Overview of Medieval Monasticism – Part Two

December 28, 2007

Early Monasticism


I. Possible Predecessors

Nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21): Nazirites were of two types: those who were dedicated from birth to be a Nazirite (e.g. Samson and possibly John the Baptist) and those who undertake the vow for a limited time (Paul may have done this, cf. Acts 18:18). The Nazirite’s spiritual disciplines included not drinking wine or eating grapes, not cutting their hair until the end of the vow, extra strict rules for ritual defilement, and certain sacrificial dedications.

Qumran Community: Jewish ascetical communities located in Qumran ( Dead Sea ). They are primarily remembered because of The Manual of Discipline and The Damascus Document. They were led by an examiner, practiced communal ownership, keep strict rituals and an office of prayer, and practiced expulsion for violations of Torah.

Essenes: Described by Josepheus, the Essenes were mystical Jewish sects in the late 2nd century BC through the 1st century AD. Often associated with the Qumran community, they practiced a number of ascetical practices, including communal ownership, ritual bathing, isolation, special oaths, and food practices. They also seriously studied Jewish mystical and apocalyptical writings of the period.

Therapeutae: Early Jewish aesthetic hermits and communities described by Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century AD who lived in Egypt . They practiced solitude, ritual cleansing, prayer, fasting, etc. Philo saw them as examples of the contemplative existence. Apparently, their community was deeply involved in Jewish allegorical and mystical readings of the Old Testament and Apocryphal works, such as Enoch.

II. Medieval legends

Joseph of Arimathea: Medieval legends believed that Joseph of Arimathea founded the first monastic community in Glastonbury somewhere between 37 to 63 AD. The Grail legend is often associated with this. No real evidence exists for these claims, though Christian influence was relatively early in the British Isles .

Daughters of Philip (Acts 21:7-9): The four unmarried daughters of Philip the Evangelist were considered by medieval monks as early ascetics.

III. Models

Jewish (Old Testament) Prophets: Elijah and Elisha are often cited as early examples of the monastic ideal

John the Baptist: Called John the Forerunner in Eastern Christianity, John’s particular rigorous lifestyle and prophetic commitment to “decrease as he increases” were seen as modeling the monastic life.

Mary: Mary’s simple obedience, radical submission to God’s will, humility and silence, as well as her chastity were all qualities seen as aspects of the ascetic life. Almost all medievals believed Mary to be a perpetual virgin, and this understanding became part of he prizing of virginity as a higher, more heavenly life and as a living martyrdom and espousal to Christ.

Paul: Paul’s celibacy and tentmaking were prized as monastic.

Jesus: Jesus’ celibacy and prayer life were seen as the highest of models.

IV. Early Types

Eremetics: Hermits living alone, either living off what others brought them or by a simple means of subsistence existence, such as ropemaking. Paulus the Hermit (c. 230-342) was the first Christian monk known by name to history. Eventually, many adopted a modified eremitic existence, living as hermits but near each other for occasional gatherings and support. Marcarius first encouraged this form of living, nicknamed “the larvae.”

Cenobitics: cenobium (Lt. “community): A gathered community of monks living together and following a common rule. Pachomius of Egypt (292-346) gathered the first community of monks.

V. The Desert Fathers

Some of the earliest, if not the earliest Christian monastics, the desert monks of Egypt lived in both eremitic and cenobitic fashion. It is often claimed that they arose as a reaction to luxury and laxness after Christianity was declared legal and then favored in the Roman Empire .


Anthony of Egypt, one of the earliest desert hermits, is sometimes known as the father of monasticism, though this is a bit of a misnomer, since other monks were practicing before him, yet the title is justified in a way, for his example, especially made popular through Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, inspired countless numbers to attempt the monastic life. His choice to enter the harsh life of the desert, his strict practice, and tales of his spiritual warfare became a call to ascetical heroics.