The 21st March is usually associated with the first day of the Spring, but we should also remember that it is an anniversary of the death of Saint Benedict, who is a patron saint of Europe. He was quite an extraordinary man, and the order of the Benedictines (which he established) played a crucial role in developing the culture of mediaeval Europe. Let’s talk about Saint Benedict today.
Benedict was born about 480 in Nursia, and he was a twin-brother of Scholastica, who also became a saint. When he was about 20 years old, he became a hermit near Subiaco, but he soon started to have some troubles with the other hermits that lived nearby. We talk about the reality of the beginning of the 6th century, when the Roman Empire is gone in Western Europe, but it is still 300 years to go before we get to the Carolingian empire. The Catholic Church is not entirely established yet: not persecuted anymore, but still not entirely developed in its structures. The hermits, for example, lived in their own way: they were admired and followed by many pupils, but there was no formal ecclesiastical regulation for them. Saint Benedict found that way of living not entirely right, so the other hermits obviously did not like him. He was certain, however, that this issue should be solved: so he finally created the first rule of monastic life for the Western Church – and he created the order, called the Benedictines. That was the only order in the Western Europe almost until the end of the first millennium, and many other orders that were created later based their rules on the one written by Saint Benedict. The first Benedictine monastery was established at Monte Cassino, about 529, at a place where used to be a pagan sanctuary.
What was there in that famous rule? Well, for start, the main motto was “Ordo et Pax” (“Order and Peace”) and the most famous is probably “Ora et Labora” (“Pray and Work”). Saint Benedict cared a lot about hard work, so the rule is not very ascetic, as working requires strength and good health. The monks should have taken care of themselves so they could work in the field in the Summer and rewrite the books during the Winter. Every monk had to rewrite and read certain amount of books every year – because of that the Benedictine monasteries had the best libraries and were the main centres of science in the Europe in the first millennium. Each monk could read and write – that means that those monasteries grouped the best educated people of that time. Rewriting the books was actually pretty hard work (I recommend you checking out one of my previous posts about that: “Hairy Parchment and Other Issues“).
The rule itself seems to be really reasonable, even for nowadays’ reader. Saint Benedict understood that in spite of some general rules each person needs an individual approach (“Although human nature is of itself drawn to feel compassion for these life-periods, namely, old age and childhood, still, let the decree of the Rule make provision also for them. Let their natural weakness be always taken into account and let the strictness of the Rule not be kept with them in respect to food, but let there be a tender regard in their behalf and let them eat before regular hours.”). He also knew that young monks should be supervised by the elders, as young people tend to get some stupid ideas when they are on their own (“Let the younger brethren not have their beds beside each other, but intermingled with the older ones“). He was aware of the fact that working people need to be well-fed, and considering the fact that people often suffered from hunger back then, Benedictine diet seem to have been really well-balanced (“Making allowance for the infirmities of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added.”)
And what about drinking wine? Well, that part of the rule seems to be good as well: “Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that” (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each one.” We are not entirely sure how much “one hermine” was, but it usually assumed that it was around a pint (or even, according to some sources, 0.75 of the litre). Seems a very good amount of wine for each day, isn’t it?
Let’s raise our glasses to Saint Benedict and his Order. In terms of European culture and science the Benedictines have really turned water into wine.