The Monastic Laboratory: Perspectives of Research in Late Antique and Early Medieval Monasticism

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This chapter provides a roadmap for new approaches to the history of early medieval monasticism (or rather of monasticisms) beyond the traditional narrative that starts in the Egyptian desert and culminates in the Carolingian monastic reforms in the West or the foundation of the Great Lavra in the East. Instead of assuming that the late antique world created a largely stable monastic ideal revolving around a dichotomy of eremitic and coenobitic monasticism and the imperative of a vita regularis, monasticism should be viewed as a long-term experiment to shape ideal religious communities. These communities faced the challenge to develop a theological basis that did not cross doctrinal boundaries and to shape internal structures, disciplinary systems and economic models that allowed them to function perpetually and to gain them a place and role within the changing societal structures of the late antique and post-Roman world. The result of these experiments was a broad diversity of often competing forms of communal life. Most sources establish a rhetoric of harmony, uniformity and organic development that conceals frictions and conflicts among monastic communities and between monasteries and the surrounding world. This means that our sources need to be read against the grain, identifying their agency in creating invented traditions and master narratives still powerful today and using them for a rigorous “archaeology of concepts”. Such an approach opens the ‘monastic laboratory’ to interdisciplinary approaches and invites various disciplines outside of history and theology to explore the monastic experiment.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West
Place of PublicationCambridge
StatePublished - Jan 9 2020


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