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Benedictines

Benedictines, religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, following the rule of St. Benedict [Lat. abbr., = O.S.B.]. The first Benedictine monastery was at Monte Cassino, Italy, which came to be regarded as the symbolic center of Western monasticism. St. Benedict's rule was in many ways novel in monastic life in replacing severity with moderation. The monastery, or abbey, was conceived as a devout Christian family, with an abbot or abbess as head. The monks or nuns swore to live in the house until death. The whole of Benedictine life was experienced in common, the waking hours being devoted principally to worship and work, especially manual labor. In the 8th cent. the English Benedictines St. Willibrord and St. Boniface evangelized Frisia and Germany; in this expansion of Christendom the abbey served as an outpost, a unit of both Latin culture (including Western agricultural methods) and Christian religion. The Benedictines were also active in continental Western Europe—their preservation of books was a critical service. At a series of councils held under Louis I at Aachen (A.D. 816–A.D. 819), Benedict of Aniane attempted to standardize monastic practices in the Carolingian Empire according to the Rule of St. Benedict. In the 10th cent. a reform began at the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, France, that resulted in the development of the Cluniac order; at Cluny the liturgy was significantly expanded. Another reform, begun in 1098, resulted in the foundation of the order of the Cistercians. Throughout the centuries Benedictine houses have occupied a central position in Western monasticism. Today they are organized as a loose federation of congregations, each congregation being a collection of geographically related abbeys or monasteries that are mainly autonomous. Benedictine work in liturgy has been outstanding. The abbeys at Solesmes and Beuron in particular have established a spiritual life centered around sung liturgy. They are responsible for the restoration of Gregorian melodies (plain chant) and their universal use today in the Roman Catholic Church. Permanent Benedictine establishments in the United States began in the 1840s. Benedictine nuns, originally founded by St. Benedict and his sister Scholastica as an enclosed order, now often do missionary and educational work in communities.

See E. C. Butler, Benedictine Monachism (2d ed. 1924, repr. 1962); C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (1984).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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