The largest and most influential order of medieval monks was the Order or St. Benedict, or Benedictines. The Benedictines followed the teaching of the Italian monk St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), a former hermit who founded a dozen monasteries that were organized according to his law, the Regula Benedicti (‘Rule of Benedict’). The Regula sets out the precepts for monastic life organized under the authority of an abbot or prior, and was adopted by not only the Benedictines, but several other orders of monk. In the West, the Regula set the tone for monasticism, and is still a much-revered document today.
The Regula prescribes a daily routine comprised of manual labour and devotion. Benedict provides instructions on how a monastery should be organized and run, with a strong emphasis on manual labor in order to ensure that the monastery could be self-sufficient and thus free from the outside world. Monks were expected to contribute to agriculture, to eat communally and in complete silence, and to attend mass and offer prayers at set times of the day, all within the vallum or enclosing wall. There are also a list of punishments for monks committing specific sins, and advice for abbots and priors.
The Benedictines were the most numerous monks and nuns in medieval Europe. Beyond manual labour, they placed a great emphasis on learning and reading, producing and disseminating many important texts across Europe. Community was fundamental to the Benedictine way of life, hence the prescription of praying together, and only a few people of sufficient spiritual strength were allowed to become hermits. Benedictines swore vows to stay in their monastery, obey their prior or abbot, and to live a chaste life dedicated to God. They shaved their heads (tonsure), wore black robes, and hence were known as the Black Monks.