Monk’s lives, in words and a picture

There are two outstanding documents that define the life of a Benedictine monk in the abstract. Both are purely theoretical, in that they do not deal with any particular instance or event, but rather prescribe what should be. One of these documents consists of words, while the other is a drawing.

The first is the Rule of Benedict, the collection of rules written down by St. Benedict himself in the 6th century. The Rule comprises 73 different chapters (or rules, I suppose) that cover a wide range of topics. Benedict describes the proper amount of food and drink for monks, how to welcome guests, correction of the young,1.Boys who don’t understand how severe a punishment excommunication is “should either be punished by means of severe fasting or chastised with harsh beatings to cure them.” In case you were wondering. Rule 30. “The times for singing Alleluia,” and many other matters.

The Rule, as you may have gathered, is a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts that regulate monastic living. Part of detailing life in the monastery inevitably requires some description of different roles that need to be fulfilled, as well as the inevitably hierarchy that evolves whenever groups of people come together and organize themselves.

There is the abbot, of course, who ruled with absolute authority. There are also deans, “brothers with good repute and a holy way of life should be chosen and appointed as deans to be responsible in all matters for the ten monks in their charge.”2.Rule 21, p.42. Other brothers had practical concerns and responsibilities, such as the cellarer, who was “in charge of everything… He should take the greatest care of the sick, of children, guests and the poor… He must treat all of the monastery’s utensils and property as if they were sacred altar vessels. He should offer the brothers their portions of food promptly and without any self-importance.”3.Rule 31, p.52.

Benedict described the kitchens that should be used (one for the monks, and one for the abbot and visitors),4.Rule 53, p.78. a clothing room (where a novice’s worldly clothes would be kept, in case “he listens to the devil’s persuasions and leaves the monastery (which God forbid), then he will have to take off the monastic clothes before he is expelled.”),5.Rule 58, p.86. and insists “The care of the sick must take precedence over everything else… A special room should be assigned to brothers who are sick, together with someone to attend them.” Keep in mind, however, that the sick “must not irritate the brothers who are serving them by making unreasonable demands.”6.Rule 36, p.59. Sound advice in any century.

While Benedict’s rule formed the organizational and spiritual foundation for Christian monastic life, there is precious little on the physical boundaries of that life. What did an 8th century monastery look like? The only archaeological evidence comes in the form of cemeteries, which, although highly informative on burial practices, don’t shed much light on those years spend on the ground, instead of in it.

Plan of St GallFortunately we have an extraordinary document, unique as an early medieval source. The Plan of St. Gall is an architectural plan of an idealized Benedictine monastery, drawn in the early 9th century. The document itself is fascinating, made out of five pieces of vellum, carefully stitched together. There are more than forty structures on the Plan, and hundreds of descriptive annotations. You can read (and see) far more about the Plan at the (naturally) Plan of St. Gall website.7.In particular I love the high-res photo, clear enough to see the threads in the stitching. There is much to discuss about the Plan, but for our immediate purposes we will focus on some of the overlap between what the Plan describes and what Benedict decrees.

Several of Benedict’s offices and functions are easily identified on the Plan. The Abbot’s house is accessed directly from the transept of the church, and his kitchen, cellar, and bath are attached. The infirmary is co-located, for reasons that escape me, with the novitiates. The two groups have separate but adjacent chapels and cloisters. The “House for Bloodletting” is next to both the physician’s house and the infirmary. A medicinal herb garden occupies a corner of the Plan. Even the clothing room is noted, as a vestiary, located above the monk’s communal meal room, called the refectory.

The Plan is more concerned with the monastery as a functional community than is the Rule. Whereas Benedict mentions craftsmen only in passing, the Plan includes many buildings with no spiritual function. There are houses for a gardener, fowl keeper, coopers and wheelwrights, horse and oxen keepers, shepherds, goatherds, cowherds, swineherds, and brood mare and foal keepers. With these references the Plan far more clearly defines the monastery to be as much as a manor as a center of contemplation and worship. No doubt Benedict knew that such everyday functions would have to be carried out, but concerned himself more with religious prescriptions.

Or maybe he didn’t know much about keeping brood mares.

Taken together the Rule of Benedict and the Plan of St. Gall give us a picture of monastic life in the 8th century, particularly in the absence of much in the way of archaeological evidence. Monks were expected to adhere to a strict regimen, with an unswerving attitude of piety and humility. In exchange for this somewhat blinkered life, monks were part of an organized and prosperous community. They need not fear famine (although they were not lifted above plagues), nor would a monk be called up in the general levy to fight on a distant frontier. We are fortunate to have these two complementary views of monastic life.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Boys who don’t understand how severe a punishment excommunication is “should either be punished by means of severe fasting or chastised with harsh beatings to cure them.” In case you were wondering. Rule 30.
2. Rule 21, p.42.
3. Rule 31, p.52.
4. Rule 53, p.78.
5. Rule 58, p.86.
6. Rule 36, p.59.
7. In particular I love the high-res photo, clear enough to see the threads in the stitching.

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