- Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict
In the early-ninth century Smaragdus, abbot of the monastery of St. Mihiel on the river Meuse, wrote the first extensive commentary on the Rule of Benedict that has been preserved, as part of the program of monastic reform associated with “the second Benedict”: St. Benedict of Aniane. Since the aim of this reform program was a return to the proper form of monastic life as it had been laid down by St. Benedict of Nursia, it was necessary to understand the text of the father of Western monasticism as fully as possible. Smaragdus set to work to explain particular features of this text, but his work also, by necessity, entailed a reinterpretation of particular parts of Benedict’s Rule. As such, it provides the modern reader with a fascinating view on ninth-century Frankish monasticism.
Reading the smooth translation offered by David Barry, the reader sees Smaragdus explain difficult Latin terms, often with the help of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies or his De ecclesiasticis officiis. Cenobites, he thus explains, are those monks who live in community, the term deriving from Greek and Latin (p. 116). The gyrovagues are those who rove and wander around the houses and cells of others (p. 122). Often Smaragdus offers a spiritual interpretation of the Rule’s precepts. When commenting upon Benedict’s list of the instruments of good works (chap. 4), he moves, for example, the emphasis from the literal killing of others to a monk murdering his own soul through entertaining feelings of hatred toward another person. The term adultery is redefined so as to include sins like fornication, worship of idols, and greed for worldly things (p. 167). Benedict’s incorporation of an obligation to bury the dead was also in need of a spiritual interpretation, since a literal interpretation would, as Smaragdus notices, either mean that Benedict was stating the obvious, as monks could not, of course, leave their deceased fellow brethren unburied, or he was prescribing behavior that was deemed unseemly for a ninth-century monk—that is, to “go about through villages and estates to bury the dead” (pp. 182–83). The dead must therefore mean “sins” here, so that monks need to bury their sins. Smaragdus is well aware of the fact that inaccurate versions of Benedict’s text were used in his time. When discussing the possibility of arguing with the abbot, some versions of the rule read “inside or outside the monastery,” but Benedict wrote only “outside the monastery” here, so Smaragdus maintains. He probably consulted the copy of Benedict’s Rule that had been sent to Charlemagne’s court, since he refers to a manuscript that Benedict would have written with his own hand (p. 159).
Smaragdus’s commentary not only shows us how Benedict’s Rule was read and interpreted in the early-ninth century but also informs us about other texts that were regarded as authoritative in this period of reform. Apart [End Page 592] from the almost ubiquitous Isidore, Smaragdus refers continually to Gregory the Great, John Cassian, and the Venerable Bede as the great experts of monastic life. Next to these authorities, he frequently used the Concordia Regularum, the compendium of monastic rules that Benedict of Aniane had assembled in the ninth century as a preliminary to his reform ideas. Since Smaragdus regularly confronts his readers with long citations from these sources, a translator is faced with the difficulty of presenting a readable text while at the same time making it clear that we are reading, for instance, Gregory the Great and not Smaragdus himself. This problem has been solved elegantly in the present edition by using different typefaces to distinguish the text of Benedict from those of Smaragdus and his sources. Marginal annotations offer additional help...