Blog post

Pray and work: The Rule of Saint Benedict

6th century guide for communal religious life

Cropped image of Saint Benedict. In one hand he holds the staff with the holy water brush, in the other hand a Bible with a chalice
Mark Vermeer (Public Library Bruges)

Few texts have had as much impact on Western monasticism as the Rule of Saint Benedict. Written by Benedict of Nursia (d. 547), the rule offers a well-suited and practical guide for communal religious life, attaining monastic ideals by governing the monks’ entire day. The Rule of Saint Benedict has been adopted by several monastic orders, including prominent orders such as the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Cistercians, and the Carthusians.

woodcut illustration of Saint Benedict, a man in a long robe holding a crook in one hand and a book with a poisoned cup in the other

The Rule of Saint Benedict dates from the early sixth century. In writing it, Benedict was not moving into uncharted territory: in the fourth and fifth centuries, several monastic rules had been written, by important theologians as Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine.

Benedict relied on these rules: several parts of his text can be traced back to precepts found in Augustine’s rule. Benedict’s main influence appears to have been the so-called Rule of the Master, written only shortly before Benedict’s. Unlike the earlier rules, the Rule of the Master did not only offer spiritual contemplations, but also a clear framework to structure monastic life with. Benedict used this framework and many of the topics in it - though not without careful and extensive revision and altering to suit his own ideas.

Lastly, he found usable material in the writings of John Cassian, whose work De Institutis coenobiorum contains advice on the organisation of a monastic community. Another work, Collationes Patrum, teaches the wisdom of the Egyptian hermits (known as Desert Fathers).

page from a manuscript with writing and illustrations

The Rule deals mostly with practical matters. A day revolved around eight moments of prayer, the hours, divided by periods of personal study or manual labour. This emphasis on both intellectual and manual labour is reflected in the Benedictine motto ‘Ora et labora’ (Pray and work).

The Rule governs, for instance, the course of meals, the reception of guests, and provisions for the monks with specific tasks, such as the kitchen staff. Monks’ activities were also prescribed in detail. Apart from the canonical offices and Holy Mass, they ought to perform manual labour or further educate themselves through reading and memorising.

Benedict’s Rule puts much more emphasis on reading than the works it was modelled on. The Augustinian rule mentions it only twice - one of which is to prohibit reading other than at fixed hours. The Basilian rule does not even mention reading.

The practical nature of Benedict’s Rule surely added to its popularity, which is mirrored in its preservation.

The text is found in an impressive amount of manuscripts. The oldest extant copy dates from ca. 700 in England. It shows signs of the process of copying an earlier manuscript, now unfortunately lost. Following the invention of the printing press, multiple printers throughout Europe published copies of Benedict’s Rule. Of one of these editions, printed in the year 1500 in Venice, no less than 157 copies still exist.

page from a manuscript with writing and decorated intial letters 'A'(pascha) and 'D'(ominico)

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.