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Book V
Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book V
Chapter 17

Book V (continued)

Vol. IV
Chapter XVI

Saint Benedict


Sources: —

'Vita et Miracula Venerabilis Benedicti,' written by Pope Gregory I in Latin about 594, and translated into Greek by his successor Zacharias (741‑752). (The edition here used is that printed at Venice, 1723.)

Regula S. P. Benedicti (Migne's edition, Paris, 1866).

Guides: —

Les Moines d'Occident, par le Comte de Montalembert (1860). Les Monastères Bénédictins d'Italie,º par Alphonse Dantier (1867). Milman's History of Latin Christianity, Book III Chap. vi.

The world-wide fame of Benedict. By devious ways, and through a tangle of forgotten or but half-remembered names, we are come to a broad highway trodden by the feet of many reverent generations and made illustrious by some of the best-known figures in the history of mediaeval Christianity. Even in the annals of monasticism the saintly Severinus of Noricum, the studious Cassiodorus of Squillace, are but faintly remembered; but every one who knows anything of the spirit of the Middle Ages is familiar with the name of Benedict of Nursia. His face and the faces of his sister Scholastica, and his pupils Maurus and Placidus, pourtrayed by some of the greatest  p411 painters whom the world has known, look softly down from the walls of endless Italian galleries. His great monastery on Mount Cassino was for centuries, scarcely less than Rome and Jerusalem, the object of the reverent homage of the Christian world. More than either of those two historic sites did it enshrine a still existing ideal for the formation of what was deemed the highest type of human character. In the ninth century the great Emperor Charles ordered an enquiry to be made, as into a point requiring abstruse and careful research, 'Whether there were any monks anywhere in his dominions who professed any other rule than the rule of Saint Benedict.'​1 And so it continued to be, till in the thirteenth century those great twin brethren, Francis and Dominic, rose above the horizon, and the holiness of the reposeful Monk paled before the more enthusiastic holiness of the itinerant Friar. But during the intervening centuries, from the ninth to the thirteenth, all Western monks, from Poland to Portugal and from Cumberland to Calabria, looked with fond eyes of filial obedience and admiration to that Campanian hill on which their founder had fixed his home and of which a monastic Isaiah might have prophesied, 'From Cassino shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from the mountain of Benedict.'

Pope Gregory's biography of Saint Benedict. The life of Saint Benedict was written in Latin by Pope Gregory the Great, whose birth-year was perhaps the same as the death-year of the Saint. Such a book, the biography of the greatest Monk, written by the greatest Pope (himself also a Monk), obtained of course a wide and enduring popularity in the West; and in  p412 order that the East might share the benefit, a later pope, Zacharias, translated it into Greek. It is entitled 'The Life and Miracles of the Venerable Benedict, Founder and Abbot of the Monastery which is called (of) the Citadel of the Province of Campania.'​2 As we might have expected from the title, supernatural events occupy a large place in the narrative, and we find ourselves at once confronted with one of those problems as to the growth of belief which so often perplex the historian of the Middle Ages. We have not here to deal with the mere romancing of some idle monk, manufacturing legends for the glory of his order about a saint who had been in his tomb for centuries. Pope Gregory was all but a contemporary of St. Benedict, and he professes to have derived his materials from four disciples and successors of the Saint, Constantine, Valentinian, Simplicius, and Honoratus. In these circumstances the merely mythical factor seems to be excluded from consideration; and there is something in the noble character of Gregory and of the friends of Benedict which makes a historian unwilling to adopt, unless under absolute compulsion, the theory of a 'pious fraud.' Yet probably not even the most absolutely surrendered intellect in the Catholic Church accepts all the marvels here recorded as literally and exactly true. It is useless to attempt to rationalise them down into the ordinary occurrences of everyday life. Yet in recounting them one would not wish to seem either to sneer or to believe. Our best course doubtless is to give them in Pope Gregory's own  p413 words, studying them as phenomena of the age, and remembering that whatever was the actual substratum of fact, natural or supernatural, this which we find here recorded was what one of the greatest minds of the sixth century, the architect of the mediaeval Papacy and the restorer of the Christianity of Britain, either himself believed or wished to see believed by his disciples.

Benedict's birth-place. In the high Sabine uplands, nearly two thousand feet above the sea‑level, under the shadow of the soaring Monti Sibillini, which are among the highest peaks of the Apennine range, lies the little city of Norcia, known in Roman days as the municipium of Nursia,​3 and familiar to diligent students of the Aeneid as 'frigid Nursia.' A little stranded city, apparently, in its sequestered Apennine valley; its nearest point of contact with the world of politics and of war would be Spoleto, about twenty miles to the west of it on the great Flaminian Way, and Spoleto was eighty miles from Rome. Cir. 480 Here then in 'frigid Nursia,' about four years after Odovacar made himself supreme in Italy, was born to a noble Roman a son who received the prophetic name of Benedict, 'the blessed one.' Sent to Rome. He was sent as a boy to Rome to pursue his studies, and when there he probably saw the statues of Odovacar overthrown and the Forum placarded with the proclamations of the new ruler of Italy, Theodoric. But the young Nursian was thinking, not of the rise and fall of empires, but of the salvation of  p414 his own soul. He was horrified by what he saw of the wickedness of the great city; he feared that if he became imbued with what there passed for wisdom he too should one day rush headlong into all its vices: he elected rather to be poor and ignorant, and decided on quitting Rome and assuming the garb of a monk. Retires to the valley of the Anio. He set out for 'the desert,' that is, for the wild, thinly-peopled country by the upper waters of the Anio, and (pathetic evidence of the still tender years of the fervid anchorite) the faithful nurse who had come with him to Rome insisted on following him to his retirement.

At Efide. Before they reached the actual mountain solitudes they came to the little town of Efide (the modern village of Affile), and there finding many devout men who listened with sympathy to his sorrows and aspirations, he yielded to their advice and consented to take up his abode near them, in some chamber attached to the church of St. Peter.​4 First miracle. While he was dwelling here the first exhibition of his miraculous powers made him famous through all the surrounding district and drove him into yet deeper solitude. His faithful nurse had borrowed from some neighbours a sieve to sift some cornº with, and this sieve, made not of wood but earthenware,​5 had been carelessly left on the table, by a fall from which it was broken in two. The nurse wept over the broken implement, and the youthful saint, taking the fragments from hand and retiring for prayer, found when he rose from his knees the  p415 sieve so restored that no trace of the fracture could be discerned. So great was the admiration of the inhabitants at this marvel that they hung up the miraculous sieve at the entrance of the church, and there it remained for many years, till it perished, like many more precious treasures, in the waves of the Lombard invasion.6

He withdraws to Subiaco. The fame of this miracle brought to Benedict more visitors and more of the praise of this world than he could bear. His mind reverted to its original design, he determined to be absolutely unknown, and flying secretly from his nurse, he crossed the little ridge of hills which separates Affile from Subiaco and from the deep wild gorge of the Anio. Subiaco,​7 the Sublacus or Sublaqueum of the Romans, derives its name from the lakes which had been formed there by Nero, whose stately villa was mirrored in those artificial waters.​a We have already had occasion to notice it in connection with the story of the Roman aqueducts. It was about three miles above the place where the turbid waters of the Anio Novus were diverted from the river‑bed into the aqueduct which bore that name, and some twelve miles above the more serene and purer fountains of the Claudia and the Marcia. Situated about forty-four miles from Rome, in a precipitous and thickly-wooded valley, Sublaqueum was the sort of place which an artistic Emperor like Nero, who tried to make a solitude  p416 even round his golden house in Rome, might naturally resort to in the First Century, even as Popes made it the scene of their villeggiatura in later centuries, and even as artists from all countries now throng to it to transfer to their canvas the picturesque outlines of its rocks, its woods, and its castles. But during the convulsions of the Fifth Century, when wealthy pleasure-lovers were few, it might easily sink into solitude and decay: and hence no doubt it was that when Benedict, somewhere about the year 495, sought its recesses, a few rough peasants and some scattered anchorites formed its whole population, and his retirement thither could be spoken of by his biographer as a retreat into the desert.

Receives the monastic habit from Romanus. Here he was met by a monk named Romanus, who, hearing of his desires after a solitary life, bestowed upon him the monastic habit and led him to a narrow cave at the foot of a hill, Dwells for three years in a cave. where the delicately nurtured youth spent the next three years, hidden from the eyes of all men, and with the place of his retreat known only to the faithful Romanus. This only friend dwelt in a monastery not far off,​8 on the table-land over­looking the river. With pious theft he abstracted a small portion from each monastic meal, and on stated days hastened with his store to the brow of the hill. As no path led down to the cave of the recluse, the basket of provisions was tied to the end of a long rope, to which a bell was also attached, and thus the slowly-lowered vessel by its tinkling sound called the Saint from prayer to food. 'But one day the Ancient  p417 Enemy [the Devil], envying the charity of one brother and the refreshment of the other, threw a stone and broke the bell. Romanus, however, still continued to minister to him at the stated hours.'

His wants supplied by a distant Presbyter. After a time, from some unexplained cause, the ministrations of Romanus ceased,​9 and the saint, insensible to the wants of the body, might easily have perished of hunger. But a certain Presbyter living a long way from Subiaco, having prepared for himself a hearty meal for the next day, the festival of Easter, saw the Lord in a night vision and heard Him say, 'While thou art preparing for thyself these delicacies, a servant of mine in a cavern near Sublaqueum is tortured with hunger.' The Presbyter rose at once and set off on that Easter morning with the provisions in his hand. Up hill and down dale he went, till at last, scrambling down the face of the precipice, he found the cave where dwelt the holy man. After they had prayed and talked together for some time the Presbyter said to the Hermit, 'Rise and let us eat: to‑day is Easter‑day.' Benedict, who in his solitude and his perpetual fastings had long lost count of Lent and Easter-tide, said, 'An Easter‑day to me truly, since I have been allowed to look upon thy face.' The other answered, 'In very truth this is the Easter‑day, the day of the Resurrection of the Lord, upon which it becomes thee not to keep fast. Eat then, for therefore am I sent, that we may share together the gifts of the  p418 Lord Almighty.' So they ate and drank together, and after long converse the Presbyter departed.

The shepherds bring him food. It was soon after this that some shepherds of the neighbourhood discovered the cave, and found what they at first supposed to be a wild beast coiled up among the bushes. When they found that a man, and a holy man, was enveloped in that garment of skins, they listened eagerly to his preaching: and from this time forward he was never left in want of food, one or other of the shepherds bringing him such victuals as he needed, and receiving in return, from his lips, the message of eternal life.

The temptation. After the unnatural calm and utter absorption in the contemplation of heavenly things which had marked the Saint's first sojourn in the cave, there came a storm of terrible temptation. In those years of abstraction the dreamy child had grown into a man, with the hot blood of Italy in his veins; and his imprisoned and buffeted manhood struggled hard for the victory. Soft bird-like voices sounded in his ears, the form of a beautiful woman rose before his eyes, everything conspired to tempt him back from that dreary solitude into the sweet world which he had quitted before he knew of its delights. He had all but yielded to the temptation, he had all but turned his back upon the desert, when a sudden thrill of emotion recalled him to his old resolve. Bent on punishing the rebellious body which had so nearly conquered the soul, he plunged naked into a dense thicket of thorns and nettles, and rolled himself in them till all his skin was torn and smarting. The pain of the body relieved the anguish of the soul, and, according to the lovely poetical fancy of after ages,  p419 when seven centuries later his great imitator St. Francis visited the spot, the thorns which had been the instrument of St. Benedict's penance were miraculously turned to roses.10

Benedict's maturer judgment concerning his youthful austerities. From a hint which the Saint himself has given us, we may infer that his own mature judgment condemned his early impetuosity in facing while yet a boy the hardships and temptations of an anchorite's life in the wilderness. He says in the first chapter of his Rule, 'Hermits are' [by which he evidently means 'should be'] 'men who are not in the first fervour of their noviciate, but who having first learned by a long course of monastic discipline and by the assistance of many brethren how to fight against the Devil, afterwards step forth alone from the ranks of their brethren to engage him in single combat, God himself being their aid against the sins of the flesh and thoughts of evil.'11

Made abbot of the convent of Varia. The fame of the young Saint was now spread abroad throughout the valley, and the inmates of the convent of Varia12 (now Vicovaro), about twenty miles lower down the stream, having lost their abbot by death, besought Benedict to come and preside over them. Long he refused, feeling sure that his ways of thinking and acting would never agree with theirs. For these monks evidently belonged to that class which he in after days​13 described as 'the evil brood of the Sarabaitae.'  p420 This name, of Egyptian origin, denoted those who had turned back​14 from the rigour of their monastic profession while still wearing the monastic garb. 'Their law,' as he said, 'is the gratification of their own desires. Whatever they take a fancy to they call holy: the unlawful is that to which they feel no temptation.'15

The monks rebel against his rule. These men, in a temporary fit of penitence and desire after better things, chose Benedict for their Abbot, and he at length yielded to their will. But soon the passion for reform died away. They found it intolerable to be reprimanded at each little deviation to the right hand or to the left from the path of ascetic virtue. Angry words were bandied about in whispers, as each accused the other of having counselled the mad design of making this austere recluse from the wilderness their Abbot. They attempt to poison Benedict. At length their discontent reached such a height that they resolved on poisoning him. When the cup containing the deadly draught was offered to the reclining Abbot​16 he, according to monastic usage, made the sign of the cross in act of benediction. The moment that the holy sign was made, as if a stone had fallen from his hands, the cup was shivered to pieces and the wine was spilt on the ground. Perceiving at once the meaning of the miracle, Benedict arose and addressed the pallid monks with serene countenance: 'Almighty God pity you, my brethren. Why have ye designed this wickedness  p421 against me? Said I unto you that my ways and yours could never agree? Go and seek an Abbot after your own heart, for me ye shall see here no more.' He returns to the wilderness. And with that he arose and returned to the wilderness.

He founds monasteries at Subiaco. 501‑520 But Benedict's fame was now so far spread abroad that it was impossible for him any longer to lead the life of an absolutely solitary recluse. During the first twenty years of the sixth century, men anxious to commence the monastic career under his training were flocking to him from all parts of Italy. So numerous were these that he established no fewer than twelve monasteries in the neighbourhood of Subiaco; to each of which he assigned a superior, chosen from among his intimate friends. While probably exercising a general superintendence over all these religious houses, he himself dwelt with a few of his friends in a small house reared above his cave, the predecessor of the present Convento del Sacro Speco at Subiaco.17

St. Maurus and St. Placidus. Now too the nobles of Rome began to bring him their sons for education, and for dedication, if they should still after needful probation desire it, to the untroubled life of a coenobite. The most celebrated among these noble novices were Maurus and Placidus, sons of Aequitius and the Patrician Tertullus. 523 They came about the year 523. Placidus a mere child, Maurus a bright, earnest lad, already able to enter into some of the thoughts of his revered master and to be the instrument of his rule over the brethren. In the splendid series of frescoes by Signorelli and  p422 Sodoma which line the cloisters of the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto,​18 none is more interesting than that which depicts the arrival of young Maurus and Placidus, brought by their fathers, richly dressed and with a long train of horses and servants and all the state of a Roman noble as imagined by a mediaeval painter. Almost pathetic are the immediately following pictures, in which the little heads are already marked with the tonsure and the youthful faces already wear an aspect of too reposeful, unboyish holiness.19

Miracle of the rescue of Placidus. One of the most noteworthy and perplexing miracles of the Saint is connected with these, his young disciples. One day the little Placidus having gone to draw water from the neighbouring lake, stooping too far forward fell in and was swept by the swift current far from the shore. Benedict, who was praying in his cell, suddenly called out, 'Brother Maurus! run! That child has fallen into the water and is being carried away by the stream.' Maurus asked and received a hurried blessing, hastened to the margin of the lake, ran over its surface with rapid course, not perceiving that he trod on water, pulled his companion up by the hair, and hastily returned. When he had reached the shore he looked back over the lake and then saw for the first time, with trembling, what he had done. He returned and related the event to Benedict. 'It is a miracle,' said  p423 he, 'granted to thee as a reward of thy prompt obedience.' 'Not so,' said the youth, 'it is a miracle wrought by thy prayers.' The friendly controversy was settled by the testimony of the rescued Placidus, who declared that when he was being drawn out of the water he saw the hood of Benedict waving above him, and felt that it was by Benedict's arm that he was delivered.

Machinations of the priest Florentius. The rivalry between the monks and the parish priests, between the regular and the secular clergy, as they were afterwards called, which was to reappear in so many forms in after ages, already began to show itself. Florentius, the priest of a neighbouring church,​20 filled with jealousy at the increasing fame and influence of the Saint, endeavoured by slander and misrepresentation to draw away his disciples from following him. As years went on and still the fame of Benedict increased, while Florentius remained obscure, the character of the priest underwent an evil change, and from slanderous words he proceeded to murderous deeds. He sent, according to a not uncommon custom, a piece of bread to Benedict as a token of brotherhood.​21 The morsel was, however, a poisoned one, or at least the Saint believed it to be so, though, as he commanded a crow which was accustomed to feed out of his hand to bear it away into a desert place and there deposit it where it could be found  p424 of no man, it is difficult to see what evidence existed of the wicked designs of Florentius. The next step taken by the priest, who sent seven women of evil life to the monks' cells, was so outrageous and threatened such ruin to the community if this was to be the permitted manner of warfare, that Benedict resolves to leave Subiaco: circa 528. Benedict resolved to withdraw from the conflict, and, leaving his twelve monasteries under the rule of their respective heads, sought a new home for himself and his chosen friends fifty miles to the southward, in the countries watered by the Liris. We may fairly conjecture that the enmity of Florentius was not the sole cause that urged him to this migration. His was one of those characters which require solitude, leisure, liberty, in order to attain their true development. At Subiaco he found himself no longer a recluse, but the centre of a great system of administration, his name a battle‑cry, himself the leader of a party. Leaving those to strive and conquer who would, he bowed his head to the storm and again sought the freedom of the desert. Death of Florentius. Scarcely, however, had he started on his southward journey when a messenger from the faithful Maurus reached him with the tidings of the death of his enemy. The balcony on which Florentius was standing, to watch and to gloat over the departure of his foe, had given way, and the wicked priest had been killed by his fall. Benedict burst into loud lamentations over his death, inflicted penance on the messenger, who seemed to exult in the tidings which he bore, and continued his journey towards the Campanian lands. Evidently the enmity of Florentius, though it might be one cause, was not the sole cause of the great migration.

 p425  Monte Cassino. The new home of the Father of Monks was erected upon a promontory of high table-land, just upon the confines of Latium and Campania, which then over­looked the Via Latina, as it now over­looks the modern railway between Rome and Naples, from a point a little nearer to the latter city than to the former. Here, 'round the Citadel of Campania,' grew the shady groves in which, two hundred years after Constantine, a rustic multitude, still, after the manner of their forefathers, offered their pagan sacrifices to the statue of Apollo. At the command of Benedict the statue was ground to powder, the woods were cut down, and where the altar of the far‑darting god had stood, there rose, amid much opposition from unseen and hellish foes, two chapels to St. Martin and St. John, and, hard by, the new dwelling of the Coenobites. It was a memorable event in the history of the valley of the Liris, which turned the obscure Castrum Casinum into the world-renowned, the thought-moulding, the venerated monastery of Monte Cassino.22

Life at Monte Cassino, 528‑543. The migration from the Anio to the Liris occurred about 528, and fifteen years were passed by the Saint in his new 'citadel'-home. The record of these years, as of those passed at Subiaco, is chiefly a record of miracles. Some of the chief characteristics of this miraculous history may be here briefly touched upon.

 p426  Miracles of St. Benedict. Resemblances to those of the Hebrew prophets. Least interesting to us, because most obviously artificial in their character, are those wonders recorded of the Saint in which there is an obvious desire to emulate the miraculous deeds of Elijah and Elisha. When Benedict goes forth into the fields with his disciples to work, and by his prayers restores the dead son of a peasant to life;​23 when he heals a leper;​24 when a miraculous supply of oil bubbles up in the cask and runs over on the convent floor;​25 when he provides the monks of Subiaco with an easily-accessible spring of sweet water,​26 we feel that, whether to the Saint himself or to his biographers, the idea of these supernatural occurrences was suggested by what they had read in the Books of Kings.

Contests with the Evil One. Childish as some of them may seem to us, there is a greater psychological interest in those stories which describe the Saint as struggling for victory against the wiles and stratagems of the Devil. The Power of Evil is almost uniformly spoken of by Gregory as 'the Ancient Enemy' (antiquus hostis), and the minute acquaintance which is shown with his works and ways, the comparative ease with which his plots are foiled and himself brought to confusion, remind us rather of the way in which a hostile politician is spoken of by the admirers of his rival than of the dark and trembling hints dropped in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures concerning the mysterious Being who for ever sets his will against the will of the Most High. When the monastery  p427 was being built at Cassino hard by the old idolatrous grove, the 'antiquus hostis' continually appeared to the fathers in their dreams; he filled the air with his lamentations; he once stood in bodily presence before the Saint, with flaming eyes, calling 'Benedict! Benedict!' and when he refused to answer, cried out 'Maledict! not Benedict! what hast thou to do with me? Why wilt thou thus persecute me?' A stone which the builders wished to raise to its place in the new building was made immovable to all their efforts by reason of the Ancient Enemy sitting upon it, till Benedict by his prayers caused him to depart. The kitchen of the monastery appeared to the brethren to be on fire, and the work of building was interrupted by their causeless panic, till again by the prayers of the Saint their eyes were opened, and they saw that the imagined fire was no fire at all, but only a figment of the Ancient Enemy. At one time the Enemy appeared in the strange guise of a veterinary surgeon,​27 and, visiting one of the monks who was drawing water, afflicted him with some strange disorder of a hysterical kind, which was cured by a sharp buffet from the hand of Benedict. At another time a monk was afflicted with an unaccountable love of roving, which always led him to go forth from the monastery just when the brethren were engaged in prayer. Admonitions from his own abbot (for he was not under the immediate supervision of Benedict) were in vain. The Saint, being sent for to heal him, clearly perceived a little black boy tugging at the fringe of the monk's habit, and thus  p428 coaxing him to leave the chapel. The Saint saw it, and on the following day his friend Maurus also saw it; but to the eyes of Pompeianus, abbot of the monastery, the black imp remained invisible. Sharp strokes of the rod corrected the wandering spirit of the monk, who thenceforward sat quietly in the chapel to the end of the service.

The Mediaeval Satan. We are here, manifestly, in presence of the Mediaeval figure of the Devil. This is the being who, according to the belief of the Middle Ages, furnished the design for the Bridge of St. Gotthard and for the Cathedral of Cologne; the being who is always on the point of outwitting, but is generally in the end outwitted by, the sons of men; the being at whom Luther, monk in heart if reformer in brain, threw his inkstand when he sat in the little chamber at the Wartburg. Are we not justified in saying that this conception of the character of man's unseen Foe has more than an accidental connection with the monastic system with whose birth it is contemporaneous? Assuredly those protracted fasts, those long and lonely vigils of anchorite and coenobite, had something to do with bringing the Devil of the Middle Ages into the field of human imaginings.

Social conditions of the times. Some of the stories recounted of the Saint bring vividly before us the social conditions of the age in which he lived, conditions of which probably no one had a wider or more accurate knowledge than the Superior of a great Monastery. Into that safe fold came men from all ranks and all stations in life, the lofty and the lowly, some seeking shelter, some solace, some rest from the hopeless distractions of a turbulent age; and the spiritual father was bound to listen to the  p429 tale of each, to sympathise with the sorrows of all. St. Benedict himself in his rule,​28 while insisting on the duty of the abbot's avoiding all respect of persons, hints at the difficulty of its fulfilment. 'Let good deeds and obedience be the only means of obtaining the abbot's favour. Let not the free-born man be preferred to him who was a slave before he entered the convent, unless there be some other reason for the preference.'​29 Distinguished merit may lead to promotion out of the order of seniority, 'but if otherwise, let each keep his proper place [in that order], since, whether slaves or free, we are all one in Christ, and, under the same Lord, wear all of us the same badge of service.'

Blending of nationalities and ranks in the monastery. In St. Benedict's case, Goth​30 and Roman, peasant and noble, the son of the tax‑ridden Curialis31 and the son of the lordly Defensor,​32 were all subject to his equal sway. The noble ladies. Near to his monastery, and in some measure subject to his oversight, dwelt two noble  p430 ladies who had vowed themselves to a life of holiness.​33 A monk, of lower social condition, who performed menial offices for these ladies, was often vexed by the sharp words which they used towards him, mindful rather of the past difference in their positions, than of their present equality in Christ. On hearing the good man's complaints St. Benedict visited the ladies, and told them that if they did not keep their tongues in better subjection he should be compelled to excommunicate them. Peevish and froward, however, and probably suffering in health by reason of the change from a palace to a cell, the noble ladies abated none of their scolding words. In no long time they both died, and were buried within the precincts of the church. Then a strange sight was seen by their nurse, when she attended, according to custom, to bring an oblation for her dead mistresses, at the solemnisation of the mass. When the Deacon called out 'Let all who do not communicate depart,' two dim figures were seen to rise out of the floor and steal away from the sacred building. Seeing this happen more than once, and remembering the threatened excommunication of the Saint, which evidently had power beyond the limits of this life, the faithful nurse sought the cell of Benedict and told him the marvellous tale. He gave her an oblation from his own hand to offer on their behalf, in proof that he no longer excommunicated them. The oblation was duly made, and thereafter the souls of the harassed harassers had peace.34

The son of the Defensor. Once, at evening, the venerable Father was sitting  p431 at table, partaking of the bread and cooked vegetables which formed his frugal repast. Opposite him, according to the rule of the monastery, stood a young monk, holding the lamp and ready to do the Abbot's bidding. It chanced that he who upon this evening performed this lowly duty was a young noble, son of one of the Imperial Defensors, whose father therefore was one of the most important personages in the State. Suddenly the thought flashed through his mind, 'Who is this man who sits here eating his evening meal, upon whom I am waiting like a slave, holding the lamp, handing him the dishes? And what am I, I the Defensor's son, that I should condescend to such drudgery? Not a word did the young noble utter, but the Saint, who read his proud thoughts, said suddenly, with voice of stern rebuke, 'Seal up thy heart, my brother. What is that which thou art saying? Seal up thy heart.' He called in the other brethren, bade the young man hand the lamp to them and retire for an hour of silent meditation. The monks afterwards asked the culprit what he had done to awaken such wrath in the Saint's mind. He told them, not what he had done, but what he had thought; and they all recognised that nothing could escape the venerable Benedict in whose ear men's thoughts sounded like spoken words.35

Benedict's power of reading the thoughts of others. Whatsoever among the miracles attributed to the founder of Cassino we may feel bound to reject, we can hardly refuse to him an extraordinary, perhaps a supernatural power of reading the human heart. The story just told is one of the most striking instances of this power. Other cases are recorded, as when he  p432 rebuked some monks who, contrary to the rule, had partaken of refreshment in a religious woman's house, outside of the monastery,​36 — when he reminded another monk of an offence which he had himself forgotten, the acceptance of some handkerchiefs from the inmates of a nunnery to whom he had been sent to preach,​37 — or when he detected the dishonesty of a young monk who, when entrusted with two bottles of wine for the use of the monastery, had delivered one only.38

Interview with Totila. This power of penetrating the secret thoughts of those who came into his presence was remarkably exemplified in St. Benedict's interview with Totila; an interview which took place, probably in the year 542, when the Gothic King was on his march to the siege of Naples. Pope Gregory, as the champion of orthodoxy and of the Roman nationality, naturally represents the Arian and barbarian King somewhat less favourably than he deserves. Still, even in the Papal narrative (which it will be well to give in a literal translation), something of the nobleness of Totila's character may be discerned.

'Chapter XIV. How the feigning of King Totila was discovered.

'In the times of the Goths, Totila their King having heard that the holy man possessed the spirit of prophecy, and being on his way to the monastery halted  p433 at some distance and sent word that he would come to him. Having sent this message, as he was a man of unbelieving mind, he determined to try whether the man of God really possessed the prophetic spirit. There was a certain sword-bearer of his, named Riggo, to whom he lent his [purple] buskins and ordered him to put on the royal robes and to go, personating him, to the man of God. To aid the deception he also sent three counts, who before all others were wont to attend upon his person, namely Vuld [or Vultheric], Ruderic, and Blidi.​39 These were to keep close by the side of Riggo, to whom he assigned other guards and other marks of honour, with the intention that by these and by the purple raiment he might be taken for the King. When this same Riggo, thus arrayed and thus accompanied, had entered the monastery, the man of God was sitting afar off. But seeing him coming, as soon as his voice could be heard he cried out, saying, "Put off, my son, put off that which thou wearest; it is not thine." Thereat Riggo fell straightway to the earth, struck with terror because he had presumed to mock so great a man; and all who had come with him to the man of God grovelled on the ground. Then arising, they did not dare to approach, but hurrying back to their King told him how speedily they had been detected.'

'Chapter XV . Of the Prophecy which was made concerning the same King.

'Then, in his own person, the same Totila approached the man of God, but when he saw him sitting afar off  p434 he did not dare to come close, but cast himself upon the ground. Then, when the man of God had twice or thrice said to him, "Rise," but still he did not dare to raise himself from the earth, Benedict the servant of Jesus Christ condescended himself to approach the prostrate King and cause him to arise. He rebuked him for his past deeds, and in few words told him all that should come to pass, saying,

"Much evil hast thou done,

Much evil art thou doing.

Now at length cease from sin.

Thou shalt enter Rome;

Thou shalt cross the sea.

Nine years shalt thou reign,

In the tenth shalt thou die."

When he had heard these words, the King, vehemently terrified, asked for his prayers and withdrew, and from that time forward he was less cruel than aforetime. Not long afterwards he entered Rome, and crossed to Sicily. But in the tenth year of his reign, by the judgment of Almighty God, he lost his kingdom with his life.

'Moreover, the priest of the church of Canusium was sent to visit the same servant of God, by whom, for his meritorious life, he was held in great affection. And once when they were talking together concerning the entry of King Totila and the destruction of the city of Rome, the priest said, "By this King that city will be destroyed so that it should be no more inhabited." To whom the man of God made answer, "Rome shall not be exterminated by the barbarians,​40 but, wearied with tempests, lightnings, whirlwinds, and earthquakes,  p435 it shall consume away in itself."​41 The mysteries of which prophecy are now made clearer than the daylight to us, who see in this city walls shattered, houses thrown down, churches destroyed by the whirlwind, and the great edifices of the city loosened by long old age falling around us in abounding ruin.'

So far Pope Gregory.

These two scenes, the unmasking of the false King and the prediction of the future fortunes of the true one, are vividly pourtrayed, not only by Signorelli at Monte Oliveto, but also by Spinello Aretino on the walls of the large square sacristy at San Miniato. Especially well rendered is the dismay of the detected impostor. Riggo's knees are loosened with terror, and he turns sick with fear as he meets the stern mildness of Benedict's gaze and hears that voice of command, 'My son, put off, put off that which thou wearest, for it is not thine.'

543 Within a year, probably, from the interview with Totila, St. Benedict was dead.​42 The little that has got to be told about him is a history of farewells. Death of Scholastica, sister of Benedict. First came the death of his sister Scholastica. She had been from infancy dedicated to the service of God, and had apparently inhabited a cell not far from his monastery, first at Subiaco and then at Monte Cassino.43  p436 Once a year the Saint used to come and visit his sister in her cell, which, though of course outside the gates of the monastery, was within the limits of the modest monastic estate. When the time for the last yearly visit was come, Benedict with a little knot of his disciples went down to his sister's cell and spent the whole day in religious conversation and in singing with her the praises of the Most High. The evening was come; they were seated at supper; it was time for Benedict to depart, but still the stream of conversation, which perhaps deviated sometimes from the near joys of heaven to the far distant past of their common infancy in upland Nursia, seemed unexhausted. Scholastica pressed her brother to stay that they might on the morrow resume their celestial converse. 'What dost thou ask me, my sister?' said he; 'I can by no means pass the night outside of my cell.' At this time the evening sky was bright and clear, and not a cloud was visible. Scholastica clasped her hands tightly together and bowed her head in silent prayer. After a time she looked up again. The lightning was flashing, the thunder was pealing, and such torrents of rain were descending, that neither Benedict nor his companions could stir across the threshold of the cell. 'Almighty God have pity on thee!' said Benedict. 'What is this that thou hast done?' 'My brother,' she answered, 'I asked thee and thou wouldest not hear. Then I asked my Lord, and he heard me. Now depart if thou canst: leave me alone and return to thy monastery.' Benedict recognised and bowed to the divine answer to prayer. He passed the night in his sister's cell, and they cheered one another with alternate speech upon the joys of the spiritual life. In the  p437 morning he departed to his own cell, and three days after, when he was standing therein, lifting upon his eyes he saw a white dove rising into the sky. Then he knew that his sister Scholastica was dead, and sent some of the brotherhood to bring her body and lay it in the prepared sepulchre, where it should wait a little season for his own.44

The heavenly vision. Death of Germanus of Capua. It was not long, apparently, after this event that the Saint received a visit from his dear friend Servandus, the head of a neighbouring monastery founded by Liberius the Patrician, probably the same with whom we have already made acquaintance as the faithful servant of Odovacar and Theodoric.​45 After spending the evening in that kind of conversation which was the highest mental enjoyment of these venerable men, they retired to rest, Benedict in the topmost chamber of a tall tower over­looking all the buildings and courtyards of the monastery, the disciples of both below. Benedict rose, while all others still slept, before the appointed hour of vigils (two o'clock in the morning). While he stood at his window and looked south-eastwards over the Campanian plain, suddenly the darkness of the night was scattered; a radiance as of the sun filled the deep Italian sky, and under that strangely flashing light it seemed to him that the world was made visible as it  p438 was to Christ upon the Specular Mount, all illumined by one ray only from the sun.​46 While he was still fixing his earnest gaze on that heavenly radiance, behold a sphere of fire, in which he saw the soul of his friend Germanus, Bishop of Capua, being borne by angels to heaven. Thrice with a loud voice he called to his friend Servandus, sleeping below, to arise and see this marvel: but when Servandus stood beside his friend at the window, the fiery sphere had vanished, the vision of the world was ended, and only

'The few last rays of that far‑scattered light'

were yet discernible. St. Benedict sent a brother at once to Capua to enquire as to the welfare of the Bishop, and learned that on that same night, at the very moment of the heavenly vision, Germanus had given up the ghost.

Premonitions of the end. And now did Benedict's discourse often turn upon his own approaching end, telling those about him under the seal of confidence when it should be, and sending word to his absent disciples by what signs they should be made certain of his decease. Six days before his death he ordered his grave to be dug. After this he was seized with a sharp attack of fever, which grew daily more severe. Death of Benedict. On the sixth day he bade his disciples carry him into the oratory, fortified himself for death by receiving the body and blood of  p439 the Lord, and then, leaning his weak limbs upon the arms of his disciples, he stood with his hands upraised to heaven, and thus passed away in the act and attitude of prayer.47

Visions of the heavenly pathway. That same day two of his disciples, one in his cell at Monte Cassino and another in a distant monastery, saw the same vision. To each it seemed that a pathway strewn with bright robes and gleaming with innumerable fires stretched eastwards from Benedict's cell and upwards into the depth of heaven.​48 Above stood a man of venerable aspect and radiant countenance, who asked them if they knew what that pathway was which they beheld. They answered, 'No;' and he replied, 'This is the path by which Benedict, beloved of God, hath ascended up to heaven.'

Burial. He was buried side by side with his sister in the place where he had overthrown the altar of Apollo, and within the walls of the new oratory of St. John.

 p440  St. Benedict's Rule the reason of his surpassing fame. Returning now to the line of thought indicated at the beginning of this chapter, if we ask why has the fame of St. Benedict so entirely eclipsed that of all other Western monks, the answer is undoubtedly furnished to us by the one literary product of his life, his Regula. This Rule, extending only to seventy-three short chapters (many of them very short), and not probably designed by its author for use much beyond the bounds of the communities under his own immediate supervision, proved to be the thing which the world of religious and thoughtful men was then longing for, a complete code of monastic duty. Thus by a strange parallelism, almost in the very year when the great Emperor Justinian was codifying the results of seven centuries of Roman secular legislation for the benefit of the judges and the statesmen of the new Europe, St. Benedict on his lonely mountain‑top was unconsciously composing his code for the regulation of the daily life of the great civilisers of Europe for seven centuries to come. The chief principles of that code were labour, obedience, and a regulated fervour of devotion to the Most High. The life prescribed therein, which seems to us so austere, so awfully remote from the common needs and the common pleasures of humanity, seemed to him, and was in reality, gentle and easy when compared with the anchorite's wild endeavours after an impossible holiness, endeavours which had often culminated in absolute madness, or broken down into mere worldliness and despair of all good. It is therefore in no spirit of affectation that Benedict in his Preface to the Rule uses these remarkable words: 'We must therefore establish a school of service to our Lord, in which institution we  p441 trust that nothing rough and nothing grievous will be found to have been ordained by us.'49

It is, however, the man himself rather than the vast system almost unconsciously founded by him that it has seemed necessary at this point to bring before the mind of the reader. St. Benedict died only ten years before the extreme limit of time reached by this volume. Later on, when we have to deal with the history of the Lombard domination in Italy, our attention will be attracted to the further fortunes of Monte Cassino, ruined, restored, endowed with vast wealth, all by the same Lombard conquerors. For the present we leave the followers of the Saint engaged in their holy and useful labours, praying, digging, transcribing.​50 'The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.' The scriptorium of the Benedictine monastery will multiply copies not only of missals and theological treatises, but of the poems and histories of antiquity. Whatever may have been the religious value or the religious dangers of the monastic life, the historian at least is bound to express his gratitude to these men, without whose life-long toil the great deeds and thoughts of Greece and Rome might have been as completely lost to us as the wars of the buried Lake-dwellers or the thoughts of Palaeolithic Man. To take an illustration from the St. Benedict's own beloved Subiaco, the work of his disciples has been like one of the great aqueducts of the valley of the Anio, — sometimes carried  p442 under­ground for centuries through the obscurity of unremembered existences, sometimes emerging to the daylight and borne high upon the arcade of noble lives, but equally through all its course bearing the precious stream of ancient thought from the far‑off hills of time into the humming and crowded cities of modern civilisation.

The Author's Notes:

1 See Guizot's History of Civilization in France: Lecture 15, ad fin.

2 'Vita et Miracula venerabilis Benedicti conditoris, vel Abbatis Monasterii, quod appellatur Arcis Provinciae Campaniae.' Vel is no doubt here equivalent to et, as so often in post-classical Latin.

3 Has this name any connection with that of the Etruscan goddess Nursia, so well known by Macaulay's lines —

'And hang round Nursia's altars

The golden shields of Rome'?

4 'Multisque honestioribus viris caritate se illic detinentibus, in beati Petri ecclesia demorarentur.' I presume that this means, as is stated above, some chamber under the same roof as the church.

5 A sieve made of earthenware seems to us a very unhandy implement: but there seems to be no choice but thus to describe a 'capisterium' which could be also spoken of as a 'vas fractum.'

Thayer's Note: Prof. Hodgkin's doubts notwithstanding, such sieves or strainers were commonly made of pottery in Roman times. Here's one from Novaesium in Germania Inferior:

[image ALT: A ceramic bowl with an applied handle, upside-down on a flat support. The bottom of the bowl is pierced with five irregular concentric circles of crude holes, punched from the inside as we can see from the raised rims of each, as would be made by a thin pencil. It is a sieve of the Roman period from Novaesium (Neuss, in today\'s Germany).]

Photo © Livius.Org | Jona Lendering, by kind permission.

6 I have said that I do not propose to rationalise about these miracles: but it seems to me quite possible that here the preservation in the church porch of so humble a memorial of a great saint's residence at Efide has itself, without bad faith anywhere, given rise to the story of the miracle.

7 As Subiaco was only 5½ miles from Affile, it is difficult to understand why St. Benedict was not followed by his friends.

8 'Under the rule of Theodahad' or 'Adeodatus,' say the varying MSS. of Gregory: but neither rule seems to be known to ecclesiastical commentators.

9 St. Gregory's words might suggest the idea that Romanus died at this time: 'Cum vero jam omnipotens Deus et Romanum vellet a labore quiescere, et Benedicti vitam in exemplum hominibus demonstrare.' But in the Life of St. Maurus by Faustus, Romanus is represented as outliving Benedict.

10 The descendants of which roses are still to be seen in the convent garden.

11 This metaphor of warriors fighting single-handed in front of an army is well illustrated by the stories in Procopius of similar combats between Gothic and Roman champions.

12 Gregory does not mention the name of the convent, but tradition identifies it with Varia.

13 Regula, cap. i.

14 'Sarabaitae id est renuitae qui jugum regularis disciplinae renuunt'; Odo of Clugny, quoted in the Notes to the Regula, p254 (Migne).

15 The same sentiment is expressed in two well-known lines of Hudibras.

16 'Recumbenti Patri': probably reclining for his siesta.

17 I have ventured here to give a slight conjectural expansion to the words of Gregory, which do not very clearly indicate where Benedict and his intimate friends dwelt.

18 About fifteen miles S. E. of Siena.

19 The name of Maurus — who was the great missionary of Benedictinism in France — is borne by the great ducal house of Seymour (= St. Maur), while Benedict is of course represented by the Bennet (Lord Arlington) of the Cabal ministry of Charles II and the numerous Bennets and Bennetts of England and America.

20 'Grandfather of this Florentius, who is our sub‑deacon,' says Gregory, in one of those little touches which give vividness and an impression of truthfulness to his narrative.

21 'Quasi pro benedictione.' Benedictio has a technical meaning which I have tried to render above. In cap. XXXI, where the Goth Zalla is brought into the monastery 'ut benedictionem acciperet,' the Greek version has ὅπως μεταλάβῃ τροφῆς.

22 Here is St. Gregory's own description of the place which was so dear to him: 'Castrum namque quod Casinum dicitur in excelsi montis latere situm est, qui videlicet mons distenso sinu hoc idem Castrum recipit, se per tria millia in altum se subrigens, velut ad aera cacumen tendit: ubi vetustissimum fanum fuit, in quo ex antiquorum more gentilium, a stulto rusticorum populo, Apollo colebatur.'

23 Cap. XXXII. Comp. 1 Kings xvii and 2 Kings iv.

24 Cap. XXVI. Comp. 2 Kings v.

25 Cap. XXIX. Comp. 1 Kings xvii and 2 Kings iv.

26 Cap. V. Comp. 2 Kings ii.19‑22.

27 'Et antiquus hostis in Mulo-medici specie obviam factus est, cornu et tripedicam ferens' (cap. XXX).

Thayer's Note: If like me, you were mystified by tripedica, Du Cange et al., Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis cite this very passage, then explain it: it's a three-foot hobble or sideline, serving to keep horses from walking, let alone bolting away suddenly while the vet is examining them: you can see a good commented photoillustration at Cowboy Showcase. The cornu is a drenching-horn for administering medicines. The two items together are the key items of technical equipment that do in fact mark a horse doctor.

28 Cap. II: 'Qualis debeat esse Abbas.'

29 'Non ab eo persona in monasterio discernatur. . . . Non praeponatur ingenuus ex servitio convertenti, nisi alia rationabilis causa existat.'

30 Cap. VI: 'Gothus quidam pauper spiritu ad conversionem venit.' This Goth, when cutting down some briars near the edge of the lake, let the iron of his reaping-hook fall into the water. The Saint sent the handle after the hook and the iron rose from the depths of the lake to join the wood. The Goth received his sickle again and was comforted.

31 It was 'cujusdam curialis filius' who was injured by the fall of a wall, overturned by the Ancient Enemy, when the convent of Cassino was building, and who, being laid on the mat on which the Saint was wont to pray, was healed by his intercessions; cap. XI.

32 For the condition of the Curialis see vol. II 576‑596; for Defensor, vol. I 625‑628.

33 'Sanctimoniales foeminae' is the term usually employed by Gregory for nuns.

34 Cap. XXIII.

35 Cap. XX.

36 Cap. XII (and cap. XIII).

37 Cap. XIX.

38 Cap. XVIII. In this case the Saint received one bottle with thanks, and said to the departing messenger: 'Take care, my son, that thou dost not drink of that other bottle which thou hast hidden, but incline it carefully and see what is therein. The youth, when he had left St. Benedict's presence, uncorked the bottle, held it up gently, and behold! a serpent crept out of it.

39 Ruderic and Blidi are probably the same persons as the Roderic and Bleda who, as Procopius tells us, were sent to besiege Florence (p396 n. 2). This is an interesting coincidence, as we have no reason to suppose that Gregory I, unacquainted as he was with Greek, knew what had been written by Procopius.

40 'A gentibus non exterminabitur.'

41 'Marcescet in semetipsa.'

42 There is a long controversy as to the year of the Saint's death, into which it is not necessary here to enter. Possibly he may have lived for some years after 543.

43 The convent now called St. Scholastica at Subiaco is near the site of Nero's Villa and about a mile from the Convento del Sacro Speco. Her abode in Campania is said to have been the convent of Plumbariola, about a mile and a half distant from Monte Cassino.

44 That Scholastica's death happened only a short time before her brother's is not expressly stated, but the whole course of the narrative implies it. Apparently the 10th February is fixed for the former event, and 21st March for the latter, by ecclesiastical writers.

45 But possibly the later Liberius, who was sent by Theodahad as ambassador to Constantinople in 535, and who held an Imperial command in the later years of the Gothic war.

46 'Mira autem res valde in hac speculatione secuta est: quia, sicut post ipse narravit, omnis etiam mundus velut sub uno solis radio collectus ante oculos ejus adductus est.' The 'sub uno solis radio' is much insisted on by Gregory himself and by his commentators: but it does not seem to add great vividness to the picture. The words 'showed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time,' impress the imagination more forcibly.

47 In this passage, as in all which deal with religious ideas, I have endeavoured to keep as close as possible to the words of the original: 'Exitum suum Dominici corporis et sanguinis perceptione munivit, atque inter discipulorum manus imbecillia membra sustentans erectis in caelum manibus stetit et ultimum spiritum inter verba orationis efflavit.'

48 'Viderunt namque quia strata palliis, atque innumeris corusca lampadibus via, recto Orientis tramite, ab ejus cella in caelum usque tendebatur.' Compare the well-known verse in Tennyson's 'St. Agnes' Eve': —

'He lifts me to the golden doors,

The flashes come and go,

All heaven bursts her starry floors,

And strows her lights below;

And deepens on and up! the gates

Roll back, and far within

For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits

To make me pure of sin.'

49 'Constituenda est ergo a nobis dominici schola servitii, in qua institutione nihil asperum, nihilque grave nos constituros speramus.'

50 The work of transcription began as soon as the influence of Cassiodorus had made itself felt.

Thayer's Note:

a Some of this is true, some of it is far from certain. See my note to Roberts' translation of Gregorovius' chapter on Subiaco.

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