An Architecture of the Self: New Metaphors for Monastic Enclosure

An Architecture of the Self:New Metaphors for Monastic Enclosure

Caldwell, Ellen M.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 8 (1991)


Much of the language that regulates monastic enclosure is filled with clearly stated prohibitions and explanations; it is the language of denotation and prescription. However, the language of connotation, or metaphor, perhaps more accurately reflects the shape of monastic life as it moves from early eremitic origins to the cenobitism of the ninth century and later. When the change in monastic lifestyle, from an emphasis on denial of the self and chastisement of the body to affirmation of one’s spiritual powers, is articulated, often architectural metaphor becomes a key to the new dimensions of spirituality offered within the monastery.

Either from the hermit’s cell, or from the communal monastic enclosure inscribed by metaphors of containment, descriptions of monastic life gradually appropriate the more spacious metaphors of public areas to describe the contemplative’s interior life. The metaphors of monastic life, with time, soar to become a castle, a series of dwelling places all contained within the soul, to become, even, a garden. Descriptions of early cenobitic and eremitic life are both shaped by the metaphors of imprisonment; they graphically image withdrawal from the evil of the world and posit a focus on the practice of restraint. The metaphors of liberation that appear from the twelfth century onward free the monastic from the confining community or cell by offering an increasingly psychological interpretation of that physical space where the monasatic meets the divine. I propose for this paper a survey of metaphors that will highlight the changing attitudes toward monastic enclosure from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries.

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