If we are to understand the mind of early medieval man, we must attempt to place ourselves in his situation and circumstances. It is difficult for us, having been reared in an age of relative peace and prosperity, to grasp the degree to which Western Europe had succumbed to chaos, warfare, and barbarism after Roman civil authority collapsed in the fourth and fifth centuries.
It is common for modern historians to scoff at the term “Dark Ages” as an appellation to describe the period roughly extending from 500 to 1000 A.D.; this is a loaded term, they tell us, and one unfairly pinned on these centuries by Renaissance humanists seeking to bolster their own prestige. Yet we must not be persuaded by this argument: the term “Dark Ages” is not an exaggeration. Western Europe had hit rock bottom. Classic culture dangled by a few precarious threads. It survived only in isolated monasteries, within the walls of the Church in Rome, and in the holdings of extremely wealthy families. The arts were confined to approved ecclesiastical forms; commerce and trade were reduced to a trickle; and the psychological foundations of social order were shattered by generations of ravagement, plunder, and conflict. Illiteracy and ignorance flourished. While interesting and stimulating developments took place in the East, where Byzantium and the Islamic caliphate remained relatively prosperous and stable, Western Europe lay prostrate under the heels of barbarian kings and rude potentates.
After the failure of Justinian’s Gothic War, Byzantium could offer Western Christendom nothing in the way of protection or support. The Mediterranean was more or less controlled by Islamic navies, and the coasts of this once peaceful sea became dotted with pirates’ lairs, from which Normans, Magyars, and North Africans emerged to raid the coasts of Italy, Sicily, France, and Spain. In every region, centralized authority was replaced by anarchy and the rule of local warlords. In the north, ferocious Northmen—who neither understood nor respected classic culture—sallied forth from desolate fjords to raid and plunder the coasts of England and northern France. Within a generation they seemed to be everywhere, even venturing across the unknown western ocean, and meandering through Russia’s immense rivers in search of trade and riches.
Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes overran the old Roman province of Britannia; Franks, Burgundians, and Goths invaded and digested Gaul; Spain was overrun by Visigoths and intrepid Islamic armies; and Rome itself, the center of western Christendom, exhausted and broken after centuries of conflict, suffered the humiliation of being powerless to prevent a Saracenic incursion in 846. In August of that year, a fleet of seventy-three Arab ships carrying eleven thousand men and five hundred horses, landed near Rome and took possession of the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, which were stripped clean and vandalized. Pope Sergius, weak and demoralized, could do nothing to stop them, while his brother Benedict, we are told by a chronicler of the time, was “extremely stupid and passive” (brutus et stolidus valde). The Roman senate by this time had passed into history; after about 700, we find no reference of its existence.
This, then, was the fearsome world in which early medieval man found himself. It was a harsh, anarchic world. And yet isolated pockets of learning and culture continued to survive, as they usually do; the souls of noble men and women continued to yearn for order, discipline, and honorable service. The Roman Church was one of the few—or perhaps the only—institution which could meet this need. Monasticism was one expression of this desire for order amidst the chaos. Christian monasticism had a long tradition in the East; but its anchorite austerities were ill-suited to the climate and geography of Europe. What was needed, it seemed to the ecclesiastical authorities, was a community of believers living and working in an enclosed space that could be defended from the physical and moral assaults of the secular world. By the sixth century there was a substantial number of monasteries in Italy. Each of these was governed by its own rule of living; but it would not be until the advent of St. Benedict that a truly comprehensive set of monastic guidelines came to be developed. The rule attributed to him, written in a simple, unadorned Latin style, would eventually become one of the most influential works of the medieval period.
No authoritative account of his life exists. Benedict of Nursia was born around 480 A.D. in Spoleto. He was educated in Rome, but his experiences there alienated him from secular society. Still a teenager, he retreated to an isolated residence in the Sabine hills for several years; but his piety and commitment to the Christian life won him fame and many adherents among the local people. Eventually he was asked to become the abbot of a nearby monastery; he accepted, but made it clear that his regimen would not be an easy one. This arrangement did not work out; one of the brothers tried to poison him, so he left and resumed his solitary residence. Yet he continued to attract admirers and pupils; by 520 about twelve small monasteries guided by his philosophy had sprang up around him. In 529 he opened one of the most famous of all Western monasteries, the abbey at Monte Cassino. I visited it in 2018, and was amazed both by its remote mountaintop location, and by the immensity of the structure itself.
Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries (Regulae Monasteriorum) govern all aspects of monastic life: the type of man an abbot should be, group discipline, humility guidelines, eating, sleeping, health, prayer, work, even punishments. A reader cannot help but admire the determination and heroism it must have taken for men to seek to impose order and discipline in a world overwhelmed by barbarism and anarchy. For in Benedict’s pages we do indeed perceive a philosophy; it is not the esoteric grandeur of Plato or Epicurus, to be sure, but it was what it had to be to meet the needs of the time. We will consider Benedict’s views on leadership, and see what he may teach us secular moderns.
Of the types of monks (de generibus monachorum), says Benedict, there are four kinds: cenobites, anchorites, sarabaites, and gyrovagues. We will not trouble ourselves here with the distinctions between these categories. It is the instruction of cenobites that he is concerned with; that is, monks living in a monastery and guided by an abbot. Benedict, who is surprisingly practical when it comes to the ways of the world and men, understands that the personality of the abbot is all-important. It is his leadership that makes, or breaks, the community. Here we can discern how his past experiences shaped his leadership philosophy. We may distill the essential points of his chapter What Sort of Man the Abbot Should Be (Qualis Debeat Abbas Esse) as follows below.
The abbot occupies his position to carry out the teachings of Christ. He is not to substitute his own teachings in their place, or to twist them to his own ends. The abbot will eventually be judged, says Benedict, on two matters: his teachings, and on the behavior of his disciples. If these two things do not bring credit on the abbot, then he has failed in his mission. What Benedict is trying to express, I believe, is the principle of responsibility in leadership: the leader must carry out a certain vision, and if his followers do not demonstrate that vision, then he has not been successful. Above all, the good abbot should lead by example. He should not hector or berate his charges while he himself fails to live up to those same precepts. Neither must he ever do anything that contradicts what he has taught this followers.
A good abbot must not show any favoritism towards some monks over others. All men are to be treated with justice and equanimity. In what was a startling innovation for the time, Benedict specifically decreed that no free man should be given preferential treatment over a man who had been a slave in secular life (Non convertenti ex servitio praeponatur ingenuus nisi alia rationabilis causa existat). The abbot’s guiding principle should be: whether slave or free man, “we are all one in Christ” (omnes in Christo unum sumus). It would not be an exaggeration to say that this rule was revolutionary in an age when captive servitude in one form or another was commonplace.
The abbot should consider himself a teacher and an instructor. His guiding precept should be the formula Benedict calls “reprimand, coax, berate” (argue, obsegra, increpa), a phrase taken from scripture (2 Tim. 4:2). The idea is to use a mixture of incentives and threats in order to accomplish one’s goals. So old is the principle of the carrot and the stick! But here we see how wise and practical Benedict was: it is often supposed that monks were dreamy idealists, disconnected from the realities of human interactions. This was not the case, as a careful study of Benedict’s rule shows. Finding the right balance between threats and compliments is, of course, a leader’s primary challenge, but here only wisdom and experience can be one’s guide. Some will be more successful than others. The good abbot will adapt his style and delivery to “the nature and intelligence” of each individual, humoring some, being stern with others, and taking other postures as the situation dictates.
The abbot must be willing to punish malfeasance and crimes vigorously. They must be “pulled out by the root as soon as they appear” (sed ut mox ut coeperint oriri, radicitus ea, ut praevalet, amputet) lest their taint should infect the community. Followers should be given a first and second verbal warning; after that, the abbot should not hesitate to use physical punishments as further incentives. Our squeamish modern age has forgotten, perhaps, the necessity of corporal punishment and its prevalence throughout history. “A fool is not corrected with words” (Stultus verbis non corrigitur), Benedict reminds us. Physical correctives, administered promptly and judiciously, can be more humane and efficient in the long term than any other method of eliminating bad behavior.
The abbot must always be mindful of his station. He is not to fraternize or lower his guard with his charges; he must remember that he is held to a higher standard, and that the price of leadership can be loneliness. Above all, the abbot must never lose sight of the fact that he has been entrusted with the souls of others, and so must act accordingly. Eventually he will be called to render and account. He must not use the excuse of insufficient resources as a way of dodging his responsibilities, for “those who fear God lack nothing” (Ps. 33/34:10).
Even to the secular modern reader, these is something deeply moving in the Rule of St. Benedict. For here is a man grasping to fashion order out of chaos, a man who accepts the brutal limitations of his era while refusing to resign himself to depravity and indolence, as did so many of his contemporaries. His rule was what it had to be, considering the times he was living in; and he displays such acuity of understanding of leadership that we still profit from his guidance. We largely owe to him and his followers the preservation in the west of a great many classical manuscripts; and his communities were candles of light in an otherwise insufferable shroud of darkness. He is the greatest figure of Western monasticism. In 1964 the Church declared him the patron saint of Europe; and no man deserves the honor more than he.
Read more in the groundbreaking translation of Cicero’s On Duties: