Monastic Reform and the Geography of Christendom: Experience, Observation and Influence

Monastic Reform and the Geography of Christendom: Experience, Observation and Influence

By Andrew Jotischky

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Volume 22, 2012

Medieval monks – British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 222v

Abstract: Monastic reform is generally understood as a textually driven process governed by a renewed interest in early monastic ideals and practices in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and focusing on the discourses of reformers about the Egyptian ‘desert fathers’ as the originators of monasticism. Historians have suggested that tropes about the desert, solitude, etc., drawn from early texts found their way into mainstream accounts of monastic change in the period c. 1080–1150.

This paper challenges this model by proposing that considerations of ‘reform’ must take into account parallel movements in Greek Orthodox monasticism and interactions of practice between the two monastic environments. Three case-studies of nontextually derived parallel practices are discussed, and the importance of the Holy Land as a source of inspiration for such practices is advanced in place of Egypt.

Introduction: In 1151, Aelwin, a monk of Durham living in retreat on the island of Inner Farne off the coast of Northumbria, was surprised by the arrival of another Durham monk, Bartholomew. Aelwin’s surprise was doubtless occasioned not only by the disturbance to his solitude but also by the startling appearance of the new arrival. Bartholomew was dressed in a long-sleeved tunic of animal skins and a separate hood or cuculla, over which he wore a black cloak (pallium).

In this costume ‘he showed to all who saw him’, asserts his biographer, ‘the figure of the ancient fathers’. Bartholomew was, in fact, bringing the Egyptian desert to the North Sea. His clothing was the closest approximation he could manage to the garb of the monks of Egypt, as described in John Cassian’s Institutes. Bartholomew was signalling his adherence to a specific way of life – the monasticism of the ‘golden age’ of the desert fathers.

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