Monasticism and Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Monasticism and Literature


Monasticism and Literature

Writings by male and female monks who flourished during the medieval period.

The literature of monasticism produced during the Middle Ages involves some of the best-known figures in western culture and encompasses a variety of literary genres favored by and sometimes peculiar to monastic life. For example, when certain Christians retreated from the world to devote themselves to contemplation of spiritual matters, they came to realize the benefit of following a set of rules for living such a life. Some of the earliest monastic literature consisted of such codifications. The most well known included the Rule of St. Augustine (c. 400) and the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530). Augustine discusses such aspects of monastic life as prayer, safeguarding chastity, care of community goods, and governance. Benedict describes the necessary qualifications of an abbot, outlines seventy-two precepts covering the duties of the Christian life, provides schedules of manual labor, and offers regulations covering meal preparation and admission of new members, among many other topics. The emphasis on study also required that monks be literate, which distinguished them from the secular population of the medieval period.

Through the copying of manuscripts by monks, many classic Latin works were preserved that otherwise would have perished. Monasteries, by virtue of the wealth of the estates they controlled, had the resources to develop libraries and became centers of learning. Monks studied scripture and the work of the church Fathers, including Origen, Jerome, Augustine, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Lives of saints, such as the Vita Antonii [Life of Antony], written by Athanasius between 356 and 362, and Gregory's Of the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (late sixth century), were favorite inspirational works of the monks. Original sermons, treatises, and homilies were also cultivated in monasteries.

Scholars take different approaches to the study of monasticism and literature. Some focus on the lives and writings of major figures. Vincent Desprez discusses Athanasius, Jerome, Martin, Honoratus, and John Cassian; Thomas Renna discusses Bernard and Bede; and Thomas F. Martin examines Augustine. Mary Alberi explains how Alcuin managed to stay true to his monastic philosophy while being in Charlemagne's employ. As the life of Alcuin shows, monks were influenced by the outside world, not the least important aspect of which was the reality of money. Francis Aidan Gasquet examines the economics of manuscript work and making books with respect to the creation of monastery libraries. John O. Ward discusses why monks were particularly interested in historiography: “The past was essential to them, essential to their present, essential to their hopes for the future and to the hopes of the society they served.” Ward also discusses characteristic differences between secular and religious historiographies. The effect of monastic life on specific monks and orders has also been studied. Herbert B. Workman traces the cause of the eventual demise of monasteries to their often demanding routines and practices, contending that monks became dejected because they attempted “to play fast and loose with the laws of nature, which, because they are laws of nature, are also laws of God, without suffering the consequences.” Workman argues that monks “exaggerated the spiritual value of environment.”

M. Dominica Legge discusses the contributions of the Franciscans to religious literature. Jean Leclercq divides monastic literature into several genres: the literature of silence, history, hagiographies, sermons, letters, and florilegia, or collections of extracts. Leclercq explains that monks “preserved nothing just for the pleasure of preserving, but did so in order to live by the texts and to unify in the interests of their religious life, the cult and the culture.” He further discusses how religious experience transformed literature: “There is a book which the finger of God writes in the heart of each monk; no other can substitute for it.” Leclerq also contends that spiritual writing is marked by its simplicity of style: “When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take.” William Collinge examines some of the teachings of Anselm, M. B. Pranger offers suggestions on reading him, and Terrence Kardong examines the writing of John Cassian. John D. Anderson studies the Navigatio Brendani (c. 1230), a text that follows an anonymous monk's courageous travels and struggles.

A relatively recent area of study is the representation of women in monastic literature. Heloise and Peter Abelard, who are among history's most famous lovers, wrote letters to each other that are classics in conversion literature. Linda Georgianna analyzes Heloise's third letter for what it reveals of twelfth-century thought concerning spirituality. Felice Lifshitz examines how female monastic superiors adjusted to their roles and functioned under the Benedictine rule. Nancy Bradley Warren discusses the text of the miracle of the pregnant abbess in economic terms to illuminate medieval views regarding women's work and women's property. Shari Horner examines two Old English elegies and discusses how gender operates in the texts. Constance H. Berman discusses the history of medieval religious women, particularly the Cistercians. Berman uses documents and characters to demonstrate that women constituted “a strong and valuable presence both within the Cistercian Order and within European religious practice in the Middle Ages,” while David Brakke focuses on women who lived as male monks.

Representative Works

Peter Abelard
Sic et Non (treatise) c. 1117–28

Heloise and Peter Abelard
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (letters) c. 1135–36

De dialectica [On Dialectics] (treatise) 782 or after
Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico [Dialogue of Pepin] (treatise) 782 or after

Ancrene Riwle (treatise) c. 1215–21

Navigatio Brendani (treatise) c. 1230

Orationes sive Meditationes [Prayers and Meditations] (nonfiction) c. 1060–78

Vita Antonii [Life of Antony] (biography) 356-62

Rule of St. Augustine (treatise) c. 400
Confessions (autobiography) c. 401

Historia abbatum [History of the Abbots] (history) c. 725-31
Historia eccelsiastica gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical History of the English People] (history) 731

Rule of St. Benedict (treatise) c. 530

Bernard of Clairvaux
Liber de pracepto det dispensatione [On Precept and Profession] (treatise) c. 1141–44

John Cassian
Conferences (treatise) fifth century

Of the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (history) late sixth century?

Jacques de Vitry
Historia Occidentalis (history) c. 1219–25
Historia Orientalis (history) c. 1219–25

De viris illustribus [Book of Illustrious Men] (biography) 392
Letters (letters) c. fourth century

De principiis [Principles] (treatise) c. third century

Historia Lausiaca (history) fifth century

Criticism: Major Figures

Vincent Desprez (essay date March 1990)

SOURCE: Desprez, Vincent. “The Origins of Western Monasticism.” The American Benedictine Review 41, no. 1 (March 1990): 99-112.

[In the following essay, Desprez discusses some of the personalities who shaped western monasticism, including St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St. Martin, Honoratus, and John Cassian.]


Western monasticism stems, on the one hand, from the old asceticism practiced in the Church in the first three centuries, and to a greater extent, from Oriental ideals. Thus it is important to be aware of the continuity with the older asceticism where this exists, and also of the external influences. But in the...

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Vincent Desprez (essay date June 1990)

SOURCE: Desprez, Vincent. “The Origins of Western Monasticism II: Africa and Spain.” The American Benedictine Review 41, no. 2 (June 1990): 167-91.

[In the following essay, Desprez examines how St. Augustine and St. Fulgentius influenced monasticism in Africa and surveys monasticism in Spain.]


African monasticism1 owes the form it maintained until the Arab conquest principally to St. Augustine. The idea of consecrated virginity had found in Africa one of its proper homes, as Tertullian's On the veil of virgins and St. Cyprian's On the conduct of virgins eloquently witness....

(The entire section is 9377 words.)

Thomas Renna (essay date September 1993)

SOURCE: Renna, Thomas. “Bernard and Bede.” The American Benedictine Review 44, no. 3 (September 1993): 223-35.

[In the following essay, Renna compares and contrasts the ideas of Bede and Bernard.]

Bede and Bernard. The one, the great monastic illuminary from Anglo-Saxon England; the other, from twelfth-century France. They lived at two important junctures in the development of Western monasticism. Modern historians have generally emphasized Bede's place in the Northumbrian renaissance, and Bernard's role in the monastic reforms after 1100. Bernard is sometimes contrasted with Benedict of Nursia, Benedict of Aniane, Cluniacs, or thirteenth-century Franciscans in...

(The entire section is 4399 words.)

Thomas F. Martin (essay date January 1998)

SOURCE: Martin, Thomas F. “‘An Abundant Supply of Discourse’: Augustine and the Rhetoric of Monasticism.” Downside Review 402, no. 116 (January 1998): 7-25.

[In the following essay, Martin examines Augustine's writings in praise of the monastic way of life.]

What is it therefore to speak not only eloquently but also wisely, unless to apply sufficient words in the subdued style, elegant words in the moderate style, powerful words in the grand style, all the while speaking only true things which ought to be heard. But if someone is not able to do both [speak eloquently and wisely], let him say wisely what he does not say eloquently,...

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Mary Alberi (essay date October 2001)

SOURCE: Alberi, Mary. “‘The Better Paths of Wisdom’: Alcuin's Monastic ‘True Philosophy’ and the Worldly Court.” Speculum 76, no. 4 (October 2001): 896-910.

[In the following essay, Alberi discusses how Alcuin attempted to follow his “true philosophy” as a monk while serving in the court of Charlemagne.]

During his years in the Frankish kingdom Alcuin often experienced conflict between his desire for a monastic life and the obligations of service to Charlemagne. In 802-3, when Arno of Salzburg complained that the duties of an imperial missus interfered with his pastoral responsibilities, Alcuin could not find a satisfactory solution to his...

(The entire section is 8049 words.)

Criticism: Secular Influences

Francis Aidan Gasquet (lecture date 1906)

SOURCE: Gasquet, Francis Aidan. “Books and Bookmaking in Early Chronicles and Accounts.” In Monastic Life in the Middle Ages: With a Note on Great Britain and the Holy See, 1792-1806, pp. 92-109. 1922. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1906, Gasquet provides an economic perspective on medieval bookmaking.]

Turning over the pages of our annals the reader constantly comes upon some record of books made for, or given to the library of the monastery or house in which the writer lived, or in which he was specially interested.1 Sometimes also in manuscript volumes, though not...

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John O. Ward (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Ward, John O. “The Monastic Historiographical Impulse c. 1000-1260. A Re-Assessment.” In Historia: The Concept and Genres in the Middle Ages, edited by Tuomas M. S. Lehtonen and Päivi Mehtonen, pp. 71-100. Helsinki, Finland: Societas Scientiarum Fennica/Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters, 2000.

[In the following essay, Ward discusses secular influences on monastic historiography.]


Historical studies had deserted the cathedral chapters because, especially around the year 1000, they had found in the monasteries, theirfoyer de...

(The entire section is 11686 words.)

Criticism: Monastic Principles And Literary Practices

Herbert B. Workman (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Workman, Herbert B. “The Message of Monasticism.” In The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal: From the Earliest Times down to the Coming of the Friars: A Second Chapter in the History of Christian Renunciation, pp. 319-52. Boston: Beacon Press, 1913.

[In the following essay, Workman discusses lessons that may be learned by studying the history of monasticism.]


From this survey of the development and history of Monasticism we shall do well to turn to the lessons we may learn from its story. In the intercourse of the saints, upon what special aspects of spiritual life, as consciously apprehended in his own soul, would the monk have...

(The entire section is 11620 words.)

M. Dominica Legge (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Legge, M. Dominica. “The Friars and Pulpit Literature.” In Anglo-Norman in the Cloisters: The Influence of the Orders upon Anglo-Norman Literature, pp. 77-90. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Edinburgh University Press, 1950.

[In the following essay, Legge discusses the writings of the Dominicans and the Franciscans.]

The two great Orders of Mendicants had in some respects a similar history in England and in France, but while in France the Dominicans were the more important Order, supplying the Royal confessor and so winning the King's support for all their activities, including their great struggle with the University of Paris, in England it was the Franciscans...

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Jean Leclercq (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Leclercq, Jean. “Literary Genres.” In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, translated by Catharine Misrahi, pp. 187-232. 1974. Reprint. London: SPCK, 1978.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1957, Leclercq surveys the types of literature written by the monks, including hagiographies, sermons, sententiae, and letters.]

In the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, no writing is done without “composition”: the stylistic material is arranged in a certain order. Authors conform to ways of writing and types of composition, each of which has its own rules. No doubt the idea of “literary genre” is...

(The entire section is 17152 words.)

Jean Leclercq (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Leclercq, Jean. “Epilogue: Literature and the Mystical Life.” In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, translated by Catharine Misrahi, pp. 309-29. 1974. Reprint. London: SPCK, 1978.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1957, Leclercq discusses how spiritual experience transforms literature.]

Protestations of modesty at the beginning of a work and the offering in conclusion, of excuses for its shortcomings, were once popular literary themes. But, even today, without any literary implication, any exposé which deals with a long cultural period must, of necessity, be submitted as provisional and...

(The entire section is 7314 words.)

William Collinge (essay date December 1984)

SOURCE: Collinge, William. “Monastic Life as a Context for Religious Understanding in St. Anselm.” American Benedictine Review 35, no. 4 (December 1984): 378-88.

[In the following essay, Collinge discusses Anselm's views on the importance of obedience and surrender in monastic life.]

Is the study of monastic life of interest to philosophers as philosophers?1 There is much in contemporary philosophy of religion to suggest that it can be.

One of the dominant tendencies of the philosophy of the past two centuries in the West is the effort to reintegrate the realm of thought, ideas, logic, with the realm of life, existence, praxis. This is...

(The entire section is 4061 words.)

Terrence Kardong (essay date March 1992)

SOURCE: Kardong, Terrence. “John Cassian's Evaluation of Monastic Practices.” The American Benedictine Review 43, no. 1 (March 1992): 82-105.

[In the following essay, Kardong analyzes John Cassian's early-fifth-century writings on monastic practices and experiences.]

Recent books on ascetic and monastic practices by Margaret Miles1 and Charles Cummings2 have been the object of much interest by those engaged in vowed monastic life. Much of the discussion centers on specific practices, but before a given practice can be evaluated, it would be helpful to have a clear idea of the significance of religious practices as such. In other words, a...

(The entire section is 9454 words.)

John D. Anderson (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: Anderson, John D. “The Voyage of Brendan, an Irish Monastic Expedition to Discover the Wonders of God's World.” The American Benedictine Review 43, no. 3 (September 1992): 262-82.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses the monastic observance described in the Navigatio Brendani, a medieval narrative of a seven-year voyage.]


One of the most intriguing theological texts of the early Middle Ages, the Navigatio Brendani (Voyage of Brendan) explores the wonders of God's actions throughout creation. A seven-year sea voyage reveals a panorama of marvels drawn from natural phenomena, monastic...

(The entire section is 7341 words.)

M. B. Pranger (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Pranger, M. B. “Reading Anselm.” In The Artificiality of Christianity: Essays on the Poetics of Monasticism, pp. 162-76. Stanford, Calif..: Stanford University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Pranger explains how Anselm's reading of Augustine illuminates the monastic mindset.]

In his recent book Augustine the Reader Brian Stock has drawn attention to a remarkable paradox in Augustine's thought. On the one hand, the act of meditative reading establishes, through the decoding of signs, the link between the reflective self and its ultimate goal and model, God, alias the Trinity. But on the other hand, the very same goal that acts as the incentive...

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Criticism: Women And Monasticism

Linda Georgianna (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Georgianna, Linda. “Any Corner of Heaven: Heloise's Critique of Monasticism.” Medieval Studies 49 (1987): 221-53.

[In the following essay, Georgianna analyzes Heloise's letters to Abelard concerning her conversion to monastic life and her requests for a new form of religious rule.]

In Héloïse and Abélard, Étienne Gilson wrote:

The correspondence of Héloïse and Abélard lies open in front of us. We can gloss it to our hearts' content, and search for newer and stranger hypotheses to explain its origin. A lot of this kind of thing has been done already, and no doubt the future will see a great deal more of it....

(The entire section is 17692 words.)

Shari Horner (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Horner, Shari. “En/closed Subjects: The Wife's Lament and the Culture of Early Medieval Female Monasticism.” In Old English Literature: Critical Essays, edited by R. M. Liuzza, pp. 381-91. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1994, Horner analyzes the elegy “The Wife's Lament” for indications of what life was like in the female monastic community.]

It has long been accepted critical practice in Old English scholarship1 to acknowledge that the Old English elegies employ the language of the Germanic-heroic world, of retainers and lords, to articulate a Christian...

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Felice Lifshitz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lifshitz, Felice. “Is Mother Superior? Towards a History of Feminine Amtscharisma.” In Medieval Mothering, edited by John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, pp. 117-38. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lifshitz explores the nature of the authority exercised by abbesses.]

No studies have yet explored the authority and office of female monastic superiors, nor have the latter been taken into account in studies of male monastic authority. Various sources, particularly monastic rules and conciliar legislation, are used to open the issue.


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Nancy Bradley Warren (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Warren, Nancy Bradley. “Pregnancy and Productivity: The Imagery of Female Monasticism within and beyond the Cloister Walls.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28, no. 3 (fall 1998): 531-52.

[In the following essay, Warren explores the Middle English version of the story of the miracle of the pregnant abbess from the Alphabet of Tales, interpreting it in terms of the association made between women's economic and sexual activities.]


In the Middle English version of the miracle of the pregnant abbess, as it appears in the collection of exempla known as...

(The entire section is 9664 words.)

Constance H. Berman (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Berman, Constance H. “Introduction: Religious Women and Religious Reform in the High Middle Ages, with an Emphasis on Cistercian Nuns.” In Women and Monasticism in Medieval Europe: Sisters and Patrons of the Cistercian Reform, edited by Constance H. Berman, pp. 1-14. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications and The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages, 2002.

[In the following essay, Berman provides an overview of the history of women's religious communities. Parenthetical numerical references in the text refer to documents presented in Berman's edition.]

Women played a role in the history of monasticism from its origins in early...

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David Brakke (essay date fall 2003)

SOURCE: Brakke, David. “The Lady Appears: Materializations of ‘Woman’ in Early Monastic Literature.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33, no. 3 (fall 2003): 387-402.

[In the following essay, Brakke discusses narratives about monks who, upon their deaths, were revealed to have been disguised women.]

According to a famous monastic saying, the Egyptian desert in Late Antiquity was the place where, as in some recent theory about gender in history, “there are no women.”1 To be sure, the desert was filled with thoughts of women, memories of abandoned wives and mothers, and demonic specters of women, but monks claimed that there were...

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Further Reading


Constable, Giles. Medieval Monasticism: A Select Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976, 171 p.

Guide to secondary literature divided into three major categories: reference, monastic history, and monastic life and institutions.


Bird, Jessalyn. “The Religious's Role in a Post-Fourth-Lateran World: Jacques de Vitry's Sermones ad status and Historia Occidentalis.” In Medieval Monastic Preaching, edited by Carolyn Muessig, pp. 209-29. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

Describes how Jacques de Vitry, through his writings and sermons,...

(The entire section is 749 words.)