The Life of Saint Benedict: Introduction


1 The precise date of Benedict's death is unknown, but it was apparently around the middle of the sixth century.

2 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, ed. Adalbert de Vogüé. Book 2, the Life of Benedict, forms vol. 2 of de Vogüé's edition. In the Bollandists' list of hagiographical texts, BHL, it is numbered 1102. For an English translation of Book II that includes a commentary by de Vogüé, see Gregory the Great, The Life of St. Benedict, trans. Costello and Bhaldraithe. More widely available now is the translation by White, in Early Christian Lives, pp. 165-204, 218-20.

3 De Vogüé (Dialogues 1.118, 119) makes this point in some detail: "After two centuries, [Gregory's] country finally will possess, thanks to him, a hagiographic collection comparable to that of Egypt. By him alone, there will be for Italy a Rufinus, an Athanasius, and a Palladius. . . . With [the Dialogues] his country had not only a grand biography, capable of rivaling that of Antony, but also an abundance of hagiographical events comparable to that of the Vitas patrum in Egypt." On Gregory's reasons for writing the Dialogues, see also Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, pp. 62-66, and Petersen, The Dialogues of Gregory the Great, pp. 56-58. There is no complete modern edition or translation of the Vitae patrum (PL 73-74) as a whole, but some of the separate works of the collection can be found in Waddell, The Desert Fathers; Ward, The Sayings of the Fathers; Russell, The Lives of the Desert Fathers; Palladius: The Lausiac History, trans. Meyer; Athanasius, The Life of Antony, trans. Gregg. See also White, Early Christian Lives, which includes Athanasius' Antony, and Jerome's lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus, as well as the lives of Martin and Benedict. For a historical survey of Eastern monasticism, see Chitty, The Desert a City.

4 For a historical overview of Western monasticism, and for further bibliography on the subject, see C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism. Still the classic work on Benedictine and Cistercian monastic spirituality is that of Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

5 Trans. Hoare, Western Fathers, pp. 68-144. The dialogue form is not unknown in the Eastern tradition, of course, but it is more commonly found in doctrinal and devotional treatises than as a narrative frame, as in Sulpicius, or as a commentary on narrative, as in Gregory. See, for example, John Cassian, Conferences, written in Latin in southern Gaul a generation or so after Sulpicius.

6 The imposing mountain site is still occupied by the Benedictines, although the present buildings date only from 1964. The monastery, in a strategic location commanding an important north-south route, has been sacked, destroyed, and rebuilt five times in all, beginning with the Lombards who destroyed Benedict's foundation in 585 (see Dialogues, ed. de Vogüé, 2.17.1-2). It was the object of fierce fighting between the Germans and the Allies in 1944.

7 Quod annis multis illic ante oculos omnium fuit, et usque ad haec Langobardum tempora super fores ecclesiae pependit (Dialogues, ed. de Vogüé, 2.130). That a sieve was on display over the church doors does not authenticate the miracle, of course, but it attests to the persistence of local belief in the miracle.

8 Dialogues, ed. de Vogüé, 2.1.2. Although Monte Cassino had been abandoned by the monks in the face of the invading Lombards who sacked it, Subiaco, the site of Benedict's cave-hermitage and the first community he established, was evidently in Gregory's day actively fostering the saint's memory (the "cell" or small monastery there was headed by Honoratus, one of Gregory's informants). See the story of the madwoman in Benedict's cave (Dialogues 2.38.1), the only posthumous miracle Gregory recounts.

9 The earliest clear English reference to Benedict as a notable saint is that of Aldhelm of Malmesbury in his De Virginitate (see below, note 20), which is dated in the last quarter of the seventh century. Aldhelm was schooled at Canterbury, under Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian, who were no doubt responsible for encouraging Benedict's cult. On the early cult of St. Gregory in England, see Thacker, "Memorializing Gregory the Great."

10 Felix, Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. Colgrave, chapter 35, pp. 110-13, 186; in Colgrave, ed., Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, see the anonymous Life of Cuthbert III, 2 (pp. 96-97, and the note, p. 326) and Bede's Life of Cuthbert, chapters 11, 14, and 19 (pp. 192-93, 202-203, 222-23, and the notes on pp. 347 and 350); Adamnan of Iona, Life of St Columba, trans. Sharpe, pp. 146 and 305n189.

11 For example, Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek MS Theol. et Philos. Qu. 628 is believed to have been copied in Northumbria, or on the Continent by an Anglo-Saxon scribe, at the turn of the seventh century. See Gneuss, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, p. 144 (no. 937.3).

12 For an accessible edition of the OE text and a modern translation, see An Old English Martyrology, ed. Herzfeld. For the OE Dialogues see Wærferth of Worcester, Bischofs Waerferths von Worcester Übersetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen. On the place of the Dialogues in the Alfredian canon, see Bately, "Those Books That Are Most Necessary for All Men to Know."

13 Ælfric of Eynsham, Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, ed. Godden, pp. 92-109.

14 This is evident not only from Ælfric's inclusion of Benedict's feast in the cycle of Catholic Homilies, which covered only the major feasts celebrated in all churches (not just the monasteries), but also from other sources, including an OE poem on the major feasts, The Menologium, in which the following verses (37-44) occur: "On the eleventh night [of March], the holy Gregorius hastened into God's protection, renowned in Britain. Also Benedictus nine nights later sought out the Savior, the brave and strong-hearted one, the Ruler's servant, who is praised by men learned in written lore, soldiers faithful to the rule." See Dobbie, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, p. 50 (translation EGW).

15 See the Life of St. Scholastica (V[b]), below.

16 See Nightingale, "Oswald, Fleury and Continental Reform."

17 For a sampling of post-Conquest English calendars, see Wormald, ed., Benedictine Kalendars after 1100. Of the several extant liturgies, secular and monastic, for Benedict's feast day see, for example, Ordinale Exon.[Exeter], ed. Dalton; The Hereford Breviary, ed. Frere and Brown, 2:129-30; The Monastic Breviary of Hyde Abbey, Winchester, ed. Tolhurst, 4.232r- 234v; Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum, ed. Procter and Wordsworth, 3.225-34.

18 See the translations of Benedict, Rule, by Fry, RB 1980, and McCann, The Rule.

19 E.g., an earlier, anonymous Rule of the Master and Rufinus' translation of the rule of St Basil. On the former, see Knowles, Great Historical Enterprises, pp. 137-95; on Basil's rule, see Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, pp. 9-11.

20 This is not to deny the early importance of Benedict's rule in Anglo-Saxon England. One of the oldest surviving copies (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 48) was written in England in the eighth century. St. Wilfred (634-709) boasts of first bringing the rule to Northumberland (see Eddius Stephanus, The Life of Bishop Wilfrid, ed. Colgrave, chs. 14 and 47, pp. 30-31, 98-99). Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709) in the metrical version of his De Virginitate glorifies Benedict, erroneously, as the first to provide a rule for monastic life. See Aldhelm, Aldhelm, the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 122. But the typically early Anglo-Saxon (and Frankish) double monasteries of men and women can hardly be termed "Benedictine," nor is there any precedent in the rule or in the Life of Benedict for Wilfred's and Aldhelm's simultaneous enjoyment of monastic and episcopal careers. The tendency of English monks to become bishops persisted, and is especially noticeable between c. 950 and 1200.

21 On the mixed rule of Benedict Biscop at Bede's Jarrow and Wearmouth, see Blair, The World of Bede, pp. 197-201, and Knowles, The Monastic Order in England, pp. 22-23. There was a similar arrangement at Lindisfarne under Cuthbert, according to the anonymous Life of Cuthbert, III, 1: Two Lives, ed. Colgrave, pp. 94-97.

22 "The Rule of St Benedict" in Knowles, Saints and Scholars, p. 8.

23 Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Die angelsächsischen Prosabearbeitungen der Benediktinerregel, ed. Schröer. See the list of Latin and OE MSS of Anglo-Saxon provenance in Gretsch, "Æthelwold's Translation of the 'Regula Sancti Benedicti,'" pp. 126-27. Passages from the rule were supposed to be read aloud at specified times in the reformed monasteries, according to Æthelwold's Regularis, ed. and trans. Symons, pp. xl and 17. On Anglo-Saxon monasticism in general, see Knowles, Monastic Order in England, pp. 16-82.

24 See Charlotte D'Evelyn, "Instructions for Religious," in MWME 2.460-63, 654-55.

25 See Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 1.9-27.

26 In addition to the version edited here, there is a second SEL Life of St. Benedict (discussed briefly below, note 33), as well as later prose versions in the Gilte Legende and Caxton's Golden Legend. See D'Evelyn, "Saints' Legends," in MWME 2.571.

27 Görlach, Textual Tradition, p. 155.

28 LA, ed. Maggioni, 1.309-20; trans. Ryan 1.186-93.

29 See the text below, lines 59-62; compare LA, trans. Ryan, 1.189. In both cases the fire episode is omitted and the narrative proceeds immediately to the stone wall episode (Dialogues 2.11).

30 Görlach, Textual Tradition, p. 155.

31 Lines not accounted for in the table are considered to be original to SEL. Other original lines, which have been integrated into an episode from the Dialogues, will be discussed in the endnotes.

32 See Görlach, Textual Tradition, p. 49, and Wolpers, Die englische Heiligenlegenden des Mittelalters, p. 239.

33 Görlach in his apparatus (Textual Tradition, p. 154) distinguishes the longer and shorter versions of SEL's Life of St. Benedict as be and !be respectively. The shorter version is printed from the copy in the Vernon manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. A.1. [SC 3938]) by Justin McCann, "Early English Verses on St Benedict," pp. 53-56. After a rather repetitive preamble (lines 1-8), in which Benedict is credited (line 2) with being the founder of the white monkes (i.e., the Cistercians), and after describing Benedict in rather vague terms as the leader of a community of ascetics dwelling in the wildernesse and performing many miracles (lines 9-18), the narrator goes on to relate five miracle episodes which together present a quite different (and much briefer) picture of Benedict from that in A's Life of St. Benedict. Three of the stories are in both versions (compare the above table of episodes): viz., Benedict resists sexual temptation (Vernon, lines 19-34; compare A, Life of St. Benedict, lines 11-24); monk distracted from prayers by demon (Vernon, lines 35-42; compare A, Life of St. Benedict, lines 77-92); servant hides keg of wine meant for Benedict (Vernon, lines 63-74; compare A, Life of St. Benedict, lines 123-34). The remaining episodes are: a raven helps Benedict detect poison in bread sent by a jealous priest, Florentius (Vernon, lines 43-62; compare Dialogues 8.2-3, trans. White, p. 176); a novice monk (Placidus) is saved from drowning by a monk (Maurus) walking on water (Vernon, lines 75-88; compare Dialogues 7.1-2, trans. White, p. 175). These two episodes from the shorter SEL Life of St. Benedict were added on additional leaves, by a Cheshire scribe in the mid-fifteenth century, to a late-fourteenth-century text of the longer version, London, BL MS Egerton 2810 (M). See Görlach, Textual Tradition, pp. 91, 154, and 270n86.

34 DM 1.122-27.
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The Life of Saint Benedict: Introduction

The Cult and Legend of St. Benedict (feast day March 21)

Like St. Jerome and St. Thaïs, St. Benedict died not as a martyr but of natural causes, and was venerated in the medieval church calendar as a "confessor." Also like Jerome, he was an ascetic and a monk. But whereas Jerome, although born a Latin, is associated like Thaïs with the Eastern desert tradition, Benedict embodies and represents the newer monasticism of the West. He and Jerome are also different in that Jerome's life is very well known to us from a variety of sources other than the hagiographic legends composed to promote his cult, whereas Benedict's life as "father of monks" is known almost exclusively from his legend: the Life of Benedict written in 594 by Pope Gregory the Great, half a century or so after Benedict's death.1

Gregory's Life of Benedict imitates the hagiographic traditions of the East, which Jerome himself helped transmit to the West, in that it is part of a larger work, the Dialogues, devoted to the miracles and visions of many saints of a specific region, in this case Italy. 2 The Dialogues is, among other things, a Roman imitation of and response to the widely read books of lives, sayings (apophthegmata), and miracles of Eastern desert saints, known collectively as the Vitae patrum or Lives of the Fathers. Although composed in Greek, most of these were available in Latin translations from the fifth century. 3 A major difference between the Dialogues and the Lives of the Fathers lies in Gregory's emphasis, especially in his Life of Benedict, on the cultivation of a disciplined, orderly, communal life (cenobitism) within the walls of a monastery proper. 4 In the Lives of the Fathers the monks are generally depicted as pursuing more individualistic and specifically eremitic goals, even when their cells are physically close together and they are ostensibly under the authority of an abbot. Gregory's Benedict may begin his spiritual odyssey as a youthful hermit and ascetic living in solitude, but he spends most of his life as the founder and builder of a great abbey, as the leader and corrector of its monks, and as its protector against human, demonic, and natural enemies.

Another of the Dialogues' departures from the Eastern model is its use of frequent dialogic interludes between narrative episodes, in which Gregory the "author" is questioned by his disciple, the deacon Peter, giving Gregory a chance to comment on and interpret some of the implications of the narratives themselves. Gregory probably adapted this dialogic device from Sulpicius Severus, whose lengthy supplement (404-06) to his Life of Martin of Tours was cast in dialogue form, 5 although the dialogue was common enough in Latin literature in general.

Gregory's account of Benedict, which forms book 2 of the Dialogues, is regarded by many modern scholars as historically reliable in its biographical outline, even if much of its detailed substance is taken up with the saint's miracles. Benedict was born in Nursia (now Norcia, near Spoleto, northeast of Rome) to wealthy parents who sent him to Rome to be educated. Put off by the immorality of his fellow students, Benedict found more congenial company in a religious community at Affile (present-day Effide). When his first miracle (using prayer to mend a broken sieve) drew unwanted attention, he retreated to a cave near a lake at Subiaco, just north of Effide. He emerged three years later to govern a nearby community of monks, but when they reacted against his strictness by trying to poison him, Benedict returned to his solitary life at Subiaco. When the fame of his holiness gave him more and more followers, he organized them into twelve separate communities of twelve monks each. He eventually settled with his closest disciples at Monte Cassino, 6 midway between Rome and Naples, and there built the monastery where he spent the rest of his life and wrote his famous rule. Benedict's death is variously dated in 543 or 547, although Gregory does not specify this or the saint's birth date (probably c. 480).

That Benedict's cult as a saint began to flourish immediately following his death (or even before), at least in central Italy, is evident from certain details in Gregory's Life of Benedict that could easily be affirmed or contradicted by his contemporaries (e.g., his statement in Dialogues 2.1.2 that "everyone could see" the miraculously mended sieve hanging "for many years . . . above the doors of the church [of Effide]" until the Lombards took over the Spoleto region in 576), 7 as well as from the living testimony of certain of Benedict's followers who apparently were carefully cultivating the memory of his sanctity and of the places associated with him. 8 But in the century and a half following his death, Benedict's local cult had become international, as Pope Gregory's own stature as an ecclesiast and writer ensured the publication of the Life in the Dialogues all over Christian Europe, and especially in the northwest, where Gregory's own cult was flourishing by the late seventh century. 9 In the early eighth century, his Life of Benedict was quoted and imitated by the Insular hagiographers who wrote the early Latin lives of, for example, Cuthbert, Columba, and Guthlac, 10 and some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Dialogues are of Anglo-Saxon provenance. 11

The Old English Martyrology, a ninth-century compilation of Old English prose summaries of and extracts from saints' legends, draws on the Dialogues for its lengthy tribute to Benedict, and near the end of the century Bishop Wærferth of Worcester, at King Alfred's request, translated Gregory's Dialogues into Old English as one of the books "most necessary for all men to know." 12 In the later tenth century, Ælfric of Eynsham composed an OE prose life of Benedict, based on the Dialogues, as one of his Second Series of Catholic Homilies, intended for preaching to the laity. 13 By this time, Benedict's feast day, along with that of Gregory himself (March 12), was in the calendar of national holidays. 14 In the monastic calendars, another important feast day was that of Benedict's "translation" (July 11), commemorating an event that was widely believed to have occurred in the late seventh century: namely, the removal of Benedict's body, with that of his sister Scholastica, from their joint tomb amid the ruins of Monte Cassino, to the abbey of Fleury on the River Loire in Merovingian France. The monks who later rebuilt Monte Cassino vehemently denied that the body had been moved, but by the late ninth century, the cult of Benedict's relics at Fleury (Scholastica's were taken to Le Mans) 15 was flourishing, as witness a substantial collection of Benedict's posthumous Fleury miracles, published in 870 by Adrevald of Fleury, who also wrote a popular account of the removal of the relics from Monte Cassino. All this helped ensure Fleury's prosperity and importance in the reform movement of the time, and its customs and culture were profoundly influential on the reform-minded English monks of the mid- to late tenth century. 16 From this point on, in England, as well as in France and elsewhere in Northwest Europe, Benedict's place as one of the most important saints in the Church calendar was assured. 17

The wide veneration of Benedict as a saint, while promoted by the Life in Gregory's Dialogues, and the cult of his relics at Fleury and Monte Cassino, was also due to the prestige and authority of his rule. 18 Written in simple and at times colloquial Latin, and indebted to earlier cenobitic codes, 19 it comprises a set of rules governing the daily routines and ideals of monks living and worshiping God as a disciplined community owing strict obedience to one abbot. Their communal purpose is to perform the daily liturgy in God's praise, opus dei ("the work of God"). Their individual goal is to win salvation through denial of all worldly, and especially sexual pleasures, humility, and the subordination of individual needs and desires to those of the community, in obedience to the abbot. Indeed the emphasis is as much on communal discipline as on spirituality. Eventually this rule would become the best known and most influential guide to monastic organization in the Middle Ages, but its effect was by no means instant or uniform in the early medieval period. Even among the Anglo-Saxons, whose conversion to Christianity was begun by Augustine of Canterbury and other missionaries sent by Benedict's biographer, Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, 20 Benedict's Rule was only one of a number from which monastic founders could pick and choose, and "mixed rules" (sometimes blending Celtic and Roman traditions) were the rule rather than the exception for centuries. 21 Benedict's great work was "never imposed as a code," insists David Knowles, 22 but it was invariably an important standard of reference wherever there were attempts to achieve reform and a greater measure of discipline and regularity amid the wide fluctuations in monastic fervor in the West.

In one such reform period, in England in the late tenth century, for example, Benedict's rule was not only frequently copied and glossed but was also translated by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester into the vernacular in two recensions, one for monks, the other for nuns, which were still being copied in the twelfth century. 23 From the later Middle Ages, no less than five separate translations are extant, beginning with the early ME prose version (adapted from the OE) from the nunnery of Wintney, in Hampshire. 24 Although the Wintney translation may have been necessitated solely by the results of linguistic change (the vocabulary and syntax of the OE version having finally become too difficult for people to understand), it is equally possible that it was prompted by developments in the larger ecclesiastical world. For the early thirteenth century also saw the beginning of the efforts of some leading clerics, under the influence of the reforming popes, to bring a greater discipline and uniformity of practice to the country's numerous older abbeys. It was during this period for the first time, following the important Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, that abbots of the leading monasteries were required by papal decree to meet together in periodic councils, called "chapters," to enact legislation that would be binding on all the member institutions. It is only from this period on that one can properly speak of the independent English monasteries (those that professed some form of allegiance to the rule of Benedict and were not Cistercian or Premonstratensian) as constituting an "order." The emphasis on the ordre of St. Benedict in the SEL Life of St. Benedict (e.g., lines 10 and 55) may well reflect these developments. 25

SEL Version: The Life of St. Benedict

The earliest ME account of Benedict, found in sixteen of the extant manuscripts of SEL, is an abbreviated and highly selective version of the life in Book 2 of Gregory's Dialogues.26 For the poet's more immediate source, Manfred Görlach posits "an unknown epitome." 27 The chapter on Benedict in LA (BHL 1113) 28 contains all of the episodes used by the SEL-poet, omits the moralizing pieces of dialogue that often follow individual episodes in the Dialogues, and also omits some of the same episodes as the SEL Life (e.g., the diabolical kitchen fire that is the sequel to the immovable stone episode in Dialogues 2.10.1-2). 29 But Görlach points out that the SEL Life of St. Benedict includes details absent from LA and adopts a different ordering of episodes. It is also much shorter. On the other hand, the SEL version does not correspond significantly, except in length, with that in any of the medieval English breviaries, 30 so the poet may well have been working creatively with more than one source, including possibly LA.

Of the thirty-eight chapters of Book 2 of the Dialogues or the twenty-seven chapters covered by LA, twelve are employed in the Life of St. Benedict. The following table compares the order of the ME episodes with that of the Dialogues and presents the chapter numbers of the original according to their position in the Life of St. Benedict. 31 Note that the ordering tabulated in the last column is, as far as we can tell, original to the SEL-poet:

SEL Life of St. Benedict, Episodes SEL Lines Dialogues, Book 2, Chs.
Benedict leaves Rome for the wilderness
Benedict resists sexual temptation
Easter feast followed by preaching
Benedict establishes Monte Cassino
Devil disrupts building work by sitting on a rock
Benedict resuscitates monk crushed beneath a wall
Monk distracted from prayers by demon
Devil tempts pious layman to break fast
Jester in king's clothing tries to fool Benedict
Servant hides keg of wine meant for Benedict
Monks fret about lack of food during famine
Unblessed monk's body will not remain buried
Benedict predicts the day of his death
Monks' vision of Benedict's highway to heaven
    Prol., 1.1

The SEL-poet's originality can be seen first in the way he streamlines the narrative by reordering the events of Benedict's early career. By reversing the order of Benedict's temptation and the Easter feast, omitting any mention of his community at Subiaco, and skipping directly to the calling of the saint's disciples to Monte Cassino, the SEL-poet has Benedict's life mirror Christ's withdrawal into the wilderness, his temptation, and the beginning of his ministry (see Matthew 4:1-21). Apparently with the latter in mind, the poet represents Benedict as an itinerant preacher (SEL Life of St. Benedict, lines 48-50), a role more commonly associated with the Franciscans or Dominicans than the Benedictines. 32 In the Dialogues, on the other hand, Benedict is never seen to "wander about" preaching, and only after he founds Monte Cassino does he begin "calling all the surrounding people to the faith by his continual preaching" (Dialogues 2.8.11), whereas here in SEL it is made to appear that as a result of his successful ministry Benedict is led by God's grace to Monte Cassino.

Second, unlike the authors of LA, the breviaries, or the other SEL version (see below), whose narratives move from miracle to miracle without explanation or comment, this poet provides a rationale for the SEL narrative by adding transitions between events or sets of miracles. For example, because Benedict is so steadfast in his prayers in the wilderness, the devil tempts him (SEL Life of St. Benedict, lines 7-10); because the saint observes Lent faithfully and is nourished at Easter, he is able to begin preaching (lines 47-48); because the devil envies Benedict's success, he strives to thwart the building of his monastery (lines 58-59); because Benedict rebuffs Satan's repeated assaults, the devil turns his attention to the saint's monks (lines 75-76); because Benedict's holiness enables him to anticipate the devil's wiles, he repeatedly displays his gift of prophecy (lines 115-74), which is shown to be increasingly far-reaching. Each of the subsequent four miracles of prophecy testifies to the magnitude of the saint's power and propels us toward the climax of Benedict's prediction of his own death and the angelic confirmation of his glorious reception in Heaven.

Third, in addition to demonstrating Benedict's power as a saint and ultimately as an intercessor, the SEL-poet seems at times to reinforce the saint's benevolence throughout the story. For example, when a servant hides a cask of wine for himself that is intended for Benedict and his brethren, the SEL adds that he is not poisoned by the snake awaiting him inside the cask because Benedict did not wish it (lines 133-34), and when the monks fret about the shortage of food at the monastery, Benedict comforts them (lines 140-41) instead of trying to "correct their timidity with mild reproof" (Dialogues 2.21.1). Finally, when Benedict hears of the monk whose body will not remain in its tomb, the saint himself goes to bless the body (SEL Life of St. Benedict, lines 153) rather than remaining at his monastery and sending a consecrated host to be placed on the monk's chest as he does in the Dialogues (2.24.2).

It remains to be seen, however, if the SEL-poet's selection and reordering of episodes from Benedict's life are his own, original work, or influenced by one or more of the numerous medieval retellings of the Dialogues account.


As with all but two of the SEL legends in this collection, we have chosen the text of the early-fourteenth-century manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (A) for our edition (see I[a], Introduction). A's version of the Benedict legend is the same as that found in fifteen of the twenty-five major manuscripts of SEL; four others preserve a shorter version, apparently unrelated to the A version and structured in a less obviously skillful fashion. 33 It has not yet been determined which was written earlier, but neither is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108 (L), representing the earliest layer of the collection, although a short legend for Benedict's sister, Scholastica, is (see the second part of this chapter, V[b]). The existence of the two separate SEL lives of Benedict remains a conundrum deserving closer study; suffice it to point out here that it suggests (but does not prove) the absence of a life of Benedict from the earliest layer of SEL. Although the shorter version is confined to a small group of manuscripts affiliated with L, they are all late manuscripts from outside the Southwestern dialect area in which SEL originated. The shorter version also seems to lack the poetic quality of the main SEL corpus as well as of the longer Life of St. Benedict, and may well be a later composition.

According to Görlach, among the manuscripts preserving the longer version edited here there are many minor variants and instances of abridgement, though most amount only to a few couplets. We have not attempted to collate A fully with the numerous other witnesses, but the endnotes provide occasional variants from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 145 (C) edited by D'Evelyn and Mill. 34 In a few instances, we have used C readings to emend what seem to be clearly mistakes in the A copy, although for the most part A's text seems somewhat superior to C's. In addition to the usual minor modifications required by the format of the Middle English Texts Series, we have supplied initial h where it is frequently omitted by this scribe from the possessive pronoun his.

For a sketch of the main linguistic features of the A manuscript, see above, I(a), Introduction. Some additional linguistic information is provided in the notes below.

Indexed in

IMEV 2860.


Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 145, fols. 46r-48r.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (SC 6924), fols. 46r-48v.

Previous editions

The South English Legendary. Ed. D'Evelyn and Mill. 2.543-46.

McCann. "Early English Verses on St. Benedict." Pp. 48-53.

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