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Rule of St. Benedict

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This work holds the first place among monastic legislative codes, and was by far the most important factor in the organization and spread of monasticism in the West. For its general character and also its illustration of St. Benedict's own life, see the article SAINT BENEDICT. Here, however, it is treated in more detail, under the following heads:

I. The Text of the Rule;
II. Analysis of the Rule;

III. Practical Working of the Rule.

The text of the rule

The exact time and place at which St. Benedict wrote his Rule are not known, nor can it be determined whether the Rule, as we now possess it, was composed as a single whole or whether it gradually took shape in response to the needs of his monks. Somewhere about 530 however, may be taken as a likely date, and Monte Cassino as a more probable place than Subiaco, for the Rule certainly reflects St. Benedict's matured monastic and spiritual wisdom. The earliest chronicler says that when Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards in 581, the monks fled to Rome, carrying with them, among other treasures, a copy of the Rule "which the holy Father had composed"; and in the middle of the eighth century there was in the pope's library a copy believed to be St. Benedict's autograph. It has been assumed by many scholars that this was the copy brought from Monte Cassino; but though this is likely enough, it is not a certainty. Be that as it may, this manuscript of the Rule was presented by Pope Zachary to Monte Cassino in the middle of the eighth century, a short time after the restoration of that monastery. Charlemagne found it there when he visited Monte Cassino towards the end of the century, and at his request a most careful transcript of it was made for him, as an exemplar of the text to be disseminated throughout the monasteries of his empire. Several copies of the Rule were made from it, one of which survives to this day; for there can be no doubt that the present Codex 914 of the St. Gall Library was copied directly from Charlemagne's copy for the Abbey of Reichenau. An exact diplomatic reprint (not in facsimile) of this codex was published at Monte Cassino in 1900, so that the text of this manuscript, certainly the best individual text of the Rule in existence, can be studied without difficulty. Various other manuscripts go back to Charlemagne's manuscript, or to its original at Monte Cassino, which was destroyed by fire in 896, and thus the text of the so-called autograph may be restored by approved critical methods with quite unusual certainty, and could we be certain that it really was the autograph, there would be no more to say.

But as already pointed out, it is not quite certain that it was St. Benedict's autograph, and the case is complicated by the circumstance that there is in the field another type of text, represented by the oldest known manuscript, the Oxford Hatton manuscript 42, and by other very early authorities, which certainly was the text most widely diffused in the seventh and eighth centuries. Whether this text was St. Benedict's first recension and the "autograph" his later revision, or whether the former is but a corrupted form of the latter, is a question which is still under debate, though the majority of critics lean towards the second alternative. In either case, however, the text of the "autograph" is the one to be adopted. The manuscripts, from the tenth century onwards, and the ordinary printed editions, give mixed texts, made up out of the two earliest types. Thus the text in current use is critically a bad one, but very few of the readings make any substantial difference.

The Rule was written in the Lingua Vulgaris or Low Latin vernacular of the time, and contains much syntax and orthography not in conformance with the classical models. There is as yet no edition of the Rule that satisfies the requirements of modern criticism, though one is in process of preparation for the Vienna "Corpus" of Latin Ecclesiastical writers. A sufficiently good manual edition was published by Dom Edmund Schmidt. of Metten, at Ratisbon in 1892, presenting in substance the text of St. Gall manuscript, with the Low Latin element eliminated.

The number of commentators on the rule is legion. Calmet gives a list of over a hundred and thirty such writers, and Ziegelbauer gives a similar list. The earliest commentary, in point of date, is that which has been variously ascribed to Paul Warnefrid (a monk of Monte Cassino about 780-799), Hildemar, Ruthard of Hirsau, and others. Hildemar, a Gallic monk, brought to Italy by Angelbert, Archbishop of Milan, reformed the monastery of Sts. Faustinus and Jovita at Brescia and died in 840. Marténe, who considered this commentary to be the best ever produced, maintained that Hildemar was its real author, but modern critics attribute it to Paul Warnefrid. Amongst other commentators the following deserve mention: St. Hildegard (d. 1178), the foundress and first Abbess of Mount St. Rupert, near Bingen on the Rhine, who held that St. Benedict's prohibition of flesh-meat did not include that of birds; Bernard, Abbot of Monte Cassino, formerly of Lérins and afterwards a Cardinal (d. 1282); Turrecremata (Torquemada) a Dominican (1468); Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim (1516); Perez, Archbishop of Tarragona and Superior-General of the congregation of Valladolid; Haeften, Prior of Afflighem (1648); Stengel, Abbot of Anhausen (1663); Mége (1691) and Marténe (1739) Maurists; Calmet, Abbot of Senones (1757); and Mabillon (1707), who discusses at length several portions of the Rule in his Prefaces to the different volumes of the "Acta Sanctorum O.S.B."

It is impossible to gauge the comparative value of these and other commentaries, because the different authors treat the Rule from different points of view. That of Calmet is perhaps the most literal and exhaustive on many important points; those of Marténe and Haeften are mines of information regarding monastic tradition: Perez and Mége are practical and pious, though the latter has been considered lax in many of the views maintained; that of Turrecremata is useful as treating the Rule from the standpoint of moral theology; and others give mystical interpretations of its contents. It may be pointed out that in studying the Rule as a practical code of monastic legislation, it is necessary to facilitate uniformity of observance, each congregation of the order has its own constitutions, approved by the Holy See, by which are regulated many of the matters of detail not touched upon by the Rule itself.

Before proceeding to analyze St. Benedict's Rule and to discuss its leading characteristics, something must be said about the monasticism that preceded his times, and out of which his system grew, in order that some idea may be gained as to how much of the Rule was borrowed from his precursors and how much was due to his own initiative. Such considerations are important because there is no doubt whatever that the introduction and propagation of St. Benedict's Rule was the turning-point which changed the whole trend of monasticism in the West.

The earliest forms of Christian monachism were characterized by their extreme austerity and by their more or less eremetical nature. In Egypt, the followers of St. Anthony were purely eremetical, whilst those who followed the Rule of St. Pachomius, though they more nearly approached the cenobitical ideal, were yet without that element of stability insisted upon by St. Benedict, viz: the "common life" and family spirit. Under the Antonian system the austerities of the monks were left entirely to their own discretion; under the Pachomian, though there was an obligatory rule of limited severity, the monks were free to add to it what other ascetical practices they chose. And in both, the prevailing idea was that they were spiritual athletes, and as such they rivaled each other in austerity. Syrian and strictly Oriental monasticism need not be considered here, as it had no direct influence on that of Europe. When St. Basil (fourth century) organized Greek monasticism, he set himself against the eremetical life and insisted upon a community life, with meals, work, and prayer, all in common. With him the practice of austerity, unlike that of the Egyptians, was to be subject to control of the superior, for he considered that to wear out the body by austerities so as to make it unfit for work, was a misconception of the Scriptural precept of penance and mortification. His idea of the monastic life was the result of the contact of primitive ideas, as existing in Egypt and the East, with European culture and modes of thought.

Monasticism came into Western Europe from Egypt. In Italy, as also in Gaul, it was chiefly Antonian in character, though both the rules of St. Basil and St. Pachomius were translated into Latin and doubtless made their influence felt. As far as we know, each monastery had practically its own rule, and we have examples of this irresponsible form of monastic life in the community St. Benedict was called from his cave to govern, and in the Gyrovagi and Sarabitae whom he mentions in terms of condemnation in the first chapter of his Rule. A proof that the pervading spirit of Italian monachism was Egyptian lies in the fact that when St. Benedict determined to forsake the world and become a monk, he adopted, almost as a matter of course, the life of a solitary in a cave. His familiarity with the rules and other documents bearing upon the life of the Egyptian monks is shown by his legislating for the daily reading of the "Conferences" of Cassian, and by his recommendation (c. 73) of the "Institutes" and "Lives" of the Fathers and the Rule of St. Basil.

When, therefore, St. Benedict came to write his own Rule for the monasteries he had founded, he embodied in it the result of his own mature experience and observation. He had himself lived the life of a solitary after the most extreme Egyptian pattern, and in his first communities he had no doubt thoroughly tested the prevailing type of monastic rule. Being fully cognizant, therefore, of the unsuitability of much in the Egyptian systems to the times and circumstances in which he lived, he now struck out on a new line, and instead of attempting to revivify the old forms of asceticism, he consolidated the cenobitical life, emphasized the family spirit, and discouraged all private venture in austerities. His Rule thus consists of a carefully considered combination of old and new ideas; rivalry in austerity was eliminated, and there was to be henceforth a sinking of the individual in the community. In adapting a system essentially Eastern, to Western conditions, St. Benedict gave it coherence, stability, and organization, and the verdict of history is unanimous in applauding the results of such adaptation.

Analysis of the rule

Of the seventy-three chapters comprising the Rule, nine treat of the duties of the abbot, thirteen regulate the worship of God, twenty-nine are concerned with discipline and the penal code, ten refer to the internal administration of the monastery, and the remaining twelve consist of miscellaneous regulations.

The Rule opens with a prologue or hortatory preface, in which St. Benedict sets forth the main principles of the religious life, viz.: the renunciation of one's own will and the taking up of arms under the banner of Christ. He proposes to establish a "school" in which the science of salvation shall be taught, so that by persevering in the monastery till death his disciples may "deserve to become partakers of Christ's kingdom".

Characteristics of the Rule

In considering the leading characteristics of this Holy Rule, the first that must strike the reader is its wonderful discretion and moderation, its extreme reasonableness, and its keen insight into the capabilities as well as the weaknesses of human nature. Here are no excesses, no extraordinary asceticism, no narrow-mindedness, but rather a series of sober regulations based on sound common-sense. We see these qualities displayed in the deliberate elimination of austerities and in the concessions made with regard to what the monks of Egypt would have looked upon as luxuries. A few comparisons between the customs of these latter and the prescriptions of St. Benedict's Rule will serve to bring out more clearly the extent of his changes in this direction.

With regard to food, the Egyptian ascetics reduced it to a minimum, many of them eating only twice or thrice a week, whilst Cassian describes a meal consisting of parched vetches with salt and oil, three olives, two prunes, and a fig, as a "sumptuous repast" (Coll. vii, 1). St. Benedict, on the other hand, though he restricts the use of flesh-meat to the sick, orders a pound of bread daily and two dishes of cooked food at each meal, of which there were two in summer and one in winter. And he concedes also an allowance of wine, though admitting that it should not properly be the drink of monks (Chapter 40). As to clothing, St. Benedict's provision that habits were to fit, to be sufficiently warm, and not too old, was in great contrast to the poverty of the Egyptian monks, whose clothes, Abbot Pambo laid down, should be so poor that if left on the road no one would be tempted to take them (Apophthegmata, in P.G. LXV, 369). In the matter of sleep, whereas the solitaries of Egypt regarded diminution as one of their most valued forms of austerity, St. Benedict ordered from six to eight hours of unbroken sleep a day, with the addition of a siesta in summer. The Egyptian monks, moreover, often slept on the bare ground, with stones or mats for pillows, and often merely sitting or merely reclining, as directed in the Pachomian Rule, whilst Abbot John was unable to mention without shame the finding of a blanket in a hermit's cell (Cassian, Coll. xix, 6). St. Benedict, however, allowed not only a blanket but also a coverlet, a mattress, and a pillow to each monk. This comparative liberality with regard to the necessaries of life, though plain and meagre perhaps, if tested by modern notions of comfort, was far greater than amongst the Italian poor of the sixth century or even amongst many of the European peasantry at the present day. St. Benedict's aim seems to have been to keep the bodies of his monks in a healthy condition by means of proper clothing, sufficient food, and ample sleep, so that they might thereby be more fit for the due performance of the Divine Office and be freed from all that distracting rivalry in asceticism which has already been mentioned. There was, however, no desire to lower the ideal or to minimize the self-sacrifice that the adoption of the monastic life entailed, but rather the intention of bringing it into line with the altered circumstances of Western environment, which necessarily differed much from those of Egypt and the East. The wisdom and skill with which he did this is evident in every page of the Rule, so much so that Bossuet was able to call it "an epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgement of all the doctrines of the Gospel, all the institutions of the Fathers, and all the Counsels of Perfection".

St. Benedict perceived the necessity for a permanent and uniform rule of government in place of the arbitrary and variable choice of models furnished by the lives and maxims of the Fathers of the Desert. And so we have the characteristic of collectivism, exhibited in his insistence on the common life, as opposed to the individualism of the Egyptian monks. One of the objects he had in view in writing his Rule was the extirpation of the Sarabites and Gyrovagi, whom he so strongly condemns in his first chapter and of whose evil lives he had probably had painful experience during his early days at Subiaco. To further this aim he introduced the vow of Stability, which becomes the guarantee of success and permanence. It is only another example of the family idea that pervaded the entire Rule, by means of which the members of the community are bound together by a family tie, and each takes upon himself the obligation of persevering in his monastery until death, unless sent elsewhere by his superiors. It secures to the community as a whole, and to every member of it individually, a share in all the fruits that may arise from the labours of each monk, and it gives to each of them that strength and vitality which necessarily result from being one of a united family, all bound in a similar way and all pursuing the same end. Thus, whatever the monk does, he does it not as an independent individual but as part of a larger organization, and the community itself thus becomes one united whole rather than a mere agglomeration of independent members. The vow of Conversion of Life indicates the personal striving after perfection that must be the aim of every Benedictine monk. All the legislation of the Rule, the constant repression of self, the conforming of one's every action to a definite standard, and the continuance of this form of life to the end of one's days, is directed towards "putting off the old man and putting on the new", and thereby accomplishing the conversio morum which is inseparable from a life-long perseverance in the maxims of the Rule. The practice of obedience is a necessary feature in St. Benedict's idea of the religious life, if not indeed its very essence. Not only is a special chapter of the Rule devoted to it, but it is repeatedly referred to as a guiding principle in the life of the monk; so essentials it that it is the subject of a special vow in every religious institute, Benedictine or otherwise. In St. Benedict's eyes it is one of the positive works to which the monk binds himself, for he calls it labor obedientiae (Prologue). It is to be cheerful, unquestioning, and prompt; to the abbot chiefly, who is to be obeyed as holding the place of Christ, and also to all the brethren according to the dictates of fraternal charity, as being "the path that leads to God" (Chapter 71). It is likewise extended to hard and even impossible things, the latter being at least attempted in all humility. In connexion with the question of obedience there is the further question as to the system of government embodied in the Rule. The life of the community centres round the abbot as the father of the family. Much latitude with regard to details is left to "discretion and judgement", but this power, so far from being absolute or unlimited, is safeguarded by the obligation laid upon him of consulting the brethren - either the seniors only or else the entire community - upon all matters affecting their welfare. And on the other hand, wherever there seems to be a certain amount of liberty left to the monks themselves, this, in turn, is protected against indiscretion by the repeated insistence on the necessity for the abbot's sanction and approval. The vows of Poverty and Chastity, though not explicitly mentioned by St. Benedict, as in the rules of other orders, are yet implied so clearly as to form an indisputable and essential part of the life for which he legislates. Thus by means of the vows and the practice of the various virtues necessary to their proper observance, it will be seen that St. Benedict's Rule contains not merely a series of laws regulating the external details of monastic life, but also all the principles of perfection according to the Evangelical Counsels.

With regard to the obligation or binding power of the Rule, we must distinguish between the statutes or precepts and the counsels. By the former would be meant those laws which either command or prohibit in an absolute manner, and by the latter those that are merely recommendations. It is generally held by commentators that the precepts of the Rule bind only under the penalty of venial sin, and the counsels not even under that. Really grave transgressions against the vows, on the other hand, would fall under the category of mortal sins. It must be remembered, however, that in all these matters the principles of moral theology, canon law, the decisions of the Church, and the regulations of the Constitutions of the different congregations must be taken into consideration in judging of any particular case.

Practical working of the rule

No higher testimony as to the inherent excellencies of the Rule can be adduced than the results it has achieved in Western Europe and elsewhere; and no more striking quality is exhibited by it than by its adaptability to the ever-changing requirements of time and place since St. Benedict's days. Its enduring character is the highest testimony to its wisdom. For fourteen centuries it has been the guiding light of a numerous family of religious, men and women, and it is a living code at the present day, just as it was a thousand years ago. Though modified and adapted, from time to time, to suit the peculiar necessities and conditions of various ages and countries, by reason of its wonderful elasticity its principles still remain the same, and it has formed the fundamental basis of a great variety of other religious bodies. It has merited the encomiums of councils, popes, and commentators, and its vitality is as vigorous at the present time as it was in the ages of faith. Though it was no part of St. Benedict's design that his spiritual descendants should make a figure in the world as authors or statesmen, as preservers of pagan literature, as pioneers of civilization, as revivers of agriculture, or as builders of castles and cathedrals, yet circumstances brought them into all these spheres. His sole idea was the moral and spiritual training of his disciples, and yet in carrying this out he made the cloister a school of useful workers, a real refuge for society, and a solid bulwark of the Church (Dudden, Gregory the Great, II, ix). The Rule, instead of restricting the monk to one particular form of work, makes it possible for him to do almost any kind of work, and that in a manner spiritualized and elevated above the labour of merely secular craftsmen. In this lies one of the secrets of its success.

The results of the fulfilment of the precepts of the Rule are abundantly apparent in history. That of manual labour, for instance, which St. Benedict laid down as absolutely essential for his monks, produced many of the architectural triumphs which are the glory of the Christian world. Many cathedrals (especially in England), abbeys, and churches, scattered up and down the countries of Western Europe, were the work of Benedictine builders and architects. The cultivation of the soil, encouraged by St. Benedict, was another form of labour to which his followers gave themselves without reserve and with conspicuous success, do that many regions have owed much of their agricultural prosperity to the skillful husbandry of the sons of St. Benedict. The hours ordered by the Rule to be devoted daily to systematic reading and study, have given to the world many of the foremost scholars and writers, so that the term "Benedictine erudition" has been for long centuries a byword indicative of the learning and laborious research fostered in the Benedictine cloister. The regulations regarding the reception and education of children, moreover, were the germ from which sprang up a great number of famous monastic schools and universities which flourished in the Middle Ages.

It is true that as communities became rich and consequently less dependent upon their own labours for support, the primitive fervour for the Rule diminished, and for this reason charges of corruption and absolute departure from monastic ideals have been made against monks. But, although it is impossible to deny that the many reforms that were initiated seem to give colour to this view, it cannot be admitted that the Benedictine Institute, as a whole, ever became really degenerate or fell away seriously from the ideal established by its legislator. Individual failures there certainly were, as well as mitigations of rule, from time to time, but the loss of fervour in one particular monastery no more compromises all the other monasteries of the same country than the faults of one individual monk reflect necessarily upon the rest of the community to which he belongs. So, whilst admitting that the rigour of the Rule has varied at different times and in different places, we must, on the other hand, remember that modern historical research has entirely exonerated the monastic body as a whole from the charge of a general departure from the principles of the Rule and a widespread corruption of either ideal or practice. Circumstances have often rendered mitigations necessary but they have always been introduced as such and not as new or better interpretations of the Rule itself. The fact that the Benedictines still glory in their Rule, guard it with jealousy, and point to it as the exemplar according to which they are endeavouring to model their lives, is in itself the strongest proof that they are still imbued with its spirit, though recognizing its latitude of application and its adaptability to various conditions.


MONTALAMBERT, Monks of the West (Tr., London, 1896), IV; TOSTI, St. Benedict, tr. Woods (London, 1896); DOYLE, The Teaching of St. Benedict (London, 1887); DUDDEN, Gregory the Great (London, 1905); BUTLER Lausiac History of Palladius, Introd., XIX in Cambridge Texts and Studies (Cambridge, 1898); IDEM, The Text of St. Benedict's Rule, in Downside Review, XVII, 223; and in Journal of Theol. Studies, III, 458; BESSE, Le Moine Bénédictine (Ligué], 1898); HAEFTEN, Disquisitiones Monasticae (Antwerp, 1644); SCHMIDT, Regula Scti. Benedicit (Rtatisbon, 1880, 1892); WOELFFLIN, Benedicti Regula Monachorum (Leipzig, 1895); TRAUBE, Textgeschicte der Regula S. Benedicti (Munich 1898).
COMMENTARIES: WARNEFRID (Monte Cassino, 1880); MÈGE (Paris, 1687); MARTÈNE (Paris, 1690); also in P.L. LXVI; CALMET (Paris, 1734); MABILLON, Prefaces to Acta Sanctorum O.S.B. (Venice, 1733).
ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF THE RULE: ANONYMOUS (Ramsgate, 1872; Rome, 1895); DOYLE, ed. (London, 1875); VERHEYEN (Atchison, Kansas, 1906); HUNTER-BLAIR (Fort Augustus, Scotland, 1906).

About this page

APA citation. Alston, G.C. (1907). Rule of St. Benedict. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Alston, George Cyprian. "Rule of St. Benedict." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert Gordon — image scanned by Wm Stuart French Jr. In Memory of Clifford A Gordon.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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