Benedictan Rules as a Hacker Protocol

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Excerpted from Alberto Cottica:

Benedict protocolized

While at Monte Cassino, he writes the Rule as a guide to people wishing to live together in a monastery. The Rule is really a remarkable document, that unMonasterians (especially those leading new settlements) would do well to spend some time brooding over. If you have any experience with online community management, you will find the Rule eerily familiar: it has roles with different levels of access and authorization (abbott, cellarer, brethren); a moderation policy to prevent flame wars from distracting monks for doing God’s work (and their own); a very modern idea of the higher echelons as a service to the rank-and-file monks, rather than as their lords. Most importantly, the Rule does not specify a set of goals and activities to reach them: it never says “build a library and a scriptorium and start copying manuscripts to preserve knowledge as the Roman Empire goes down in flames”, or “build extra space to lodge travelers, since the Early Middle Ages are low on inns”. Yet, benedictine monasteries did end up doing those things and others: following the Rule can result in many outcomes, all beneficial from the point of view of Benedict and his crew. Most of them could not possibly have been foreseen by Benedict himself. Since it is a document of instructions, the Rule is software; since it does not carry out a specific task but enables a variety of mutually consistent outcomes, it is not an app. The Rule is a protocol. And what a protocol! It spread all over the world; arguably transformed (mostly for the better) Middle Ages Europe; is still in use after a millennium and a half; and has spread beyond the Catholic church (it is used in some Orthodox and even Lutheran contexts). I can’t think of many other protocols with that kind of track record. Benedict may have been the Supreme Ninja Mage Lord Protocol Hacker of all time.

Benedict decentralized

Consistently with the protocol nature of the Rule (and, one suspects, with his own mindset as a protocol hacker), Benedict never actually founded an order. Benedictines are not an order in a strict sense; each monastery is a sovereign institution, with no hierarchy among them. The Rule acts as a communication protocol across monasteries. As a result, many flavors of benedictine abbeys were “forked” over the centuries (for example the Camaldolese) by mutation and natural selection – this was explicitely enabled by the Rule, which declares itself as “only a beginning” in its final chapter, much in the fashion of TCP/IP being “only a beginning” for, say, video streaming. Mutation, however, did not always result in outright speciation. Most benedictine houses federated loosely into national or supra-national congregations starting in the early 14th century; and in fact Pope Leo XIII was able to establish a Benedictine Confederation chaired by an Abbott General without the whole thing blowing over. This happened in 1893 – 1300+ years after the writing of the Rule!

Benedict avoided sterile conflict

.. and so went viral. My research has been very amateurish – literally a day’s project, but I could not find evidence of power struggles between the early monastic movement of the 6th century and the Church’s hierarchy. Instead of going for Vatican politics, Benedict appears to have focused on running things at home in Monte Cassino and distributing copies of the Rule to whoever wanted one. As a result, more and more people adopted the Rule for their own monastery projects. This way, no one had to waste time negotiating who would be in whose order, who would be the Abbot General and who a second-echelon abbott and stuff like that. The Rule was (still is) good, solid, open source software. People obtained a copy and went about their way. People who used it were more likely to run a successful monastery than people who did not; and so, by the time of Charlemagne, all Europe was infrastructured with successful monasteries running on the Rule. Unlike what happened, say, to the Franciscans, there was no need to do politics to get the church to accept the new movement. Indeed, Pope Gregory I the Great (got the top job in 590, a mere 50 years after Benedict’s death) was himself a monk and endorsed liberally monasticism (he is often called the co-founder of Western Monasticism). This adoption pattern will be familiar to the likes of (Linux’s) Linus Torvalds and (Wikipedia’s) Jimmy Wales." (

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