The monastic movement that began in Egypt and Syria in the third century and soon spread to the Western Mediterranean used and produced all sorts of texts: lives of saints, monastic travelogues, descriptions of monastic institutions, and homilies or talks on spiritual topics. In the fourth century a new type of text emerged: monastic rules. They laid down the basic organization of a monastic community, provided guidelines for the abbot and other office holders, and explained spiritual principles for the monks. Their authors did not claim to produce original texts: they copied from other rules they had come across, enriching and developing a tradition whose aim was not literary distinction but the provision of a useful handbook for abbots and monks.
The most successful of these rules is the „Rule of Monasteries.” It was written by Benedict of Nursia after 529 and is commonly referred to as the Rule of St Benedict. It reflects Benedict’s own long experience as a monk and abbot, and his study of the older monastic tradition which he uses extensively, especially an older text called the Rule of the Master by an anonymous author.
The Rule of St Benedict consists of a Prologue and seventy-three chapters, ranging from a few lines to several pages. They provide teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as directives for daily living. The Rule prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, journeys away from the monastery, etc. While the Rule does not shun minute instructions, it allows the abbot to determine the particulars of common living according to his wise discretion.
Pope St. Gregory the Great (+604) praised the Rule as „remarkable for its discretion and its elegant language”. That papal endorsement certainly contributed to its spreading.
Benedict wrote his Rule in Latin. The autograph copy of RB has been lost. The best manuscript stems from the early ninth century and is found today in St. Gall (Switzerland). Another manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, though earlier by a century, is less faithful because copyists strove to correct the sixth-century Latin. Over the centuries, the Rule of St Benedict has been copied, translated and published innumerable times. Every generation has produced commentaries on the Rule and the last 100 years have seen vast amounts of academic study dedicated to it, both by religious and non-religious scholars. The Rule of St Benedict remains one of the great classics of Christian spirituality.