Who was Benedict?
A Buddhist idea: the monastery
Already in the 300s, especially in Egypt, men and women had been going off by themselves into the desert, away from people, to live a life of prayer, devoted entirely to God. This followed earlier movements in India and China where Buddhist monks also retired from the world into caves cut into cliffs. People called these men and women monks (and the women gradually came to be called nuns).
Controlling monks and nuns
But as there got to be more and more of these monks, all over Europe and Asia, and not just in the desert but even in towns and cities, it got harder and harder to figure out whether somebody was really devoting herself to God.
What if she was really some kind of scam artist? Or just a group of women who wanted to live on their own, in an apartment, without dads or husbands telling them what to do? In China, in the 400s AD the Wei emperor Dai Wudi closed many Buddhist monasteries and took their money.
Benedict makes a lot of rules
Benedict wanted to prevent this sort of thing from happening to Christian monks by showing that they could regulate themselves. He organized a community of monks in Italy, and wrote up a set of rules for them to live by. Gradually people agreed, all over the Christian world, that you should only trust monks who lived by the rules of these communities. All monks should have somebody who was in charge of them and could vouch for their character.
Monasteries as money-makers
As the Buddhist monasteries had already figured out, these rules could also force the monks and nuns to work hard farming or manufacturing things all day. Like Buddhist monasteries, Christian monasteries sold wine, or medicines, or honey, or manuscript books. They ran schools. Convents ran nursing homes and orphanages. They sold linen and wool, embroidered cloths, knitted stockings, and lace.
Monasteries became big centers of production, where the workers were bound by religion and by law. You could send children there. They could not leave, and did not have to be paid. And because nuns were not allowed to marry or have boyfriends, they didn’t have children of their own to care for, so they were really good workers.