The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapters Twenty-Three through Thirty, So You (a Medieval Monk) Have Been Really Bad. Now What?

Despite being men of God, monks didn’t always act holy. Saint Benedict knew that his monks were only human and that humans slip up and make mistakes. This post will be discussing chapters twenty-three through thirty of The Rule of Saint Benedict. While there are other chapters focusing on disciplining bad monks, they focus on minor faults. Today’s post concentrates on what a superior should do if a monk commits a grave fault.

 

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A Monk and Nun in the Stocks | BL Royal MS 10 E IV f.187r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Three is titled “Of Excommunication for Offenses” (pg. 43). Here Saint Benedict lists out what actions are punishable by excommunication:

“If any brother shall be found contumacious, or disobedient, or proud, or a murmurer, or in any way transgressing the Holy Rule, and contemning the orders of his seniors…” (pg. 43)

However, just because a monk does any of these things, it doesn’t mean he should be immediately excommunicated. (Which I will note isn’t necessarily kicking the monk out of the monastery, never to return. I’ll go into more detail about that later on in this post.) Instead, Saint Benedict allows the Abbot to give the monk a little bit of leniency. For the first offense, a monk should “be once or twice privately admonished by his elders” (pg. 43). When you speak to someone privately about their wrongdoings, you can avoid the anger and defensiveness that usually comes out when someone is called out publicly. It also allows the monk some time to reflect and correct himself.

If a monk keeps acting out despite being privately spoken to, “let him be rebuked in public before all” (pg. 43). Unfortunately, some people only change their ways after a bit of public humiliation. That being said, sometimes neither of these tactics work. If the monk is still misbehaving, then “let him be subjected to excommunication, provided that he understand the nature of the punishment” (pg. 43). What happens if a monk doesn’t get why excommunication is so bad? Well, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk “undergo corporal chastisement” (pg. 43).

Chapter Twenty-Four is titled “What the Measure of Excommunication should be” (pg. 43). Here excommunication is a way to isolate the misbehaving monk from the community at large. (Verses permanently throwing the man out on the street.) Saint Benedict reminds his reader that the punishment should fit the crime. Depending on “the gravity of the offence [sic]” how severe the punishment is “left to the judgment of the Abbot” (pg. 43). This is a wise way of going about things. Needless to say, if one monk murders another monk in cold blood, privately talking to him isn’t exactly an effective punishment. Letting an Abbot make his own judgments allows him to look at the surrounding circumstances of the original crime.

The text goes on to describe the proper punishment for “any brother…found guilty of lighter faults” (pg. 43). Saint Benedict recommends that the bad monk “be excluded from the common table” (pg. 43). Not only does he have to “take his meals alone” but a bad monk has to eat “after those of the brethren” (pg. 43). However, the monk can’t eat immediately after his fellow monks are done. He has to wait and be hungry for a good amount of time before he can eat too. So if the community usually eats “at the sixth hour” the bad monk will “eat at the ninth” (pg. 43). And if they usually “eat at the ninth” the monk has to wait to “eat in the evening” (pg. 43). This goes on “until by proper satisfaction he obtain pardon” (pg. 43).

Being excluded doesn’t just mean being left out at mealtimes. It also means being left out of other group activities. This includes worshipping as well:

“And this shall be the rule for one so deprived: he shall intone neither Psalm nor antiphon in the Oratory, nor shall he read a lesson, until he have made satisfaction.” (pg. 43)

 

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Monks Worshipping | Source: PICRYL.com

 

Chapter Twenty-Five is titled “Of Graver Faults” (pg. 44). Here Saint Benedict goes into detail for the punishments suitable for monks who really mess up. Not only is the monk “excluded both from the table and from the Oratory” (pg. 44) like he would be if he just committed a lesser fault, he is also excluded from the monastic community at large. Meaning that “none of the brethren [are allowed to] consort with him or speak to him” (pg. 44). The monk is isolated in all things. He is to “be alone at the work enjoined him” as well as “take his portion of food alone” (pg. 44).

Because he has committed a grave fault, the monk doesn’t just eat a few hours after everyone else. Instead, his food will be “in the measure and at the time that the Abbot shall think best for him” (pg. 44). This means that the abbot may limit the bad monk’s food portions and make him wait all day until he is allowed to eat. This type of control could either be an effective enough punishment or something that a power-hungry (pun unintended) Abbot would take advantage of to the extreme.

The bad monk’s complete isolation is added to with the last sentence of this chapter:

“Let none of those who pass by bless him, nor the food that is given him.” (pg. 44)

If the bad monk isn’t even allowed to be blessed, then that means he really screwed up. But what happens if another monk talks to him anyway? Well, Saint Benedict covers that in the next chapter!

Chapter Twenty-Six is titled “Of those who, without Leave of the Abbot, Consort with the Excommunicate” (pg. 44). This particular chapter is insanely short. It’s only one sentence. That being said, Saint Benedict really only needs to make his point in one sentence:

“If any brother presume without the Abbot’s leave to hold any intercourse whatever with an excommunicated brother, or to speak with him, or to send him a message, let him incur the same punishment of excommunication.” (pg. 44)

One thing I find particularly notable about this passage is how Saint Benedict closes up any potential loopholes. I can imagine a monk saying to his abbot, ‘I only sent him a letter, I didn’t actually talk to him’ in an attempt to avoid getting in trouble himself. It’s also interesting that Saint Benedict is sure to specify that monks are only allowed to talk to their punished brethren with the permission of their abbot. Even if a monk is shunned from the community, eventually there will need to be communication between the two parties. By giving the other monks permission through the abbot, Saint Benedict is relieving the anxiety a monk might have about being punished themselves.

Chapter Twenty-Seven is titled “How Careful the Abbot should be of the Excommunicate” (pg. 45). Here Saint Benedict argues that while an excommunicated monk is still in trouble, an abbot shouldn’t treat him so harshly that the monk gives up on being good forever. Instead, an abbot should “show all care and solicitude towards the offending brethren” (pg. 45). One tactic includes “sending some brethren of mature years and wisdom” to “secretly, console the wavering brother” (pg. 45). The older monks are to “comfort him, that he be not overwhelmed by excess of sorrow” (pg. 45). This section of the text certainly gives a lot more context to the loophole about receiving an abbot’s permission to talk to the fallen monk!

While no one is allowed to bless the bad monk or his food, Saint Benedict encourages “all pray for him” (pg. 45). An abbot needs to “use the greatest care…not to lose any one of the sheep committed to him” (pg. 45). After all, an abbot “hath undertaken the charge of weakly souls” (pg. 45). It’s his job to make sure those who stray come back to the righteous path. If he doesn’t, he’ll face the consequences on Judgment Day.

 

Royal MS 6 E VI:1 f.57r

Judgment Day | Royal MS 6 E VI/1 f.57r | Source: The British Library

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight is titled “Of those Who, being Often Corrected, do not Amend” (pg. 46). Here the text details what an abbot should do if the bad monk refuses to behave himself. These punishments should be given to a monk who “has been frequently corrected for some fault, or even excommunicated” (pg. 46). If a monk has been told not to do something and he keeps doing it, then it’s time for “the punishment of stripes” (pg. 46), or corporal punishment. And of course, during this time it is vital for the monk to say “his own prayers and those of all the brethren for him” (pg. 46).

But what happens if a monk is still bad even if you hit him? What if he keeps doing the things he’s not supposed to despite the community’s prayers? What if he “even wish to defend his deeds” (pg. 46)? Well, it’s important to note that excommunication and hitting the monk is supposed to be “the last remedy” (pg. 46). So, if you’ve done absolutely everything that Saint Benedict has recommended these last few chapters and the monk is still misbehaving then it’s time for “the Abbot [to] use the sword of separation” (pg. 46).  If an abbot doesn’t remove the problem monk then he runs the risk of “one diseased sheep…taint[ing] the whole flock” (pg. 46). However, kicking out a monk is only supposed to be the last resort.

Chapter Twenty-Nine is titled “Whether the Brethren who Leave the Monastery are to be Received Again” (pg. 46). This is another relatively short chapter. This part of the text explains how a community should handle a monk returning after he has either “through his own fault departeth or is cast out of the Monastery” (pg. 46). Not all monks/nuns who left their monasteries did so because they were kicked out. Some simply ran away! (The monastic life isn’t for everyone.) So what happens if a monk regrets leaving and wants to come back? He most certainly can, but there will be consequences for leaving in the first place.

The returning monk must “first to amend entirely the fault for which he went away” (pg. 47). After doing so, he will be welcomed back, but he will “be received back into the lowest place” (pg. 47) in the order of seniority. This is so “his humility may be tried” (pg. 47). This is to test the monk’s dedication to the monastic life. It’s important that the monk is returning for the right reasons and not just because he has nowhere else to go/is hungry/what have you. Monks leaving then coming back several times is implied to be an issue by the text. Saint Benedict specifically says:

“Should he again depart, let him be taken back until the third time: knowing that after this all return will be denied to him.” (pg. 47)

I think coming back three times is a reasonable amount. After three times, it starts to get a little ridiculous. Clearly, the monk isn’t returning for the right reasons.

 

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A Child Being Given to a Monastery as an Oblate |BL Royal 10 D VIII, f. 82v | Source: blogs.brown.edu

 

Our last chapter, Chapter Thirty is titled “How the Younger Boys are to be Corrected” (pg. 47). Once again, it is one of the shorter chapters in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Monasteries weren’t just full of men. Often times they had young children, called oblates, living there as well. Oblates were given to the monastery by their parents for various reasons. Here, it is explained how these boys should be punished.

The first sentence says that “every age and understanding should have its proper measure of discipline” (pg. 47). This is some good common sense. A five-year-old and a fifty-five-year-old should not be punished the same. Saint Benedict recognizes that if a child is “unable to understand the greatness of the penalty of excommunication” (pg. 47) he shouldn’t be excommunicated. However, Saint Benedict is also a product of his time and recommends that a naughty child “be punished by severe fasting or sharp stripes” so “they may be cured” (pg. 47).

 

 

Main Source:

The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 16, 2020.)

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation. (You have to scroll down to see the text.)

EDIT: In case you can’t access the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the PDF I used. That PDF can be accessed here.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

medieval-theft

A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire

Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

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Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.