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Benedictine refers to the spirituality and consecrated life in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, written by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century for the cenobitic communities he founded in central Italy. The most notable of these is Monte Cassino, the first monastery founded by Benedict around 529.
Used as a noun, the term denotes their members, the Benedictines. By extension it is sometimes applied to other adherents of the Benedictine spirituality, for example, "Oblates (secular)".
During the subsequent centuries many more Benedictine communities were founded, not only for monks but also for nuns, first throughout Europe and eventually also other areas of the world. This led to the formation in modern times of the Order of St Benedict. In addition to those autonomous Benedictine communities, a number of independent monastic orders were founded on the rule of St Benedict, and so are also Benedictines in that sense. Such orders include the Congregation of Cluny, the Cistercians, and the Trappists. Benedictine communities are primarily found in the Catholic Church but several Benedictine communities exist within other Christian communities, though small in number.
The current Abbot Primate (religion) of the global Benedictine Confederation of the Order of St. Benedict is a German Benedictine, Notker Wolf. The center of the Confederation is Sant'Anselmo in Rome where every four years the abbots of the Benedictine order from around the world meet for a Confederation Congress. In 2000, there were 8,182 Benedictine monks, 7,179 nuns, and 10,000 "Active Benedictine Sisters."
In the English Reformation all monasteries were dissolved and their lands confiscated by the Crown, forcing their Roman Catholic members to flee into exile on the Continent, although during the 19th century they were able to return to England, including to Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, one of the few great monastic churches to survive the Dissolution. Noteworthy, too, is St. Mildred's Priory, Isle of Thanet, Kent, built in 1027 on the site of an abbey founded in 670 by the daughter of the first Christian king of Kent. Currently the Priory is home to a community of Benedictine nuns. Two of the most notable English abbeys are St. Gregory's in Somerset (Downside Abbey) and St. Lawrence's in Yorkshire (Ampleforth Abbey). In 1928, Prinknash Abbey was officially returned to the Benedictines after four hundred years. Henry VIII had used the site as a hunting lodge. During the next few years, Prinknash Park, so called, was used as a home, until it was returned to the order. Since the Oxford Movement there has also been a modest flourishing of Benedictine monasticism in the Anglican Church and Protestant Churches. Anglican Benedictine Abbots are also welcomed guests of the Benedictine Abbot Primate in Rome at Abbatial gatherings at Sant'Anselmo. There are an estimated 2,400 celibate Anglican Religious (1080 men and 1320 women) in the Anglican Communion as a whole, some of whom have adopted the Rule of Benedict.
In the late 19th century, laws were enacted preventing religious teaching. The original intent was to allow secular schools.
In 1880 and 1882, Benedictine teaching monks were effectively exiled. This was not completed until 1901.
Benedictines in popular culture
The Benedictine order has been brought to public attention by the Brother Cadfael novels, a series of murder mysteries by Edith Pargeter writing under the name Ellis Peters. The stories were also made into a television series starring Derek Jacobi. The protagonist, Brother Cadfael, is a Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century. The novels contain many details about the Benedictine order and lifestyle.
A Benedictine abbey provides the setting for a murder mystery in medieval Europe in the book "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco.