12.04.14, Venarde, The Rule of Saint Benedict

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Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 12.04.14

Venarde, Bruce L.. The Rule of Saint Benedict. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxi, 278. ISBN: 978-0-674-05304-5.

Reviewed by:
Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

Monastic historians rejoice! Bruce Venarde's new facing-page Latin- English text of The Rule of Benedict (hereafter RB) is an attractive and affordable volume that will surely interest anyone whose research touches on the history of medieval cenobitism. Published as part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (hereafter DOML), an exciting new series that presents Latin, Greek and Old English texts from the Middle Ages accompanied by modern English translations, this book is a very useful reference work for scholars and general readers alike. [1] A new Latin-English version of the RB is long overdue. The venerable seven-volume Latin edition by Adalbert de Vogüé in the Source chrétiennes series has been the industry standard since its publication in 1972. [2] In 1980, a team of Benedictine monks published the RB 1980, which reproduced the Latin text of de Vogüé alongside a very readable English translation. While this work is still in print, it never found traction among scholars, who universally prefer the Source chrétiennes edition, in part because of its voluminous commentary. [3] More recently, Penguin Books has published a translation of the RB by Carolinne White, which has become and will likely remain the version of choice for those with no Latin, primarily because it is relatively inexpensive. [4] Venarde's new book is not intended to replace the critical edition of de Vogüé, but it does make an original and worthwhile contribution to the study of the RB in Latin that complements the towering achievements of that great monastic scholar, who died this past autumn at the age of 86.

One of the weaknesses of some of the initial offerings in the DOML series is the brevity of their introductions; it is very difficult for most authors to distill the textual history and cultural significance of their particular text in twenty pages or less. Not so for Venarde. In fifteen pages that wed concision and clarity, he offers a learned Einführung to Benedict of Nursia, the fabled sixth-century author of the RB; the rise of cenobitic monasticism in late antiquity that provides the backdrop to the composition of the rule; the character of the RB as a guide to monastic life; and the reception of the RB in the Carolingian period. This last section is particularly important because Venarde's book presents us with three Carolingian texts: an early ninth-century copy of the RB preserved in a manuscript in the library of St. Gall in Switzerland (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 914, hereafter SG 914); and two letters found in the same manuscript that allow us to trace the tradition surrounding the claims of its extraordinary provenance. It is here as well that Venarde lays out why he has chosen this particular copy of the RB as the centerpiece of his volume and how he has gone about translating it.

Venarde's choice for the Latin text of the RB is both intriguing and ingenious. Rather than relying on the critical edition of de Vogüé, as the editors of the RB 1980 had done, he has elected instead to reproduce the text of a Carolingian exemplar of the RB preserved in SG 914. [5] This is not the earliest manuscript witness to the RB; that distinction belongs to Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 48, which was produced in England during Bede's lifetime. SG 914 is significant because Carolingian monks believed that it was a copy of a copy of an autograph manuscript composed in the sixth century by Benedict himself. While the story is dubious, SG 914 does preserve a very early exemplar of the RB. In Venarde's words, "it is generally believed to be the best witness to Benedict's original language" (xvii). Leaving aside the veracity of the story, how do we know so much about the text of RB in SG 914? Two letters from the Carolingian period together tell the tale. The story goes that Pope Zachary (741-752) sent many gifts to the newly refounded abbey of Monte Cassino, including a manuscript of the RB thought to have been the work of Benedict himself. While visiting Monte Cassino in 787, Charlemagne observed this ancient codex and requested that the monks transcribe it for him and send it to Aachen. It arrived in the North accompanied by a letter of authentication from Paul the Deacon, in which he declared: "[B]ehold, we have sent you the Rule of that same blessed father copied from the very book that he wrote with his own hands" (233). Four decades later, around 820, two monks from Reichenau named Tatto and Grimaldus visited the imperial abbey of Inde, near Aachen, where this manuscript of the RB was kept. In a letter brimming with giddiness, they reported to their brethren that they were able to make a copy of this book, working from "the exemplar copied from the very manuscript that the blessed father took pains to write for the health of many souls" (245). It is their transcription of the RB that survives in SG 914, accompanied by these two letters and other texts relevant to the monastic reforms of the early ninth century.

Whether or not these stories are true, the Latin text of the RB in SG 914 has a decidedly colloquial tone that leaves the reader with the strong impression of eavesdropping on a conversation in progress. This is not the polished Latin of school exercises or the baroque Latin of poetic conceit; it is "a rough-and-ready Latin idiom of the early Middle Ages" (xix). Venarde's translation follows the original text very closely and often captures this conversational feel. To take but one example, in the first chapters of the RB, where the tone is especially urgent, Benedict challenges his disciples to recognize that the evil that they do is always of their own making. Venarde's rendering of sibi reputet as "own up to it" captures the moment perfectly (35). The translation is a pleasure to read from start to finish. In two cases, Venarde has left obscure Latin words untranslated--senpectae (107) and hemina (141)--and has qualified their possible meanings in notes. Some may argue that this breaks the flow of the text for the reader, but I prefer this kind of transparency on the part of a translator to an educated guess that glosses over the difficulty of rendering ambiguous words. Only very rarely does the translation miss the mark and these are typically matters of personal preference rather than a misunderstanding of the Latin on Venarde's part. For instance, the translation of Et bene extructi fraterna ex acie as "well trained among a band of brothers" (17) brought to mind a popular HBO series. White's "well- armed, they go out from the ranks of the brothers" captures the sense of ex acie a bit more clearly without the modern resonance. [6] Similarly, the translation of intelligivilem aetatem as "age of reason" (205) carries the unintended evocation of the Enlightenment; "age of discernment" or White's "age of discretion" are probably preferable in this case. There is only one instance where Venarde fudges a very idiosyncratic phrase and he is not alone in doing so. When Benedict condemns risum moventia, he is probably not referring to "wisecracks" (43) in particular. White's translation of this phrase as "anything said to make others laugh" is a bit closer to the mark, but both translations miss the literal sense of moventia, that is, anything that moves others to laugh. [7] Early medieval monks were surprisingly ambivalent with respect to the expression of mirth. Laughter is typically not a sinful act unless it becomes raucous, unbridled, uncontrollable. It is probably for this reason that the lexicon of hand-signs used by the monks of Hirsau in the eleventh century grouped the signs for laughter, sneeze and vomiting together, creating a taxonomy of irrepressible and disruptive motions. [8] I found only one typo--"my" for "may" (123)--which a future edition can remedy.

The two Carolingian letters that accompany the RB in this edition are well worth reading for the light that they throw on the reception of this venerable text in the age of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. Paul the Deacon's letter is very sensitive to the fact that there had been liturgical developments and other changes in custom since the time of Benedict that put some of the directives in the RB at odds with Roman practice in the late eighth century, and he spends the better part of his missive explaining the discrepancies. Although much shorter, the letter of Grimaldus and Tatto is equally instructive because it shows the two monks attempting to reconcile different readings in the text of the RB. As they transcribed the text that they believed to be descended from Benedict's autograph copy, they took pains to collate "from other copies corrected by later scholars words that the aforementioned father did not, according to what many affirm was accepted practice [in his day], include in the text of his rule, and we carefully inserted those words in the adjacent page margin, marked by two points [:]" (245). In short, as Venarde notes, "they created something unusual for their times, a basic critical edition in which the text is that of Benedict and subsequent alterations are noted in the margin" (250). The critical apparatus of these enterprising monks is not included in Venarde's text-- understandably so, as it would have been a nightmare to format them.

This book is a very welcome contribution to medieval monastic scholarship. While Venarde's volume will not replace the critical edition of de Vogüé as the standard research tool for historians and will probably not supplant White's translation in an undergraduate setting, it does the meritorious service of providing scholars and advanced students alike with ready access to an ancient witness to the Latin text of the RB accompanied by an accurate modern translation. Moreover, the companion letters provide important insight not only into the early medieval tradition of Benedict's "autograph" manuscript, but also into the reception of the RB more generally in the Carolingian period. This book should be within arm's reach of any medieval historian whose research treats the history of Christian monasticism.



1. On the DOML series, see my recent review of The Vulgate Bible, Volume II, Parts A and B: The Historical Books: Douay-Rheims Translation, ed. Swift Edgar, DOML 4 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) published in The Medieval Review on 27 February 2012 at http://hdl.handle.net/2022/14220.

2. La règle de saint Benoît, ed. Adalbert de Vogüé, 7 vols. Source chrétiennes 181-187 (Paris, 1971-1972). Some scholars still favor the Latin edition of Rudolf Hanslick published in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 50 (Vienna, 1960), but Hanslick's edition does not include a translation and lacks the extensive commentary that makes de Vogüé's work so useful.

3. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English, ed. Timothy Fry et al. (Collegeville, MN, 1981). The long introduction to the RB 1980 has not aged well. In her review of the book, Caroline Bynum noted that, for all of its virtues, its presentation of the history of monasticism was static and weak and on the whole it was "sometimes couched in a kind of awkward, lifeless prose one fears will issue from a committee." For her full review, see Speculum 57 (1982): 607-609.

4. The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York, 2008).

5. The Stiftsbibliothek, St. Gallen, has made hundreds of its Carolingian manuscripts available on-line, including this one at: http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/csg/0914.

6. The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. White, 11.

7. The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. White, 21.

8. Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c. 900-1200 (Cambridge, 2007), 122.

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Author Biography

Scott G. Bruce

University of Colorado at Boulder