The monastery at Subiaco in Italy, established by Benedict of Nursia c. 529, was the first of the dozen monasteries he founded. He later founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino. There is no evidence, however, that he intended to found an order, and the Rule of Saint Benedict presupposes the autonomy of each community. When Monte Cassino was sacked by the Lombards about the year 580, the monks fled to Rome, and likely that this constituted an important factor in the diffusion of knowledge of Benedictine monasticism.
Copies of Benedict's Rule survived; around 594, Pope Gregory I spoke favourably of it. The Rule is subsequently found in some monasteries in southern Gaul, along with other rules used by abbots. Gregory of Tours says that at Ainay Abbey, in the sixth century, the monks "followed the rules of Basil, Cassian, Caesarius, and other fathers, taking and using whatever seemed proper to the conditions of time and place", and doubtless the same liberty was taken with the Benedictine Rule when it reached them. In Gaul and Switzerland, it gradually supplemented the much stricter Irish or Celtic Rule introduced by Columbanus and others. In many monasteries, it eventually entirely displaced the earlier codes.
By the ninth century, however, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout Western Europe, except Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, where the Celtic observance still prevailed for another century or two. Mainly through the work of Benedict of Aniane, it became the rule of choice for monasteries throughout the Carolingian empire.
Monastic scriptoria flourished from the ninth through the twelfth centuries. Sacred Scripture was always at the heart of every monastic scriptorium. As a general rule, those of the monks who possessed skill as writers made this their chief if not their sole active work. An anonymous writer of the ninth or tenth century speaks of six hours a day as the usual task of a scribe, which would absorb almost all the time available for active work in the day of a medieval monk.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries were often founded by the nobility. Cluny Abbey was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, in 910. The abbey was noted for its strict adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict. The abbot of Cluny was the superior of all the daughter houses through appointed priors.
One of the earliest reforms of Benedictine practice was initiated in 980 by Romuald, who founded the Camaldolese community. The Cistercians branched off from the Benedictines in 1098; they are often called the "White monks".
The dominance of the Benedictine monastic way of life began to decline towards the end of the twelfth century, which saw the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans. Benedictines took a fourth vow of "stability", which professed loyalty to a particular foundation. Not being bound by location, the mendicants were better able to respond to an increasingly "urban" environment. This decline was further exacerbated by appointing a commendatory abbot, a lay person appointed by a noble to oversee and protect the monastery goods. Often, however, this resulted in the appropriation of the assets of monasteries at the expense of the community which they were intended to support.