The Destruction and Recovery of Monte Cassino Abbey

Kriston R. Rennie is Associate Professor in Medieval History at the University of Queensland. He specializes in the history of church councils, canon law, papal legation, and monastic exemption privileges.

Monte Cassino (est. 529) is an iconic abbey – one of the most important religious, political, cultural, and intellectual centres in western Europe. Sitting 519 metres above sea-level, approximately 125 kilometres south-east of Rome along the ancient Via Casilina, this physical and spiritual landmark overlooks the Liri Valley, the Land of Labour (Terra di lavoro), to the confluence of the Rivers Liri, Rapido, and Garigliano.

The abbey is heralded today as a ‘lighthouse of western civilisation.’[i] The reasons for this reputation are many. But they owe in large part to the spirit, memory, and tradition of Monte Cassino’s original founder: Saint Benedict (480-547). A man ‘renowned for his great life and his apostolic virtues’[ii] who, after arriving on the mountain of Cassino in the early sixth century, ‘restrained himself in great abstinence’[iii] and inspired a whole monastic tradition; an historic figure recognised in the second half of the twentieth century as the ‘father’, ‘patron and protector of Europe.’

Every medievalist knows Benedict’s impact on the history of western monasticism. For this connection alone, the abbey of Monte Cassino has long attracted the attention of scholars of religious orders, early medieval Europe, and the growth of western Christendom more generally.

But the abbey is equally significant to historians of twentieth-century warfare. Countless studies have been written about the long and brutal battle that engulfed Monte Cassino, leading to its ultimate – and arguably avoidable – destruction by Allied forces on 15 February 1944.

Over five hundred tonnes of explosives rained down on the mountain that fateful morning. By far the most destructive episode in the abbey’s fourteen-hundred year existence, it was not the community’s first such experience.

Monte Cassino has suffered a long history of destruction. It is a ‘strange destiny’, wrote the French Army General Alphonse Juin after a post-war pilgrimage to the mountain, that the abbey was ‘built on one of the paths where barbarism and war have frequented the most.’[iv] Such a reference evokes the abbey’s experience with adversity, material and cultural destruction, exile, loss, and death at the hands of Lombard, Saracen, Norman, Angevin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Allied advances and aggressions between the sixth and twentieth centuries.

Monte Cassino’s history cannot be told apart from war and its aftermath, death and resurrection, destruction and recovery. These experiences are among its most visible, intimate, and essential features.

But how exactly did this past emerge and develop? This is the central historical question driving my research – a book project framed by the idea of Monte Cassino over time. It asks how – from the Middle Ages to the present day – the abbey’s past has been constructed, politicised, and remembered in relation to its experiences with destruction and recovery over fourteen centuries.

The story traditionally begins in the early Middle Ages. Shortly after foundation, Monte Cassino was sacked by the Lombards c.577 and the community of monks was exiled at Rome for over one century. A new generation of monks eventually returned to the mountain c.718. Under a Brescian figure named Petronax, a monastic community was re-established that grew in number, reputation, territory, and wealth until a second attack on the abbey in 883. On this occasion, Saracens from the mouth of the Garigliano River sacked the abbey, killing the abbot, and forcing a prolonged exile at Teano until 915, followed by a further twenty-five years at Capua, in southern Italy.

The abbey’s first five hundred years were disruptive but formative. Recovering from these disastrous experiences in the sixth and ninth centuries, Monte Cassino experienced a so-called ‘Golden Age’ under Abbot Desiderius (1058-87) in the second half of the eleventh century. ‘Not only in buildings, but also in copying books’, the abbey’s Chronicle relates, the abbot ‘strove to devote the very greatest effort.’[v]

Yet, as many histories of the abbey remind us, the impressive building and scholastic program initiated by Desiderius was completely destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1349. As a consequence, very few historical traces from the ‘Golden Age’ remain beyond the abbey’s famed bronze doors, remnants of mosaic floors, and parts of its library and archive collections.

The abbey gradually recovered from this natural disaster. Pope Urban V (1362-70) initiated and oversaw a re-building and re-settlement program that took many decades to complete. By the fifteenth century, Monte Cassino had regained some of its former glory. But the political climate in Europe witnessed French and Spanish troops vying for the kingdom of Naples in the sixteenth century, with the abbey of Monte Cassino occupying a strategic location at the crossroads of southern Italy.

When the French Revolutionary army advanced on Monte Cassino in 1799, the community of monks barely escaped. The abbey survived unscathed in a physical sense, only to experience the effects of feudal restructure under royal orders in 1807 that threatened the administrative, organisational, fiscal, and jurisdictional independence it has enjoyed since the early centuries of its existence.

The impact of Italian unification in the nineteenth century weighed heavily on Monte Cassino. Yet the suppression of monasteries and religious institutions during the transformative political era did not extinguish the famed abbey; in fact, the emergent nationalism and internationalism of this time thrust it into the spotlight as a symbol of western unity, faith, civilisation, learning, and culture.

The articulation and expression of this historical significance has prevailed until today – a religious value and spirit that survived the abbey’s most devastating experience with modern warfare and all its fury: the Allied bombardment of Monte Cassino in February 1944, which reduced the abbey to a pile of rubble.

This ‘destruction tradition’[vi] spans fourteen centuries. On several occasions between the sixth and twentieth centuries, peace was extinguished on the mountain’s summit. Plans and building programs for reconstruction took different forms, but every time the abbey’s historical memory triumphed over the tragedy of loss, displacement, and death.

Monte Cassino was always re-built and re-populated, the connection to its foundation re-established, and its fabric, identity, and history resuscitated. ‘After whirlwinds of war had blown out the holy and benevolent flame…’[vii], Pope Paul VI noted in his encyclical honouring Saint Benedict (1947), peace always returned to the abbey.

[i] Cited on the abbey’s website:

[ii] Grégoire le Grand: Dialogues, ed. Adalbert de Vogüé, 3 vols (Paris: Ed. du Cerf, 1978), II. 8, p. 168.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Général Alphonse Juin, ‘Pèlerinage au Mont Cassin,’ Mercure de France 1004 (1947), p. 585.

[v] Chronica monasterii Casinensis, ed. by Helmut Hartmann, MGH SS 34 (Hanover: Hahn, 1980), III. 63, p. 444.

[vi] Gert Melville, Montecassino,’ in Erinnerungsorte des Christentums, ed. by Christoph Markschies and Hubert Wolf (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2010), p. 322.

[vii] Pope Paul VI, ‘Discorso’, in Pacis Nuntius: Paolo VI a Montecassino. 24 ottobre 1964 (Montecassino, 1965), p. 9.

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