History Professor Publishes Groundbreaking Book on Monasticism and Gender


In Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West professor Lynda L. Coon, chair of the University of Arkansas’ department of history, reconstructs the gender ideology of monastic masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body.

Focusing on the Carolingian era (ca. 751-987), Coon evaluates the ritual and liturgical performances of monastic bodies within the imaginative landscapes of same-sex ascetic communities in northern Europe. She demonstrates how the priestly body plays a significant role in shaping major aspects of Carolingian history, such as the revival of classicism, movements for clerical reform, and church-state relations. In the political realm, Carolingian churchmen consistently exploited monastic constructions of gender to assert the power of the monastery. Stressing the superior qualities of priestly virility, clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through a variety of textual, ritual, and spatial means.

Focusing on three central themes – the body, architecture and ritual practice – the book draws from a variety of visual and textual materials, including poetry, grammar manuals, rhetorical treatises, biblical exegesis, monastic regulations, hagiographies, illuminated manuscripts, building plans, and cloister design. Interdisciplinary in scope, Dark Age Bodies brings together scholarship in architectural history and cultural anthropology with recent works in religion, classics, and gender to present a significant reconsideration of Carolingian culture.

Julia Smith, the Edwards Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, praises the invention of Coon, saying: “Dark Age Bodies stands the conventional view of early medieval monasticism on its head. It displaces commonplaces that monks were desexualized, ascetic, and celibate beings whose life, ideologies, and material surroundings were gender-free. Coon brilliantly deploys the rich array of recent sophisticated studies of Roman sex and gender, especially masculinities, to argue that western, specifically Benedictine, monasticism was predicated on same-sex hierarchies.”

Source: University of Arkansas