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The Monastery of Monte Cassino today.

How St. Benedict Founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in 529

By Peter Tafuri  

One of the remarkable things about modern libraries is that sometimes they are taken for granted. But the access to books of many cultures and ages are made readily. Such was not always the case. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the unsettled conditions of the ensuing centuries, an unspeakable number of books were lost, either through the deliberate destruction by zealots, the depredations of ensuing waves of invaders or by sheer neglect. What books there were consisted mostly of religious texts which were relatively few and far between and were so valuable that they had to be literally chained down to avoid theft.

Fortunately, the seed of change were sown in the year 529, when St. Benedict founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in the mountains between Rome and Naples. The monks were called the Benedictines, named after their spiritual leader and followed the Rule of St. Benedict which emphasized, among other things, care for the sick, learning and labor. They soon established the first hospital in Europe since the days of Rome’s glory. The Order soon spread throughout the continent.

Unfortunately, the Monastery was burned in 580 by invading Lombards. It wasn’t until 718 that it was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by the Saracens in 884. Reconstruction began again and rose to new heights in the 11th century under the Abbot Desiderius. It was here that Gothic architecture with its characteristic pointed arches had its naissance and of great importance for posterity was the library. Books both ancient and contemporary were imported from throughout the known world and translated into Latin. It soon became the most important library of the time, known not only for the quantity of books, but also for their high quality. The vast collection of medical and scientific works, combined with the Benedictines’ care for the sick, made the Monastery the world’s most important medical center. Eventually, the School of Salerno was spun off to become the world’s first medical school.

Sadly, a period of decline started to set in during the 13th century, which was greatly exacerbated when, in 1309, the French Pope Clement IV moved it from Rome to Avignon. While the Papal power was relocated, seven French Popes were chosen. Appointing cronies to important positions, including the Abbot of Monte Cassino, the Monastery was totally neglected the Monastery and its revenues confiscated. The number of monks dwindled and the lack of funds caused maintenance to be neglected.

In 1349, during the time of the Black Plague, an earthquake that destroyed a significant portion of Monte Cassino. Thus in 1355, when the great author and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio journeyed there in hopes of having access to the once great library, it is said he burst into tears upon arrival. The doors were gone, the windows broken and weeds were growing inside. Worse yet, the books were covered in layers of grime and dust; many were missing covers, margins and leaves. Upon inquiring, he discovered that some of the impoverished monks had caused the damage in order to reuse the expensive parchment to create breviaries and books of psalms which they were able to easily sell. Fortunately, he was able to salvage some of the works of Tacitus, Apuleius and a few other ancient authors; he brought them back to Florence, where they now reside in the Laurentian Library.

Although eventually repaired, the Monastery was but a shadow of its former self. Yet another calamity occurred in 1799, when invading French soldiers sacked it. That was not all.  During World War II the surrounding area was occupied by German troops. The commander, who was a devout Catholic, kept the Monastery off limits. Owing to its strategic location, the Allied forces viewed it as a prime target during the liberation of Italy. In anticipation of the impending battle, what was left of the library was shipped to the Vatican for safekeeping. What followed was one of the great blunders of the War, the bombing of the Monastery itself. The ruins provided a perfect defensive position and the ensuing Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the most difficult fought, with heavy casualties on both sides. Happily, the Monastery was rebuilt during the postwar period and is now a popular tourist spot.