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.
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
Conferences (treatise) fifth century
Of the Life and Miracles of St....
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Criticism: Major Figures
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.]
I. ITALY, PALESTINE, GAUL
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 West, as in the East, it was personalities rather than ideas or even example that were decisive. Their religious longings created the new monasticism, which received an original shape from the Latin temperament.1
In the diverse regions making up the western Roman Empire, monasticism developed spontaneously, but also in relation to similar experiences realized elsewhere; to better illustrate the dynamics at work, we will study separately the first western monastic century (339-435), comprised of initiators and original thinkers; the second period (435-600) will witness the development of foundations and institutions, accompanied by the multiplication of monastic Rules. The Rule of St. Benedict (530-560) summarizes a...
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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.]
A. ROMAN AND VANDAL AFRICA: ST. AUGUSTINE
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. In 393, the Council of Hippo sought to bring solitary virgins together into communal groups or to place them under the care of respectable women.2 As a priest of the diocese of Hippo, Augustine took part; perhaps the Council's rulings on this subject bear the mark of his work and thought.
We will consider, in order:
1) Augustine's own life and the evolution of his thought on the monastic life: a) his successive roles; b) the model he followed and the ideal he proposed; c) The Rule of St. Augustine, an epitome of this ideal written for the lay monastery he founded at Hippo. In fact, we will offer only a brief summary of this Rule, since it has quite recently been given an intensive...
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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 order to discern his distinctive qualities. How do Bede and Bernard reflect their respective monastic environments? Is there something peculiarly English about Bede or French about Bernard? It will be argued here that their respective goals for the function of monks were shaped by the state of monasticism at the time.
Bernard's idea of monastic renewal was largely outside of, and in some sense in opposition to, some then current notions of reform. The progressive interiorization of traditional monastic terms from the sixth down to the twelfth century can be seen in Bernard's objectives for monastic reform. What indeed was Bernard's idea of the Church? He wrote no De ecclesia and only sporadic advice directed to...
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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, rather than say eloquently what he says foolishly. If, however, he cannot do even this, let him so live as to provide not only reward for himself but also offer example for others. Thus his way of living may provide the equivalent of an abundant supply of discourse.1
Augustine composed the De doctrina christiana with a twofold task in mind: first, to provide rules (praecepta) for finding the truth of Scripture, what he calls modus inueniendi, then, to offer rules for effectively communicating this same truth to others, what he calls modus proferendi.2 The final book of the work is dedicated to this latter task, Augustine boldly pressing the classical rhetorical...
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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 friend's predicament. In Alcuin's opinion, the burdens of royal service prevented too many clergy from preaching; wordly ambition so corrupted others that they took bribes or involved themselves in simony, like powerful laymen. Alcuin hoped his commentary on Ecclesiastes would console Arno with its lessons on the transitory nature of all worldly goods and the everlasting joys of eternal salvation. He also reminded Arno that the church must endure not only open persecution but also more covert troubles, such as the burden of service to a secular ruler. The apostles, who lived under pagan emperors, could simply withdraw from the world, but Arno and Alcuin served a pious Christian emperor, whom they ought to obey in the church's interest. Although...
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Criticism: Secular Influences
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 as frequently as we could wish, we find some details of the actual making of a manuscript, of the cost, for instance, of the materials, of the payments made for the writing, for the illumination, and for the binding. Less frequently again we come upon chance indications and directions made by one scribe to help a second, or to direct the illuminator and rubricator, who was to follow him in working upon the MS., as to his part in the work.
The churchwardens' books and other similar accounts help us in a measure to estimate the cost of bookmaking and bookbinding and to understand how, and under what conditions, the scribe and the binder did their work in the place—parish or house—that employed them. They show us the...
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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.]
THE IMPORTANCE OF MONASTIC HISTORIOGRAPHY IN THE PERIOD
Historical studies had deserted the cathedral chapters because, especially around the year 1000, they had found in the monasteries, their “foyer de prédilection”. […] The Benedictine atmosphere was very favourable to the study of history. By contrast, Cluniac spirituality scarcely encouraged it […] It is traditional no note, from the thirteenth century on, the ‘essoufflement’ of monastic historiography.1
Recent publications in the field of English medieval historiography2 and the general interest of the assertions implicit in the above paragraph have prompted the remarks offered in the following paper.3 My aim is to set out current opinion on the subject of the primarily monastic inspiration of medieval historiography and then to suggest some modification of this view of things, based on our growing...
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Criticism: Monastic Principles And Literary Practices
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 dwelt? to what factors would he have pointed as of importance? to what special temptations would he have acknowledged that he was liable? Such an inquiry, it is evident, cannot be treated save on the broadest lines. We can only touch the fringe of a subject the materials of which are almost bewildering in their vastness, and, in some respects, as varied as the individuals themselves. But in the case of spiritual life the main factors are independent of the external garb with which the varying centuries clothe them. There are, therefore, certain general laws which reveal themselves, and which may fairly be labelled the common experience of the system.
We shall do well, inverting the usual method, to begin with the lessons we...
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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 who provided the greater number of scholars and Bishops, and bore the brunt of the quarrel with Oxford. In fact, Canon John Moorman ascribes the failure of the Dominicans in England to two causes: the comparative lack of heretics there and the successful rivalry of the Franciscans.1
So it is unlikely that England would produce anything to compare with the Somme le Roi, which Lorens, the Dominican confessor of Philippe III, wrote at his request in 1279, and, in fact, there is only one work which can be indubitably assigned to a Dominican writer in this country. This writer is Nicholas Trevet, well known in his day as a theologian and commentator, and lecturer at Oxford. He wrote, apparently, no religious...
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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 difficult to define, since it is seldom formulated in a theoretical manner; but it is a fact that the genres do exist. Often at the beginning of a piece of writing, it is explained to which category it is to belong, whether it is to be, for example, a sermon, an epistle, a treatise or a gloss.1 Certain of these genres were codified: this was to be particularly true of the sermons in the Artes praedicandi from the second half of the twelfth century on, and outside of monastic circles. The work of Guibert of Nogent († 1124), On the manner of making a sermon, does not treat specifically of preaching, but of the share every explanation of the Scripture should allot to moral exhortation.2 But the Artes...
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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 incomplete; its lacunae are all too evident. This work, then will be in keeping with its nature as an “essay,” if it is brought to a close with the formulation of the two major problems which arise from the findings presented in the preceding pages. One is concerned with history; the other with spirituality. The first has to do, we might say, with the objective aspect of monastic tradition, the other with the subjective element, with the personal mystery which emanates from the texts. We shall try to see on the one hand, which were the dominant characteristics of medieval monastic culture, and, on the other, how mysticism was brought into harmony with literary forms.
A CULTURE OF A GROUP
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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 reflected preeminently in Marxism, but also (partly derivatively) in existentialism, pragmatism, and, most important in the present context, the movement of linguistic analysis that grows out of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
WITTGENSTEIN ON RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE
Wittgenstein's first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), had taken the opposite direction. Starting from the language of mathematical logic, he had asked, in effect, “What must the world be like if your only reliable mode of analyzing it is to take this logical form?”2 Every proposition, according to the Tractatus, is a concatenation of names, and each true proposition pictures, by its concatenation...
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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 “theory of practice” is needed, but it is not necessary to construct such a theory from scratch, for monastic writers throughout history have meditated on this question.3
One author who had a good deal to say on ascetic practices was the monastic philosopher John Cassian (ca. ad 365-433).4 About ad 390-400, he and his friend Germaine toured the Egyptian desert, observing the practices of the monks and interviewing them for their interpretation of how they lived. Years later Cassian wrote up his experience in a voluminous series of Conferences aimed at shaping the monastic life in southern Gaul. It can safely be said that the Conferences reveal more about Cassian's mind than about the...
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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 communities, historical personages, and angels. Brought along on Brendan's journey, the reader experiences the magnalia Dei (wonderful acts of God) with him and his crew through the immediacy of narrative. The instructional power of experience is effectively harnessed in this early text as the reader confronts the strange and wondrous places Brendan encounters. The Navigatio Brendani shares some of the stylistic simplicity of parable and exemplum. It is fictive narrative, albeit non-representational, a feature which will be discussed later.
The style of the Navigatio is very different from that of reasoned theological discourse with its inherent complexities, although the investigative genres of the...
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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 for the mind's search of both itself and its destination in the end proves to be beyond the reader's grasp. Stock summarizes his analysis of Augustine's use of texts (mainly in the Confessiones and De trinitate) as a means to come to terms with the self in its relationship to God and, so doing, with the “self itself” as follows:
The mind has a memory of itself which is unlike the manner in which we retain or recall such events; and it is within this memory, in which the mind, present to itself, remembers, understands and loves God, that it finds its image of him in itself. The mind, in recalling God, does not remember its original state of blessedness, but instead the words of God's...
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Criticism: Women And Monasticism
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. But the wisest and most convincing of all hypotheses is that Héloïse is still the author of the letters of Héloïse and Abélard of those of Abélard. If there are decisive or even urgent reasons for admitting the contrary, they have not yet come to light, …1
How contemporary these words seem in light of recent criticism on the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise. Beginning in 1972 with John F. Benton's challenging argument that the letters falsely attributed to Heloise and Abelard were the product of an elaborate pattern of ‘fraud, fiction, and borrowing’, an intense reexamination of the authenticity question followed, capped in 1980 by Benton's own stunning retraction of most of his...
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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 world-view.2 Those elegies which are generally believed to have male speakers—in particular “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer”—are often read as poems which explore the various tensions between spiritual and worldly desires, and which apply traditional Germanic-heroic hierarchies to the relationship between God and man. Similarly, the speaker of “The Wife's Lament” uses heroic language, yet it is not at all common to consider the language of this poem in terms of Christianity or monasticism.3 Yet locating the “female” elegies—“The Wife's Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”—within historically and culturally specific contexts of early medieval monasticism can help to re-formulate our understanding of these...
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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.
AMTSCHARISMA: IS MOTHER SUPERIOR?
Many studies have explored the authority and office of male superiors of male monastic communities, particularly within the framework of Benedictine monasticism,1 that form of communal regular life that was founded by Benedict of Monte Cassino (480-c. 560), and whose generalized enforcement—through the reformations of Boniface, then of Benedict of Aniane—became a central feature of Carolingian policy from the mid-eighth century.2 Monasticism could never have become a mass institution had it not been possible to set up monasteries wherever there was a market for the regulated lifestyle, irrespective of the presence of a charismatic leader. The rule of St. Benedict very much...
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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.]
THE MIRACLE OF THE PREGNANT ABBESS: THE PROBLEM OF MATERNITY
In the Middle English version of the miracle of the pregnant abbess, as it appears in the collection of exempla known as the Alphabet of Tales, “Ane abbatiss of a grete place” becomes pregnant when she “þurgh entysing of þe devull … lete hur carvur … hafe at do with hur.”1 She hides her pregnancy as long as possible, but her condition inevitably becomes obvious. The nuns, realizing that the abbess is with child, are glad of her downfall, because she has been so strict with them. Some of the sisters go to the bishop and disclose the abbess's situation, and he makes plans to visit the house. At a loss for what to do, the abbess retreats to her chapel where she “was want daylie als devoutlie as sho cuthe to say our ladie matyns” (11). The abbess prays to Mary for aid, and Mary appears to her, accompanied by two angels. Mary...
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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 Christianity. Early medieval communities of nuns were often “double monasteries”—women's houses and an attached men's house—and they were frequently ruled by a powerful abbess who came from a noble or royal family. However, many of these communities were destroyed in Viking invasions of Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries. In England, with the “monastic reform” movement of the eleventh century, communities of nuns often were replaced by houses of monks. While double monasteries, in this particular and full sense, generally are seen as institutions of the early Middle Ages, any community of nuns must be a double monastery in some respects, being dependent on at least one male to be its priest—since no woman could administer the...
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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 few, if any, flesh-and-blood women in their desert. Likewise, Elizabeth Clark has invited historians of Christianity to consider the prospect that our sources present us not with real women from the past, but with male authors' fantasies about or rhetorical uses of women, no more than the gendered literary “traces” of elusive “real women.”2 Imagine, then, the surprise of a group of lay tourists—and perhaps our surprise as well—when their representative monk turned out to be really a woman:
Some worldly people visited a certain anchorite, and when he saw them he received them with joy, saying, “The Lord sent you so that you would bury me. For my call is at hand, but for the benefit...
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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, promoted the reforms of the Paris circle.
Blacker, Jean. “Monastic History in a Courtly Mode? Author and Audience in Guillaume de Saint-Pair's Roman du Mont-Saint-Michel and the Anonymous Histoire de l'abbaye de Fécamp.” In Medieval Monastic Preaching, edited by Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, pp. 291-99. Cambridge, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1994.
Examines the two texts that together constitute the entire genre of the verse monastic chronicle.
Brown, George Hardin. “The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Revival.” In Renaissances before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, edited by Warren Treadgold, pp. 99-113....
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