Monte Cassino Abbey: History and Major Facts

Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino Abbey history and facts

Founded in the 6th century CE by Benedict of Nursia, Monte Cassino Abbey has been through quite a lot over the centuries, from it being sacked by the Lombards and the Saracens in the Dark Ages to it being bombarded by Allied forces during World War II.

Below, worldhistoryedu.com presents the complete history and major facts about Monte Cassino Abbey, one of the largest monasteries in Italy.

Brief History of Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino sits in the Roman town of Casinum. Prior to that, the hill was occupied by the Volsci people who were defeated by the Romans in 312 BCE (Before Christ Era). During the Roman era, a temple was built in honor the god Apollo. However, that all changed when Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Beginning around the fifth century CE, the town of Casinum became an abode for bishops. The fall of Rome in 476 exposed the area to a number of attacks from barbarian tribes; and soon, the place was abandoned.

The first Monastery of Monte Cassino Abbey

Monte Cassino Abbey

Saint Benedict writing the rules and instructions to govern the Abbey. Painting (1926) by Hermann Nigg (1849–1928)

Unbeknownst to many people, the first monastery of Monte Cassino Abbey was built from the remains of the temple of Apollo, the Roman god of light and poetry.

When Benedict of Nursia got to the area in the 6th century, the first thing he did was to destroy every remnant of Apollo’s temple and altar. The area still had traces of pagan worship; hence, Benedict reasoned that he had to destroy the old structures and what he perceived as unholy practices completely in order to replace it with Christian buildings. However, he did reuse some sections of temple of Apollo, according to a written account from Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I).

Benedict went on to dedicate the new building and a Christian chapel to Saint Martin and St. John the Baptist respectively. His goal was to purify the mountains so that a monastic culture could be established in the area as quick as possible.

Did you know: According to Pope Gregory I’s Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the devil tormented Benedict on several occasions in hopes of dissuading him from completing the monastery?

The Benedictine Rule at Monte Cassino Abbey

The Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict was developed at the abbey. It spelt out clear instructions for monks in terms of how they should live and interact amongst themselves in the Abbey | Image: The oldest copy of the Rule of Saint Benedict, from the eighth century (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Hatton 48, fols. 6v–7r)

Benedict remained at Monte Cassino after establishing the monastery. He wrote extensive works and instructions that spelled how monks should live peaceful and piously in a communal setting that was headed by an abbot. His 516 CE book, the Rule of Saint Benedict, contained all those precepts and commandments.

Benedict’s precepts for how the monks should live were quite different from previous church precepts. Benedict provided a moderate stance which blended individual freedoms with institutional rules. He called on the monks to not just make peace and pray but to also work very hard.

The Benedictine Rule went on to serve as the standard precept for more than a millennium and a half. Owing to his enormous contribution, he is generally referred to as the founder of Western monasticism. To this day, the reforms that he instituted at Monte Cassino Abbey continue to shape the social structure of the Vatican.

The Lombards sack Monte Cassino Abbey

Owing to solid foundation laid down by Benedict of Nursia, the Monte Cassino Abbey quickly became a model throughout Europe. However, the half a century after it was established, the Lombards sacked the Abbey around 580 CE. This unfortunate event happened during the abbacy of Bonitus.

Following the sack, the monks at the abbey took refuge in Rome. They stayed in Rome for about a century. The remains of Saint Benedict was also moved from the area to Fleury, France.

Second Monastery

Monte Cassino Abbey

Image: St. Petronax of Monte Cassino was an influential Benedictine Abbot who is generally regarded as “The Second Founder of Monte Cassino Abbey”.

In 718 CE, the abbey was rebuilt by an Italian monk Abbot Petronax (670-746), who would later come to be known as “The Second Founder of Monte Cassino”. Petronax (later Saint Petronax) worked very hard to repopulate the abbey in order to restore it to its original glory.

With support from Pope Gregory II and the Lombard Duke Romuald II of Benevento, (Gisulf II of Benevento), Monte Cassino Abbey was able to acquire large parcels of lands around the abbey. Those lands, which came to be called the Terra Sancti Benedicti, were placed under the direct control of the abbey.

Saracens attack in 884 CE

The attack from the Saracens, a group of tribes of Arab Muslims, came in 884. The abbey was sacked and destroyed beyond recognition. The sack also resulted in the death of Abbot Bertharius.

The golden years of the abbey

Monte Cassino Abbey witnessed tremendous growth starting around the 11th century. Much of that growth was due to Abbot Desiderius (later Pope Victor III). The abbey also encouraged its monks to acquire new medical tools in order to be able to better handle the health issues of their patients in Monte Cassino.

The abbey gathered so many books by authors from different eras that it soon became one of the biggest libraries in Europe. Many of those books and manuscripts were translated into Latin.

Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the abbey was considered Europe’s hub when it came to medicine, culture and education. The first High Medical School, which was opened near the abbey, made the abbey even more renowned across Europe.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Monte Cassino Abbey was the number one place for medicinal research and other sciences.

Also in the 11th century, the abbot of the abbey, Abbot Desiderius, invited expert craftsmen and mosaicists from Constantinople to decorate the Abbey. Desiderus also encouraged the monks in the abbey to pursue disciplines in the arts.

Monte Cassino Abbey in modern history

During World War II, Monte Cassino Abbey was severely brought to ruin. Wrongly believing that Nazi forces were using the Abbey as an observation post, American-led bombers turned the Abbey into a pile of rubble on February 15, 1944. The bombing by the Allied Forces resulted in the deaths of 230 Italian civilians that were taking refuge in the historic site.

Shortly after the bombing, the German paratroopers (Fallschirmjager) of the 1st Parachute Division moved into the rubble and mounted a huge defensive line – the Gustav line – to prevent Allied forces from advancing any further into Italy. Between January and May, 1944, a fierce battle ensued on the hills of Monte Cassino.

The bombings carried out on the Abbey during WWII was a huge blunder, as it turned out that German troops never used the protected historic zone as an observation post. The decision to bomb the building was based on anything but the right intelligence. Nazi General Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe regarded the Abbey as a historical monument, hence no German soldier was placed in the area of the abbey.

The order to bomb the Abbey during WWII came from General Sir Harold Alexander of the British Army. The generals of the Allied forces had to make the call between saving the lives of Allied soldiers and destroying a significant historical building. Relying on wrong intelligence gathered from the area, General Harold went with the first choice.

Prior to the bombing on February 15, German officers were able to transfer about 1,400 invaluable manuscripts from the abbey to the Vatican for safekeeping.

Bombing of Monte Cassino Abbey

The ruins of Monte Cassino after it was heavily bombed by American-led Allied bombers during WWII. The Battle of  Monte Cassino lasted 123 days during WWII.

Post WWII Rebuilding

After curtains closed in on WWII, Monte Cassino Abbey was rebuilt with support from the Italian government. On October 24, 1964, Pope Paul VI reconsecrated the rebuilt abbey.

Other facts about Monte Cassino Abbey

Monte Cassino Abbey

Woodcut of the abbey from the late 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle (folio 144 recto)

  • Monte Cassino Abbey is located on a rocky hill, which is around 130 kilometres (81 miles) southeast of Rome, Italy.
  • The Abbey, which was established in 529, is generally regarded as the first house of the Benedictine Order.
  • The Rule of Saint Benedict was written in the Abbey – for the community of Monte Cassino.
  • In the 11th century, the Abbey underwent immense reconstruction work, with artisans and architects coming from all over Europe and Constantinople to work on the project. After receiving the best of decorations, the abbey was consecrated by Pope Alexander II in 1071.
  • The Monte Cassino Abbey started to go into decline following the massive 1349 earthquake that destroyed a great chunk of the Abbey.
  • Following Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the Abbey was sacked by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799.

2 Responses

  1. Wally says:

    What does BCE Mean to a Christian? I stopped reading as soon as I encountered that.

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