Formally the Order of Saint Benedict. Broadly speaking, the Order comprises all religious following the Rule of Saint Benedict, though in its proper sense it does not include branches of the order which later became independent, such as the Cistercians and Camaldolese. The Benedictines, sometimes called Black Monks due to their religious habit, were founded at Monte Cassino, Italy, by Benedict of Nursia, c.529. The aim of the order is the personal sanctification of its members who may undertake any work provided it be compatible with living in community and the performance of Divine Office in choir. The influence of the monks has manifested itself in missionary works, notably by the conversion of the Teutonic races, in the civilization of northwestern Europe, and in the fields of art, literature, and education. They engage in teaching, the practise of the arts, agriculture, in study, and, the care of souls. Continual industry and an atmosphere of peace characterize their monasteries. Peace is their motto.
Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards, 581 or 589, and the monks were sheltered in the Lateran Basilica, Rome. Pope Gregory the Great established the Benedictine rule in his monastery of Saint Andrew on the Coelian Hill, and probably in six others which he founded, and introduced the order into England, whence its missionaries spread over Europe. In the 9th century barberic invasions of Europe razed many monasteries, but a new period of Benedictine fame began with the establishment of the renowned Abbey of Cluny, 910. A number of the greatest universities of Europe developed from schools of the Benedictines, including those of Paris, Bologna, and Cambridge. Important among yhe offshoots of the order which were established during this period were the Camaldolese (1009), Vallombrosians (1039), Cistercians (1098), Sylvestrines (1231), and Olivetans (1319). Cluny’s centralized method of government was followed by a number of monasteries which united themselves in groups, the groups later forming congregations. This was a deviation from the original idea of Saint Benedict, who sought the total independence of each abbey.
The feudal system, by which abbots of some of the great Benedictine monasteries became feudal lords, the appointment of commendatory abbots and other social and political circumstances resulted in a period of decline for the order in the latter half of the 12th century until its revival after the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Widespread reform ensued, and approximately 1500 abbeys could be counted in Europe at the time of the Reformation. All of these were centers from which civilization spread and some of them, especially Cluny, exercised a strong influence on the spirit, morals, and learning of their times. The French Congregation of Saint Maur, dating from 1621, attained fame by reason of its extensive activity in the field of literature and the devout lives of its members. The French Revolution, wars, secularization, and similar causes took their toll of Benedictine foundations, so that in the early 19th century there were no more than 30 houses of the order extant. Since that time another revival has taken place, though later in the same century houses were closed in Spain, Italy, and France. At present the Benedictines number 15 congregations, viz: the Cassinese, English, Hungarian, Swiss, Bavarian, Brazilian, French, American-Cassinese, Swiss-American, Beuronese, Cassinese of Primitive Observance, Austrian (of the Immaculate Conception), Austrian (of Saint Joseph), Saint Ottilien, and Belgian.
Benedictine nuns or Sisters of Saint Benedict are women following the Rule of Saint Benedict. As the abbeys of the Benedictine monks increased in number, monasteries for women were also established. Saint Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, ruled over such a community not far from the Abbey of Monte Cassino, though it is open to question whether this may be considered the actual foundation of the Benedictine nuns. Gradually the Rule of Saint Benedict was introduced into convents of Gaul and the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle enjoined its observance in all nunneries of the empire. England, Germany, and other parts of the continent saw the rise of many convents, rivaling in number the abbeys of the monks in the Middle Ages. They sustained great losses due to the Reformation, the wars of religion, and the French Revolution. The convents are not united in the congregational system, but are either under the direction of a particular abbey or else subject to the episcopal jurisdiction of the diocese in which they are located. The nuns engage principally in educational work, and have monasteries in the United States, British Isles, and Malta, Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Holland, Italy, and Poland.