Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia was an Italian monk (c. 480-547). He established a new monastic order, the Benedictines, and established “precepts”. These greatly influenced the various later monastic orders in Western Europe. So Benedict is known as the founder of the monastic system in Western Europe. The contents of the “precepts” are also explained below.

Benedict’s Life

 Benedict was born in Nursia, in central Italy, to a prominent family. He studied philosophy and law in Rome. He felt that life in Rome was licentious and entered monastic life.

 At first, like the monks of his day, Benedict began life as a hermit monk. In other words, he lived a life of asceticism alone, away from human habitation. He spent three years in a cave at the foot of the Abruzzi Mountains.

 Gradually, Benedict gained fame. Disciples began to gather. However, some people began to oppose Benedict’s aspirations. A bishop in the neighborhood was against him. Anecdotally at the time, the bishop sent poisoned bread and seven naked women to obstruct Benedict’s activities. Benedict left the area with disciples.

 Father of the monastic system: the Monastery of Monte Cassino

 In 529, Benedict and his disciples moved to Monte Cassino, south of Rome. There they established a monastery and began living together. With the establishment of the Benedictine Order, monasteries in Western Europe entered a new era.
 Let us therefore briefly summarize the history of Western European monasticism up to Benedict. By doing so, the significance of Benedict can be better understood.

Concise history of Monasticism up to St. Benedict

 The first monks living in monasteries appeared in Western Europe in the late 3rd century. Anthony of Egypt is said to have been the first. A biography of Anthony was written, and he became a model for later generations of monks. He lived in seclusion away from the secular world, practicing asceticism, curing the sick, preaching, and teaching the younger generation. He lived in poverty and purity.
 Later, monasteries in Western Europe gradually developed. The life of seclusion continued to be encouraged. However, living together with other monks was encouraged to meet their material needs. The significance of labor as well as prayer was also encouraged. This is because the Bible says that those who work deserve to receive food. Monks were asked to restrain their laughter. It was believed that those who had a sober soul would not laugh out loud.
 Monasteries were integrated as part of the church system. Until then, monasteries had kept their distance not only from the secular world but also from the official activities of the church. However, in the 5th century, the right to erect and supervise monasteries was granted to bishops. In the process, the church father Hieronymus played an important role in introducing the Eastern Orthodox monastic system to the West.
 The monastic system was gradually developed under the leadership of the abbots. The monks were to live in one place, praying, working, reading, and eating together on a regular basis, and observing such rules as silence and poverty.

 Benedict’s “Precepts”

 Under the circumstances , St. Benedict made a significant contribution to the development of the monastery in the first half of the 6th century, which marked the beginning of a new era. For this reason, Benedict came to be known as the father of the Western monastic system. One of the reasons for this is the “Precepts” that he compiled for his Benedictine Order. The rules he established there became the prevailing standard for monastic life in the West after him. This “Precepts” was developed by absorbing elements of earlier monasticism.
 The motto of the Rule is “Pray and work”. Let us examine its contents in detail.


 Benedict tells us to avoid monks who do not have a leader or who are wanderers without a permanent home. Others are cohabiting monks and advanced monks. “Precepts” is mainly for cohabiting monks. It consists of 73 chapters and is considered to be for beginners, not for advanced monks.
 The monks are obliged to obey the abbot and the precepts. The abbot is elected by the community of monks and is accountable to them. Monks were to learn humility and poverty in the monastery rather than knowledge and skill. In particular, they were to be obedient and humble toward God and their superiors. They should do their best to carry out even the most seemingly unreasonable orders.
 In the monastery, the emphasis is first on prayer. Liturgy is essential. Psalms are recited at regular intervals each day. On Sundays, there is also reading and chanting of psalms and the New Testament. The proper way to pray is also explained.
 Labor is also emphasized. This includes housework and field work. Later, manuscript work was added as an important labor. The detailed regulation of the hours of labor is considered a milestone in the history of the monastery.
Labor was considered a part of monastic training. Reading and study were also emphasized. Reading was for the training of psalm chanting and recitation. When their goods are marketed as a result of their labor, their price should be set lower than the average price. This is for the sake of humility.
 As for dietary rules, the monks were to be vegetarians. Only the sick are allowed meat. Fish and fowl are not prohibited. Some drinking was permitted. However, it was assumed that those who did not drink were preferred by God.
 As for the management of property, private ownership of property was forbidden as a vice. The monastery’s administration of offices and supplies was also regulated. In particular, they were instructed to make a list of books, relics, and other valuable items of the time. In fact, many lists remain. A crude long robe, hood, and sandals, pens and hand towels are provided as necessities. Clothing should be adapted to the characteristics of each region, but should be simple.
 Rules for contact with the outside world were also established. The monks are allowed to meet with visitors only by permission. Contact with the outside world was to be the work of the wise old monk. Guests were not allowed to speak freely with the monks.
If the monks were on a journey, they must not speak inside the monastery of what they had seen or heard outside. They must not accept gifts from the outside without permission. When accepting a newcomer, first assess whether or not he can be accepted for at least six months. If children were accepted, they were given the choice of becoming a monk or being returned to the secular world when they came of age. Each monastery was to avoid contact with the outside world as much as possible.
 Disciplinary rules were also established. If a monk was disobedient to the abbot or other superior, he was to be reprimanded. If a monk refuses to obey a reprimand in public and If he does not understand the problem of his sin, he is subjected to corporal punishment. If he understands it, he is excommunicated. However, excommunication may be minor or major. The lightest is exclusion from the common table. The heaviest is exclusion from the ministry. Contact with other monks is strictly forbidden. If this does not help, whippings are administered. If this is ineffective, the final step is expulsion from the monastery. However, if the monk repent after the expulsion, he may return up to three times.

 This “Precepts” became popular by Pope Gregory I. Furthermore, Emperor Karl I issued an imperial decree adopting it and incorporated it into the church policy of the empire.

Figures associated with Benedict

St. Francis: Founder of the Franciscan order that developed Western monasticism in the 13th century. What kind of changes would Western European monasteries and friaries, which were oriented toward settlement and disliked wandering, undergo?

St. Benedict

Recommended or Selected References

杉崎泰一郎『修道院の歴史』 創元社, 2015

Lonni Collins Pratt, Benedict’s way : an ancient monk’s insights for a balanced life, Loyola Press, 2000

Benjamin Laird, An analysis of St. Benedict’s the Rule of St. Benedict, Routledge, 2017