Monte Cas(s)ino the first Benedictine convent ever established, "the venerable mother of Western monachism," and for a thousand years the spot especially dear to the great Benedictine order, was so named after the place in which it was located.
Benedict of Nursia (q.v.) having been induced by the representations of the priest Florentius to settle in the Campania, near Naples, found on a mountain, near the old Castrum Casinum, a temple of Apollo and a shrine of Venus, which were still resorted to by the heathen inhabitants. He converted them, destroyed the temple and shrine, and in their place erected a chapel dedicated to St. Martin, and soon after commenced building a convent for himself and his followers, which subsequently received the name of Monte Cassino. The undertaking succeeded in spite of difficulties of all kinds (it is said the devil made the stones so heavy that it was impossible to lift them, etc.!), and was terminated in 529. The convent was, of course, subject to the rule of Benedict, who remained its abbot until his death, March 21, 543. He was succeeded by the abbots Constantine, Simplicius, and Vitalis, under whose government the convent, although often invaded by the barbarians, continued to prosper, owing chiefly to the miracles performed by the relics of its founder. In 580 Monte Cassino was stormed by the Lombards. The abbot and monks, taking with them their most valuable ornaments, and the original copy of their rule, fled to Rome, where they were well received by pope Pelagius I. They soon built a new convent by the side of the Quirinal Palace, and remained in possession of it during 140 years. Gregory the Great proved particularly welldisposed towards the order, inciting them to turn their attention towards missions, and particularly to England, from whence they spread to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. St. Willibrod introduced the order in Friesland, and under St. Bonifacius it acquired supremacy throughout Germany. In 720 pope Gregory II appointed the Brescian Petronax to build a new convent and a church on the ruins of Monte Cassino, which was then only inhabited by hermits, and the church was consecrated by pope Zacharias himself in 748. Petronax was appointed abbot, and the pope confirmed all the donations made to the convent, exempting it at the same time from episcopal jurisdiction, and restoring to it the autograph rule of St. Benedict. But in the mean time the convent had met with an irreparable loss: a French monk, Aigulf de Fleury, had in 633 taken from the ruins the remains of the saint, and carried them to his own convent, which henceforth had taken the name of St. Benoit sur Loire. Abbot Petronax died May 6, 740. Under his successors Monte Cassino became a centre of learning. Prof. Leo, in his Gesch. v. Italien, says:
"Benevento and the convent of Monte Cassino must be considered as having been for a time, in the beginning of the Middle Ages, the most important abode of scientific activity. Africa, Greece, and the Western German countries met there; and from the meeting of the distinguished men of these different countries resulted naturally a higher intellectual life than could be found anywhere else; for there neither trade nor the coarse enjoyments of immoderate eating or drinking, which engross all in the sea- towns and on the northern coasts, were the adversaries of science" (2:21). Among its eminent men we may mention Paulus, the son of Warnefried, the historian of the Lombards, whom, after in sorrow at the fate of his country he had retired to Monte Cassino, Charlemagne repeatedly invited to his court, and who wrote the Homiliarium, and taught Greek to the clergy. Under his influence Charlemagne granted great privileges to the order, and subjected all the convents of his empire to their rule. The relations between Rome and Monte Cassino were always of the most friendly character; and while, down to the 8th century, it was Rome that encouraged and sustained the convent in its progress, the latter came in the troubled times of the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries to be considered by the Romish clergy as the centre of scientific culture. However, in 884, the Saracens attacked the convent, slew the abbot, Bertharius, at the altar, and destroyed Monte Cassino and St. Salvator; and the monks had to flee with their treasures to the convent of Teano. In 886, monk Erchembert, at the head of some of the order, made an attempt to restore the convent; but they were driven off by Greek robbers, and remained until the death of abbot Leo in 915 at Teano, gradually losing their importance. The count of Teano was thus enabled to seize without opposition some of the property of the convent; those of Capua appropriated also a part, and, finally, after the death of Leo, the young archdeacon, John of Capua, a cousin of the duke of Capua, became the abbot of the remaining Cassinites, who now removed to Capua. There they built the church of St. Benedetto, together with a rich college of canons. But they now commenced gradually relaxing the severity of their rule, and we find pope Agapetus II complaining bitterly of their insubordination. In 949 abbot Aligernus succeeded by his zeal in restoring Monte Cassino; through the protection of the princes of Capua he regained the possessions taken from it in former times; he invited colonists, with whom he concluded a "placitum libellari statuto," and built for them in several places churches and chapels. He obliged the monks to devote themselves to agriculture and to literary labors, and enforced the discipline. He obtained also from the emperors Otto I and II the confirmation of the possessions and privileges of the convent, and used every exertion to restore it to its former splendor. He remained abbot thirty-five years, and is called the third founder of Monte Cassino. His successor, Manso (986), only sought to increase the temporal welfare of the convent, regardless of discipline. He led a princely life, and the disorder became so great during his administration that Nilus, visiting the convent, exclaimed: "Let us quickly, my brethren, leave this place, which will soon be visited by the anger of God." Manso, deceived by some of his own monks, died of grief in 996. Nothing particular occurred under the succeeding abbots Athenulph (1011-22), Theobald (1022-35), Richerius (1038-55), Frederick (1057-58). Under abbot Desiderius (1058-87) the order commenced to improve again; he was a son of a duke of Benevento, and had been educated in the convent De la Casa; Leo IX made him cardinal deacon of St. Sergius and Bacchus, and on March 26, 1059, Nicholas II appointed him cardinal priest of the title of St. Cecilia. The next day he was appointed abbot of Monte Cassino. He restored the building, the church was consecrated by pope Alexander II in person, and the number of the monks increased to two hundred. At the same time the discipline was strictly enforced, and scientific studies vigorously resumed (see Giesebrecht, De litt. studiis apud Italos primis medii cevi sceculis (Berol. 1845). Gregory VII himself designated Desiderius as his successor, and he was finally made pope, somewhat by force, in 1086, as Victor III. He ever regretted having left his convent, and finally returned to die in the place he loved so dearly, after reigning eight years. His successor as abbot was Oderisius I (1087-1105). Under him the convent received various valuable endowments, a hospital was added to the already existing buildings, and these completed in a very handsome manner. Pope Urban II confirmed by a bull all the donations which had been made to the convent, and replaced the abbey of Glanfeuil, in France, founded by St. Maurus, under the rule of Monte Cassino. Under the successors of Oderisius I the reputation of Monte.
Cassino gradually declined again, and was never regained. Among those who inhabited it are yet to be mentioned bishop Bruno of Segni (abbot 1107-11), cardinal Giovanni Gaetano, afterwards pope Gelasius II, and especially the learned Petrus Diaconus. In 1239 the emperor Frederick II dispersed the monks, and occupied the convent with his soldiers. Urban IV then appointed the wise and learned Bernard Ayglerius of Lyons abbot and reformer of the convent. He succeeded in regaining some of its lost possessions, and in subjecting the monks to the discipline, for which purpose he composed the Speculum Monachorum (Venice, 1505), and a commentary on the rule of St. Benedict. Bernard died April 3, 1282. In 1294 pope Celestine V made an attempt to change the rule into that of the Celestines, and with that view appointed the Celestine Angelarius abbot of Monte Cassino; but Boniface VIII gave up the attempt. A bull of John XXII made the church of Monte Cassino a cathedral, the abbot bishop, and the monks cathedral canons. Still the order continued to sink and in 1359 there remained but a few monks living in huts built on the ruins of their convent. Pope Urban V sought to revive an interest in the convent, became himself its abbot, invited the assistance of the other Benedictine convents, had well-disciplined Benedictines imported from two other convents, and finally in 1370 appointed Andreas de Faenza, a Benedictine of the Camaldula, abbot of Monte Cassino. But the political troubles which were then agitating Italy, and particularly Naples, prevented prosperity in the convent, and pope Julius II incorporated it with the Benedictine convent of St. Justina.
The services which have been rendered to science by the convent of Monte Cassino are related by Dom Luigi Tosti in his Storia della Badia di Monte- Cassino, divisa in libri nove ed illustrata di note et documenti (Naples, 1842-43, 3 volumes). He concludes with the words: "At present there are some twenty monks dwelling in the vast convent, attending with praiseworthy diligence to the singing of psalms and their devotions; they take much trouble in educating a school of fifteen boys, who wear the monks' garb, and they direct the seminary of the diocese of Cassino, containing some sixty pupils. They occupy themselves, besides, in publishing old works contained in the archives of the convent." See Tosti's Archivi Casinese (Naples, 1847); Maclear's, Hist. Christian, Missions, page 172. SEE MONASTERY.