Western AsceticismThe Middle Ages
The high and late Middle Ages were the epochs of the widest proliferation of ascetic ideals in European history. Up to the turn of the first century, self-mortification was almost exclusively the duty of the "virtuosos" of this religion, the monks; it was only after the church reform of the high Middle Ages that an outbreak of lay piety initiated this ideal for every truly engaged Christian in the world. A maxim of St. Bartholomew of Farne (d. 1193) can be taken as paradigmatic of the wide proliferation of the soma sema doctrine: "We must inflict our body with all kinds of adversity if we want to deliver it to perfect purity of soul!" The mendicant orders, founded in the thirteenth century, were especially important for the spread of ascetic ideals among the laity. Their basic tenets, grounded in asceticism, were traditional: contempt of the world as well as weakening and chastisement of the body as an instrument of sin. In addition to these goals of self-salvation, and in contrast to older monasticism, the goal of brotherly love fostered the attempt to atone for the sins of other believers, both living and deceased. The founders of the Minorites and the preaching orders created a precedent as well. St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182–1226) taught, "I have no greater enemy than my body," arguing that "We should feel hatred towards our body for its vices and sinning!" For St. Francis this attitude entailed fasting and self-flagellation for the disciplining of the body, which he called "brother donkey." This metaphor, beloved by the ascetics, expresses the idea of the body as a beast of burden that, according to Legenda maior, the life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274), "should be weighed down by hard work, often scourged with the whip, and nourished with poor fodder." As for St. Dominic (c. 1170–1221), aside from the usual waking and fasting, three times every night he would "whip himself with an iron chain: once for himself, once for the sinners in the world, and one for the sinners who are suffering in purgatory."
The most common ascetic practices of the Middle Ages and the early modern period were poverty, self-flagellation, fasting, waking, hunger, and other works of penitence.
Self-flagellation (disciplina), previously rare, spread first with the teachings of the doctor of the church Pier Damiani (1007–1072): he recommended that one flagellate oneself for the duration of forty psalms daily, on high holy days one-half more again. His treatise De laude flagellorum (In praise of flagellation) established this idea: participation in the sufferings of Christ promises a part in his glory (self-punishment and reward). Many saints of the late Middle Ages individually practiced similar self-punishments; as a collective practice, self-flagellation was institutionalized in convents such as those of the Dominicans in southern Germany. This ascetic act was practiced collectively by the laity as well, at least since the advent of the many flagellant movements from 1260 to 1348, which were reactions against plague and apocalyptic fears; there sprang up, in Italy above all, numerous penitential brotherhoods (penitenti) with the popular name Battuti. A practice initially developed as a reaction against a particularly terrifying crisis situation became thereby an abiding institution that existed into modern times. Self-flagellation was, as a rule, practiced along with meditations on the Passion, with the aim of imitating Christ's sufferings. Ludolf of Saxony (c. 1295–1377), for example, demanded in his widely read Vita Christi that the reader should whip himself, at least in his imagination, to perfect the scourging, and should stretch his arms out in the form of a cross, to imitate the Crucifixion.
Genuflection (veniae) was one of the most common methods of prayer, practiced already in ancient times. The prayer position became, in the ancient church, a penitential practice and, at least from the high Middle Ages on, an ascetic achievement: St. Maria of Oignies (c. 1177–1213), for example, managed up to six hundred genuflections without interruption.
Wakefulness (vigiliae) found its theological justification in Luke 6:12, when Jesus kept a vigil before calling the twelve apostles. Here too the monks of the Middle Ages attempted to outdo their religious leader: some, for example, such as the beatified Benevenuta of Bojanis, bathed their eyes in vinegar. Sleep deprivation was a given in any case, since sleep was constantly interrupted by the cloister's prayer rhythm; it was further assured by hard beds.
Penitential robes (cilicium) and girdles (cingulum, catena) were often worn by those living in the world, even under everyday clothing. The beatified father confessor Wilbirg of St. Florian (c. 1230–1289), who chastised himself with an iron girdle that inflamed the skin egregiously, outlined their typical rationale: "In this way I have afflicted my flesh hardily and through this affliction have I won a reward which is not small."
Fasting (ieiunum) was not only prescribed during certain times in the church year (Holy Week) but was, beyond this, the most frequently practiced ascetic achievement. The two female doctors of the church, St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) and St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), followed this practice: in order to force themselves to regurgitate, they inserted, amid great pain, plant stems or branches down their throats to their stomachs. Catherine called this act "retribution" and introduced it with the words "And now we will deliver retribution to this most wretched sinner!" In 1380 she died of thirst, following an ascetic trial. According to themselves and the reports of their contemporaries, many late medieval ascetics took their holy anorexia to the point that they were able to live entirely without nourishment: these included Benevenuta of Bojanis, Elsbeth Achlerin, St. Lidwina of Schiedam, and the Swiss national saint, Nicholas of Flüe.
Total chastity (castimonia), in accordance with the abovementioned ideal of Paul and the church fathers, was a matter of course for all who took their priestly role or monasticism seriously. It is not surprising that numerous visions by celibate men and women have come down to us that openly or subliminally incorporate sexuality, be it in the form of sadistic punishment fantasies in purgatory or hell or as the mystical love union of bride and Christ. As many married lay people began, following the eleventh-and twelfth-century church reforms, to strive for monastic ideals, the problem of accommodating asceticism and the debitum maritum came sharply to the fore. Some couples, like the count and countess St. Eleazar and St. Delphina of Sabran (fourteenth century), carried on a chaste marriage. Women with less pious husbands, like St. Dorothy of Montau (1347–1394) or St. Francesca of Rome (1384–1440), made every sexual coupling into a torture through self-mutilation.
Ascetic practices of this kind were not generally intended to be private matters; they were supposed to be public, as part of a contemporary worldview that saw the ascetic's suffering body as a sign written for God—a visible demonstration of election and an exhortation to imitation. The contemporary paintings and sculptures of, for example, St. Bernardino of Siena, John of Capistrano, and Nicholas of Flüe, document this clearly.
Asceticism gained, from the high Middle Ages on, a further function that had not previously been present—the mystical inducement of trancelike or ecstatic states. In this function—which fully parallels the preparation for the soul's journey of shamanism, excepting that Christianity does not employ drugs—asceticism was practiced by almost all experiential mystics from the late Middle Ages to the present, although it evoked criticism from some theoretical mystics, such as Meister Eckehart (c. 1260–?1327).
Extreme ascetic trials were often demanded as tests of obedience or as punishments by father confessors or cloister leaders; the disciplining of the individual therefore served the interests of the churchly authority's exercise of power. The internalization of asceticism as an ideal could also, seen from a sociological perspective, subconsciously serve this same goal.
Western Christianity did not consist only of Catholics, of course, but included, with increasing frequency toward the turn of the first millennium, alternative sects as well. Heresies, developed as a result of intensive theological and philosophical reflection, such as Amalric of Bena's doctrines in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but also, in time, Protestantism, show a particular tendency toward asceticism. Sects that leaned toward libertine ideas, however, such as the Adamites, the Free Spirit Brotherhood, and the Luciferians, were naturally opposed to asceticism. Asceticism, however, took on an enormous significance in the dualistic heresy of the Manichaean tradition. According to its teachings, the material world was evil, especially anything that was related to sexuality and its accompanying animal satisfactions. The "light soul" needed to be freed from the prison of "dark materiality." Thus the Cathars (Albigensians) fasted three days in every week and an additional forty days every year. Marriage was forbidden. An extreme form of nutritional deprivation, the endura, was practiced as well, whereby terribly ill sect members would fast themselves to death; sick babies would be deprived of their milk, a practice that was called "preparing a good end." The intensification of Catholic asceticism since the twelfth century was, to a large extent, a reaction to these practices, an attempt, in other words, to outdo these heretical dualists.
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