‘To Love and Be Loved:’ The Medieval Monastic Community as Family, 400-1300
By Jack Mallon
Master’s Thesis, University of Guelph, 2015
Abstract: This thesis expands how the medieval monastic family can be understood to parallel the traditional nuclear family founded upon the heterosexual union of husband and wife for the purpose of procreation. From the fourth to thirteenth centuries, monastic communities functioned as same-sex family units because they both differentiated from the larger associations of kin and community, and contained human relations that were very different from those outside the monastery. Medieval monasteries were composed of three generations of monks that fulfilled the familial and affective roles of fathers, brothers, and children. The monastic family incorporated components of the Roman and Hebraic families, but also created emotional bonds and affective experiences that are not mirrored by the medieval secular family. Monks were able to adopt fluid and reflexive affective roles that, according to the twelfth-century abbot, Bernard of Clairveaux, permitted a monk to be “both a mother and a father, both a brother and a sister.”
Introduction: The erosion of the traditional western family during the twentieth century, and the awareness of familial experiences that extend beyond the nuclear family, point to the fluidity of the definition of family in contemporary western culture. The family of the twenty-first century is not limited to the heterosexual union of man and woman and their biological children, but has expanded to include any group that chooses to define their relationships as familial. Most obvious is the prevalence of same-sex partners who marry legally and/or assume parental responsibilities over children. The critique that same-sex unions erode the definition of marriage and family presumes that there were no examples of alternative family units in the western tradition. It is thus necessary to analyze groups that were neither biologically related nor united for the purpose of procreation, but identified as, and fulfilled the basic functions of the family.
In the classical world, the word familia denoted those under the authority the paterfamilias, both kin and slave. However, it also designated any organized group of people that practised similar styles of life. Familia was used in Roman literature to denote prostitutes, publicans, tax collectors, military units, schools, and slaves. This usage was applied by Christian writers to monks and clergy, but also to the entire Church. David Herlihy defined the medieval biological family as a group, related by blood and/or marriage, dwelling under the same roof. These qualifications adequately describe the traditional nuclear family, founded upon the union of heterosexual spouses for the purpose of procreation, but excludes any group that falls outside of the heterosexual experience. Herlihy later broadened his definition of the family to a unit and a universe: “A unit as it is sharply differentiated from the larger associations of kin and community, and a universe in the sense that human relations within it are very different from human relations outside its limits.” This gender neutral delineation permits a broader examination of groups in medieval society whose familial experiences were not limited to marriage and procreation.