Benedict of Nursia

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Christ’s Faithful Servants, copyright 2023

The Middle Ages. Historians generally date the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, when the barbarian general Odoacer replaced the Roman Emperor Romulus as governor of Italy.[1] By this date, the Western Empire had already lost North Africa, Britain, and Spain to the barbarians, and was in the process of losing Gaul (France) as well. The Middle Ages began when Rome ended. Roman law, commerce, and culture, long in decline, was now gone, except for a brief revival under the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric. Roman wealth similarly dissipated. Most of the urban population returned to the farms. Books and education became luxuries only the rich could afford. The vast majority of people were illiterate. During the Middle Ages, people made their living as hunters, farmers, and warriors, not businessmen, tradesmen, or scholars.

Amid such poverty and ignorance, Christian monasteries offered security, a modest education (or better), an opportunity to serve God, and the hope of a better life after death. For these reasons, they attracted many men who wished to escape the miseries of Medieval life. One of the oldest monastic orders in the West is the Benedictines, named for their founder, Benedict of Nursia.

Benedict’s Early Life. Benedict was born in about 480, and grew up in central Italy, in or near the town of Nursia. His parents were probably descended from a family of Roman patricians, and possessed at least moderate wealth, for they could afford to send their son to Rome to obtain his education. There, in his mid- to late-teens, he became a hermit. This sudden piety had something to do with his disgust at the immorality he saw in Rome, but it may also have been an effort to escape the pain of rejection by a girl he loved.[2] Benedict’s precise motivation remains unclear. Regardless of his reasons, Benedict left Rome and went to live in a cave where he remained for about three years. . . .

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[1]. Odoacer was murdered in 493 by Theodoric, whose Ostrogoths (eastern Goths; the western Goths were called Visigoths) invaded Italy in 488 and conquered her after five years of war. Theodoric ruled Italy until his death in 526. His reign was relatively peaceful and prosperous, but the incompetence of his successors, and the ambitions of the eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565), led to the Gothic Wars, which I briefly discuss in Chapter 8. Those wars devastated Italy and Sicily, completing the destruction of Rome’s greatness.

[2]. According to the second book of Pope Gregory the First’s Dialogues—the only ancient account we have of Benedict’s life—he overcame this emotional hurt through the physical pain of jumping unclothed into a patch of thorn bushes. Written in about 593, Dialogues was neither a history nor a biography as we think of those terms, but was instead intended to be a source of spiritual inspiration.