Monasticism and Literature Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.