What Do We Know About St. Benedict?
A scholarly controversy of utmost delicacy affects interpretation of the reputed founder of Western monasticism, the author of its major rule, St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547). The words of his Rule have been pondered in thousands of monasteries, and episodes from his life have animated countless paintings and hagiographies. Regrettably, apart from his Rule, all record of St. Benedict and his life comes from a single source, Book II of the Dialogues, supposedly written in 593 by Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604; ruled as pope 590–604). That account interweaves miracle stories of a rural wonder-worker with tales of the saint's periods of residence at mountain locations in central Italy such as Nursia, Subiaco, and Monte Cassino. Since the sixteenth century, the authenticity of Gregory's authorship of the Dialogues has occasionally been questioned, but never so comprehensively as by Francis Clark in The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (1987). Clark argues that Benedict's rule appeared only in 655 in Gaul and around 675 in Britain, being acclaimed only after 717 when Monte Cassino began to be built; and that a clerk in the papal archives ("the Dialogist") compiled the Dialogues (first reported to exist in the 680s) and ascribed the document falsely to Gregory I. The Dialogist's "literary patchwork" intersperses miracle legends (some originating after Gregory's death) with eighty genuine Gregorian passages presumably culled from archives in the Lateran Palace. These genuine passages comprise 25 percent of the whole, half of them in Book IV. The Dialogist recounts prodigies of recluses in a legalistic style quite different from Gregory's own. In themes, allusions, and word frequencies, the Dialogues differ from every known work by Gregory. Moreover, the tales glorify many persons, including St. Benedict's sister Scholastica, whom no other text from before 690 so much as mentions. Thus Clark's argument revises the entire account of "Benedictine" monasticism down to the 730s. In his view its true creators were not, as previously believed, monastics at Monte Cassino in the 540s or at the Gregorian papal court of the 590s, but rather Italian and French monastics of the 720s who drew inspiration from the newly available Dialogues. As yet only a few Benedictines have accepted this revision, not least because it demolishes their order's foundational narrative. Cognitive dissonance between the 1300-year-old account and Clark's revision remains too acute, but as Clark's sequel The "Gregorian" Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (2003) shows, the tide is beginning to turn. One can no longer affirm the traditional account of how Benedictine monasticism began. All that is known is that a rule ascribed to a certain Benedict had surfaced by the 650s and had begun to establish its preeminence by 720. The idea of Western monasticism no longer enjoys an agreed-upon foundational story. Seldom has a legend accepted for so long dissolved so abruptly. A gigantic task of rethinking looms.
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