of the other monasteries of Latin Christendom. Its widespread implementation was also fostered by the missionary zeal of the early Benedictine monks and by papal patronage.

Gregory the Great helped spread the influence of the rule in 596 when he sent Benedictine monks to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine, their monastic leader, became the first archbishop of Canterbury, and their success also resulted in the development of schools and a flourishing scholarship, as seen especially in the work of the Venerable Bede (c. 673735). Anglo-Saxon monks subsequently took up missionary work in Frisia and also in central Germany, where Boniface (673754) firmly established monastic life according to the rule of Benedict. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, however, many monasteries fell into the hands of lay abbots, and consequently serious abuse and decadence crept into monastic life. Reform was initiated by Benedict of Aniane (c. 750821), who insisted on a more literal observance of the rule; his approach to monasticism spread to other abbeys in Aquitaine. When Louis I, "the Pious," succeeded Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 814, Benedict was installed as superior of all monasteries in the empire. At Aachen in 817, the Frankish abbots agreed on a uniform discipline and encouraged a liturgy that was more elaborate and solemn than that provided for in the rule. As a result manual labor declined in importance. Such uniformity was not consonant with the spirit of the rule. Because more attention was given to external monastic structures than to the spirit of the rule, the Frankish attempt at reform was ultimately a failure. A new regularity of discipline was imposed in the Frankish houses during the first half of the ninth century and was accompanied by the development of scholarship, as indicated by the writings of Smaragdus, Paschasius Radbertus, Ratramnus, and Rabanus Maurus. However, the collapse of the empire in 843 resulted in a further decline in monastic life and discipline.

The tenth century saw a successful revival of Benedictinism, above all at Cluny, a monastery founded in 910 by William of Aquitaine and placed directly under papal patronage. Three distinguished and long-lived abbots, Majolus (abbot from 954 to 994), Odilo (9941048), and Hugh (10491109), directed that house very effectively, establishing a high level of observance. They also established numerous other foundations so that in the twelfth century Cluny included a network of almost fifteen hundred monasteries, although many of them were very small houses. In reaction against the highly structured, economically wealthy, politically powerful, and liturgically elaborate form of monasticism that prevailed at Cluny and its larger daughter houses, other monastic families also developed during the eleventh century. These included the Camaldolese, the Vallumbrosans, the Carthusians, and the Cistercians, all of whom stressed a return to the basic elements of Benedict's rule, especially manual labor, corporate poverty, silence, prayer, and penitence.

Monasticism was corrupted by the feudal system in the late Middle Ages; the observance of poverty and simplicity of life became particularly difficult to maintain. Popes Innocent III (d. 1216), Honorius III (d. 1227), and Gregory IX (d. 1241) sought reform, above all by having recourse to the Cistercian institution of the general chapter. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council mandated triennial provincial chapters that were to elect visitators to oversee the implementation of legislated reform measures, but this program was generally carried out only in England. In 1336 Benedict XII organized all Benedictine monasteries into thirty-two provinces and also prescribed a triennial chapter and visitation. Unfortunately, there was no way to implement this legislation effectively.

The institution that is known today as a Benedictine congregation was inaugurated in the fifteenth century by Luigi Barbo. In 1408 he became the abbot of Santa Giustina at Padua, where he established regular discipline. This attracted so many candidates that he went on to found new monasteries and reform existing ones, all of which were joined into a congregation in 1419. All of the Italian and Sicilian monasteries also eventually joined this congregation, which became known as the Cassinese Congregation when the abbey at Monte Cassino joined the congregation in 1504.

The Protestant Reformation destroyed about eight hundred of the approximately three thousand monasteries extant in Europe at the time. As a result of the Council of Trent (15451563), the congregational system was imposed on those monasteries that survived, and exemption from episcopal control was extended to all houses. By the eighteenth century Benedictine monasticism was generally in a healthy state, but it soon declined again as a result of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and widespread secularism. However, recovery and expansion followed during the nineteenth century. In 1833 Prosper Guéranger restored Benedictine life at Solesmes in France, prosperous houses developed in Germany at Metten in 1830 and at Beuron in 1863, and Boniface Wimmer, a monk of Metten, brought Benedictine monasticism to the United States in 1846. In 1888 Pope Leo XIII revived the Benedictine College of Sant'Anselmo in Rome, which had been founded by Innocent XI in 1687 as an international college for young Benedictine monks. The office of abbot primate was created in 1893. Elected by the Benedictine abbots of the world, the primate serves as head of the College of Sant'Anselmo and acts as an official representative of Benedictines to the Holy See; although he has no jurisdiction over individual abbeys throughout the world, he is a symbol of moral unity among Benedictines. On March 21, 1952, Pius XII approved the codification of the Lex Proprio, a particular code of law that governs the confederation of congregations. It is reviewed regularly at the congress of abbots held in Rome every four years.

The history of Benedictine women has not been well chronicled because of the scarcity of manuscript evidence. It seems that the Benedictine rule was first adopted in English convents in the seventh century, at the time the nuns Hilda and Etheldreda both ruled over double monasteries. When Boniface went as a missionary to Germany he was assisted by a distinguished group of nuns, including Lioba, Walburga, and Thekla. In the thirteenth century significant mystical writings were produced in Germany by Gertrude the Great; Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Mechthild of Magdeburg; it is not known, however, whether they were Benedictines or Cistercians. Post-Reformation nuns included Gertrude More (16061633); she achieved a high degree of holiness under the direction of Dom Augustine Baker while a member of the English community exiled at Cambrai in France. That community returned to Britain and finally settled at Stanbrook, near Worcester, in 1983. It is probably the most distinguished abbey of Benedictine nuns. Those nuns who came to the United States from Germany and Switzerland in the nineteenth century were forced to give up their solemn vows as nuns because of their apostolates outside the monastic enclosure; the majority of the women in the communities they founded are now Benedictine Sisters of pontifical jurisdiction.

In addition to the traditional life of work and prayer carried on within the enclosure of the monastery, Benedictine men and women engage in various ministries, including education, scholarship, health care, retreats, and parochial and missionary work. According to 2004 statistics, approximately eight thousand monks belong to twenty-one congregations. There are approximately 16,000 nuns and sisters, many of whom work in diverse apostolates and live outside the monastery.

See Also

Bendict of Nursia; Cistercians.


A good introductory account of the Benedictines is to be found in Edward Cuthbert Butler's Benedictine Monachism, 2d ed. (1924; reprint, New York, 1961). St. Benedict's Disciples, edited by D. H. Farmer (Leominster, U.K., 1980), is a broad collection of essays on the past and present achievements of Benedict's followers, and through them of Benedict himself. Saint Benedict: Father of Western Civilization, prepared under the direction of Pieter Balsetier (New York, 1981), is a comprehensive and generously illustrated volume exploring many aspects of the Benedictine contribution to Christian humanism through art and architecture, as well as through scholarship. Statistical information can be found in Catalogus monasteriorum O.S.B., 16th ed. (Rome, 1985), and J. P. Müller's Atlas O.S.B.: Index monasteriorum (Rome, 1975).

New Sources

Kardong, Terrence. The Benedictines. Wilmington, Del., 1988.

Posset, F. "Palate of the Heart." In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick van Felteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, pp. 252278. New York, 2001.

Wright, J. R. "An Olivetan Benedictine Breviary of the Fifteenth Century." In A Distinct Voice, edited by Jacqueline Brown and William P. Stoneman, pp. 143154. Notre Dame, Ind., 1997.

R. Kevin Seasoltz (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 14 2018


Benedictines are a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church consisting of both monks and nuns. Members of the Benedictine Order, known for their formative influence in the Christianization of Europe, were relegated to a secondary status in the European settlement of Latin America. Unlike the other major religious orders of Europe (the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans), the Benedictines played a minor role in the colonizing and evangelization of Latin America. This was due in part to the control exercised by Spanish and Portuguese monarchs under the Royal Patronage of the Indies promulgated by Pope Julius II in 1508. Philip II of Spain, while encouraging missionary ventures of the mendicant orders from Spain and Portugal, was reluctant to give approval to petitions of the monastic orders to establish foundations in the New World. Many of the monastic communities were themselves reluctant to undertake large-scale missionary activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The principal reason for this reluctance was due to Benedictine efforts to reestablish a contemplative way of life, a process that was at odds with the call to evangelize Latin America.


Nonetheless, there was a Benedictine presence in Latin America from the sixteenth century—primarily in Brazil. From 1582–1598, monks of the Portuguese Benedictine Congregation established monasteries at Bahia (1581), Rio de Janeiro (1586), Olinda (1586) and São Paulo (1598). These communities exerted a considerable influence on the pastoral and liturgical life of the Brazilian Catholic church. After Brazil obtained its independence from Portugal in 1822, all Benedictines in Brazil were united into the Benedictine Brazilian Congregation (1827). Repressive laws of the Brazilian government reduced the numbers and influence of the congregation to the point where, in 1894, there were only ten monks remaining. At this juncture, the German Beuron Congregation of Benedictines committed themselves to revivify monastic life in Brazil. Within fifteen years, they restored six abbeys, several priories and smaller houses, and sent monks to do missionary work among the Indians of the Amazon River Basin. The twentieth century was marked by a renewed growth in the numbers and influence of the Benedictine Brazilian Congregation, which by 1985 had grown to seven abbeys and 170 monks. In 2005, Brazil had 13 monasteries and 110 monks.


Outside Brazil, the period from 1500 to 1900 was practically devoid of organized Benedictine activity. Individual missionary monks, a number of Benedictine bishops, and a few communities of Benedictine women appeared throughout these centuries, but it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that an aggregate presence began with the foundation of a number of new houses.

In 1899 monks of Belloc Abbey in France founded the Abbey of Niño Dios in Argentina. Like the first Brazilian abbey three centuries earlier, this monastery grew rapidly and exerted much influence. In 1903 monks of Silos Abbey in Spain started the first of what were intended to be several foundations in Mexico. Successive persecutions by the Mexican government forced the monks to flee that country in 1915, and to settle in Buenos Aires, where they started the Abbey of San Benito. At the same time, Silos established the first Benedictine foundation in Chile (Nuestra Señora de las Nieves del Puente). Two more foundations in Chile followed in 1920 and 1977. Another Chilean house was the monastery of Las Condes (1938), eventually taken over by the Beuronese Congregation. German-speaking monks from Einsiedeln, Switzerland, were also responsible for the establishment of the Abbey of Los Toldes in Argentina (1948). Noteworthy in the wave of new houses after World War II were seven monasteries of Benedictine sisters.


In March 1960 Pope John XXIII urged the superiors of North American religious communities to intensify their missionary efforts in Latin America. A wave of new foundations followed in both Central and South America as a result of this appeal, including several of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance (Trappist) in Argentina and Chile. This thrust toward a more contemplative religious life was affirmed by the Latin American bishops in their historic meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968.

One of the fruits of the reform of religious life in the Roman Catholic Church brought about by Vatican Council II (1962–1965) was the organization of all Benedictine monasteries in Latin America into the Congregation of Cono-Sur in 1970. This congregation then divided itself into three geographic areas: CUMBRA (Brazil), ABECA (Caribbean, Central America), and Cono-Sur (the remaining South American nations). The congregation's members have held triennial reunions since 1972 and have become a vital component of the Latin American church, staffing schools, serving as centers for prayer and scholarship, and providing pastoral care. By 2005, the congregation numbered over 8,000 monks and 16,000 Benedictine women worldwide.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Colonial Period; Catholic Church: The Modern Period.


Antonio Linage Conde, El monacato en España e Hispanoamérica (1977), esp. pp. 619-660.

Oliver Kapsner, "The Benedictines in Brazil," in American Benedictine Review 28 (1977):113-132.

Jean Leclercq, "Espasione monastica fuori dell'Europa: America Latina," in Dizionario degli Istituti di Perfezione 5 (1978):1734-1735.

Mauro Matthei, "Implantación del Monacato Benedictino Cisterciense en el Cono Sur," in Cuadernos Monásticos 52 (1980):21-128.

Leander Hogg, "Philip II of Spain and the Benedictines in the New World," in American Benedictine Review 35 (1984):364-377.

Additional Bibliography

Andrade Cernadas, José Miguel. El monacato benedictino y la sociedad de la Galicia Medieval: Siglos X al XIII. Sada, A Coruña, Spain: Edicios do Castro, 1997.

Barry, Patrick, OSB. A Cloister in the World: The Story of the Manquehue Apostolic Movement, a Benedictine Movement of the Laity and Its Work in Chile. St. Louis, MO: Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Louis, Outskirts Press, 2005.

Luna, Joaquim G. de. Os monges beneditinos no Brasil: Esbôço histórico. Rio de Janeiro: Edições "Lumen Christi," 1947.

                                    Joel Rippinger O.S.B.


views updated May 11 2018

Benedictines. The monastic order of St Benedict of Nursia (c.480–c.550) had its origins at Monte Cassino, south of Rome, where c.540 Benedict drew up a rule, drawing heavily on antecedent Rules, such as those of St Augustine of Hippo and Caesarius of Arles. This concise codification, detailing the practice of communal spiritual and contemplative life, remained one of several monastic rules in western Europe but gradually, partly through the unifying influence of the Carolingian empire, became dominant, until challenged by the rule of St Augustine in the 11th cent. Apart from its structured articulation of the monastic life, one of its chief strengths was its adaptability, and many interpretations were introduced, often in an effort to enforce greater asceticism and discipline, of which amongst the most influential were those of Benedict of Aniane (c.750–821) in the Carolingian empire, Cluny, founded in Burgundy in 909, and Cîteaux, also in Burgundy (1098).

The first Benedictine abbeys in England were probably those founded by Wilfrid of York at Ripon and Hexham at the end of the 7th cent. Thereafter the order spread rapidly in England, and soon supplanted communities of Celtic and other observance, though these survived for many years in Celtic Britain. Important abbeys were established in the north, e.g. at Jarrow-Monkwearmouth; in the south-east, especially at Canterbury, where the existing monasteries of Christ Church and St Augustine's were reformed on Benedictine lines; in the south-west, e.g. at Glastonbury and Malmesbury. With the rise of the kingdom of Mercia further notable foundations were made in the midlands, especially in the Severn valley, while others emerged in the fenlands, such as Peterborough. The Viking raids of the 9th cent. severely affected most Benedictine houses, some of which were totally destroyed; others were refounded, and some new ones founded in the mid-10th cent. under the influence of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester, all themselves monks. Though the extent of this monastic reform has been questioned there remains little doubt that there was a considerable revitalization of the monastic movement. Following the Norman Conquest some abbeys lost land, but most soon recovered under new, Norman abbots, and attracted widespread patronage, as did St Albans and Westminster, and new abbeys were founded, such as Chester, St Mary's York, Durham, and Selby. There was also an increase in the number of Benedictine nunneries, though the most prestigious were Anglo-Saxon foundations like Shaftesbury or Wilton. Though later challenged by the emerging universities the following two centuries perhaps marked the high point of Benedictine cultural, artistic, and scholarly influence, at centres such as Winchester, Bury St Edmunds, and St Albans.

The Benedictines were also challenged by the rising appeal to lay society of new orders, like the Cistercians and the Augustinians, and the friars who presented a new spirituality, and attempts were made at internal reform and centralization of an order that now numbered several hundred houses. By the 16th cent. the number of Benedictine monks had declined significantly and, though many remained wealthy institutions till their dissolution, their dynamic had largely been lost.

Brian Golding


views updated Jun 11 2018

Benedictines Monks and nuns of the monastic Order of Saint Benedict, who follow the Rule laid down by Saint Benedict (of Nursia) in the 6th century. The order played a leading role in bringing Christianity and civilization to Western Europe in the 7th century and in preserving the traditions of Christianity throughout the medieval period. During the Reformation most Benedictine monasteries and nunneries in Europe were suppressed. The order revived in France and Germany during the 17th century. Benedictine monks and nuns returned to England in the late 19th century and the Benedictine Order spread to North and South America. See also monasticism


views updated May 21 2018

Ben·e·dic·tine / ˌbeniˈdikˌtēn; -tin/ • n. 1. a monk or nun of an order following the rule of St. Benedict.2. trademark a liqueur based on brandy, originally made by Benedictine monks in France.• adj. of St. Benedict or the Benedictines.


views updated May 11 2018

Benedictine. Monastic Order based on the rules of St Benedict (480–543), who established the great Abbey at Monte Cassino from which the arts of agriculture, architecture, and writing were disseminated. In C9 the Rule was regularized, and the Order confined its activities to Western Europe. An exemplary plan for the Benedictine Monastery of St Gall in Switzerland survives, and demonstrates the sophistication of the architecture as early as c.820: the plan of the church itself is similar to that used for several later churches.


Eschapasse (1963);
J. Evans (1972)


views updated May 18 2018

Benedictine A French liqueur invented in about 1510 by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in France. The Abbey was closed, and the recipe lost after the French Revolution, then rediscovered about 1863. It is based on double‐distilled brandy, flavoured with some 75 herbs and spices; it contains 40% (by volume) alcohol and 30% sugar; 300 kcal (1.3 MJ)/100 mL. See also B and B.


views updated May 18 2018

Benedictine a monk or nun of a Christian religious order following the rule of St Benedict, established c.540. The Rule of St Benedict was gradually adopted by most Western monastic houses, sometimes with their own modifications. Benedictines were also known as Black Monks from the colour of their habits.

The liqueur benedictine, based on brandy, is named from its being originally made by Benedictine monks in France.


views updated May 11 2018

Benedictine (monk or nun) of the order of St. Benedict, founded by him c.529. XVII. — F. bénédictin or modL. benedictīnus, f. Benedictus; see -INE1.
So benedictine liqueur made by these monks. XIX. — F. bénédictine (sc. liqueur), fem. of above adj.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic