Medieval Monasticism

Authored by: Janet L. Nelson

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  October  2001
Online publication date:  September  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415181518
eBook ISBN: 9781315016207
Adobe ISBN: 9781136500053


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Whether in the physical landscape of Europe or in landscapes of the mind, monasteries have been among the most enduring signs of the Middle Ages. The earliest extant monastic buildings, still visible at St Catharine, Mount Sinai, for instance, or, thanks to archaeologists, at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, are telling witnesses to the unique role of monasticism in keeping alive Roman-Christian culture after the fall of the Roman Empire – while ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’, all that survived the destructive efforts of sixteenth-century reformers, are apt markers of the break between the medieval period and the modern. The history of Christian monasticism is effectively as old as Christianity itself. Judaism in the centuries that straddled the beginning of the Christian era harboured world-renouncing sects, who lived in more or less closed small communities, practised rigorous asceticism, and were preoccupied with the imminent end of time. In the earliest centuries CE, with Christianity itself still a sect that retained its original anti-intellectualism (Weber 1965: 512) and still very largely urban, world-renouncing asceticism re-emerged as a Christian alternative, especially in the Near East. The ecology of that region provokes a sharp awareness of the otherness of the desert, the eremos, beyond the populated and cultivated areas surrounding cities and villages. Ascetics were men of the eremos. Some lived the ascetic life alone: both hermit (eremita) and monk (monachos) originated as terms referring to the solitary religious virtuoso. Others lived in groups, sharing both their daily bread, earned by small-scale artisanal production, and a common daily liturgy. By the early fourth century, there were many of these groups especially in Egypt. They were known as livers of a common life, in Greek koinos bios, hence collectively by the Latin term cenobites.

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