Skip to main content

Monasticism: Christian Monasticism


Christian monasticism does not differ from monasticism in other world religions in its most basic motivation: to allow those who consider themselves capable of practicing a form of religious life that is beyond the means of ordinary believers to do so. The goal and purpose of such extraordinary achievements in Christianity derive from the evangelical counsels of fasting, chastity, and the renunciation of property. With the renunciation of secular attachments, the nun or monk begins a journey of continuous self-mortification with the goal of contemplative unity with God through prayer. Such renunciation has to be practiced and trained for, which requires both abstention and continuous exercise. Abstention is core to the term monachos, which means a single, independent, or solitary person. Continuous refinement of practice is core to the term askesis, which means training or exercise. Yet whereas singularity through ascetic abstention can highlight the status of religious virtuosi, it may also marginalize them and signify a precarious, even heretical, existence. As such, the salience and permanency of ascetic religious-virtuoso status depends on the reactions of the community and ecclesiastical and political authorities.

Beginnings of Monasticism and the "Age of the Desert" (c. 200c. 500 ce)

Recent research has shown that at the beginning of monasticism, Christian monastic ascetics were only a part of a larger ascetic landscape that was populated by a variety of holy men from different religious traditions in the Roman Empire. It also has become increasingly clear that Christian monasticism does not a have a single beginning, but originated in a variety of communities in different areas. Structural heterogeneity spans the familiar forms of anchorites, who live alone, and cenobites, who live in a stable community, but also the Syrian wandering beggar-ascetics and small communal groups within existing inhabited zones in Egypt; moreover, domestic forms of early monasticism existed that were particularly common among women, which shall be addressed further below. It appears, in fact, that the long-held model of the emergence of Christian monasticism out of the prototypical Egyptian recluse must be abandoned. Egyptian Christian monasticism, in its earliest ascetic forms, was located in urban spaces, and it did not inspire, or was not an apparent model for, monastic developments in the Christian world. Monasticism in Palestine, too, was not about eremitical withdrawal into remote desert regions but rather an integral part of Christian life there from early on. One of the main sources of the traditional view of the eremitical/desert beginnings of monasticism, Athanasius's Life of Antony, which portrayed Anthony of Egypt (c. 251356) as an exemplary Christian person who perfected his sanctity through solitary life in the desert, is now understood as a discursive strategy with the purpose (and result) of homogenizing different forms of monasticism and consolidating them into a type that could be more easily demarcated from other forms that were, in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities, less desirable. The common characterization of this monastic era as the "Age of the Desert" is therefore questionable at best.

The cenobitic form of monasticism can be traced back to Pachomius of Egypt (c. 290346). It was based on the consideration that the ascetics' heroic virtue could be bolstered and more easily sustained if they lived in a communal setting, allowing them to create a Christian community of love (koinōnia, hence "cenobitic"). This community required both stability in a fixed abode (claustration) and governing principles and guidelines, or a rule, which became the hallmarks of monasticism. Neither as removed from society nor as regimented and strictly disciplined as it was once believed they were, Pachomian communities spread in the fourth century and were the precursors to later cenobitic forms of monasticism in the monastic age.

The Western Monastic Era (c. 500c. 1200)

After the turbulences of the fifth century associated with the onslaught of the barbarian tribes, which ended the Age of the Desert, monastic establishments in Western Christianity were given a normative foundation by the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict. Named after Benedict of Nursia (c. 480c. 547) and likely based in part on the earlier Rule of the Master, the Rule of St. Benedict emphasized stability, peacefulness, order, and collective self-sufficiency. Confronted with often unstable political conditions and a yet largely untamed natural environment, monks and nuns achieved stability by living in a permanent setting that offered shelter from these conditions. Removed from an outside world of violence and warfare, these "athletes of God" fought a more peaceful, spiritual battle instead. This task necessitated order and a structured, methodical way of life.

The prologue to the Rule calls on monks and nuns to "establish a school for the Lord's service" (Fry, 1981, p. 165), which offered training in the virtues of obedience and discipline. Obedience meant subservience to the abbess or abbot, who had authority over monastic communities' secular and spiritual matters yet was an elected leader and governed by precise mandates of conduct. Discipline both reflected and facilitated commitment to a principled, methodical way of life, which was, because "idleness is the enemy of the soul" (Fry, 1981, p. 249), precisely structured with daily routines. For the most part, these routines focused on collective prayer, lectio (the study of texts and private meditation), and work. Collective prayer was organized around a daily round of divine service, the Opus Dei. It was complemented by lectio, which led to the emergence of Benedictine monasteries as perhaps the foremost centers of learning, scholarship, and literary production from about the eighth century until at least the eleventh century.

Work was also considered one of the constitutive elements of the monastic profession: "When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks" (Fry, 1981, pp. 249, 251). The valorization of work came out of a tradition that viewed labor both as a means of subsistence and charity and as a way to combat the temptation of acedia, or sloth and lethargy brought on by idleness. It enabled the members of a monastic community to aid the poor and sick, prevented them from falling into idleness, and contributed to their material self-sufficiency.

The Rule stated that because for members of monastic communities it was "not all good for their souls" to leave the stable and disciplined environment of the monastery, "the monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced" (Fry, 1981, p. 289). The combination of advancing education and craft skills with improving technologies for cultivating land enabled the monastic communities to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency.

Monastic houses commonly followed a mixed rule, or a combination of observations taken from different rules, until the Rule of St. Benedict ascended to dominance in the early eighth century. Local customs and conventions continued to be accommodated through so-called customaries.

Cluniac and Cistercian monasticism

The term Cluniac monasticism denotes a movement to revive and restore Benedictine monastic life after the decline of the Carolingians and the plundering and pillaging of monasteries by the Vikings and Saracens. The tenth-century reforms that emanated from Cluny and a large number of affiliated or similar reform-minded monastic houses such as Gorze, Hirsau, and Bec led to a ceremonialization of the monastic life and much closer affiliation with nobility. Whereas the Rule of St. Benedict prescribed about three and a half hours a day of prayer and recitation of psalms, Cluniac monastic communities engaged in such activities to a much greater extent. As the number of recited psalms increased from 15 to 170, most of the day was spent in the choir, and the celebration of private and commemorative masses further added to the liturgical demands on the monks.

At the same time, Cluniac monasticism represented a closer affinity with the upper, noble strata of society, in that monks performed religious services for nobles in return for material endowments and protection. The Cluniacs' link to the nobility was further strengthened by the fact that many nuns and monks came from noble families and that the higher ranks of the Cluniac organization were populated by men of aristocratic origins. For members of the nobility, the endowment of a monastery in land was thought to secure the donor's temporal and eternal welfare, and noble patronage of monasteries continued to provide privileges and means of influence on the administration of monastic life even after the Gregorian reform movement and canon law curtailed lay proprietorship of cloisters. In part, this was a utilitarian do ut des transaction within an economy dominated by gift and barter, a transaction by which secular wealth and status were traded for spiritual assistance in this life and what was to follow thereafter; in part, however, gift transactions and transfers, as newer historical studies have shown, also served to establish, affirm, and deepen lasting social commitments and moral bonds between donors, donees, mediating agents, and their surrounding communities, thereby integrating these parties into a network of relations and encompassing the realms of both the sacred and the profane.

A different, less feudalized and ceremonialized type of spirituality was embraced by the Cistercians. In reaction to changes within the larger society, such as political consolidation and the expansion of commercial markets, they developed a spiritual program that strongly stressed simplicity, poverty, manual labor, and charity. These goals were to be achieved by rejecting worldly entanglements and restoring a strict, literal adherence of the Rule of St. Benedict. Within 150 years the Cistercians expanded from the "new monastery" formed by two dozen monks around Robert of Molesme (c. 10271110) and guided by the charismatic Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) to an organization with perhaps over twenty thousand members by the mid-thirteenth century.

The Cistercians' economic achievements are well known. They include opening up uncultivated frontiers, converting rural hinterlands into flourishing farmlands, and enhancing the agricultural productivity of already developed estates. Frugality and a distinct economic organization were at the root of their success in transforming the rural economy. The Cistercians emphasized simplicity and austerity, reflected in a comparatively brief and modest liturgy, plain architecture, and the absence of ornaments in their churches. Intrinsic to Cistercian austerity was an emphasis on manual work, to be performed with vehemence and regularity and viewed as the principal means for supporting a monastic communityan approach in stark contrast to the dominant practices in Benedictine monasticism at the time. This religious attitude was complemented by the rationalized economic organization of Cistercian granges or estates composed of contiguous fields and farms obtained through a combination of gifts, leases, pawns, and purchases. Organized into a single unit for agricultural production, a grange allowed a much more methodical estate management than did the previously fragmented patches of land. Granges were exempt from ecclesiastical tithes and other agricultural taxes, and local markets in the countryside and urban settings (if available) provided a ready outlet for their agricultural and pastoral products.

Having few outlets for expenditure beyond charity and subsistence, the Cistercians could re-invest their wealth in the acquisition of monastic estates, and thus further the basis of their economic success. But in the second part of the thirteenth century, Cistercian land acquisition came to a halt. The peasantry had fewer material incentives to join the order, with serfdom disappearing, markets for agricultural products expanding, and cultivation methods improving by the late twelfth century. Burghers and knights, too, found other spiritual avenues, and the burghers of the cities were differently served by the urban mendicant orders. By the thirteenth century the "new monastery, " a highly aristocratic order, in some ways looked like the monastery of old.

The Mendicant Era (c. 1200c. 1500)

During the twelfth century, monasticism was both revived and altered, developments which occurred in the context of rapid social change. An expanding commercial economy, the revival of the cities, a newly found individualism, and increasing levels of lay literacy altered established social traditionsand with them religious life.

In Italy and France an early response to this change came in the form of religious hermits. Drawing on traditions of eremitical poverty in early Christian monasticism, charismatic hermits such as Romuald of Ravenna (9501027) or Norbert of Xanten (10801134) rejected the stability of the monastery and lived their lives as wandering ascetics. Committed to austerity and noninvolvement with a commercializing, more individualist society, the hermits ushered in a new type of religious eremiticism by not seeking a life of solitude but rather associating with loose groups of followers and supporters. Many of these groups disbanded after the death of their leader, while others assimilated into monastic groups where they continued their serene eremitical life.

A different response came in the form of lay religious movements, which also embraced apostolic poverty but lived in small communities seeking to emulate the life of early Christian communities. Groups such as the Italian Humiliati and the early French and Italian Waldensians rejected the monastic traditions of concentrating on spiritual labor and withdrawing from the world. Combining preaching with itinerancy and austerity, they formed the model for a revival of Christian monasticism in the form of the mendicant orders.

The mendicants

The Franciscans and Dominicans responded to changing socioeconomic conditions by radically breaking with received monastic traditions. They did not question the contemplative life as the ultimate form of Christian perfection, or prayer as the pivotal means to achieve it. They dispensed, however, with the life in a stable, enclosed residence that had been the hallmark of traditional monasticism, and they were governed by ecclesiastical rules whose explicit raison d'être was preaching to the populace. As popular preachers admonishing the laity to repent and to seek inner conversion, they left the seclusion of the cloister for the busy streets of the city, voluntarily renouncing all forms of property, be it personal, as their monastic predecessors had done, or corporate. Instead of collective stability and withdrawal from society, they chose individual mobility and participation in secular affairs.

With this turn, monastic spirituality opened itself to the world. The mendicants rejected the legacy of world flight in monasticism and recentered the meaning of asceticism on notions of strict poverty and active ministry. The attraction of the mendicants was extraordinary: in the first one hundred years they grew from a few men around Francis of Assisi (1181/821226) and Domingo de Guzmán (c. 11701221), the two founders of the major mendicant orders, to a total of about twenty-eight thousand Franciscans and about twelve thousand Dominicans.

Rapid organizational growth, however, brought about significant changes in mendicant spirituality within the first fifty years, during which some of their early ideals were significantly changed or even abandoned. In the case of the Franciscans, the first friars who joined Francis of Assisi shared his ideal of imitating the simple, austere life of the apostles. Much like other religious charismatics at the time, Francis renounced the vanities of the world, which in his case meant the comfortable lifestyle of a wealthy merchant's son, for the transient existence of an itinerant preacher. Money was not even to be touched, and academic studies were not encouraged. Yet whereas the early Franciscans were expected to support themselves by working and begging, within a span of less than forty years the Franciscans' commitment to manual labor changed, together with their views on the futility of learnedness and absolute avoidance of money. Manual labor was abandoned, as growth in numbers and the inevitable routinization of Franciscan charisma necessitated changes in the order's structure and some of its defining spiritual characteristics. The precarious existence of itinerant beggars and laborers was difficult to reconcile with the need for some institutional and economic stability. It became necessary to impose organizational structures onto the order and to regulate the avenues of admission and advancement, as well as to adopt a less unworldly stance toward money. Furthermore, a great number of priests joined the order, and heresy continued to be viewed as a primary threat. The rustic views of Francis on learning and the unresolved relation of the friars-priests to the secular clergy were at odds with the view shared by many clerics and more-learned members of the order that active ministry required a trained, professional apostolate and the definition of rights and duties vis-à-vis the parish priests. By about the mid-thirteenth century, the Friars Minor were a highly clericalized and learned order, steeped in university life. Earlier notions of absolute poverty gave way to the permission for corporate use, if not ownership, of property, and full control over it.

The other major mendicant order, the Dominicans, did not experience the same organizational dilemmas and shifts in spiritual orientation or emphasis. From the beginning it was conceived to be a priestly order devoted to preaching. The meaning and extent of poverty, while important, was not as contested as among the Franciscans, and intellectual training was considered paramount for an active apostolate. For the professional pastors and preachers who stood at the forefront of the defense of the church as inquisitors and who attended to the spiritual needs of the laity, a solid foundation in theology and the art of preaching was essential. Because the nature of the order was clerical and its orientation priestly, there was no place for work. In the daily routine, manual toil and meditative readingtwo of the pillars of the Rule of St. Benedictgave way to a brief liturgy and the occupations of preaching, studying, and teaching. In both orders, therefore, asceticism was channeled toward the methodical training of the intellect and endured in corporeal and social renunciations such as chastity and penury.

In the later Middle Ages the monasticization of the mendicants and persistent debates over the role of wealth were indicative of significant challenges to religious life. Such challenges were also obvious in traditional religious orders, where abuses and discipline problems as well as declining numbers reflected a crisis in monastic life.

The Reformation, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment

Laxity in spiritual discipline in religious life was one of the issues that prompted the Augustinian friar Martin Luther (14831546) to question the foundations of monastic life. Luther, as well as other reformers, ushered in a period in which Protestant authorities disbanded existing houses and disallowed the establishment of new ones. Monastic property was seized and distributed into secular channels.

Ever since the Reformation, the notion of the priesthood of the believer, which exalts each believer to the status of religious virtuoso, has remained one of the pillars of Protestantism. This notion mitigates against the establishment of religious orders whose members enjoy a fundamentally different religious status from that of other members of the church.

A second challenge to monastic life after the Reformation came in the form of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers tended to equate monastic rituals and traditions with unenlightened superstition and tied them to the society of old. In the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte's rule, most monastic communities were disbanded or destroyed.

The Apostolic Orders and Teaching Congregations

Reform in the Catholic Church took its own shape in its reformations of religious life in the sixteenth century. One of more than a dozen new apostolic orders that emerged and prospered in that period, the Jesuits represented a new form of order that replaced the emphases in traditional monasticism on contemplation and in the mendicant orders on poverty with a stress on ministry, discipline, and commitment to furthering the church's causes. Founded by Ignatius Loyola (14911556), the order grew rapidly. Within a hundred years of their papal approval in 1540, they represented an organization of over 15,000 members. A precipitous decline occurred in the late eighteenth century, however. This decline affected them as well as the traditional monastic groups and the friars. Within a period of fifty years after Pope Clement XIV disbanded the order in 1773, the number of male monks, friars, and members of apostolic orders has been estimated to have dropped to only 70,000, and only about forty of more than one thousand monasteries of the traditional monastic communities survived.

A reversal of such decline was made possible through the revival of traditional monasticism's appeal in the nineteenth century, which led to a revival of Benedictine and Cistercian communities. Numerically more significant, however, was the emergence of hundreds of new religious communities, particularly religious congregations that substituted an active charitable agenda for the traditional contemplative orientation. In practice, this often involved teaching, nursing, and social services. These brothers and sisters in congregations contributed tremendously to the renewal of Catholic religious orders up to the second part of the twentieth century.

The Challenges of Secularization

In an attempt to bring about the aggiornamento modernization of Catholic faith, the Second Vatican Council (19621965) initiated various changes in the Catholic Church. This occurred at a time when theologians presumed that modern societies underwent a process of secularization that required religious communities to evolve in order to better meet the demands of modern life. Distinctions between laity and priesthood were reduced, and the leveling of status also affected the religious vocation of a member of a monastic community. A steep decline in the number of Catholics entering religious communities ensued. In the United States, by 1990 the annual number of women who entered a religious order was about one-seventh of what it had been three decades earlier, and the number of men in a religious order had been reduced to less than half. Whereas Canada and western European countries experienced a similar decline (with concomitant financial exigencies and geriatrification of membership), the opposite is true for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Catholic religious communities in those areas have grown significantly, to the extent that for some orders these countries produce a very significant portion of novices. So far, no reversal of these trends is in sight for the twenty-first century.

Monasticism and Gender

The role of women in Christian monasticism has undergone many changes. The predominance of teaching congregations over contemplative communities since the second part of the nineteenth century is a reflection of one of the most fundamental changes in monasticism, the increasing involvement of women, as women have joined active congregations in much greater numbers than their male counterparts. When Catholic religious communities reached their numerical peak in the United States in 1965, sisters outnumbered brothers by a ratio of about five to one. Worldwide, the vast majority of Catholic religious today are women.

Women, however, have not always been so strongly represented in Christian monasticism, nor has the cloistered life always been encouraged for female religious. In early monasticism, female religious virtuosity was related to the celibacy of virgins and widows. For women, separation from the world often did not mean withdrawal from the community and living a life of self-mortification in the desert or wilderness (although for some women, it did), but rather a selective abstention from worldly life (sex, marriage, and food) within a family, house, and community. The structure of early female Christian asceticism was heterogeneous: some women lived in informal ascetic groups, others lived an anchorite life, while most remained in their families and communities or joined a household with a clergyman. By the fifth century the claustration of women in cenobitic communities was under way and set the stage for the institutionalization of women under the Rule of St. Benedict.

Following a period of expansion and the flowering of new monastic foundations for women in the seventh century, especially in the form of double monasteries, the proportion of houses dedicated to women declined steadily until the end of the eleventh century. The first Cluniac cloister for women was not founded until about a century and a half after the foundation of Cluny itself. Similarly, while recent scholarship no longer contends that there were no Cistercian establishments for women, the early Cistercians did anything but welcome women with open arms. Further, when women joined they had to maintain strict lifelong enclosure. Nevertheless, half of the about 850 nunneries that were founded for women in France and England between 410 and 1350 appear to have been founded in the period between the late eleventh century and the late twelfth century, including women-centered monastic communities such as Fontevraud and the Gilbertines.

The tradition of claustration continued among the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the later Middle Ages. In 1206, some nine years before the first male Dominican community was founded, Dominic established a cloister for women at Prouilleas an imitation of Cathar houses for womenwith the purpose of winning over converts from the Cathars. Unlike Francis, who remained reserved toward the idea of women affiliating with his order, Dominic appears to have been open to women's wishes to join the religious life. The establishment of other monasteries for Dominican nuns followed, and their numbers increased significantly, even though a quota system was put in place to regulate demand. Franciscan convents, inspired by the saintly example of Clare of Assisi (11941253), proliferated as well. Yet the nuns lived a religious life quite different from that of the friars. Most importantly, they continued the monastic tradition of strict enclosure for women. Their claustration prevented them from preaching and begging, and no provisions were made for organized study. It required considerable pressure from the papacy to ensure that communities of women were properly integrated into the mendicant orders, if only in thoroughly regulated and well-defined terms. The restrictions on women's access to the apostolic life and on the ways in which they were allowed to live it led them to focus on contemplation. Medieval nuns contributed greatly to the mystical and devotional literature of the later Middle Ages.

In the apostolic era, apostolic orders for women flourished. This was the case for both cloistered and uncloistered communities, even though the latter often had difficulty with ecclesiastical authorities when insisting on performing charitable work for the poor. It was not until the decline of apostolic orders in the late eighteenth century and the revival of monastic communities in the teaching and nursing congregations that active worldly services would become a predominant focus of women religious.

Christian Monasticism in Comparative Perspective

With the exception of Max Weber, few scholars have attempted a comparative study of monasticism in different religious traditions. Weber's writings in the sociology of religion, which focused on the economic ethics of the world religions, revealed that monastic groups generally attracted followers of religious traditions who were best suited for, and most committed to, stringent ascetic practices. The stringency and direction of such ascetic practices varies, however. Compared to its counterparts in Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Weber argued, Christian monasticism is comparatively unique in two aspects: (1) its relatively modest ascetic requirements, and (2) its stronger inner-worldly focus. Even though Christian monasticism knew of extremely demanding ascetic practices, such as those displayed by the stylites (fifth- and sixth-century Syrian ascetics who solitarily dwelled on a pillar for up to several decades, themselves influenced by Eastern precedents), its practices never quite equaled those required of Hindu ascetics, who may have produced some of the most extraordinary religious forms of world renunciation and bodily abnegation known to humankind. In contrast, Western Christian monasticism, especially as it became guided by the Benedictine rule, aimed for consistency, not supererogatory achievements possible only for a very select few. The emphasis on consistency contributed to Western monasticism's methodical character, and its less stringent ascetic demands coincided with a stronger inner-worldly focus. In other words, Christian monastics were not expected to leave the world behind in contemplation nearly as much as Hindu or Buddhist monks were, but rather embraced manual labor as an ascetic practice.

In practice, the tension between contemplative and ascetic practices proved difficult to resolve. On the one hand, tedious practices of manual labor tended to be given over to monastic affiliates of lesser status to free the monks and nuns proper to engage in contemplative practices, which lessened monasticism's inner-worldly focus. For example, in Cluniac and Cistercian monasticism, most of the manual chores fell on the conversi, or lay brothers. On the other hand, reformations of monastic life periodically restored manual labor's status and contributed to important technological advances, such as the use of the watermill and the rationalization of agriculture (particularly on Cistercian estates), or moved it close to the center of monastic spirituality, as happened in the early Franciscan groups. While all forms of monasticism in the world's major religions were much more concerned with transcending the secular spheres than with mastering or rationalizing them, the tension between the two directions appears to have been more pronounced in Christian monasticism; attempts to resolve it brought about a variegated monastic landscape over time.

More recent scholarship has broadened this perspective and led to significant revisions. For example, Mayeul de Dreuille's overview of the monastic traditions in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Egyptian religions provides a much-needed newer comparative perspective and reminds the reader of the possible influences of these traditions on Western monasticism. Ilana Friedrich Silber's comparative study of Theravāda Buddhism and medieval Catholicism points to patterns of lay support and interaction with laity as well as to political patronage as factors shaping monasticism's societal impact and the direction of its spiritualitythus indicating a more dynamic relationship between monasticism and society than is suggested by Weber. In spite of these newer studies, research on comparative monasticism and asceticism remains in its infancy.

See Also

Monastery; Nuns, article on Christian Nuns; Religious Communities, article on Christian Religious Orders.


For a general overview of Western Christian monasticism, the best studies are Peter King's Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1999) and, with a focus on the Middle Ages, C. H. Lawrence's Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (3d ed., New York, 2001).

Important new studies on early monasticism include James E. Goehring's Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Harrisburg, Pa., 1999) and Daniel Caner's Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, Calif., 2002). The varieties of monasticism in Palestine are addressed in John Binns's Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine, 314631 (Oxford, 1995). On Athanasius and Pachomius and their ecclesiastical position and interpretation, see David Brakke's Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford, 1996) and Philip Rousseau's Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth-Century Egypt (Berkeley, Calif., 1985).

The Rule of St. Benedict is contained in R[egula] B[enedicti] 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict, edited by Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville, Minn., 1981). For monastic customaries, see Kassius Hallinger's "Consuetudo: Begriff, Formen, Forschungsgeschichte, Inhalt," in Untersuchungen zu Kloster und Stift, edited by the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte (Göttingen, Germany, 1980), pp. 140166. For Cluniac monasticism, see Barbara H. Rosenwein's Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the Tenth Century (Philadelphia, 1982); for the Cistercians, Louis J. Lekai's The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality (Kent, Ohio, 1977). For the moral character of and extensive social relationships entailed by noble donations in the case of Cluny, see Barbara H. Rosenwein's To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny's Property, 9091049 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1989).

The new eremitical groups in the twelfth centuries are discussed in Henrietta Leyser's Hermits and the New Monasticism: A Study of Religious Communities in Western Europe, 10001150 (New York, 1984). Lester K. Little discusses changes in social conditions and their effects on religious life in Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978).

For a history of the Franciscans and Dominicans, see John Moorman's The History of the Franciscan Order (Oxford, 1968) and William A. Hinnebusch's The History of the Dominican Order (Staten Island, N.Y., 19661973).

A very readable, up-to-date account of changes and directions in Catholic religious orders since the Reformation is provided by Patricia Wittberg's The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (Albany, N.Y., 1994). Steve Bruce's God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford, 2002) addresses causes and consequences of secularization from a comparative perspective.

The best study of women in monasticism is Jo Ann McNamara's Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (Cambridge, Mass., 1996). Susanna Elms's Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1993) addresses early monasticism and women. Helen Rose Ebaugh's Women in the Vanishing Cloister: Organizational Decline in Catholic Religious Orders in the United States (New Brunswick, N.J., 1993) focuses on current transformations among American female religious.

Max Weber's thoughts on monasticism in the world religions are scattered throughout his Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, vols. 13 (Tübingen, Germany, 19201921). Newer scholarship on this topic includes Mayeul de Dreuille, OSB, From East to West: A History of Monasticism (New York, 1999), and Ilana F. Silber, Virtuosity, Charisma, and Social Order: A Comparative Sociological Study of Monasticism in Theravada Buddhism and Medieval Catholicism (Cambridge, UK, 1995). The role of asceticism in different religious traditions is discussed in Asceticism, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis (Oxford, 1995).

Differing strains of asceticism in medieval monasticism are addressed in Lutz Kaelber's Schools of Asceticism: Ideology and Organization in Medieval Religious Communities (University Park, Pa., 1998), chapter 2, which contains an earlier version of sections of this article, as well as a more extensive discussion of some issues raised here.

Lutz Kaelber (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Monasticism: Christian Monasticism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 9 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Monasticism: Christian Monasticism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 9, 2018).

"Monasticism: Christian Monasticism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.