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Senior Correspondent

Asceticism and Literature in the Middle Ages

Asceticism and Literature in the Middle Ages

©iStock.com/Francesco Scatena

Much of my scholarly research over the years has concerned the relationship between monastic thought and practice and general artistic and cultural developments in medieval Europe. Just recently I have been engaged in preparing some lectures on asceticism and literature in the Middle Ages, to be delivered at Notre Dame University within the next month.

Some of the points I intend to make in my lectures so far, though I shall do my best to dignify them with an earnest rhetoric, do not exactly rise to the level of rocket science. If a society first creates a highly distinctive tribe, separates it with artifice from the much larger populations surrounding it, and finally gives it an effective monopoly on the skills of literacy, it is not particularly surprising that the tribe will have a considerable impact on the development of that society’s literature. The “tribe” to which I am referring, of course, are the Christian ascetics — monks and nuns, hermits, consecrated virgins, friars, brothers and sisters in an astonishing variety of formal or informal religious orders.

I personally have great difficulty in understanding how the ascetic mind became paramount in nascent Christianity. Jesus said that all of Torah could be boiled down to two propositions: love God, love your neighbor. These were called the “Two Great Commandments.” The “contempt for the world” (contemptus mundi, a formula favored by the ascetics for the better part of two millennia) might be a valuable tool in achieving a single-minded focus on the First Commandment, but it seems to me absolutely antithetical to fulfilling the Second. How do you love your neighbor by guaranteeing that you have as few neighbors as possible, and of that few only like-minded world haters like yourself?

St. Anthony of the Desert, usually called the first monk, sought incremental sanctification through incremental isolation. He withdrew first to the edge of the village, then deeper and deeper into the wilderness to less and less welcoming shelters, to hollows in the rocks and the abandoned lairs of wild animals. All the famous early monks lived in artificial prisons of one kind or another. The stylite saints, the circus freaks of the monastic movement, spent their lives atop stone pillars.

It is difficult for the modern mind — and such mind as I have is necessarily modern — to grasp the phenomenon with mental neutrality, let alone with sympathy. The anti-ascetic bias among historians in the Enlightenment tradition actually antedates Gibbon, though it is perhaps most brilliantly exemplified by him. The 37th chapter of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" must surely be among the most brilliant monuments of erudite scurrility in our language. In it Gibbon delineated two coordinated cultural disasters that fell upon the classical world — the rise of monasticism and the conversion to Christianity of the northern barbarian tribes.

More focused is the opinion of one of my favorite 19th-century historians, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, author of the ever-fascinating "History of European Morals." Unlike Gibbon, Lecky was not a bigot, and he generally avoids rhetorical polemic. Nonetheless, he wrote as follows of Anthony and his eremitical imitators:

“There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence.”

What Lecky does not say, but what I must try to take account of, is that we would not know the writings of Plato and Cicero and we would know precious little of the lives of Socrates and Cato were it not for the Christian monks whose legendary founder inspires Lecky’s indignation. Of course the “hideous, sordid and emaciated maniac” to whom he alludes is no other than St. Anthony the Great.

For the perhaps paradoxical truth is that practically everything we know about the Ancient World that comes from documentary sources was copied, preserved and transmitted in the religious houses of Europe. I have seen a 13th-century manuscript of Ovid’s "Remedia Amoris" to which the monastic scribe appended a prayer of thanksgiving to the Virgin Mary for her aid in helping him complete his task.

Twenty years ago the popular historian Thomas Cahill made a notable success with a book entitled, "How the Irish Saved Civilization." The claims of the book, like its title, were perhaps a little hyperbolic, but its gist is undeniable. It’s rather amazing just how much emaciated maniacs could achieve when they set their minds to it.

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