The monastery at Subiaco in Italy, established by Saint Benedict of Nursia c. 529, was the first of the dozen monasteries he founded. He later founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino. There is no evidence, however, that he intended to found an order and the Rule of Saint Benedict presupposes the autonomy of each community. When Monte Cassino was sacked by the Lombards about the year 580, the monks fled to Rome, and it seems probable that this constituted an important factor in the diffusion of a knowledge of Benedictine monasticism.
It was from the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome that Augustine, the prior, and his forty companions set forth in 595 on their mission for the evangelization of England. At various stopping places during the journey, the monks left behind them traditions concerning their rule and form of life, and probably also some copies of the Rule. Lérins Abbey, for instance, founded by Honoratus in 375, probably received its first knowledge of the Benedictine Rule from the visit of St. Augustine and his companions in 596.
Gregory of Tours says that at Ainay Abbey, in the sixth century, the monks "followed the rules of Basil, Cassian, Caesarius, and other fathers, taking and using whatever seemed proper to the conditions of time and place", and doubtless the same liberty was taken with the Benedictine Rule when it reached them. In Gaul and Switzerland, it supplemented the much stricter Irish or Celtic Rule introduced by Columbanus and others. In many monasteries it eventually entirely displaced the earlier codes.
By the ninth century, however, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, where the Celtic observance still prevailed for another century or two. Largely through the work of Benedict of Aniane, it became the rule of choice for monasteries throughout the Carolingian empire.
Monastic scriptoria flourished from the ninth through the twelfth centuries. Sacred Scripture was always at the heart of every monastic scriptorium. As a general rule those of the monks who possessed skill as writers made this their chief, if not their sole active work. An anonymous writer of the ninth or tenth century speaks of six hours a day as the usual task of a scribe, which would absorb almost all the time available for active work in the day of a medieval monk.
In the Middle Ages monasteries were often founded by the nobility. Cluny Abbey was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910. The abbey was noted for its strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict. The abbot of Cluny was the superior of all the daughter houses, through appointed priors.
One of the earliest reforms of Benedictine practice was that initiated in 980 by Romuald, who founded the Camaldolese community.
The dominance of the Benedictine monastic way of life began to decline towards the end of the twelfth century, which saw the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans. Benedictines took a fourth vow of "stability", which professed loyalty to a particular foundation. Not being bound by location, the mendicants were better able to respond to an increasingly "urban" environment. This decline was further exacerbated by the practice of appointing a commendatory abbot, a lay person, appointed by a noble to oversee and to protect the goods of the monastery. Oftentimes, however, this resulted in the appropriation of the assets of monasteries at the expense of the community which they were intended to support.
The English Benedictine Congregation is the oldest of the nineteen Benedictine congregations. Augustine of Canterbury and his monks established the first English Benedictine monastery at Canterbury soon after their arrival in 597. Other foundations quickly followed. Through the influence of Wilfrid, Benedict Biscop, and Dunstan, the Benedictine Rule spread with extraordinary rapidity, and in the North it was adopted in most of the monasteries that had been founded by the Celtic missionaries from Iona. Many of the episcopal sees of England were founded and governed by the Benedictines, and no fewer than nine of the old cathedrals were served by the black monks of the priories attached to them. Monasteries served as hospitals and places of refuge for the weak and homeless. The monks studied the healing properties of plants and minerals to alleviate the sufferings of the sick.
Germany was evangelized by English Benedictines. Willibrord and Boniface preached there in the seventh and eighth centuries and founded several abbeys.
In the English Reformation, all monasteries were dissolved and their lands confiscated by the Crown, forcing their Catholic members to flee into exile on the Continent. During the 19th century they were able to return to England, including to Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, one of the few great monastic churches to survive the Dissolution.
The two sides of a Saint Benedict Medal
St. Mildred's Priory, on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, was built in 1027 on the site of an abbey founded in 670 by the daughter of the first Christian King of Kent. Currently the priory is home to a community of Benedictine nuns. Five of the most notable English abbeys are the Basilica of St Gregory the Great at Downside, commonly known as Downside Abbey, The Abbey of St Edmund, King and Martyr commonly known as Douai Abbey in Upper Woolhampton, Reading, Berkshire, Ealing Abbey in Ealing, West London, and Worth Abbey. Prinknash Abbey, used by Henry VIII as a hunting lodge, was officially returned to the Benedictines four hundred years later, in 1928. During the next few years, so-called Prinknash Park was used as a home until it was returned to the order.
St. Lawrence's Abbey in Ampleforth, Yorkshire was founded in 1802. In 1955, Ampleforth set up a daughter house, a priory at St. Louis, Missouri which became independent in 1973 and became Saint Louis Abbey in its own right in 1989.
As of 2015, the English Congregation consists of three abbeys of nuns and ten abbeys of monks. Members of the congregation are found in England, Wales, the United States of America, Peru and Zimbabwe.
Since the Oxford Movement, there has also been a modest flourishing of Benedictine monasticism in the Anglican Church and Protestant Churches. Anglican Benedictine Abbots are invited guests of the Benedictine Abbot Primate in Rome at Abbatial gatherings at Sant'Anselmo. There are an estimated 2,400 celibate Anglican Religious (1,080 men and 1,320 women) in the Anglican Communion as a whole, some of whom have adopted the Rule of St. Benedict.
Monastic Libraries in England
The forty-eighth rule of Saint Benedict prescribes extensive and habitual "holy reading" for the brethren. Three primary types of reading were done by the monks during this time. Monks would read privately during their personal time, as well as publicly during services and at meal times. In addition to these three mentioned in the Rule, monks would also read in the infirmary.
However, Benedictine monks were disallowed worldly possessions, thus necessitating the preservation and collection of sacred texts in monastic libraries for communal use. For the sake of convenience, the books in the monastery were housed in a few different places, namely the sacristy, which contained books for the choir and other liturgical books, the rectory, which housed books for public reading such as sermons and lives of the saints, and the library, which contained the largest collection of books and was typically in the cloister.
The first record of a monastic library in England is in Canterbury. To assist with Augustine of Canterbury's English mission, Pope Gregory the Great gave him nine books which included the Gregorian Bible in two volumes, the Psalter of Augustine, two copies of the Gospels, two martyrologies, an Exposition of the Gospels and Epistles, and a Psalter. Theodore of Tarsus brought Greek books to Canterbury more than seventy years later, when he founded a school for the study of Greek.
Monasteries were among the institutions of the Catholic Church swept away during the French Revolution. Monasteries were again allowed to form in the 19th century under the Bourbon Restoration. Later that century, under the Third French Republic, laws were enacted preventing religious teaching. The original intent was to allow secular schools. Thus in 1880 and 1882, Benedictine teaching monks were effectively exiled; this was not completed until 1901.
Saint Blaise Abbey in the Black Forest of Baden-Württemberg is believed to have been founded around the latter part of the tenth century. Other houses either reformed by, or founded as priories of, St Blasien were: Muri Abbey (1082), Ochsenhausen Abbey (1093), Göttweig Abbey (1094), Stein am Rhein Abbey (before 1123) and Prüm Abbey (1132). It also had significant influence on the abbeys of Alpirsbach (1099), Ettenheimmünster (1124) and Sulzburg (ca 1125), and the priories of Weitenau (ca 1100), Bürgeln (before 1130) and Sitzenkirch (ca 1130).
The abbey of Our Lady of the Angels was founded in 1120.
The first Benedictine to live in the United States was Pierre-Joseph Didier. He came to the United States in 1790 from Paris and served in the Ohio and St. Louis areas until his death. The first actual Benedictine monastery founded was Saint Vincent Archabbey, located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1832 by Bonifice Wimmer, a German monk, who sought to serve German immigrants in America. In 1856, Wimmer started to lay the foundations for St. John's Abbey in Minnesota. In 1876, Father Herman Wolfe, of Saint Vincent Archabbey established Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. By the time of his death in 1887, Wimmer had sent Benedictine monks to Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, and Colorado.
Wimmer also asked for Benedictine sisters to be sent to America by St. Walburg Convent in Eichstätt, Bavaria. In 1852, Sister Benedicta Riepp and two other sisters founded St. Marys, Pennsylvania. Soon they would send sisters to Michigan, New Jersey, and Minnesota.
By 1854, Swiss monks began to arrive and founded St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana, and they soon spread to Arkansas and Louisiana. They were soon followed by Swiss sisters.
There are now over 100 Benedictine houses across America. Most Benedictine houses are part of one of four large Congregations: American-Cassinese, Swiss-American, St. Scholastica, and St. Benedict. The congregations mostly are made up of monasteries that share the same lineage. For instance the American-Cassinese congregation included the 22 monasteries that descended from Boniface Wimmer.