A Little Plea to Monastic Historians

Yesterday I was reading a book on monastic history by a well-regarded historian. No names, no pack-drill, as they say; but the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. The monastic life the historian was describing and interpreting was so far removed from the reality I have experienced that I found it unrecognizable. Now, you may say that the monastic life of the twenty-first century is a world away from that of the tenth or twelfth, and you would be right; but as Georges Duby argued so persuasively when writing about medieval marriage, many things do not change. There is a commonalty of experience that enables the married person of today to understand much of the life of his/her medieval forebear. But when we come to a life we have not ourselves lived, we have to put our imagination to work very intensely; and that isn’t always easy.

Most people know what it is like to live in a family; comparatively few know what it is like to live in a monastic community. That can affect how we view things and, more important, how we interpret them. So, for example, unless we have experienced the liturgy day after day for years on end, we may mistake how formative it is in the life of the monk. Unless we have actually lived enclosure, we may fundamentally misinterpret how it is understood in the life of the nun. If we do not see how feast and fast flow together, we may stumble in our interpretation of diet. Above all, we may forget that most people, most of the time, are quite sincere about what they do and the reasons for which they do it. They may be mistaken; they may, at times, be unwilling; but, on the whole, I don’t think most people are cynical. Men and women in the Middle Ages didn’t see autonomy in the way we do; a parent’s right to choose one’s husband or wife or determine one’s occupation in life was more generally accepted than it is in the West today.

Therefore, my dear monastic historian, may I ask a favour of you? Before you start writing about monasticism in terms of liminality or achieved status or power elites, please would you familiarise yourself with some of the basic texts and practices of monastic life itself? Read the bible, all the bible (monks and nuns have a quite depressing familiarity with even the most obscure parts of it, and always have had); read the Rule of St Benedict and, if possible, learn it by heart as they do and did; immerse yourself in the silence in which monks and nuns pass the greater part of their day; think long and deeply about the role of the abbot or abbess and a life of single chastity, not as something to be resented or resisted but as that which is intrinsic to the monastic understanding of conformity to Christ. It won’t be time wasted, because it will give you some insight into a life that is, to be frank, a bit odd, a bit difficult to understand. Without God at its centre, monastic life makes no sense at all. Failure to see that makes pretty poor history, too.


18 thoughts on “A Little Plea to Monastic Historians”

  1. Oh dear! May I offer a heartfelt apology on behalf of historians of monastic history, in whose ranks I was once a junior subaltern?

    I wince in recognition at your plea. I might be doing rather well if, a scholar of medieval monasticism, I’d had a pound for every time I read that women became nuns because it gave them their only chance of exercising temporal power (it being understood that they would, with the right connections, become abbess)…whereas inconvenient women of lower social standing were forced in by their families to get them out of the way…!

    Sadly, though, I must admit that what you see – quite understandably – as the bare minimum requirements of reading and reflection for the historian would seem an impossibly steep task to the average doctoral student, pressured as she is by the sense of an infinite amount of sources to digest in a very finite period of time. For myself, I failed abjectly to meet your standards. (My most terrifying and humbling moment as a scholar was being asked to give a lecture on Yorkshire nunneries at a Catholic history day at the Bar Convent, York; and discovering the entire community lined up expectantly in the front row!) I can only plead in my turn that some of us, at least, did our best always to keep in mind as we studied that these were real women we wrote about, with lives as full and real as ours – and that God was and is at the centre.

    • Forgive me, I write as an erstwhile medievalist myself and I would have loved to have heard you speaking about Yorkshire nunneries (though I would have heckled you about the ‘n’ word)! I think you raise an important question about what a doctoral student can reasonably be expected to read. Back in the Dark Ages at Cambridge, familiarity with the Bible and the Rule was taken for granted. We can’t do that now; but it makes me wonder whether, as a result, we are getting further and further from understanding what we study.

      • Goodness, no apology necessary. I fear that you’re right about the growing gulf of understanding, alas. And I wish you HAD been there to heckle me about the ‘n’ word: it was another twenty years or so (shameful to admit) before I discovered from you that Benedictines live in monasteries! Mea culpa!

  2. Sadly, many modern historians know next to nothing about Christianity, let alone monastic lives. I frequently read discussions that fail to understand the most basic elements of church life and history. It’s hardly surprising in a time in which most people think that advent is the time when you start eating mince pies and having parties and lent is when chocolate eggs and bunnies become available. Even if modern scholars cannot experience Christianity or monastic life, they do all owe their own discipline the duty of trying to understand how people actually acted and reacted in the past, instead of seeing the past through entirely modern eyes.

    • It’s the Christmas trees thrown to the curb for collection on Boxing Day that boggles my mind, as though the Christmas season is over and done with, nothing left to celebrate.

  3. It’s often the case that those who know the least about a subject have the most to say about it. Unbelievers have taken great pleasure in informing my husband and I that Jesus wasn’t really born on the 25th of December, for example, or that meatless Fridasy as we Catholics practice was merely a way to get rid of rotting fish in the markets so we needn’t keep it up. There are many topics in life where I can only use my imagination to guess at what it must be like to live the reality of that individual(s) though I’d never know whether I’d come close to the mark. This is where a blog such as yours, Sr. Catherine, is invaluable on many levels.

  4. I don’t claim to know much about monastic life, but do remember the Brothers and Sisters who ran the Catholic Children’s homes that I spent five years in as a child.

    Lots of their days, when we didn’t see them, we were told by the Lay Carers, that they were doing the office – in my naive state of life, I imagined them busily occupying an office, doing paperwork. But we often saw them at prayer, processing around the playing fields in pairs, reading aloud from a large black book, which I took to be a Missal – how naive was I?

    As I got a bit older, I realised that when a bell rang from the Church and they disappeared, that they were going to one of the numerous (to us) prayer meetings – so, I always associate the ringing of a church bell as being summoned to prayer, even now, over 60 years later.

    I appreciate that we were not in a nunnery or cloister, but their disciplined observance of the office gave them a format for their ministry with the homeless or parent less children in their care. And I know that the 200+ boys and girls must have been challenging, even those who were being good.

    I can recall some scoldings when I did things wrong, stern warnings about my conduct, never belittling, but certainly being put in place.

    I can look back through the lens of 60 years or so of life and know that despite our circumstances, we were in a better place than the broken home that we came from – albeit, we didn’t see it that way. Our conversations all involved when we’d be going home, and it was hard to see some leave, while we were left behind.

    But, having been in care did some things for me in terms of life skills – when I joined the Army, I was the only one who could sew and darn, the only one who could iron a uniform shirt properly and cook quite well. All taught patiently with a culture of make do and mend, probably handed down from the war years.

    And in some ways, the life of a single man or woman in the forces, living alongside others in close proximity might be considered monastic, Although, the discipline was more clear based on Queens Regulations and the Manual of Military Law, rather than the Rule of Benedict. I wonder if there are any similarities? Must do a comparison.

  5. Many of the monasteries were the medieval equivalent of today’s welfare state, providing pastoral care to the wider community. Many sought holy orders to escape a life of military servitude or permanent pregnancy and, by doing so, obtain an education and a life of purity and calm which would have been otherwise impossible. The majority of the populace were God fearing and ready observants of the sacraments. To enter holy orders meant surrendering the dubious pleasures of the flesh for a life of dedication to the spiritual. Hard work was the norm both within or outside the monastery.

    • As a former monastic historian myself, I’m sorry but I have to question your interpretation at many points, not least your equation of holy orders (= clergy) with monastcism, but I appreciate the generosity which prompted you.

      • It is something which does confuse people, when people choose to follow a vocation to the Religious Life (as the Church of England describes it).

        But to choose a monastic life within an order is a definite and unique vocation, not a life choice (although it might be construed by outsiders as such). It’s not only responding to the initial call to that life, but living out that vocation in solemn vows, life long.

        And we need those who make the personal sacrifice that the call to a monastic life entails – the enclosed life in a prayer filled contemplative community is something special -as they remain fully engaged and praying for the world, creation and Gods work in his people.

        I know people who have never visited a Religious Foundation, I spent a day last week at the Community at West Malling, Their enclosed life, but sharing their worship with visitors is something very special.

        • I think perhaps I ought to clarify something here. The Catholic Church’s preferred term to talk about both monastic life and the life of apostolic congregations is now Consecrated Life. One can argue that the Benedictines are not an Order as such, because the first Religious Order in the Church was really that of the Cistercians and the Benedictines pre-date them by a few centuries. Catholic canon law goes into some detail about the current classifications and the requirements of institutes wholly ordered towards contemplation, etc. The nuns at West Mallign are a great adornment to Anglicanism.

  6. This sentiment via familiar to me – except it is bad science that sends my fingers the urge to write something intemperate to bloggers and commenters who claim expertise and then get basics wrong. The issues with patronising essays on why there are fewer women in science and engineering, and they don’t get paid as much are perhaps worse…


  7. Dear Sr. Catherine,

    Thank you very much for this – it struck a powerful cord with me. I am a medievalist, and my favourite field is the spiritual and intellectual life in the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries of the long twelfth century. I am frequently puzzled by the distance between many historical studies of medieval monasticism and what speaks so strongly to me in the source texts preserved from that time. I try my best in my research to do justice to medieval monasticism, but of course I do worry I get it completely wrong since I have never lived in a monastery myself. I would in fact be deeply grateful if at any point you would be able to cast a quick glance at my work and let me know if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick completely.

      • Dear Sr Catherine,

        I am very sorry to hear about your illness. I shall keep you in my prayers, and keep your important little plea in mind whenever I do monastic history! Thanks so much for the important reminder for us monastic historians.

        All best wishes,

  8. I have only recently come to monastic history, but try to remember my own experience of ten years at a boarding convent when I’m writing.

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