They Hasten toward Perfection: Virginal & Chaste Monks in the High Middle Ages

Benedictine monksThey Hasten toward Perfection: Virginal & Chaste Monks in the High Middle Ages

Karen Cheatham

University of Toronto: Doctorate of Philosophy Centre for the Study of Religion (2010)


As perennial Christian ideals, virginity and chastity were frequent themes in medieval religious discourse. Male religious were frequently virgins and were expected to cultivate chastity; however, women not men were usually the focus of such discussions. But some monastic writers did draw on those models when considering their own spirituality, and it is worth knowing how they were understood and enlisted in those instances. To this end, I investigate five eleventh- and twelfth-century monks who wrote about monastic virginity or chastity: Anselm of Canterbury, Guibert of Nogent, Rupert of Deutz, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ælred of Rievaulx. In my analysis, I uncover each author’s perception of virginity/chastity. Thus, I reveal that Anselm’s Deploratio is not about lost physical virginity or even sexual sin per se; it is a spiritual meditation driven by his immense fear that sinners would be forever damned. Guibert’s work exposes what a treatise on virginity could become in the hands of an adolescent struggling with sexual desire and steeped in lessons taught by his monastery. Rupert’s tract on virginity and masturbation portrays male virginity as tangible and potent.

In so doing, it erects a barrier defending Rupert’s work as an exegete against detractors. For his part, Bernard teaches that what matters most is chaste humility. He also consistently links virginity with pride and false holiness, a strategy possibly linked with a battle between white and black monks. Finally,Ælred produces a model of monastic perfection that is terrifically masculine, distinctively different from virginity, and perfectly suited for his audience. In addition to uncovering each monk’s unique perception of virginity and chastity, I call attention to similarities and differences in their thought and make conclusions based on those observations. Overall, I have found not only that virginity and chastity did matter to some medieval religious men but also that the way they handle those ideals can be tremendously revealing.


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