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Benedictus of Nursia, Abbott of Monte Cassino

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Benedictus of Nursia. St. Benedict, abbot of Monte Cassino ("Abbas Casinensis"), called "patriarch of the monks of the West," lived during the troubled and tumultuous period after the deposition of Augustulus, when most of the countries of Europe were either overrun by Arians or still heathen. There were many monks in southern Europe, but without much organization till Benedict reformed and remodelled the monastic life of Europe (Mab. Ann. I. i.). The principal, almost sole, authority for the life of St. Benedict are the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. The genuineness of these has been questioned, but without sufficient cause.

Benedict was born about a.d.480 at Nursia (Norcia), anciently belonging to the Sabines ("frigida Nursia," Virg.), an episcopal city in the duchy of Spoleto in Umbria. His parents were of the higher class ("liberiori genere," Praef. Dial. ). A later writer gives their names, Euproprius and Abundantia (Petr. Diac. de Vir. Ill. i.). The ruins of the ancestral palace are shewn at Norcia, with a crypt, the reputed birthplace of Benedict (Mab. Ann. i. 4). He was sent as a boy to be educated at Rome; but soon, shocked by the immorality of his companions, fled, followed by his nurse (Cyrilla; Petr. D. de Vir. Ill. i.), to Ahle (Effide), on the Anio (Teverone), about forty miles from Rome ( Dial. ii. 1). Thence he retired to a cave at Sublaqueum (Subiaco), where he lived as a hermit in almost utter isolation for some years, visited only from time to time by a priest of the neighbourhood, Romanus ( Dial. ii. 1). The cave, the well-known "il Sagro Speco," is shewn about three miles of very steep ascent above the town of Subiaco, and the traditionary spot marked by a monastery, once famous for its library and for the first printing press in Italy, where the youthful anchoret rolled naked in the thorn-bushes to overcome sensual temptations (Mab. Ann. i. 8). The fame of his sanctity spreading abroad, Benedict was invited, his youth notwithstanding, by the monks of a neighbouring monastery (at Vicovarro) to preside over them, and very reluctantly consented. Soon, however, their laxity rebelled against his attempts at reformation (he seems thus early to have shewn the organizing faculty for which he became afterwards so remarkable), and he abdicated, after miraculously escaping being poisoned by them ( Dial. ii. 3). He retired to his cave; and undertook the superintendence of youths, among whom were two who became foremost among his followers, Maurus and Placidus, sons of Roman patricians ( Dial. ii. 4). Here he founded, it is said, twelve monasteries, each of twelve monks with a "father" at the head of them (Dial. ii. 3). Of these only two remain, "Il Sagro Speco" and "Sta. Scholastica"; the rest being in ruins, or merely oratories (Mab. Ann. ii. x). That of "Sta. Scholastica," so named after Benedict's sister, enjoys special privileges, and takes precedence among the Benedictine foundations even of Monte Cassino, as of older date (Alb. Butler, Lives of the Saints ). Several of the miracles ascribed to Benedict are connected with Subiaco. But, after some time, finding his work continually hindered by the machinations of a dissolute priest, Florentius, he removed, probably c. 530 (Mab. Ann. iii. 5), with some of his disciples to Monte Cassino ( Dial. ii. 8), destined to become illustrious as the headquarters of the great Benedictine order, and as a stronghold of learning and liberal arts even in the darkest ages. The mountain, with a town and stream at its base, all of the same name, stands on the borders of what were formerly Latium and Campania, nearer to Naples than Rome, a few miles from the birthplace of the great Dominican, Thomas Aquinas. Some ruins of an old Roman amphitheatre mark the site of the town, near the modern St. Germano; the little stream flows into the Rapido, a tributary of the Garigliano (Liris). The summit of the mountain three miles above the town, and even at the present time inaccessible to carriages, was crowned, before the arrival of Benedict, by a temple of Apollo; frequented even then by the rustics ( Dial. i. 8), although the existence of a bp. of Cassino is indicated by the list of bishops present at the Roman Council, a.d.484 (Mab. Ann. iii. 5). On this precipitous eminence, looking down on the plains washed by the peaceful Liris ("taciturnus amnis," Hor.), and backed by the wild crags of the Abruzzi Benedict set himself with new vigour to carry out his plans of a revival of monasticism. The miraculous intervention of which Gregory hands down the story ( Dial. ii. 9, 10) is not necessary to explain how the missionary spirit of Benedict and his monks overthrew the image and altar of Apollo, and reared shrines of St. John Evang. and St. Martin, the founder of monasticism in France, within the very walls of the Sun-god's temple—it was customary to reconsecrate, not to destroy, pagan edifices (Greg. M. Ep. xi. 76)—where now stands one of the most sumptuous of Italian churches. Here Benedict commenced the monastery destined to a world-wide reputation. Here for 12 years or more he presided over his followers; here he is believed to have composed the Benedictine Rule, in the same year, it is said, in which the schools of Athens were suppressed, and his famous Code was promulgated by Justinian; and from this sequestered spot he sent forth his emissaries not only to Anxur (Terracina, Dial. ii. 22), but beyond the borders of Italy to Sicily (Mab. Ann. iii.. 25). Mabillon considers the narrative in Greek by Gordianus of the Mission of Placidus into Sicily spurious, but the mission itself beyond doubt. Not many years elapsed before this and other similar foundations were richly endowed with lands and other offerings (Greg. M. Ep. iii. 3).

It was in the vicinity of Monte Cassino that Benedict confronted and rebuked the ferocious Totila (a.d.542) at the head of his victorious Ostrogoths (Dial. ii. 14, 15), and that he was wont to cheer his solitude by brief and rare interviews with his beloved sister, Scholastica, herself a recluse at no great distance ( ib. 33). He is said to have been summoned to a synod at Rome (a.d.531) by Boniface II. (Cave, Hist. Litt. on the authority of a codex in Bibl. Vat. by Ant. Scrip. Mon. Cas., Eleg. Abb. Cas. p. 25). His death is variously computed from 539 ( Schol. Bened. in Honor. August. iii. 30 ap. Fabr. Bibl. Eccl. ) to a.d.543 (Trithem, de Vir. Ill. c. 300, ap. Fabr.; cf. Clint. Fast. Rom. and Mab. AA. SS. O.S.B. Praef.). Some few writers assign a yet later date. His sister (his twin-sister according to Trithemius, but cf. Mab. Ann. iii. 14) shortly predeceased him. She is called abbess by Bertharius, Abb. Cas. in the 8th cent. ( ib. ); but probably lived alone (cf. Greg. M. Dial. iii. 7, 14), or as one of a sisterhood. The words "ad cellam propriam recessisset" are ambiguous ( Dial. ii. 34; cf. Act. Sanct. Feb. 10).

The character of St. Benedict may be best estimated from his Regula Monastica , if, as indeed is reasonable to suppose, it was his composition. In contrast to monastic rules already in existence, chiefly of Eastern origin, it breathes a spirit of mildness and consideration, while by the sanction for the first time given to study it opened the way for those literary pursuits which afterwards developed themselves so largely within convent walls. The account of the great Reformer's tender affection for his sister, and of his withdrawal before opposition at Subiaco, seems to give verisimilitude to the traditionary portraits of him, as of gentle though dignified aspect. His demeanour before Totila, the strict rule under which he kept others as well as himself (Dial. ii. 23, etc.), and his severity in repressing the slightest disobedience (24, 28, etc.) testify to his practical insight into character (20), as well as to his zeal and courage. In Dial. iii. 161 he is said (like Anthony) to have reproved a hermit who had chained himself to a rock, in these words, "Brother, be bound only by the chain of Christ!" The character of the Benedictine Order, by the specialities which have always distinguished it from other religious orders, attest the sagacious and liberal character of its founder. Fleury thinks he was not ordained, although he preached ( Eccl. Hist. xxxii. 15). The idea of his being a priest is modern (Mab. Ann. O.S.B. v. 122; Murat. Scr. Ital. iv. 27).

Some, probably not all, of the remains of St. Benedict were transferred from his shrine at M. Cassino to the Benedictine abbey at Floriacum (Fleury), on the Loire, in the 7th cent. or at a later date (Mab. Acta , ii. 339). The question is discussed at length in AA. SS. Boll. 21 Mar 3:299-301, and in Mab. AA. SS. O.S.B. Saec. ii. 337-352.

For his life, see Greg. M. Dial. lib. ii. in Migne's Patr. lxvi., also in Mabillon's Acta Sanctorum O.S.B. Saec. i., in Muratori, Script. Rer. Italic. iv., and elsewhere. Vita S. Benedicti (in verse), by Marcus Poeta, said to be a disciple of St. Benedict, in Mab. AA. SS. Saec. i.; cf. Pauli Diac. Histor. Langobard. i. 26; see also Grégoire le Grand, la vie de St. Benoit , etc., par Jos. Mege, Par. 1734, 4to; Mab. Ann. O.S.B. i. viii., Acta Sanctorum (Bolland.), 21 Mark 3 Bened. Haefteni, Commentar. in Vit. S. Bened. For a more complete catalogue of hymns, sermons, etc., on St. Benedict see Potthast s.v. Among modern biographies see Le pitture dello Zingaro nel chiostro di S. Severino in Napoli pubblicate per la prima volta a dilucidate da Stanislao d’Aloe (Napoli, 1846, 4to); also Tosti St. Ben. , historical discourse on his life from the Italian (Lond. 1896), and Essays on Tosti's Life (Lond. 1896). In a new ed. of the English trans. of Montalembert's Monks of the West (Lond. 6 vols. 1896) is an introduction by Dom Gasquet on the Rule. A convenient ed. of the Rule, by D. H. Blair, with Eng. translation, was pub. at Lond. and Edin. (2nd. ed.), 1896.


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Benedictus of Nursia, Abbott of Monte Cassino'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​b/benedictus-of-nursia-abbott-of-monte-cassino.html. 1911.
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